Over the last couple of months I’ve been quietly observing the fascinating unravelling of massive, hidden networks of sexual violence in the West, just as most of us have. I raised my eyebrows as legendary celebrity names dropped like stones from the untouchable clouds of Hollywood, I cried a little bit when I watched Oprah make a speech, and I shook my head every time I heard people repeatedly miss the point (“it’s a shame, he was a great actor”, “so, men can’t flirt anymore? ”, “some women like it”).
Today, I saw a piece of news that made it personal to me. A Financial Times reporter, Madison Marriage, went undercover as a hostess at the Presidents Club Charity Dinner, a men-only fundraising event for charities such as Great Ormond Street Hospital. The seating plan was littered with horrifyingly powerful figures; the former chairman of Goldman Sachs, the under-secretary of state for children and families, Nadhim Zahawi (who, at the time of writing, has been asked to resign by the prime minister), members and donors of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. Children’s author David Walliams hosted the event. According to the Financial Times, the night was introduced as the “most un-PC event of the year”; one auction prize promised lunch with Boris Johnson, and another apparently offered a course of cosmetic surgery to “add spice to your wife”. David Meller was the co-chair of the event, and has since resigned as non-executive director for the Department for Education.
The hostesses, who served food and drinks to the guests, were told to wear “sexy” heeled shoes, matching underwear and short skirts. They were required to sign a non-disclosure form without having adequate time to read what they were agreeing to. Marriage reported numerous incidents of sexual assault; hands up skirts, on bums and arounds waists, lewd language and indecent propositions (one such woman was asked by a guest if she was a prostitute), one guest even allegedly exposed his genitals to staff members. She described her experience of the night as “an incessant stream of harassment”.
I have personally witnessed and experienced similar behaviour. Over a period of almost seven years working part-time as a waitress at ‘high-profile’ events, I have had a mostly positive experience. However, the numerous times I have been cat-called, objectified, overlooked and – in some cases – groped – will never fade my mind. It is a difficult situation to navigate; when you are being paid to serve someone, how much of it should you overlook? When is it ‘just’ drunken behaviour or over friendliness? And what do you do when the perpetrator is a colleague? What do you do when you rely on the wage? I have struggled with these questions many times.
While I know only as much as the FT report offers about the London event, I am confident when I say that the attitude displayed by those men towards female hospitality staff is prevalent in the industry, and hugely normalised, both in the kitchens and front-of-house. I have felt forced into crude conversation. I have laughed off vile comments. I have allowed hands slithering around my waist. I have been slapped on the bum and kept walking. As someone deeply concerned with gender inequality, I’m sure most people who know me well would assume I’d never ‘tolerate’ that sort of vulgar behaviour, but I have. I have stood like a rabbit caught in headlights. I continue to be embarrassed by my own hypocrisy in doing nothing. I once tried to do something about a particular incident, and it was taken seriously by my employer. Actions were taken, but at my own request they were limited, for fear of ‘causing a fuss’ and allowing colleagues to lose their jobs, and inevitably it happened again. I did nothing.
I once worked a shift as a hostess at an upmarket event in London. I was picked on the basis of being an ‘English Rose’ (hospitality speak for white and blonde) and I was paid twice my usually hourly rate. It was fine, I felt safe, and to an extent I even enjoyed it. But I cannot ignore that my purpose was to stand, in an extremely tight, revealing dress and heels, look “sexy ” (that was my instruction) and greet guests with the friendliest smile I could muster. Everyone was polite to me, no one made any comments and my presence was just as much for the female guests as it was the male guests. But I was primarily an object, and that leaves me feeling remarkably unsurprised about the allegations of the Presidents Club Charity Dinner, which is deeply concerning.
These experiences might sound shocking, saddening, horrifying; but they are no different to those of the girls I am surrounded by in the workplace. They are not remotely unusual or exceptional. As the details of the dinner have unfolded, various guests have pushed tweets disassociating themselves with the allegations. David Walliams has claimed he left by 11:30pm, saw no evidence of such behaviour and was “shocked” by what he heard. But here is the problem: annual dinner events such as this are held up by reputation. If you exist in, or encounter, an elite social sphere that involves black-tie charity auction dinners exclusively for rich, powerful men, you are aware of this reputation.
It is upper-class ‘lad culture’. It is ‘banter’; the frat houses of older generations. It is taking off your coat after a long, hard day of being politically correct and indulging in the misogyny you would never associate yourself with publically or professionally. It is knowing you are so privileged that the prospect of being ‘caught’ can be bought out with non-disclosure forms and PR teams (until, of course, a Financial Times reporter exposes it all). And this behaviour at events continues to trickle down through staff in management teams, offices and kitchens, to reach the waitresses on zero-hour contracts who have absolutely no idea how to make just one small drop of change in the massive ocean of gender inequality.
–Amy McShane (Opinion Editor)