The waves created by the Harvey Weinstein eruptions in Hollywood are being felt all over the world. But you can imagine the organisers of The President’s Club, an all-male, exclusive fundraising event, felt pretty safe.
After all, they had been running it for 30 years, high rollers from major City firms were guests and it was held at the world-famous Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane. And, of course, the event was really all about raising money for charity. What could go wrong?
A really good boy’s event
Maybe it was these factors that assured The President’s Club that it was fine to contract with an agency who hired hostesses based on their looks, instructed them to wear skimpy dresses, dictated the colour of their underwear and plied them with wine before the event. Perhaps they thought these are just what makes for a really good boy’s event.
And maybe they thought that insisting these young women sign non-disclosure agreements was just the sensible thing to do. After all, these days people sue over the slightest little thing…
But in this unpredictable world, the very concept of this kind of event has come crashing in on those involved. And The President’s Club is no more. Shocking but true – groping women and putting your hand up their skirts is not acceptable. And an event which seems to have institutionalised and condoned this kind of behaviour has not survived public scrutiny.
In some ways, the interesting thing about the controversy is the surprise it has caused. I am not surprised because the scandal reminds me of behaviour I saw when I was at Hull University in the early-mid 1990s.
For a year after graduating, I was Vice-President of the Student Union for a year. It was a paid, full-time ‘sabbatical’ post and meant being on a committee, along with five others, who were responsible for the clubs and societies run by the Union. And this included the Rugby Club.
Every year, the Rugby Club held an Old-Boys dinner at a local hotel. As can be expected for rugby social, it was always going to be a lively evening but things got a slightly more out of hand than usual. Food was thrown, plates smashed, the room they hired was trashed and yes, the waitresses were sexually harrassed. The guests exposed themselves – as the hotel themselves phrased it – the waitresses had ‘penises waved about in front of them.’
The damage to property totaled over £2,000 and the Rugby Club were responsible for finding the money. So, in a stroke of genius, the club decided to hold a fundraiser – an all-male, ticketed event titled ‘A Gentlemen’s Evening’. What could go wrong?
I remember being asked to buy a ticket by an enthusiastic Rugby Club member. I had been heavily involved in the Cricket Club for 4 years and I loved (and still do) a beery sporting social. But there was no way I was going anywhere near this.
The Gentlemen’s Evening was basically a night being entertained by strippers. But the women they booked offered perhaps more than these middle-class boys imagined. In the event, various members of the audience ended up on stage, engaged in sexual activities in front of everyone. Furthermore some of it was filmed.
A scandal erupted and though it was pre-internet, the story got into various newspapers.
The scandal led to many other disclosures about other incidents involving the club – the trashing of rooms, throwing drinks, urinating out of the back of coaches. So, as the committee running the Student Union, we took the decision to ban the club for bringing the university and union into disrepute.
This meant withdrawing them from the tournaments they were in and suspending their RFU insurance so they could not play matches.
After such incidents, you may have thought that the rugby club members felt a level of shame and that being banned was a fair cop.
But actually the key people in the club were incensed about the ban. They argued vociferously about how harsh it was and how this was just a bit of lad’s fun. It was the arrogance in their responses to being challenged that was the most disturbing thing of all – because it showed the underlying belief that they had a right to behave like this.
Their attitudes were an aspect of boys private school sub-culture which is frequently exposed at university. Attitudes and behaviours towards women, generated in all-male environments, are freed from the moderating influence of parents and let loose in a sea of beer. Its a phenomena captured well by the film, The Riot Club.
And, as we see with The President’s Club, this goes beyond just some bad behaviour by individuals. The key issue is the institutions and clubs which exist to cement, embody and celebrate these cultures. And its good for everyone, not least the men involved, when the reality is exposed and things have to change.