The Financial Times have done a piece of undercover journalism that you might think happened in 1958 but in fact occurred in 2018. In case you haven’t seen it, you can read it here – they’ve dropped the paywall so off you go, no excuses now.
It’s been written carefully enough so that although people have been named and shamed, no one has been directly accused of anything and there is even a disclaimer to say that the seating plan the Financial Times has seen is not a guaranteed understanding of the list of actual attendees. But to be honest I don’t care. It’s enough of a totally galling blow to the concept of respect for women or treating us like humans that this event exists. It’s enough that the men invited are at the tops of their fields, are influencers and big names. It’s enough that the only women who are in the room are the ones who are there for entertainment, for display. It is enough that this event has existed for 33 years in whatever iterations it has been and not one of those men has ever thought to blow the whistle. For. Shame. All of them should feel as sick about themselves as I do.
While reading this article I kept thinking “oh it can’t get worse, can it?”
But of course, it can. You’d think I wouldn’t be quite so naive as to think that all those things are enough. The exposé mentions that the dinner raised more than two million pounds for charity…but what is the cost of that? Sure, these men are cracking out their cheque books and bidding on mostly innocuous high end prizes (the slogan “spice up your wife” for the plastic surgery prize was a fresh wave of totally disrespectful, reductive to women nausea) but who is really paying the price of this event for these charities? Because to me it looks like that money comes at the cost of the safety of 130 young women. Someone might bid £400 000 on
feeding his ego sorry, on naming a children’s hospital wing after himself, but if he’s doing it while sticking his hand up an 18 year old’s skirt who thought she was coming to do a black tie event as a hostess…doesn’t that somehow defeat the point?
“Oh but it’s not the men’s fault that there are young women there” – sure, the men didn’t hire them and we’ll come on to who did in a minute, but it’s funny because I’ve been in a workplace or a restaurant before as a customer or an employee or a visitor. I’ve never felt the need to grope someone. I’ve never felt the need or the desire really to just sexually assault and harass someone while they offer me a drink. You’d think these moguls and businessmen might be able to take some kind of responsibility for their actions right? We all get to decide how we behave. One of them could have blown the whistle. One of them could have decided this wasn’t an acceptable way to treat other human beings. I’ve also worked as a hostess for events before but you know what? I’ve never had someone stick their hand up my skirt while I’m offering round canapés and been told that “it’s a Marmite job. Some girls love it, and for other girls it’s the worst job of their life and they will never do it again” by the woman who has hired me. As if I’m supposed to just take it as part of acceptable working conditions.
So speaking of Caroline Dandridge…I find it really hard to contain my loathing of this person. To put it bluntly, what kind of person, what kind of woman sends young women into an environment where there is such a high risk of them being sexually assaulted, they’re basically meant to expect it? Except they’re not. The men are referred to as “annoying”. Not “harassing you and illegally touching your body without consent.” Not “in an environment set up for them to feel like they’re allowed to commit a sexual crime.” Just “annoying”. I can think of lots of things that are annoying – people humming, public transport being delayed, when I leave the house without an umbrella because it’s sunny but then the weather changes really quickly and suddenly it starts to rain and I wish I had that umbrella. Those are all prime examples of annoying things. You know what’s not annoying Caroline? It’s when you go to work as a young woman expecting to serve drinks and instead of that you get groped and touched against your will.
But it’s ok everyone, it’s ok because Caroline Dandridge’s organisation Artista has what the Financial Times calls “an enforcement team” and when you read that phrase you think “oh phew, good they’ve got people in place to protect the young women in case things get out of hand” but no that’s actually not what they’re for. They’re there “prodding less active hostesses to interact with dinner guests”. So the enforcement team are there to make sure the young women don’t take themselves out of an uncomfortable or difficult situation where they feel their personal safety is compromised. The enforcement team are there to make sure the women don’t escape to safety or take a break from being physically violated.
