Lizzie Vazquez and Sarah Taylor discuss the recent revelations from the Presidents Club fundraising event, which have lifted the lid on the scandal and harassment perpetrated by the rich and powerful.
On 18th January, the Presidents Club held a charity auction dinner at the Dorchester Hotel to raise money for organisations like the Great Ormond Street children’s hospital. The event has been running for 33 years, raising a total of £2 million this year.
But this was no ordinary charity event. For starters, the guests were exclusively male, drawn entirely from society’s elite and wealthy. The auction itself, meanwhile, offered a glimpse of the sleaze that was to come later that evening. Questionable lots included “a night at Soho’s Windmill strip club” and a course of plastic surgery, inviting bidders to “add spice to your wife”.
The main scandal to hit the headlines was the accounts of undercover journalists at the event, employed as part of a team of 130 female hostesses. Those chosen by the organisers had to fit the specification of being “tall, thin and pretty”. They were told to wear “skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels”, designed to promote the staff as as sex objects. And they were encouraged to drink throughout the night – something unheard of in any normal hospitality job.
The hostesses were subjected to a night of harassment from the rich diners. They were forced to hold hands with moneyed guests, pulled onto men’s laps, with groping fingers placed up their skirts. The staffing agency, Artista, had an enforcement team to make sure the women were interacting with the affluent guests.
This harassment continued into the afterparty, where the hostesses were encouraged to drink even more. One high-profile guest told a hostess that she looked “far too sober”, whilst filling her glass with champagne. According to reports, “he grabbed her by the waist, pulled her in against his stomach and declared: ‘I want you to down that glass, rip off your knickers and dance on that table.’”
Exploitation and oppression
Although not always as explicit as this, occurrence of harassment in exploitative service jobs is commonplace for many women. I have my own experience working in hospitality for hotels such as the Dorchester. The dress code for female waiters is a pencil skirt, 15 denier tights, and a heeled shoe. Men, however, wore comfortable trousers and a flat shoe.
If it was a ‘special’ event, we were told to wear make-up and shave our legs. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong in a woman choosing to do such things voluntarily, in a work environment practicality should rank as the highest concern for staff uniform. Such demands are therefore clearly unacceptable.
We worked shifts up to seven hours. Despite our feet aching from wearing heels, profiteering employers expected us to run at the same efficiency as our male colleagues. This demonstrates a callous lack of concern for workers, with sex-appeal placed above comfort.
Whilst working at the Dorchester in one of their restaurants, I was harassed by another permanent staff member and was made to feel like I couldn’t speak up about it. When I told my agency, they reported it to the hotel but no action was taken. This was not an isolation act. Stories like this are never-ending for myself and other working women.
The Paradise Club scandal comes at a time when sexual assault and harassment allegations are constantly being uncovered within the Establishment. From Trump to Weinstein, the traumatic experiences of ordinary women no longer come as a shock.
Whilst these experiences are now being openly spoken about in the media, the careers of powerful and wealthy abusers have hardly taken a hit. A few heads might roll; a scapegoat or two will occasionally be found; and a couple of leading figures might fall on their swords. But the overall system of oppression and exploitation remains. Capitalist society clearly prizes the lives of these rich men over those of the women they’ve abused.
Socialism and liberation
We must ask why this occurs and what can be done. Ultimately it is the profit-driven system of capitalism that is responsible. Capitalism strips away our humanity and tells us that we are only worth the labour we can provide.
The existence of private property, meanwhile, is ultimately the source of patriarchal relations and women’s oppression. It creates the bourgeois (nuclear) family structure, and tells women that our primary role is in the home. The burden of domestic work – of raising a family, maintaining the household, and providing the next generation of workers to exploit – falls on the shoulders of working class women. We say this should be the collective responsibility of society as a whole, through the provision of free childcare, public canteens, etc.
What capitalism produces is a society where women are seen as being both sex objects and domestic labourers. This can be seen clearly at the elite charity dinner in question. The purchasing of women’s labour for sexual entertainment is the inevitable by-product of an economy structured around the buying and selling of people’s labour power in general. The ruling classes, such as the men at the Presidents Club charity dinner, expect that labour – of any kind – is something they can buy and exploit.
We are seeing, time and time again, that capitalism cannot provide the reforms that are necessary. This is particularly the case in terms of the demands of women for equality and dignity.
Stripping workers of their humanity and treating them as objects is a problem ingrained within capitalism. Without a complete overhaul of society, we cannot put an end to the monstrous treatment that ordinary women are subjected to. This is why the fight for women’s liberation must be a fight for socialist revolution.