Editor’s Note: Jane Merrick (@janemerrick23) is a British political journalist and former political editor of the Independent on Sunday newspaper. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
One of the most striking details of the expose by the Financial Times of the secretive men-only charity dinner – where hostesses were allegedly groped and subjected to lewd language and behavior – is that as the evening began, some of these guests from the worlds of politics, business and real estate held the hands of these young women.
It is an image which suggests these rich and powerful men, at what they thought was a private event at the luxurious Dorchester Hotel in London – away from the prying eyes of the media, Twitter and the public – wanted some hand-holding reassurance. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have claimed the reputations of so many of their powerful counterparts, but the Presidents Club dinner could, “they may have believed,” provide them with a sanctuary where they could carry on as they pleased, flattered by the attentions of young women in short, tight dresses. And all in the name of charity. To them, the world had not changed – or so they thought.
But post-Weinstein, there is nowhere to hide. It is telling that the 360 male guests – not all of whom, it should be said, would have engaged in inappropriate or illegal behavior – attended a “men-only” dinner where hostesses were literally paraded in front of them at the start of the evening, where the opening speech reportedly referred to the “most un-PC event of the year,” and where auction prizes included plastic surgery designed to “add spice to your wife” – and this after weeks and weeks of revelations of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men.
Even if some of those named as guests have publicly insisted they did not witness any harassment, no one would have been in any doubt that the only purpose the hostesses served was to be objectified. Did these men go to the dinner as some sort of last hurrah? Or did they think they could carry on as normal, despite #MeToo, because they believe the normal rules of consent and conduct don’t apply to them?
It is indeed true that there has been fierce resistance to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement. Critics – like the French actress Catherine Deneuve – say those of us involved in this cultural change have gone too far and that we are stopping men from flirting or demonizing them for pursuing sexual relationships. In fact, the rules of flirting and interaction remain the same – but our tolerance of inappropriate sexual behavior has changed forever. Yet the Presidents Club dinner, which seemed to luxuriate in sleaze and seedy behavior, shows that we still have not gone far enough.
As someone who has spoken out about sexual harassment – Sir Michael Fallon resigned as British Defence Secretary last November after I reported his behavior to Theresa May – I can only begin to imagine what it was like for the hostesses who had to endure this alleged behavior over several hours.
The reporters who went undercover, including the FT’s Madison Marriage, who says she was herself groped, were extraordinarily brave to have put themselves in that position. But it must also be said that dinners like this, and the hostessing industry more generally, have long used young women in need of money and work as bait for rich men. Women, often trafficked from other countries, are coerced into hostessing, which can lead into prostitution. It has only become the story it has because the FT was brave enough to conduct its investigation and put it on the front page.
Thanks to this investigation, the Presidents Club announced on Wednesday that it would be closing down. I am sure if it were not for Marriage and her fellow reporters, the Presidents Club – and other secretive dining clubs – would have carried on as before, utterly impervious to the social upheaval happening outside their closed doors.
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The revulsion prompted by this story – and the closure of the club – shows that the culture is already changing after #MeToo. This sort of event is seen as no longer socially acceptable.
But we need more than just a culture change – we need greater protection for women who could fall prey to this sort of harassment. Like any members of the gig economy, women working for a hostess agency have few rights to complain about abuse – and they should be protected under law.