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What would you do if you saw a woman being abused? Would it matter if she were a prostitute?

No matter what a woman wears or how she acts, she deserves to be treated humanely.

By Chloe Angyal / June 15, 2010

New York

What would you do if you saw a woman being abused by her boyfriend?

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That was the question posed by a recent episode of ABC’s candid camera social experiment show, “What Would You Do?”

The producers sent an actress, made up to look badly bruised, into a diner and filmed the reactions of her fellow patrons when her “boyfriend,” also an actor, followed her inside and began insulting and yelling at her.

When he became physically violent, grabbing her wrists and leaving no doubt in patrons’ minds that he had inflicted those bruises, they sprang into action. Diners of both genders came to the woman’s defense, urging her to leave the diner with them or confronting her boyfriend about his behavior.

Changing the race of the actor and actress from white to black elicited much the same reaction, though diners were slower to act when the woman and her “boyfriend” were black.

Then the producers changed another variable: What the woman was wearing. In the first two scenarios the actress was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. In the second two scenarios, the same actresses were dressed provocatively, in low-cut dresses. And in those latter instances, regardless of the woman’s race, no patrons intervened to stop her boyfriend from abusing her. Two fellow diners – women – looked on, speculating in whispers that the bruised woman being verbally and physically abused just feet away from them might be a prostitute.

Last month at a conference at Harvard University, I spoke on a panel about what we in the feminist community call “slut-shaming.” Slut-shaming, the practice of reviling women for even appearing to be sexual, runs rampant in our culture. Women are expected to walk a fine line when it comes to sexuality: They have to be sexy, of course, but if they’re too sexy, they’re punished for it.

We see that punishment in pop culture: In horror movies, the women who have sex are brutally murdered, while the virginal woman tends to live. We see it in politics: Remember the media firestorm when Hillary Rodham Clinton showed “too much” cleavage, and when Sarah Palin posed for a magazine cover in running shorts? (There was no such firestorm when photos surfaced of Massachusetts senatorial candidate Scott Brown posed, naked, in Cosmopolitan magazine). And of course, we see it in our own daily lives: Who hasn’t been called, or thought of someone as, a slut at least once?

People who slut-shame believe that a woman who wears a low-cut dress, or behaves in any way that suggests that she is a sexual being, is less valuable than other women. The mere suggestion of sex, makes her dirty; less worthy of our respect; and more deserving of our insults, mockery, and violence. She deserves whatever she gets, we reason, because she chooses to act in a way that devalues her as a person.