“Maybe they can go to the toilets!” You might think, in a desperate attempt to find a place of respite. Yes! Good idea – the toilet! That’s a place where for decades women have sought refuge, hidden and cried and regrouped themselves to return to the battle that is working and living in the patriarchy. The toilet – that will feel safe. They can hide there for 10 minutes and-Nope. According to the report from the Financial Times:
“Outside the women’s toilets a monitoring system was in place: women who spent too long were called out and led back to the ballroom. A security guard at the door was on hand, keeping time.”
Oh did I mention also that their phones are taken away? But if something awful does go down, they’re told by Caroline Dandridge to contact her except she phrases it as “if any of the men become too annoying”. How does she want them to contact her? By pigeon? By standing a minute and looking for her? Oh no wait, stand for too long and you’ll be hustled by someone throwing you back into the threatening situation you’re trying to leave. This woman has systematically stripped 130 young women of their ability to have any kind of safety. She’s taken away their ability to rest for a minute and regroup. She’s timing them on the toilets. No partners are allowed at the event. No support system. And she’s taken away their phones. So no outside contact or ability to call for outside help. This woman has single handedly enabled a room full of already entitled men to take advantage of women who are younger and more vulnerable than them. Caroline Dandridge tells them their phones will be “safely locked away” but there’s nothing safe about it. Well OK maybe the phones will be safe, but the women certainly won’t be.
“But these women are choosing to be there and some of them have done it before and some of them love it!” I hear you defend. You might be right. Some of them probably need the money and make that choice knowingly. And some of them are strong enough to draw their own lines and decide what they do and don’t want and will be confident enough to say no when it’s too much. And some of them weigh up the choices and decide that even if they hate it maybe it won’t be so bad. But to me it sounds like it would be horrific. I mean, I’m not tall or particularly thin so I’d never make the cut but tables of older, rich and entitled men who think that because they have enough money they’re entitled to touch me wherever and however they want, who are then put into a room where they’re basically told that yes this is true…that’s a combination of about 7 different nightmares for me. These are men who have real power, real influence and could be part of more than just giving money to places. These are men who could be part of a social change, who could ensure their companies and spaces are safe not just for men but for women too. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man but if I were in that room and I knew that there were women being touched in ways they don’t want I couldn’t sit back and let it happen. I couldn’t just keep presenting or eating or standing there. I’d feel a sense of responsibility to them.
This is not the same as sex work or the sex industry. Because I imagine for this “black tie event” the job description doesn’t outline the need to accept a man groping you as part of your duties. There are many varying circumstances around sex work but I think generally the people know they’re going to do a job that involves some kind of sexual interaction. I don’t think that’s the case here and if it were made clear from the start I wonder how many legal ramifications Artista would run into. I wonder how many applicants they’d get. I wonder if the whole event would still want to run this way if they admitted openly what they’re doing and how they’re operating, if they directly addressed what they’re expecting of the young women who come to work there and what they’re allowing and enabling for the men who leer at them. This event happens and keeps happening because it’s allowed to be a well kept secret. The men won’t tell and the women have to sign non-disclosure agreements, so they can’t tell…or at least not without serious legal and probably financial consequences. I don’t imagine any of the “students…actresses, dancers or models [who] did occasional hosting work to make ends meet” can afford those kinds of consequences.
There are so many points of disgust for me that I could go on. I could write thousands of words about the power imbalance, the system, the patriarchy, how women are set up again and again to be taken advantage of and used and disregarded as people. But I have to end somewhere. So my final port of call is to commend the two women who went undercover and reported on the event. The women who may or may not have known what they were in for, the women who had to be “tall, thin and pretty” (the three criteria us women must have for any job of course) for £150 for a night’s work plus £25 for a taxi home. The undercover reporters who may well be those three perfectly fine things to be but who had to reduce themselves to be seen as being only those things for the sake of this job. And what a totally fantastic job they have done. If this were a show I’d be on my feet applauding and I don’t think everyone deserves a standing ovation. But these women do and I hope the consequence of their stellar reporting is that this event is brought to its knees. I hope that at every point there are people who will take a stand – the organisers, the supporters, the members and the charities who benefit from this event. I hope they all rethink what they’re doing; why they feel the need to behave this way and why they want to treat young women in this way.
