It made perfect sense that while one woman was hawking homemade, penis-shaped chocolates outside the Manassas courthouse, another was inside describing to reporters how she shot her abusive husband, shot him dead.

Both were part of the sideshow surrounding the trial of Lorena Bobbitt for cutting off her husband's penis, and both were full of glee about getting their messages out to the world. Nothing satisfies quite like the sight of 14 satellite media uplink trucks, their transmission poles quivering.

"Hey, John, how's it hangin'?" shouted a Norfolk radio deejay to Bobbitt as the witness strode through the phalanx of journalists mobbing the Prince William County Courthouse. Bobbitt craned his neck and smiled back wanly; nothing surprises him anymore. After you've been on Howard Stern's show, a heckling deejay named "the Bull" offering hot dogs "with lots of ketchup" from his broadcasting booth is practically in good taste.

"Lorena, I love you!" the Bull, a k a Henry Del Toro, screamed earlier at the arriving Mrs. Bobbitt. She appeared dumbfounded, as anyone would.

Her trial, according to court officials, has turned into the biggest media event in Manassas since the Civil War, the coverage of which relied on telegraph. Today, the nation is similarly divided and eager for news from the front, but the reporting is less noble and the story almost more comic than tragic.

Because so few members of the actual public were permitted to attend the trial, the hundreds of journalists were reduced to interviewing T-shirt hawkers ($20 for a "Love Hurts" shirt autographed by John Bobbitt himself), the penis-candy saleswoman ($10 apiece) and quasi-expert observers such as Gay Talese, who's such a pro he doesn't even open his notebook anymore.

On the story six months now for The New Yorker, Talese, immaculate in a fur-trimmed leather coat, opined that the tale is evolving with the richness of a Russian novel: "The characters change," he said. "The heroes are antiheroes and the heroines are not so untarnished by their heroic deeds."

He declined, graciously, a publicist's offer of a free, delightfully tasteless T-shirt from the Comedy Central network. Instead Talese talked about how the Bobbitt saga was also like an "opera" and is changing our definition of morality.

And, evidently, of news. Karl Vick, covering the trial for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, said: "For me, the defining moment was when Entertainment Tonight found Comedy Central, and they started interviewing each other -- about the media frenzy."

Up on the third floor, Lorena Bobbitt's supporters offered more substantial viewpoints to reporters.

"No, I didn't cut his penis off, but to be honest with you, I thought about it," said Evelyn Smith, the one who dropped her husband, Charles Edward Smith Jr., with a single .38-caliber bullet. "I've been raped, and I would lay there and cry and wish that it would rot and fall off."

She was acquitted of murder in June 1992, in the first successful use of the battered-woman defense in Maryland. Yesterday she was clearly delighted to be one of the only 11 public spectators allowed to sit right in the courtroom; nine are women.

Lorena Bobbitt is invoking the same temporary-insanity defense to explain why she amputated her husband John's sex organ.

It made perfect sense that the grave Fred Graham of Court TV and the jesters of Comedy Central were both covering Lorena Bobbitt's trial. The sordid circumstances of that June night are more than the stuff of sociological debate, legal reasoning and Freudian symbolism. They are rife with humor, as the late-night comedians continue to demonstrate seven months later. Jay Leno, last week: "It was so cold in Virginia ... that the snowman in Lorena Bobbitt's back yard had its carrot snapped right off!"

A spokesman for David Letterman's show says the Bobbitt jokes have definitely surpassed the Buttafuoco jokes -- a crude but interesting barometer of enduring celebrity. When the '90s are recalled, Joey and Amy will be an early-in-the-decade footnote, but John and Lorena seem destined for post-millennial infamy. (Note to Webster's: "Bobbitted: verb. Definitely worse than cuckolded.")

Both John and Lorena have become national caricatures: she the flinty-eyed, knife-wielding avenger in the night; he the beefy, mumbling castrato-on-the-mend. Who's more sympathetic? John, if you tally the amount of public support afforded him strictly in terms of dollar donations. Thanks to Howard Stern, the nation's most widely broadcast vulgarian, John Bobbitt (who filed for bankruptcy last fall) is $260,000 richer.

Stern's been raising money for John's medical and legal bills since November; on his New Year's Eve telecast, which featured topless women and a giant-scale male organ, viewers could call an 800 number to help make Bobbitt "whole again." (To his credit, Bobbitt, who looked twitchy and painfully bewildered throughout the spectacle, turned down a $15,000 cash offer from Stern to show his scars to the pay-per-view public.) Bobbitt also is doing fund-raising publicity stunts at radio stations around the country, selling his T-shirts for "contributions." His entertainment lawyer is offering Bobbitt up to the media for paid interviews.

Lorena Bobbitt, while also represented by an agent for movie deals and such, has no defender as omnipresently vocal as Stern. A benefit held on her behalf on New Year's Eve raised a mere $1,000. Comedian Kate Clinton, who's never met Lorena Bobbitt, decided to hold the event to offset Stern's cable circus.

