For 33 years, London has played host to an event at which the elite of Britain’s political, business, and entertainment worlds gather. It is called the Presidents Club Charity Dinner, and it is secretive, black tie, and strictly Men Only.
That is, apart from the hostesses.
Ostensibly set up as a fundraiser, the Presidents Club Charity Dinner sees the high and mighty come together to bid on such lots as lunch with the foreign secretary Boris Johnson and tea with the Bank of England governor Mark Carney. They do so in order to support noble causes like Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. Rich people love to get together to dress smart, eat well, and to bid on things. They cannot get enough of bidding on things. Maybe a new wing at a children’s hospital? With their name on a plaque adorning it? Lovely. And if the powerful men in attendance at these fundraisers get to be waited on by young, attractive women, specially hired and scantily-clad? Well, that’s just the cherry on an already delicious cake isn’t it?
This year the Presidents Club Charity Dinner was held at the prestigious Dorchester Hotel overlooking Hyde Park. Usually it is the case that the event plays out behind a wall of secrecy and elite remove. Normally, very little attention is paid. Thanks to a report in the Financial Times, however, this time the general public has gotten a glimpse of the other side of the velvet curtain. This is, after all, thankfully a time of post-Weinstein revelation.
The FT sent two reporters undercover as hostesses to the Dorchester last Thursday, and they uncovered an evening run pretty much along the lines that you’d expect. While the diners enjoyed sumptuously prepared meals, over the course of the 6-hour event the hostesses were subjected to multiple cases of groping, sexually suggestive comments, and propositions to retire to bedrooms elsewhere in the hotel with the men.
According to the FT report:
Hostesses reported men repeatedly putting hands up their skirts; one said an attendee had exposed his penis to her during the evening.
Over the three decades of its run, the Presidents Club Charity Dinner has raised over £20m for charity, with many worthwhile causes being the recipients of that money.
The brochures included at the event included a full-page warning to attendees to not harass the hostesses. The women hired for the job—all selected by the criteria ‘tall, thin and pretty’—were also warned that the male diners may be ‘annoying’ or that they might attempt to get the hostesses drunk. During the selection process, prospective hostesses were told that during the event their phones would be locked away, and that they should not tell their boyfriends or girlfriends about the nature of the night, instead being instructed to just call it ‘a charity dinner’.
The FT described the beginning of the evening thus:
Upon arrival at the Dorchester, the first task given to the hostesses was to sign a five-page non-disclosure agreement about the event. Hostesses were not given a chance to read its contents, or take a copy with them after signing.
Eventually, in preparation for the 8pm start, the women were dressed in the required uniform. This was made up of a short, tight black dress, with matching black high heels and a corset-type belt. Now properly dressed and made-up by a resident team of make-up artists, the hostesses were arranged in height order. The tall women were first in line. When the event began, speakers played the pop song ‘Power’, by British girl band Little Mix. The women entered in groups of two, coming in from opposing sides of a stage centrally located in the main ballroom. Instructed to present themselves to the men as they entered, they were to parade in to the music until all 130 of them were dotted around the room.
Champagne, whisky and vodka were served to the men as the night went on. Salmon was on the menu. The women reported many instances of men grabbing hold of their hands, often as a prelude to pulling them into their laps. One woman, an experienced hostess, said that compared to previous events she had been at, she had felt different at this one. Uncomfortable, frightened. As the FT says:
She reported being repeatedly fondled on her bottom, hips, stomach and legs. One guest lunged at her to kiss her. Another invited her upstairs to his room.
The agency responsible for hiring the women had an ‘enforcement team’ in place during the night. Their job was to patrol the boardroom, encouraging any hostesses who didn’t seem to be engaging with their guests enough to get more involved.
At midnight the after-party began. At the after-party, one of the hostesses working was told: ‘You look far too sober.’ A diner in revelry then pulled her close to him by her waist, handed her a glass of champagne and said: ‘I want you to down that glass, rip off your knickers and dance on that table.’ The hostesses were to stay until 2am. One was encouraged to drink what she wanted near the end of the night, and to seek out anyone she found attractive should they so wish.
There has been somewhat of an outcry since the report’s publication, with women MPs damming the event, and calling for tougher laws to guard against this type of institutionalised exploitation.
The Presidents Club responded to the FT report thus:
The Presidents Club recently hosted its annual dinner, raising several million pounds for disadvantaged children. The organisers are appalled by the allegations of bad behaviour at the event asserted by the Financial Times reporters. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable. The allegations will be investigated fully and promptly and appropriate action taken.
What an interesting case study the Presidents Club Charity Dinner is, eh?
You see, sexual assault has an image problem. At least when it comes to a lot of men’s perception of it. Men have no problem decrying assault when it takes an ugly form. When it’s dressed up in bruises and bloodied bodies, we’re very quick to voice just how loudly we oppose the abuse of women. Some of us have daughters for Christ’s sake! What we fail to grasp is that the vast majority of assault and harassment is often near-invisible, or hidden in plain sight. It leaves scars you cannot see with your eyes. The systemic gender violence that is woven into the very fabric of our patriarchy takes many forms. Much of it is normalised, or even made to look glamorous. The Presidents Club Charity Dinner is a very good example of this. Look at all it’s dressed up in. Money, prestige, charity. Grand ballrooms filigreed with crystal and filled with champagne. Ornate furniture, and salmon on the menu. And what does it all actually boil down to? Old, drunk, powerful men groping young, vulnerable women. If you criticise such an event you get told: ‘What’s the problem? It’s all for a good cause! And the women got paid. They all chose to be here.’
Indeed. Such will be the defences of events like this. In the long struggle for equality, men will go to many lengths to uphold the status quo. We will rationalise, deny, and hide. We will use violence if need be.
Women, burn it down. Please.
UPDATE: Since the writing of the story The Guardian is now reporting that the President’s Club is to disband.