I hope they raise even more money next year by inviting women to sit at the tables, rather than parading them to grope and sexually harass in their evening’s workplace.
Update: within hours of the story breaking but after I wrote this piece, it was announced that the Presidents Club will no longer be operating as a fundraising body and the charity dinner will not be held again.
A few years ago, I went to a wedding and was sat next to a guy whose name is being changed to David because even though he didn’t respect my physical space or the law of consent, I respect privacy and the laws of defamation. I’ve actually written about him before but this is a brief summary of what happened:
He – a man I knew only as an acquaintance – grabbed my breast under the pretext of tickling under my arm when I happened to lift it. I had given consent for neither of these attempts at intimate physical contact. He did this at a wedding dinner. He did this in front of his wife to whom he’d been married for 6 weeks. He did this at a full table of wedding guests.
When I yelled at him, humiliated and shocked, he laughed. I was told to calm down and not make scene. I was shushed. His wife rolled her eyes and said nothing.
Everyone. Said. Nothing.
When I told a friend of mine about it a couple of days later, she shrugged and said “That’s David.” As if that makes it OK. That’s just who he is and we all accept it and allow it and what can you do?
It is being reported that people are coming forward now in higher numbers about Harvey Weinstein. The implication from these reports, to me anyway, is that Harvey had so much money, power, influence and privilege and that’s why no one spoke up. I understand he was intimidating and people were afraid for their careers..but David wasn’t intimidating. He was an extremely privileged, entitled shit. To me David and Harvey are interchangeable because although he was no Harvey Weinstein, the attitude is the same – we know what he’s like but we say nothing.
And so to Harvey – countless assaults, harassments even rapes later and you have a man who is serially high on his own power. He is above the law because everyone else has let him be. It is constantly reinforced that he can do whatever he wants because…he already is doing whatever he wants, however he wants. So he makes women uncomfortable, he takes from them whatever he desires. Their desires or consent don’t enter into it. Isn’t it funny how we talk about consent? As if it’s a social requirement and not a legal one. There are numerous reports of him ignoring consent, threatening careers, paying 8 women off and now multiple allegations of rape are emerging. This man hasn’t broken social etiquette, he has broken the law. And people let him. Just as people let David assault me with a classic shushing of the angry woman and an apologetic shrug of their shoulders at him.
In 2015 Courtney Love was asked if she has any advice for aspiring young actresses in Hollywood. Her response, caught on film is
“I’ll get libelled if I say it…” (She looks around furtively)
“If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party in the Four Seasons, don’t go.”
That was two years ago.
Now people like Colin Firth who knew 25 years ago are coming out and saying they feel guilty. This is Colin Firth’s statement in the Guardian
“I am extremely pleased that Sophie [Dix] is speaking out after so many years,” he said. “I ran into her at a party some time after filming Hour of the Pig – around 25 years ago. What I heard, it turns out, was part of a horrifying pattern. Other women have been hurt since. And those of us who didn’t act on our one bit of knowledge – and especially those of us who went on to work with Weinstein – have that on our conscience. I admire Sophie’s courage. This can’t have been easy.”
Good. He’s right. He and everyone else who knew should feel guilty.
From the moment they knew what was happening and stayed silent they became complicit in his acts. They became partially responsible for every future sexual assault, for every possible rape, for every moment a woman was invited to see Harvey Weinstein and made to feel small or threatened or abused because the people who knew allowed it to keep happening. Many of these people have power in their own right. Many of these people could have prevented years of this. Every one of these people stayed silent.
I understand that 25 years ago Colin and the rest of Hollywood didn’t have the Internet as we do now, so public exposure wouldn’t have been as widespread and instantaneous. It shouldn’t matter. I understand that 25 years ago it was a different time and everyone just accepted that women get sexually harassed as part of their daily lives. I don’t even need to comment on why that’s so fucked up. But the list of women speaking up now is much longer than it could have been. More than 30 women have come forward. Women who are actors, producers, established or up and coming. There are stories of women pairing up to go to meetings with him to protect each other. People knew what was happening.
