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.
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The scene that unfolded in that diner as the hidden cameras rolled was an example of the real-life consequences of this. Being called a name in high school hurts a girl’s feelings and threatens her reputation, and it’s an experience no one deserves. But once we leave high school, once we take our attitudes about women, sex, and human worth out into the world, the stakes get higher. What happened in that diner was an example of the very real, potentially life-and-death, consequences of the belief that women who are sexual are less deserving of basic human rights.Skip to next paragraph
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Nowhere is this belief more evident than in the way our culture treats women who do for a living what the rest of us do in private. When asked why they didn’t intervene, the two women who suspected that the victim of abuse in the diner might have been a prostitute offered those suspicions as an explanation.
They believed that because she might have been a sex worker, she wasn’t worthy of their concern or effort, and were perfectly comfortable saying as much on the record as the camera rolled. But as one of the actresses asked afterward, what difference should it make if she were a prostitute?
Why should it make her less deserving of the intervention that was offered to a more modestly dressed woman? Regardless of how you feel about prostitution, or about low-cut dresses, all women deserve to live lives free of violence.
The attitudes expressed by those two women are common, says Audacia Ray, a sexuality rights activist, co-founder of Sex Work Awareness, and a former sex worker herself. “Sex workers generally aren’t treated as whole human beings worthy of dignity and respect in American culture,” Ms. Ray told me.
And as the scene in that diner demonstrated, the mere suspicion that she is a sex worker is enough to disqualify a woman from that, and from the potentially life-saving intervention that patrons were prepared to make for a more modestly dressed woman. And lives are at risk: According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, almost 1 in 3 female homicide victims whose deaths are reported to the police are killed by an intimate partner.
"Sex worker" is a term that encompasses a range of occupations, not all of which are illegal. Not all lawbreakers deserve our respect, of course, but what makes people in America so willing to disrespect prostitutes is that they sell sex. The way we treat prostitutes is simply an extreme manifestation of the way we treat all women who are publicly sexual. I don't advocate breaking the law, but I do advocate treating all human beings with respect.
There is nothing a woman can do, no dress she can wear, no job she can work that makes her more deserving of violence. Perhaps you haven’t been in a diner and witnessed domestic violence happening just a few tables away from you.
But domestic violence is happening right under your nose, and all around you: One in 4 American women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. That’s 1.3 million women a year.
The question, then, shouldn’t be “What would you do?” The question is, “What will you do?”