Secretive, sordid and sexist: the millionaire charity dinner boasting more than 100 hostesses
Over the past year, the emergence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have drawn attention to the problem of sexual harassment, both in and outside of the workplace. And with celebs wearing black to the Golden Globes ceremony this year, as a very visual protest against the issue, you’d think that those engaging in sexually predatory behaviour would finally be getting the message that harassment isn’t okay and will no longer be tolerated. But it appears some people still aren’t getting it.
This week, British newspaper the Financial Times sent in two undercover reporters to the President's Club Charity Dinner in London. This male-only black-tie event, an annual gathering of the great and good of the business world, was put on to raise money for a number of charities. But by sending two women to work as hostesses, the FT were able to expose the predatory truth about what really happened: female workers were groped, propositioned, subject to lewd comments, encouraged to get drunk and even flashed by men who seemed to think that the onus not to behave like a slimeball did not apply to them.
The FT didn’t explicitly name those acting inappropriately, but according to respected blogger Guido Fawkes, those on the 360 strong guest list included Bruce Ritchie, who has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the ruling Conservative Party, Nadhim Zahawi, a Conservative MP, and Dragons Den star Theo Paphitis. Comedian David Walliams hosted the event but it was Channel 5 presenter Jonny Gould who opened it, with the words: “Welcome to the most un-PC event of the year.”
During the course of the evening, the FT claims that many of the hostesses commented on finding the experience “scary”, with “multiple” reports of groping, as well as attempts to kiss them and "invitations" back to rooms at the Dorchester Hotel, where the event was being held. By the end of it, “a line of younger women were left seated on a banquette at the back of the room, seemingly dazed”. In sharp contrast to these high-flying men, many of these women were students, part-time actresses or dancers, all trying to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
The hostesses were selected on three criteria: “tall, thin and pretty”. They were also asked to wear "sexy" make-up and "sexy" shoes. Furthermore, those taking a little breather in the toilets weren’t off the hook either - there was actually a toilet monitor stood guard outside the door, checking they weren’t taking too long.
Caroline Dandridge, founder of Artista, the event talent agency in charge of procuring women for the evening, told the FT that she was not aware of any reports of sexual harassment, stating: “with the calibre of guest, I would be astonished.” Let that sink in for a second: in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, and in the week that Larry Nassar was sentenced for abusing his lofty position in the US gymnastics team, we have a woman here saying that powerful men can’t possibly be capable of sexually harassing women?
An even more curious defence of the events came via Buzzfeed from an unnamed property executive who attended the event and said: “I mean, the people who go, we can afford a girl if we want one. The ticket for the dinner costs £5,000 but if we spend £500 or £1000 we can get a girl to come to our house if that’s what we wanted”.
But this disregarding of the gravity of the situation didn’t stop with those involved in the event - even journalists weren’t exempt, with columnist Camilla Long taking to Twitter to write the whole story off, just as it began: “I think it's mostly a few journos. No one else will give a s**t - especially not FT readers”. Funnily enough, lots of people, including lots of FT readers did give a s**t. Within just hours of the story going to press, the President's Club had been disbanded; within 24 hours, Artista’s website, which previously offered headshots of their hostesses, was simply a blank page reading: "Please do contact us for further information."
Julia Hartley-Brewer, a British broadcaster, went one step further than Long, however, seemingly placing the blame on the women working at the event, tweeting: “I’m a temp worker & my agency asks me to dress sexily (inc what knickers to wear) for a job as a “hostess” at a boozy all male dinner where, the agency tells me, I may be groped. I agree to do the job. A woman’s prerogative, surely? #PresidentsClub." To go back to the earlier point, these were women making ends meet in a hideously expensive city, in a room full of men who should know better. And for the five millionth time: a tight dress and a pair of heels is not an invitation for sexual assault. Jesus.
Some in the media have commented that the women working at the event were treated as if they were sex workers, seemingly suggesting that this sort of behaviour would somehow be more expected or acceptable if they were. But they seem to be missing another big point of the campaigns against sexual harassment: that no woman, sex worker or not, deserves to have a man shove their hand up their skirt, be lewdly propositioned or have a man expose their penis at them without their permission.
Despite the flat-out denials by just about everyone at the event, it does seem, fortunately, that some really do get it. The story has sparked an enormous backlash, and David Meller, the co-chair of the charity dinner, has been forced to resign from his job at the Department for Education. British Prime Minister Theresa May is now also facing calls to sack Nadhim Zahawi. In addition, Great Ormond Street Hospital has decided to return the £530,000 (over $756,000) that was raised in their name.
The message is clear: that while the event may have raised two million pounds for good causes in just one night, it would be nice if we could donate money to charity without women being groped. So if you're a millionaire and you want to make a difference, get your cash out - not your penis.