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After Civil War, the sex war

NOT since the battle of Bull Run in August 1862, has the Virginia town of Manassas been so in the public eye. Then it was the American Civil War. Yesterday, it was the start of two-stage court case involving lurid conjugal violence.

John Bobbitt, 26, is accused of marital sexual assault after returning home drunk last June and forcing his now estranged wife, Lorena, 24, to have in tercourse with him. Of her reaction, the whole of America knows. She went for a drink of water in the kitchen, saw an eight-inch knife, and cut off his penis. In three weeks she faces trial on charges of malicious wounding.

Yesterday, though, it was her husband's turn. Followed separately a few moments later by Mrs Bobbitt, he arrived at the Prince William County courthouse in Manassas, Virginia, where a crowd of 200 was waiting, the bulk of reporters from the US and half a dozen other countries. Mr Bobbitt's trial is expected to last three days.

The task of finding a jury, however, promises to be uncommonly difficult, such is the case's notoriety and the feelings aroused by it. For a juror not to have heard of it is all but impossible. For female activists Mrs Bobbitt has become almost a heroine. For many men, she symbolises female radicalism gone beserk.

Despite the many witnesses likely to testify, the fate of Mr Bobbitt comes down to his word against his wife's. Like Mrs Bobbitt, he faces a jail term of up to 20 years.

His lawyer is seeking to prove his wife made up her story to justify a premeditated crime. Even if this tactic fails a jury may decide that Mrs Bobbitt's action is punishment enough. The organ was recovered and re-attached in a nine-hour operation. Mr Bobbitt is said to be on the way to complete recovery. But the affair will not end in court. The Bobbitt case is likely to be followed by the Bobbitt film.