"At the benefit, we served Slice soda and cocktail franks, of course," Clinton says, chortling from New York, where her one-woman show, "Out Is In," is playing off-Broadway. A self-described "feminist lesbian," Clinton uses Bobbitt material in her act, including this bit: "The most interesting part of the story to me is that the same week John Wayne Bobbitt was acquitted, Disney announced it was going to build a theme park in the same town. 'Lorena Bobbitt, you just cut off your husband's penis! Where are you going?' 'I'm going to Disney World!'

"And then I hum, 'It's a Small World After All.' "

But seriously, folks ... "I don't believe in violence," Clinton hastened to add. "As much as we might tease about it, most lesbians do understand that violence of any kind is abhorrent."

Many heterosexual women -- not to mention men -- fault Lorena Bobbitt. The severity of her act has made her unsympathetic in many ways, it's true, yet experts in domestic violence find ample room for sympathy. "Unfortunately, the lopsided media circus surrounding the case has focused much more on John Bobbitt's unusual injury, and far too little on the violence he inflicted on Lorena leading up to it," Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, said in a statement yesterday.

The song steals its riff from Billy Joel's "Stiletto," but has even more cutting lyrics: "You've been chopped, been displaced, your manhood's been erased ..." Richard Siegel of Greenbelt, publicist by day, songwriter by night, was selling cassettes of his ditty yesterday for $6 behind the uplink trucks. A good item for radio journalists. "If Lorena is acquitted it will be a license for women to do it," Siegel said. "I want to see a guilty verdict and strong punishment."

More than any other spouse-abuse case, this one has allowed men and women to take predictable sides -- at least initially. Men felt for John, in a very urgent, personal way. And women could understand Lorena's rage on an equally primal level. To some degree, every women lives in fear of rape; castration, in fantasy, anyway, represents one final solution. (Bobbitt himself may never recover full sexual function.)

But of course the debate is far more nuanced. John Bobbitt was acquitted of marital rape -- by a jury of nine women and three men. Even women who believe him to be a drunken, macho lout who humiliated and intimidated his wife don't necessarily condone her form of retribution.

Naturally, the sociological-media pundits are weighing in.

The amputation was "strictly punitive," says neofeminist author Naomi Wolf. "I've worked in battered-women's shelters, and I applaud women who do what they have to do to escape their assailant. There are absolutely situations where a woman has to kill her partner to escape or save her children." But Lorena Bobbitt, Wolf says, seemed to be in no imminent danger of her life that night.

"If she wanted to be safe {from her husband}, she could have kneecapped him," says Wolf. "The mutilation itself seems to be so clearly a sadistic act."

Such a high-profile case with a woman in the role as an aggressor isn't categorically a bad thing, though. "Women have to take responsibility for the fact that we too have a dark side, that sexual hatred isn't just a thing men are capable of," says Wolf, whose latest book is titled "Fire With Fire." "We are both angelic and demonic."

Given the horrific nature of Lorena's retribution, the common wisdom goes, John must have been doing something terribly bad in that marriage. To some female observers, it doesn't particularly matter that Bobbitt was found not guilty of marital rape. They hark back to Clarence Thomas: Yes, he was confirmed for the U.S. Supreme Court, but they still believe Anita Hill.

Lorena Bobbitt's attorneys spoke yesterday of a "reign of terror," of a woman driven to desperation by a controlling, intimidating husband.

"She's a typical Latin American woman -- very submissive," said Ecuadorean TV journalist Maria Gomez, covering the trial for a Quito station. "Sometimes women have to take the law into their own hands. What she did was brave."

To sociologist Evan Stark, one of the nation's leading researchers on domestic violence, it makes perfect sense that a woman in that situation would strike out against the organ that personifies manhood.

"The penis is an extraordinary symbol of power and domination in a relationship," says Stark. "There are many men, especially batterers, for whom the penis is an extension of their psychological selves -- it is a weapon. So hurting the penis is a way of attacking the guy's power."

Evelyn Smith, the Prince George's County woman who shot her husband, agreed: "I have friends who say she should have killed him. But if she had just killed him, it wouldn't have attracted as much attention."

Without the amputated organ, this trial would have no media currency: Just another case of lower-middle-class Americans cutting each other. Forget symbolism. Forget talk of cautionary gender tales. Forget "Ginsumania!" as Lorena Bobbitt's No. 1 Excuse on the Letterman Top 10 List.

But what's unfolding in this courthouse and rising up through all those media transmission towers is more potent than Howard Stern, Jay Leno and David Letterman -- it's a new myth in a canon of female retribution fantasy as recent as "Thelma & Louise" and as ancient as Greek mythology. Put in another pop culture context: "Touch her again and you're dead," sings Juliana Hatfield, whose current hit album is part of the wave of aggressive young female performers decrying violence against women. The song, "Dame With a Rod," envisions a gun-toting heroine rescuing an endangered woman from a date-rape scenario.

Somewhere, a young woman is writing a song about Lorena Bobbitt.