After the Presidents Club dinner

Weinstein was a watershed moment. But in the here today, gone tomorrow cycle of today’s media it can all too easily feel like yesterday’s news. Yet anyone who thought that its revelations and those which emerged afterwards would somehow seamlessly pave the way for change has surely had the mother of all wake-up calls from the Presidents Club charity dinner.

Even in the full glare of the #metoo campaign, 360 wealthy and powerful men decided to take part in an event at which sexual harassment was quite literally business as usual. An event shrouded in secrecy and yet there for all to see if they wanted to look.

And then, as if we have all completely taken leave of our senses, we are somehow supposed to buy even a scintilla of the excuse that it was all for charity. Charitable fundraising has not had the best press of late. But that’s an excuse which surely puts the relationship between means and ends in raising money for good causes on an entirely new footing.

The lurid details are, as the MP Jo Swinson put it, ‘stomach-churning’. The stench enveloped every aspect of the event from the enforcement of the female ‘hostesses’ to the salaciousness of the prizes. You would have to have been walking around with a blindfold and earplugs to fail to notice, not to mention a clip on your nose.

So never mind that there was no suggestion of ‘wrongdoing’ on the part some of those present. Or that others didn’t actually see anything ‘untoward’. Or that others still left early. Or even that having seen what they saw, some are never attending again. Surely the most risible excuse is to say you won't be re-boarding a plane that’s already crashed. What an apology for an apology every one of those responses is. The mealy-mouthed nonsense of it all is quite breathtaking.

How many more ways can there be to duck your complicity? To avoid taking any responsibility for stuff that happened under your nose? So let’s be clear. If you agreed to attend an event with a male-only guest list at which the predominant female presence consisted of women hired to be ‘hostesses’, there are no excuses. The clue was in its basic premise.

For the avoidance of doubt, the organisers warned you against ‘harassment and unwanted conduct’. But still, you didn’t think there might be a problem. Okay, perhaps you didn’t know that those women had been asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement to guard against such conduct leaking out. But surely the fact that sexism was hard-wired into the event’s DNA must have been only too plain to you anyway.

It is, of course, completely irrelevant that those 130 women were apparently there of their own free will. And that some of them may have been looking for, and indeed have been offered, work. Whether they were paid to be there is not the point either. And neither is the pitiful justification that some of them may have been willing to take the harassment on the chin because they deemed it worth it in exchange for some sort of advancement.

None of those things makes amends for what happened. Because this story isn’t about the choices of any of those women. It is about the choices of the male guests. The choice to attend a charity dinner with a male-only invitation list. To participate in a gathering at which women were quite unashamedly asked to play a subservient role.

Never mind the free will or otherwise of those women. The free will exercised by every one of the male guests was to be present at an event which was systemically sexist. And why would an event be designed in that way if not to create the opportunity for the very behaviour which took place? For men to be predators amongst friends at ‘the most un PC event of the year’.

Never mind that a host of individuals and organisations, from the charities named as beneficiaries to the hotel under whose roof the event took place, will need to do a whole heap of soul searching. And they surely must. Many of them will have started in earnest. We can only hope that the response which that generates is less about denial than some of what we’ve heard so far and more about openness and a willingness to be counted.

In the end, the event took place because there was an appetite amongst men not just for dinner, but for an occasion where lewdness and lecherousness were on the menu. And that’s the overriding message in the post-Weinstein moment. Investigations and recommendations will be plentiful. Policies and strategies will be reviewed. But when push comes to shove as every one of those men will know, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

And so it’s culture that has to change. But here’s the rub. The gauntlet isn’t just being thrown down to those who knowingly revelled in the wrongdoing or even those who flinched in the shadows but did nothing. Neither is it just being thrown down to men who’ve already nailed their colours to the mast of combatting such behaviour. It’s being thrown down to all the liberal-minded, well-behaved men who are appalled by this stuff but don’t think it’s anything to do with them or that they can do anything about it.

It took the courage of a female reporter to expose the antics of all the presidents’ men in this story. We should all be indebted to Madison Marriage for doing so. But it’s our turn to be the reporters now. And it’s all of our business. To walk around with our eyes open. To name it and to shame it. To be role models for a different way of doing things. Just as sexual harassment isn’t the preserve of casting couches, it isn’t the preserve of business tycoons either. As women have been reminding us it’s every day and everywhere.

So never mind anyone else’s responsibility in this sorry saga. It's the morning after the night before. And if in the cold light of day, we really believe there should be no hiding place for its like again in our institutions and communities, it’s up to us, guys. We have to be the change.

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    Chris is a writer, influencer, activist and leader. Find out more about him here. image of Chris Creegan
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