Some of the reports are focusing on how unattractive he is and suggesting that it’s all much worse because he’s old and ugly. So…if he were young and fit this would be fine? His physical appearance is totally irrelevant. We’re still perpetuating such problematic narratives and ignoring that this happens everywhere, all the time at multiple levels. If you look at social media today you’ll see #metoo filling up a lot of timelines. You’ll see a lot of women speaking out about their experiences. It’s an attempt at progress – the idea that all women who have experienced sexual harassment or assault or even rape come out into the open about it and break the taboo of silence that exists around such acts is great. It’s intended to show how many of us have been subjected to this kind of abusive treatment and don’t talk about it all the time. That all of us have encountered a Harvey Weinstein of sorts and all of us have stayed silent and allowed it to pass. It’s a great, brave idea until you realise that it’s not so easy for all women to do, it’s putting the onus on women (again) and is quite a flippant way for some to share what might be deeply personal and traumatic experiences. For more information on that read this article, “Don’t you think we’ve done enough? by Elisheva Sokolic. Reports suggest that this whole business with Harvey Weinstein was one of the worst kept secrets, known by half of Hollywood. Comedian Andy Hamilton appeared on ‘Have I Got News For You’ this week and he said on Harvey claiming to be fighting his demons:
“Rich people have demons, poor people go to prison.”
If he didn’t have money he’d be a convicted sex offender by now. This is one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and he is finally falling backwards over the mountain of women who have built up as he thought he had trampled over them. I’m so glad they’ve finally risen up and toppled him over.
There are at least 8 women who have been paid for their silence. It’s hard to know how to feel about these people who threatened or tried and failed to stand up to a bully. Sometimes it’s not possible to speak out. If you have no support network, or the powerful party threatens to ruin your life by overwhelming you with their resources, burying you in debt and legal procedure, I imagine it can feel impossible to fight back. The mental strain of this on top of the ordeal you’ve been through – a violation of your body and rights – can be too much. On the other hand they played into his narrative of being above the law and untouchable. With enough money you can buy off any problem.
So if you can speak up against this kind of abusive, illegal behaviour you must.
You must because you can and someone else can’t.
You must because you could be, no, almost certainly will be saving the person going into that hotel meeting room after you. The one who doesn’t have a buddy to go with her. The one who hasn’t been let in on this sickening secret…yet.
It’s preventable. It really is. I am certain we all know someone who treats people worse than they should. But that person still has friends, lives their life as if they are entitled to be however they choose. They see no consequences to treating women like pieces of free meat to which they can help themselves.
We have a collective responsibility to act if we can, when we know of such things, when we see them or hear of them. We must break this culture of silence around so many issues. In this case it’s sexual assault.
My grandma sometimes says to me, “Silence means assent” and frankly it’s a really creepy phrase that’s always bothered me but in this case it’s true. Staying silent says “Yes that’s allowed” to the actions of an industry-known sexual predator. Staying silent says yes to David and the men who thoughtlessly leer, catcall, whistle, harass, grab, abuse, assault, rape, demean, pressure, threaten, intimidate, reduce and chip away at women.
It’s endemic, woven into the fabric of our society that this happens and we say nothing. We are afraid of the consequences of whistle blowing but we should be more afraid of the consequences of not whistle blowing, for they are far more sinister. It happens and it happens and it happens again. It is not good enough to know and do nothing to help. It is not acceptable to come out, but only after 20 other people did, with utterly impotent regret. Now, when we all know about it and it’s safe when in reality it’s been safe enough for those people for years, they suddenly jump on the bandwagon already full of people who did nothing.
So to the silent bystander who does not speak out against the things they know are wrong –
You are not as bad as the perpetrator but you are not much better. You are an enabler. Your silence enables someone to hurt others.
You have power, more than you know. So what will you do with it?
If you can, I urge you to speak out. If you can’t I hope you know someone who can and that they do.
We are all responsible for what happens around us when we have knowledge of it. We must do better than this.
While walking the 10 minutes from work to the station today, a man began following me. At first, I didn’t notice he was talking to me. Why would I? I was on my own. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be talking to me.