That noise was not thunder from the bad winter storms we have had here. It was the hoofbeats from the scattering of all sorts of public figures, some well-known and others wanting to be well-known. Some excellent investigative journalism, mainly in London’s Financial Times, had uncovered a shameful gathering of almost 400 wealthy men in politics and industry, an annual charitable fundraising event that was also laden with misogynistic behaviour. The dinner, organized for the past 33 years by an association called the Presidents Club, was held in the Dorchester Hotel, a contender for London’s poshest location.
Since the story broke, we have lost count of how many of these men claimed to have been there and not seen anything, or how many have suddenly remembered that they were appalled, or were otherwise innocent. None denied the truth of the reportage; they all tried to point fingers at others. What is more saddening is that such an event took place at all. It is obvious that too many of us, especially men, still do not “get it.”
It is obvious that too many of us, especially men, still do not “get it.”
One hundred and thirty women recruited as “hostesses” for the event were instructed to don short black dresses and high heels; they were each given 150 pounds and a cab home. They were required to be “tall, slim and pretty.” Among them were two Financial Times journalists, working undercover. Their reporting, and other accounts that emerged in the following days, revealed blatant sexual harassment, including multiple instances of inappropriate touching and groping. The “hostesses” were paraded at the start of the dinner in height order, having been rushed into signing complex, five-page nondisclosure documents.
One prize up for auction was a course of plastic surgery that would “add spice to your wife.” The official event ended at midnight, but an “after-party” in another part of the same hotel, continued the sexist behaviour. Earlier in the evening, a minor T.V. figure had taken the microphone to laughingly declare this “the most un-P.C. event of the year.”
It all backfired when the story broke, as several beneficiary charities turned their backs on offers of funding and, in some cases, vowed to return donations previously made. The best-known is the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in central London, which is not only refusing any funds from this event returning donations from previous years; this adds up to more than a half-million pounds since 2009. Similar responses followed from organizations such as the Royal Academy of Music, set to return a £10,000 donation for a gifted child violin student, and Cancer Research U.K., where a previous donation to research childhood cancer had already been spent.
One prize up for auction was a course of plastic surgery that would “add spice to your wife.”
Simultaneously, many sponsoring businesses rushed to cut their ties with the Presidents Club. The trustees of the organization were then forced to announce that there would be no more fundraising activities of any kind, and that any remaining funds would be distributed among children’s charities. Given the furor over this year’s event, they may struggle to find good causes prepared to accept their money.
Despite the whirlwind of denials, excuses and self-absolution, several individuals have come out of this mess looking tarnished. The main host of the evening, the comic and children’s author David Walliams, initially claimed that he had attended as his contract dictated, in a “strictly professional capacity,” and had left the moment his stint at the microphone was over. This did not prevent at least three bookshops from immediately withdrawing Walliams’s titles from their shelves.
Nadhim Zahawi, a government minister who works in the Department for Education on child protection, was scolded by 10 Downing Street for attending the event. Mr. Zahawi has claimed, “I arrived at 8 p.m. and left at 9:35 p.m., as I felt uncomfortable,” yet he has also claimed not to have seen anything inappropriate. Another attendee, House of Lords member Jonathan Mendelsohn, said he failed to see anything untoward and was appalled at what he did not see; he has been fired from the Labour front bench by party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
With a proudly unrepentant sexual predator in the White House, it may seem that society has learned nothing about the sin of objectification or just does not care. Abuse develops from and finds warped justification in objectification; male entitlement tries to excuse itself and finds its guilty pleasure there. Until this year, the Presidents Club event had gone ahead insouciantly, despite the strong public awareness of, and revulsion toward, recently exposed oppressive male behaviour, whether in Hollywood or in Westminster or anywhere else.
The backlash, therefore, is encouraging. That stampede of self-distancing gives the game away: Why try to distance yourself from something unless you know it is wrong? Attempts to excuse the bad behavior by pointing toward the millions raised for children’s charities failed; nobody, except perhaps some of the men at the Dorchester that evening, is fooled any longer. There is still a long way to go but also encouragement in how far we have managed to travel.