Half Cocked: The Rise And Fall Of John Wayne Bobbitt

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The strange story of how one man lost a penis and became – fleetingly – a celebrity and porn star.

In the days before hardcore porn was legal in the UK, the ‘adult’ market was nevertheless flooded with American smut – it’s just that this smut was generally the cable TV edits of the X-rated originals, not so much censored editions as alternative cuts, shot alongside the explicit version and then edited to ensure that no actual penetration or erections or otherwise obviously ‘real’ sex remained. These are the versions that you would see on The Adult Channel and Television X, and which would be released by several British porn labels – in the latter case, often subject to heavy cuts by the BBFC before being passed for general sale (it wasn’t unusual for a film to lose half its length before gaining an 18 certificate), and even subject to further censorship in order to gain the sex-shop only R18 rating. It says a lot about the hopefulness, desperation and low expectations of the British porn buyer that these tapes continued to sell in quantities high enough to justify the ongoing existence of these labels – it’s hard to imagine anyone finding these films sexually stimulating after the censors had finished with them.

Most of these films were, understandably, slipped out with little fanfare – few labels bothered with press coverage, even in adult mags. In fact, the idea seemed beyond the understanding of most labels – I remember once trying to explain the idea of review copies to one such label while at the Erotica Festival in London, a thankless task that just went around in circles as the label head could not get his head around the idea of anyone reviewing a film:

“So you want to sell them?”

“No, I want to write reviews.”

“To sell them?”

“No, as press coverage for the releases.”

“So you’ll be selling them…”

This went on for over five minutes before I gave up, said yes, I want to sell them, took his business card and wandered off in search of the bar.

But a few labels understood the value of media coverage, especially if they had something outside the ordinary. Vision Video, which seemed to be primarily a gay label that had dabbled in sex education tapes, had picked up the UK rights to a couple of straight porn films that had been making headlines, and went out of their way to milk the publicity potential for all it was worth. In the end, it seemed a thankless task, because the tapes that they were releasing were still cut beyond recognition, and there’s only so much you can do to disguise that. But they gave it a good go.

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By the time I came into contact with them, they had already released Sunset and Divine, the Ron Jeremy-directed film starring Divine Brown, the LA prostitute who had her fifteen minutes of fame after being caught giving Hugh Grant a blow job. In the days before actual celebrity sex tapes, these films featuring nobodies who had become tabloid scandal sensations were all the rage. Vision had retitled the film Taken for Granted – a much better title, actually – and brought Brown over to do a press junket, one that was pretty successful. It’s (un)surprising how many upstanding and tut-tutting media outlets love to interview people who they can express their moral superiority to.

Following this, the company pulled out all the stops in 1996 for the launch of John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut, the film that had started this brief trend. Bobbitt was a household name and international joke at the time, after his jealous wife had cut off his penis and thrown it away. The recovered member had been sewn back on in what might not have been the first operation of its type, but was the most widely reported. Bobbitt was the cause of much salacious speculation: what did his dick look like? Did it still work? Ron Jeremy had offered him the chance to star in a porn film, knowing that this speculation would result in big sales, though he probably had no idea how big – John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut would become one of the biggest selling adult tapes of all time.

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Vision’s release was, of course, the softcore version, though they could argue that the title was technically accurate as the BBFC passed the film without further cuts requested, with a 67-minute running time. It’s a spectacularly rotten piece of filmmaking that even a cameo from Lemmy can’t salvage, and of course we have to take it as read that his cock is fully functional, as we don’t get to see it in action here – however, we at least get to see that it looks relatively normal. Jeremy, like any good Carny, had built up expectations by telling everyone that it looked like the Frankenstein monster, but beyond some minor scarring, it’s pretty average. And pretty small, frankly, at least in the flaccid state – clearly, Bobbitt would not have been hired as a porn star without his unfortunate claim to fame. But once we’ve seen the cock, the film immediately loses any value – the cast are dreadful (Bobbitt, who had cast approval, certainly had a ‘type’, and if we’re being kind, we can say it didn’t lean towards the classier type of porn star), Ron Jeremy’s skills to not extend to directing and the production values are dreadful. Michael Ninn’s Latex was made in the same year, and seemed like the future of adult filmmaking; this, on the other hand, feels like a step back to the worst films of the early video age.

By the time of the UK release, Bobbitt had already been a celebrity of sorts for a couple of years – and this is before the glut of D-list celebrity TV shows. The 1993 incident had thrust him into the headlines, and by 1996, he was over the peak of his notoriety. Bobbitt was seen less as a victim and more as an abusive husband who had pushed his wife Lorena to the limit through both physical and mental abuse. He was, however, cleared of raping her in a court case and she was acquitted of the penis severing by reason of temporary insanity. In truth, they seemed a rather volatile couple – on the night of her arrest, Lorena told police that “he always have orgasm, and he doesn’t wait for me ever to have orgasm. He’s selfish”, and in 1997 she was charged with assault after punching her mother; John was, by the testimony of even his defence witnesses, controlling and abusive. He was not, all things considered, the ideal poster boy for the porn industry.

