When I was a child, I was afraid of public restrooms. I regularly avoided them.
The biggest reason was a racist urban legend. I’d lived for a few years in Pontiac, Michigan, and I was told about something that had supposedly happened in a local shopping mall. A white boy had gone into the restroom by himself while his parents waited outside. A few minutes later, some black boys came out of the restroom, laughing gleefully. The parents didn’t think anything of it, but after waiting a long time, the father decided to check on his boy. Inside the restroom, he found the boy with his penis cut off, and anti-white slurs written in blood.
This was in the 1970s, and versions of the story listed on Snopes are similar in their details: A white boy gets genitally mutilated by a group of black boys in a public restroom. This tale is bred from American racism and toxic masculinity.
I was reminded of this story by the news that Jordan Peele is working on a documentary about Lorena Bobbitt.
In 1993, Lorena Bobbitt cut her husband’s penis off while he was unconscious, then fled with the knife and the penis. Later, while she was driving, she threw the body part out the window of her car. It was later recovered and reattached.
Lorena claimed that she’d been the victim of repeated domestic assault. The day she committed her act, she argued, he’d raped her and then passed out. Her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, insisted that any sex had been consensual.
The aspect of the Bobbitt story that I remember clearest is the jokes. There were a lot of them.
I was in my mid 20s when the story happened, and a regular subscriber to Playboy and Penthouse: A “typical” American man. I told some of those jokes myself. For the sake of decorum, I’ll keep them out of this article, but they’re easy to find on the internet (warning: that link contains some very graphic, very vile “jokes”).
The core story was tragic: A woman, repeatedly assaulted by her husband, attacks and mutilates him. Except for the lurid details, a similar story had happened years prior. In that 1977 case, Francine Hughes set fire to the bed in which her husband was sleeping. This led to a book and the 1984 TV movie “The Burning Bed.” What it didn’t lead to was nearly as many jokes.
As a group, we men are far too obsessed with our penises. When Donald Trump’s size was questioned during the 2016 Republican Debates, references to it became a running joke. In 2016, I wrote about a statue where his lack was a prominent feature.
In the urban legend I started this article with, a white boy is emasculated by black boys. This is symbolic of white male fears about minorities, particularly blacks, stripping us of our power.
When our personal value is tied up so thoroughly in one part of our body, it is difficult to confront our feelings when something so violent happens to it. We lack emotional intelligence, and our palette of coping mechanisms is limited. So we make jokes, and lots of them. We make jokes to deal with our discomfort.
The story became mostly about John Wayne Bobbitt, the emasculated warrior, not about Lorena Bobbitt, the abused wife. There were a few stories here and there about what she suffered through, but by and large, we don’t really believe women when they tell stories of abuse.
Even now, as #MeToo fades back out of cultural memory, we men still struggle with truly believing women’s stories. I see the skeptical eyebrows, the “sometimes she lies, you know” mutterings, creeping back out. In the 1990s, women were liars unless they had corroborating evidence.
John Wayne Bobbitt was not a hero, of course. He was a victim. He was a joke, because he’d let his woman strip him of his manhood. He didn’t have proper control.
And then, he became a curiosity. He was allowed to star in porn movies, where he proved he could still have sex. Lorena Bobbitt had cast him out of the Cult of Manhood in the most violent of ways, and he worked his way back in. He laughed along and regained his place in the Cult.
So, in that way, he became a hero after all. Those women, they can’t keep a good man from his rightful place. We men shall overcome.
Few men cared that he’d repeatedly raped his wife. For that matter, by Virginia law at the time, “rape” didn’t even apply to cases where force is used because a cohabiting spouse refuses to have sex, if no injury results.
She became something of a footnote. In some versions of the narrative, she was even a psychologically unstable immigrant, evidence that we needed to bolster our borders.
Since then, Lorena Bobbitt has become an advocate of domestic abuse victims. This is the role we hand to women who are victimized by our male toxicity: They are left to not just pick up their own pieces, but to help other women.
In the wake of #MeToo, we men rushed to announce our commitment to changing our ways, to giving voice to the people we have victimized, or allowed to be victimized by our silence and complicity.
I hope, and I believe, that that’s what’s motivating Jordan Peele to be part of this restructuring of the Bobbitt narrative. Our first pass at the story, a quarter century ago, was a shameful exercise in putting our identities as men ahead of the grotesque that was the story. Let’s get it right this time.
Photo credit: Getty Images