Presidents Club

I read the news that the Presidents’ Dinner has been permanently canceled. For 33 years, it was considered one of the most prestigious events in the English capital, where guests — all successful men from politics, industry, and entertainment — attended an exclusive dinner at a luxury hotel while art pieces and collectibles were auctioned off, with the proceeds going to charity.

Just a few days after the last dinner, an investigative report by the Financial Times detailed how many of its participants sexually harassed the women working at the event as hostesses. The scandal has erupted in the British press, and many members of parliament have come out to condemn the entire affair.

The hostesses were hired to “entertain” the attendees. The job description specified that the women had to be “tall, slim, and pretty” and were instructed to wear black underwear to match the short skirts provided for the evening. Additionally, they were warned that the attendees might be a bit “uncomfortable.” With 130 hostesses and 360 guests, each woman was expected to “entertain” three men.

The women hired for the night were students, dancers, actresses, and models looking to make some money (£150 for working from 4 PM until midnight). Many have come forward to report that they were frightened, disgusted, and traumatized by the experience. They described being harassed in every way possible. Clearly, they were not expecting anything like this to happen: “I had never done this before and I will never do it again!” one of them said when interviewed by the Financial Times. “It’s f***ing scary.”

My take is that among the many things that went wrong that night, possibly the worst was the ambush these women faced. Think about it for a moment: You’re a young girl hired to attend to a group of older gentlemen, entertain them, maybe chat and smile at them, but when you arrive, you’re thrown to a pack of dogs trying to rip your clothes off. You’ve been completely duped!

Given the way the evening was arranged (only male guests, a high ratio of hostesses to guests, rivers of champagne flowing, etc.), the job these women were really recruited for wasn’t that of a hostess but that of an escort: For the organizers, “entertaining” at this dinner equated to flirting, seducing, and resisting the sexual advances of several men at once.

The role of an escort has recently been well-documented on Netflix, which has taken on the task of running a long list of movies, documentaries, and series about this profession, clearly knowing where public attention lies. We learn from these programs that it is a complex but well-established job, that there are women who dedicate themselves to it and that can charge up to £200 per hour. The horror of discovering that you’ve been hired to be an escort when you are merely a hostess is unimaginable.

And if you think about it, the organizers committed a monumental blunder, collecting £1.8 million in tickets but spending a mere £22,000 on the key part of the “entertainment.”

Just for a moment, let’s consider an alternative, hypothetical scenario: Suppose the organizers multiply the budget by five and hire 130 escorts, who are well aware of the nature of the event and are instructed to entertain the diners, smile at them, maybe flirt and seduce them. However, the job does not contemplate that they must yield to the sexual advances of the participants.

Since what we have now is a group of men immersed in alcohol and surrounded by women (women who at least pretend they are having a good time), it’s necessary to also have an appropriate security scheme, and we hire a group of, say, 20 “bouncers” who are ready to disrupt any sign of trouble.

The evening now proceeds without incident: the participants may behave the same way as they did the other night at the Presidents’ Dinner, but they face a group of women who know exactly what they are doing. Any of the men who tries to start a fight or oversteps with one of the escorts is quickly and discreetly invited to leave the premises. Many of the participants come and go to hotel rooms, and the auctions raise millions of pounds that will be used to help needy children.

And let’s say then that the journalists from the Financial Times go to this event, and report everything they have seen, but in this case, the story is not accompanied by complaints from the women.

Would we be equally outraged?

From what I can infer, for many people this would still be outrageous due to the degradation these women would have endured. However, in this version of the event, what we have is exactly what happens every night in any “Gentlemen’s Club” abundant in this city and any city around the world. And take note: There are no public funds involved. No violence. No abuse. Yes, we are indeed treating all those women like “expensive pieces of meat” – as Jon Stewart once said – but none report anything to the press, nor complain about what happened, nor seek anyone’s sympathy.

As a man, I must reflect on this event and be honest about what my reaction will be the next time I am faced with a similar situation. Here, I believe there are ethical considerations that need to be resolved and that should help guide everyone’s actions. But I won’t talk about that now.

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