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But domestic issues aside, Bobbitt was internationally famous, and he’d done his best to make the best of a bad deal. His first attempt to capitalise on the assault (and raise money to cover medical bills) was forming a band called The Severed Parts. No one cared – there seems no record of their music, and I dread to think what they were like. The porn offer must have seemed financially irresistible, and Bobbitt seemed keen to fuck as many women as possible – if nothing else, his new fame ensured that there were a steady stream of curious women who wanted to see how his dick worked. John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut helped satisfy the world’s curiosity.

By the time of the UK release, Bobbitt had made his second, and final porn film – Frankenpenis capitalised on both Ron Jeremy’s original description of the mutilated cock, and Bobbitt’s recent penis enlargement. This time around, the world seemed a lot less interested – once you’ve visited the freak show and been disappointed, you’re unlikely to go back a second time. But in the UK, the first film had not been released and his fame was still enough to ensure that the press would be all over him when Vision flew him over in 1996.

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As with Divine Brown, the Bobbitt coverage was a mixture of salaciousness and moral disapproval. The Guardian devoted a whole page to telling it’s readers that Bobbitt wasn’t worth covering, and his films were curiously massaged into becoming ‘soft porn’ (which is, of course, exactly what the UK release was) by daytime TV’s Richard and Judy – presumably, a hard porn star would be considered unacceptable family viewing. The whole circus culminated in a bash at – where else? – Stringfellows, then still a nightclub populated by footballers, Page 3 Girls and rich wannabes – the lap-dancing days were still a few years away.

At the time, I’d been tasked with editing the mooted UK edition of AVN Magazine – a job that lasted about two weeks before it became obvious that the publisher was a fantasist, the magazine was unlikely to happen and the job wasn’t going to actually pay any money (the first clue came when the publisher took one of the two days that I was in London off to run an illegal car park on a bit of wasteland). But in those two weeks, I did at least get an invite to this sparkling media bash, and who was going to say no the that? Dragging Nucleus Films’ Marc Morris along for the ride, I headed down to Stringfellows with my ‘publisher’, assuming that there was no way that this could not be a memorable night. And indeed it was.

Most of these guests, we noticed, seemed to be assorted journalists, video company hangers-on and wannabe starlets hoping to be spotted. It didn’t feel very star-studded, frankly. Remembering a scintillating recent exposé in the News of the World, I headed straight for the toilets in search of cocaine-snorting Page Three girls, but it was clearly their night off. Or maybe they just didn’t use the gents. Bobbitt and entourage finally arrived, and somehow we were the first people to be introduced, and then cajoled into standing in line for a rather awkward group shot. It crossed my mind that we might have been considered to be the most important people there, which didn’t seem a great sign.

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Everyone wanted a piece of Bobbitt (no, not that piece!), who seemed rather dazed and confused by the whole thing. I got the distinct impression that he didn’t wear a tux much before stardom caught him like a deer in its headlights. During our conversation, Bobbitt was never anything less than respectful and polite; yet his answers to questions came in a flat, emotionless manner. But hey, let’s not be too cruel – It’s easy to mock Bobbitt, who clearly wasn’t the most intellectual chap in the world, but I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for him. Thrust into the media spotlight through no fault of his own, he seemed little more than a puppet, hopelessly out of his depth and with no real control over his life. I hoped he was making some money, at least.

After he’d signed several video sleeves, the attention seemed to die down and I found myself in conversation with Bobbitt. Groping for a way to start a conversation, I asked how he got into porn – not the most original of opening gambits, but you have to start somewhere, and everyone seemed to be waiting expectantly for me, the journalist, to come up with something. “I met Ron Jeremy”, he replied. “He pretty much introduced me to the adult video business. I thought it was a great idea, to do an adult video of my story.” Better than a mainstream TV Movie of the Week? “I think it turned out better than a mainstream movie. People had a lot of curiosity, to see if the penis worked, you know. It couldn’t really be done as a TV movie type thing… but maybe that’ll happen later, it’s possible that it might be made as a regular movie sometime in the future.”

Given the ‘glittering’ nature of the bash we were attending, I asked Bobbitt how the film went over at its US launch. “There was a huge reaction. It was premiered at the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences. Pretty phenomenal, people were going crazy, it had lots of press, during the production as well.” I couldn’t help but feel that a night at Stringfellows surrounded by glamour models and sozzled hacks was a bit of a comedown from this, but never mind.

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I asked him why he had decided to stay in the business. “I don’t know – I could become a really big porn star now, but I’ve not really decided. I like the porno industry, but I’m not sure if I want to make it a full career.” Missing a subtle Bobbitt joke, I enquired about his recent penis extension, the full gory glory of which is unveiled in Frankenpenis. Just what, I asked, did they do to you? “They lengthened it. They don’t use silicon, they use your own body fat. Now when I have sex with a girl she has to be fully stuffed. It’s a lot bigger, which is why I said I could become a big porn star now. And it’s still fully functional.” A relief to us all, I’m sure.

