Another posh dinner, another rather sordid tale of wandering hands, being treated like a piece of meat, indecent proposals with copious amounts of alcohol, requirements to wear navel slimming dresses, and a lengthy non disclosure agreement thrown in for good measure.
Welcome to the annual Presidents Club dinner, a prestigious event that boasts the creme de la creme of London high society and which this time included an auction prize of lunch with the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (himself quite partial to quite degrading attitudes towards women) and tea with Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England. The Financial Times sent in an undercover reporter (female) to lift the lid on the sleazy antics of men with prestigious jobs but little or no regards for women. It makes for deeply uncomfortable reading. (Disclaimer: not all men who attended the men only shindig would have let themselves down in the manner reported but those who witnessed sexual harassment yet kept quiet, shame on you)
This weekend saw the UK’s second Women’s March, which I was honoured to help organise. The title of the March- ‘Time’s Up’ which called for an immediate stop to sexual harassment, silencing of victims, and a host of other forms of gender discrimination. It couldn’t have come sooner.
Newly appointed England Women’s football coach Gary Neville was forced to apologise today for sexist tweets from 2011. Over in the US, sports doctor Larry Nasser, who admitted abusing 156 young girls under his care, was given 175 years after admitted his depraved acts. In Pakistan, a national outcry over the rape and murder of a child, Zainab, is still reverberating through the usually staunch conservative society where discussions of rape and child abuse are always hushed under the carpets.
A few weeks ago I wrote about an awards ceremony organised by UKFast which featured women in corsets and a host of smutty jokes. One of the attendees, the University of Bradford, whose students had won an award, handed back the gong after feeling ‘uncomfortable’ during the ceremony.
Sadly, as proved by the Presidents Club dinner, the UKFast awards ceremony and I’m sure other low key events that never make it into the press , sexual harassment & sexist behaviours disguised as ‘entertainment’ or ‘for charity’ are not unique one-off events.
What is unique, of course, was the stance taken by the University and now, FT in lifting the lid on these ‘dinners’. Now that there is a similar outcry following the report published by the Financial Times, leading figures are coming forward to say they either didn’t ‘witness anything’ (Host David Walliams) or that they condemn the conduct towards the women forced to wait on the men at the event. It makes one wonder, if it hadn’t keen for the FT expose, would we be hearing about resignations (David Meller, trustee of the Presidents Club and now ex- non-executive board member at the Department for Education) the condemnations which have been ringing out all day? The answer is no, not very likely. This event is in its 33rd annual year- and I bet there are stacks of NDAs that have bullied women into years of silence through fear of the undeniable legal threats conveyed in the five plus pages the hostesses where forced to sign. Some of these young women were students trying to earn a bit of extra money.
Since going to press, Great Ormond Street Hospital have pledged to return all donations they have received while numerous other organisations have disassociated themselves entirely from the Presidents Club.
Are these outcries across the world symptoms of political correctness gone mad in light of the recent events surrounding MeToo, TimesUp and Women’s March movements, given impetus following Donald Trump’s victory and Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment coming to light? Or could this be a real watershed moment in recent history, compelling us to talk about the notions of consent, self control, verbal and non verbal messages that are transmitted by all genders every day and of course, mutual respect.
Growing up, I always believed that it was only in my culture that men and women were raised with different styles and expectations: men to go out and conquer the world, taking whatever and whoever they wanted while women/ girls constantly told to keep their heads down, accept everything from everybody without a fuss, don’t speak out, say yes at all times, sacrifice your own dreams and goals so that the menfolk can fulfil theirs… did I say ‘never say no’?
But now, having witnessed one of the most startling upheavals to modern day society in terms of sexual harassment I am both heartbroken and pleased to say, ‘no’ it wasn’t just us.
Heartbroken because this is a real endemic that has crossed boundaries, ages, religions, cultures and traditions. But pleased because we are all now discussing this openly, not just whispering behind closed doors and passing on coded messages to other, potential victims.
The issue of consent cannot be denied to satisfy self gratification. If she or he have not said yes, then it’s a no. Not the other way round, where if someone hasn’t said no, then it’s ‘open season’.
Today’s expose of the Presidents Club dinner and other recent scandals, are forcing the debate, and change, forward. Which in my opinion, can only be a good thing.
Soon, there will be no place for sexual harassers and abusers to hide.