Dec. 26, 2006— -- It's the kind of sweaty summer day when you might expect tempers to be short. Even so, though, the scene on a park bench in northern New Jersey strikes bystanders as a bit odd. A young woman with fiery red hair leans over her hapless boyfriend, screaming in his face.
"Nate, stop ignoring me!," she implores, just inches from his face. He all but ignores her.
"You're not even…" She pauses and moves her face even closer to his. "Hello…Hello!" she screams. At times her rage boils over to physical abuse: she pulls the young man's hair, slaps the side of his head, and beats him with a rolled-up newspaper.
Fortunately, the troubling scene isn't real. The abusive woman and her boyfriend are actors, hired by "Primetime" for a hidden camera experiment.
On previous shows, "Primetime" has staged scenes of abuse in which the man is the aggressor, and the woman is the victim. And in these situations, passersby -- men and women -- often stepped up and intervened. So producers were curious. What would happen if the tables were turned, and the man was suddenly the victim? Would people be just as willing to come to his defense?
This staged scenario happens more often in real life than you may think. According to Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating, women abusing, even assaulting their male partners "is a big problem in this country."
"There are some data that suggest that women actually hit more than men do," says Keating. "Men create more damage, but women hit more than men do."
A report prepared for the Centers for Disease Control estimates that each year there are over 800,000 serious cases of men being physically abused by women. But the actual figures are believed to be much higher, since many men are often too embarrassed to admit being the victim of abuse by a woman.
Even professional athletes, with their macho reputations, have alleged abuse. In 2002, Major League pitcher Chuck Finley's wife, actress Tawny Kitaen, was arrested and jailed after he accused her of pummeling him, causing bruises and abrasions. She pleaded not guilty, and charges were dropped after she agreed to attend anger management classes.
Verbal and physical abuse of men by women might be an acknowledged problem, but will people try to stop it when "Primetime"'s hidden cameras are rolling?
One after another, passersby witnessed the abusive scene… and kept right on going.
Mathilda was one of those bystanders. She says she didn't think the man was in any physical danger, and could probably take care of himself. "I didn't immediately think to protect the man at all," she said. "It didn't look like any harm was being done."
The reaction of another woman, Lynda, was stunning. As our actress continued to heap abuse on her make-believe boyfriend, she walked by the scene and pumped her fist in a show of sisterly solidarity.
"Good for you. You Go, Girl!" is how Lynda recalls her reaction.
"I was thinking he probably did something really bad," she said. "Maybe she caught him cheating or something like that…and [it] made her lose it and slap him in the face. I reacted like, 'Yes. Woman power.'"
This type of reaction didn't come as a surprise to Keating. Observers often excuse their "own lack of response by denigrating the victim and making up stories that he really deserved the punishment he was receiving," Keating says.
She says that perhaps these people have some past frustration in their lives which makes them "actually enjoy vicariously the experience this woman was having by being aggressive" toward her boyfriend.
Later, a husband and wife out for some exercise observed the abusive situation and continued on their way. So "Primetime's" producers stepped in and asked, "Why not stop or at least call 911?"
"What they were havin' there…[they were] just havin' a little tiff. They'll be all right," said the man, a police officer in a nearby community. His wife told "Primetime" that she would have found it "more upsetting if [the young man] had put his hands on" the young woman."
"Oh, without a doubt," her husband readily agreed, acknowledging the double standard. "Call it old-fashioned views. If you're raised the way I was raised, you don't put your hands on a woman, right?"
Keating says that holding those kinds of values and beliefs "is going to give them a very different lens through which they see the behavior of the actress, the aggressiveness of the woman against the man. They under-value the potency of her responses."
Keating says there is no single appropriate response to a situation like this.
"Every individual has to do their own calculus when it comes to whether or not they should step in and help when faced with an ethical dilemma," she says. "because there are costs to helping. There are risks, there is danger, there are time and energy investments."
Over two days of taping, "Primetime" watched 163 people just walk right by the actors – the abusive woman and her boyfriend. Of all those who had the chance to step up and get involved, only one group of women stopped.
After taking time to assess the situation, these women -- four of them -- gathered at a distance to assess the situation. They then sent an emissary to offer the fighting couple some assistance.
But when the actress replied that "this is not your business," the woman respectfully walked away.
But while the first woman was attempting to engage the couple, one of the other women, Clare, was calling 911 from her cell phone.
"I'm in Leonia Park, and there are two people fighting on a bench," she reported. "She's …beatin' him up and I was wondering if somebody could come and just check it out?" (The police were aware of the hidden camera experiment).
The fact that the abuser was a woman did not matter to Clare and the other women with her. They said they just knew they had to do something.
"She was a little out of control," said Clare.
"I was concerned for both their safety," another woman said.
Another member of the group, Donna, recalls "trying to assess the situation before we reacted."
Keating found this group of concerned women to be "an interesting collective. In a sense they verify the sort of cognitive steps we all go through whenever we see a situation that conveys some sort of ethical dilemma: 'Should we respond or not'?" "They saw it as requiring intervention," she said. "They stepped up to take responsibility. They collected as a group and tried to figure out what to do and actually put into place a plan of action where they could be of help."
According to Donna, doing nothing was never an option. "I'd rather do the right thing than walk away and go home and regret it," she said.
And according to Keating, those kinds of regrets can be hurtful. There is "a risk to not helping," she says. "When we fail to help in a situation it doesn't make you feel very good about yourself. And those sorts of memories can last for a long, long time."