By this point, I was struggling to think of what else I could say to Bobbitt, given that no one else seemed willing to pick up the slack and entertain the guest of honour. So I asked what he thought of his own films.

“They’re pretty much regular versions, home movies. They turned out pretty well, because they were made quickly, and we didn’t have much money.” And how much personal control did you have over the movies, John? “Not very much – I just kinda winged it. I just followed what I was told… I had to cut it short.” Ho ho ho, another Bobbitt pun. The guy was full of them, crowbarred in even when the opportunity didn’t present itself, as he proved later during his touching little speech to the assembled masses, when he advised party-goers not to get “half-cocked” (too late, we already were…).

John finally showed signs of real enthusiasm when I asked him if he’d be making any more porno films. This, at least, seemed to perk him up. “I’ve been talking about another movie – John Wayne Bobbitt’s Gang Bang. It’s about a beautiful girl who’s getting married, and her girlfriend doesn’t want her to. So she tells her if you have an affair before the wedding, you have to call it off. They get invited to a party, and there are male dancers there, someone spikes the punch with aphrodisiac, all the girls get horny and I come in, and there’s a huge gang bang. It’s all videotaped, and when the girl sees the tape, she admits to having an affair and not wanting to get married after all. So I might do that, I haven’t decided yet.”

I told Bobbitt that the story sounded really good. What can I say? I’m very polite.

“Hopefully it’ll have a better script. It’s got thirty-five women in it. So that’s thirty-five cum shots in three days. But I don’t know what I want to do yet. I’m going back to school, to study real estate, and to acting school – I’d like to do some regular movies, but I like porno.”

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With that, I shook John’s hand again, wished him well and left him to the hoards of autograph hunters and boob-flashing girlies who eagerly posed for anyone who looked even vaguely like a paparazzi. I had more important things to do – mainly knock back as much of the appalling free wine as I could (literally, the sort of wine you needed to drink lots off just to make it taste less like paint stripper) before my stomach rebelled and forced me to do an impromptu redecoration of the toilet. Somehow, it felt rather appropriate on the night.

John Wayne Bobbitt’s Gang Bang would ultimately become one of the great unmade movies – a tragic loss for cinema, no doubt. Bobbitt’s career as a porn star came to a shuddering halt, in fact. He probably failed to grasp that he was only of interest as a novelty, a sideshow attraction, and once that was over, he was never going to cut it as a porn star – not in the mid-Nineties at least, when the industry was having a second Golden Age and he had neither the looks or the acting chops to compete with the likes of Jon Dough or Mike Horner.

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Soon after his UK visit, John launched his new career – you won’t be surprised to hear that it was neither mainstream acting or real estate. Instead, he was officiating at Vegas wedding ceremonies for the Universal Life Church (with who I’m also an ordained minister, as was my cat until his death), and over the next few years he would have assorted jobs with rapidly dwindling degrees of glamour attached – in 1998 he appeared on WWE’s Monday Night Raw, but he’d also work as a stand up comic, limo driver, pizza delivery man and tow-truck operator. And he could not stay out of trouble. In 1999, he received probation for his part in a convenience store robbery. In the early 2000s, he was arrested twice on battery charges relating to his new wife, showing that he had learned precisely nothing from past experiences. I imagine for Bobbitt, who had ridden what should have been no more than fifteen minutes of fame for several years and was presumably left with nothing to show for it after paying medical and legal fees, life was continually frustrating. Imagine being one of the most famous people of the decade and having to deliver pizzas for a living?

In 2014, Bobbitt suffered a broken neck in a car accident. By that time, he’d been out of the headlines for years, the punchline to a joke that people barely remembered. These days, he is seen as the villain of the piece – a man who got what he deserved from a long-suffering wife. The films are available on a 2009 DVD (in a double bill, Frankenspenis relegated to ‘special feature’ status) but have slipped into relative obscurity – shorn of the headlines, they stand as forgettable, low-rent porn that doesn’t feature any big-name stars or impressive production values. Lorena, meanwhile, has had her side of the story told in a 2019 Amazon documentary series, which, while certainly manipulative and one-sided, did nothing to help Bobbitt’s reputation in a #metoo era.

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The Bobbitt story ultimately stands as an opening salvo in our current celebrity culture, where nobodies become fleeting celebrities by virtue of media scandals, ‘leaked’ home-made porn and the vaguest of connections to actual famous people. If Bobbitt wasn’t seen as a predator and a misogynist, he’d probably be all over the sort of shows where you need to look up just why the so-called celebrity contestants are famous. Perhaps he still could be – producers of such shows know controversy equals ratings, after all. And I imagine he still craves both fame and money. We might not have seen the last of John Wayne Bobbitt just yet.

DAVID FLINT

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