Out of America: Wife cuts to heart of the problem

WASHINGTON - Until recently, there was little apparent difference between Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt and many other young couples in the land of opportunity.

She had a job in a beauty salon near Washington DC, and had settled down after leaving Venezuela in search of prosperity. He was a nightclub bouncer, a former US marine who kept trim by lifting weights. To all appearances, theirs was a normal, not-very- happy life, just like the lives led by millions of others struggling to get on in the United States. Then, in a few terrible seconds, everything changed.

According to her account, it happened when her husband returned home one night at 3am. Although she insisted she wasn't interested in sex, she says he stripped off her night clothes and forced her to have intercourse. When it was over, she claims he pushed her away and went to sleep.

Humiliated and angry, Mrs Bobbitt, 24, went to the kitchen for a glass of water. 'The first thing I saw was the knife,' she told detectives afterwards. She returned to the bedroom, woke up her husband, and accused him of raping her. When, apparently unmoved by these allegations, he fell asleep a second time, she sliced off his penis. Mrs Bobbitt later claimed her 15-stone husband persistently abused and raped her during their marriage. 'Everyone has a limit. This was beyond mine.'

That night, upset and terrified, Mrs Bobbitt ran out of the house, leapt into her car, and headed off to see a friend. En route, she hurled the penis out of her car window.

At this stage it appears Mrs Bobbitt began to have second thoughts. She contacted the police and informed them of the whereabouts of her husband's severed organ. After a search at an intersection by police and fireman, it was recovered, packed in ice, and rushed to hospital where it was stitched back on to its owner. Mr Bobbitt, 27, is temporarily banned from weightlifting, jogging and high- diving into swimming pools. But doctors say he will eventually lead a normal sex life.

News editors in the US have ensured the story's longevity, kindling a debate that provides an insight into contemporary attitudes to abuse of women, especially within marriage. A Washington television station held a poll, asking viewers whether either of the couple should go to jail; the majority said they would like to see Mr Bobbitt - rather than his wife - behind bars.

Some women's groups have joined in, especially since discovering that prosecutors are to charge Mr Bobbitt (who claims to be a persistently battered husband) with sexual assault - but not with marital rape. Virginia's law on spousal rape proved impossible to use because of two provisions: the couple must be estranged at the time of the incident, and the victim must have suffered 'serious permanent damage'.

State politicians and female activists point out that such laws are arcane and biased. They are likely to add momentum to the Violence Against Women Act, now before the US Senate, which would classify rape and wife-beating as potential civil rights violations - allowing federal authorities to intervene where state law proves inadequate.

While her husband prepares for the dock, Mrs Bobbitt is waiting for a grand jury to decide whether she is to be indicted on malicious wounding charges. She has issued an explanation of her predicament. 'Many people wonder why I didn't leave my husband sooner,' she said. 'Although I thought about it many times, the reason is commitment.

'Commitment I learnt as I grew up in a very loving family in Venezuela. My mother and father have been married for 25 years and are still very much in love. They taught me to be committed to your spouse for life, and that divorce wasn't an option.'

Now, facing up to 20 years in prison, she knows better.