"Vilified by the media": Lorena Bobbitt documentary explores scandal 25 years later

/ CBS News

Lorena Bobbitt became a household name more than 25 years ago when she went to trial for cutting off her husband's penis. Despite that she testified that she was a victim of domestic abuse — and was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity — she became a national punchline.

A lot has changed since then. She's now known by her birth name, Lorena Gallo, and is now speaking out in a new documentary series on Amazon called "Lorena," executive produced by Jordan Peele. She hopes to inspire women and shine a light on domestic violence.

"I was 24 years old. I was very scared and it was very traumatic," Gallo said in an interview earlier this week with CBSN anchor Anne-Marie Green. Gallo became emotional when describing when her teenage daughter saw the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

"She just told me she couldn't believe how strong I was and my heart melted and it was very emotional," Gallo said.

Gallo reflected to Green how her story was portrayed at the time by the media. She said in addition to sexism, she "absolutely" believes racism played a role in how she was portrayed.

"The women of the '90s — not only myself, but Monica Lewinksy and Anita Hill — we were vilified by the media," Gallo said. "Unfortunately we live in a patriarchal society where now things have changed and sexism is not tolerable. People tried to sell salacious stories instead of looking at it like this is a victim of domestic violence."

Lorena Bobbitt meets reporters outside court in Manassas, Virginia, Feb. 28, 1994. AP

During her infamous trial, Gallo testified she endured years of abuse from her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt. He denied the allegations.

"During Lorena's testimony, during her trial, there was a point where she was being questioned about the abuse and she was clearly having a panic attack," said Joshua Rofe, who directed the film. "I don't understand how people can watch that and then just still sort of take this sort of perverse pleasure in the cut off penis jokes."

John Wayne Bobbitt was charged with marital sexual assault after Gallo alleged he forced her to have sex with her before she cut off his penis. Under Virginia law in 1993, a husband could be charged with rape if the couple lived apart, or if the victim was seriously physically injured, according to The New York Times. Bobbit denied the allegation, saying they had consensual sex and that he does not remember if there was sex. He was acquitted weeks before her trial began.

Gallo was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. But much like the other women of the '90s she mentioned, her name became an infamous punchline.

Gallo told CBSN she was threatened by her husband because he knew he could get away with it.

"This is very important to talk about as well — immigrant women — they're very vulnerable in situations of domestic violence because they feel threatened," Gallo explained. "John did threaten me when I was married to him many times to kick me out of the country … so a lot of undocumented women don't call the police because they're afraid they'll be sent back to their country of origin."

Meanwhile, John Wayne Bobbitt continued to court the media, even shooting an adult film. Rofe said Bobbitt is "obsessed with this scandal" and it's "clearly the greatest thing to ever happen to him." Gallo said she hasn't spoken to him.

What failed to make headlines were the additional domestic violence allegations made against him since the trial.

Gallo hopes the documentary will bring domestic violence into focus after a changed media landscape in wake of the #MeToo movement.

"We can do much more. There still exists gaps in the laws that needed to be closed down," Gallo said. "I hope this again will start a conversation in Congress now that we have even more women in Congress. So there is hope."

CBS News reached out to John Wayne Bobbitt for comment, but we haven't heard back.

However, he did talk to Fox News and said the new Amazon documentary series makes him look like a villain.

He says the filmmakers wanted to "paint a picture" of him as a "violent mean guy."

You can stream the series on amazon starting Friday.

First published on February 15, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Lorena Bobbitt meets reporters outside court in Manassas, Virginia, Feb. 28, 1994.

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