WE THOUGHT THAT the fall of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood would be a turning point. When the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein exploded into public view, there was a feeling among many that this was it: this was the moment when the embodiment of cultural sexism, casual and aggressive, had been brought to justice, and that now, men in powerful positions would realise that they could not simply treat women however they wanted to anymore.
But we were wrong. With the Weinstein story still not concluded, a secretive, men-only event in London was organised and attended by powerful people from the worlds of business, finance, politics, and showbiz. An FT investigation found that hostesses, told to wear revealing outfits and put on show at the dinner, were groped, sexually harassed and propositioned. And as if to show their complete contempt for Time’s Up, #MeToo, and everyone else trying to use the Weinstein scandal to introduce greater gender equality in Western society, the auctioneer Jonny Gould, one of the event’s hosts, took to the stage and announced, ‘Welcome to the most un-PC event of the year.’
The Presidents Club Charity Dinner’s official purpose was to raise money for causes such as Great Ormond Street Hospital. As The New York Times reported, the fundraising was ‘just a fig leaf … this was a bonding and networking experience, bringing men together to exult in male dominance and sexual power.’ Weinstein’s fall from grace was not the culmination of anything, nor the final nail in Western misogyny’s coffin, to be hammered in by #MeToo and others in the months following.
But it does illustrate other things, among them the fact that vocal commitment to gender equality is not the same as real commitment. Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, was completely untroubled by his attendance at the event in 2004. It was reminiscent of the men who attended the Golden Globes wearing black––among them, Aziz Ansari, who was later accused of sexual assault––in solidarity with women, only to leave it to the women to speak out against sexism alone. Secondly, that men, especially those in powerful positions, aren’t doing enough. Despite the attendance at the Club of 360 rich men, all of whom have the clout to make a real difference, no one spoke up. It took a (female) undercover reporter from the Financial Times to sound the alarm. But thirdly, and maybe most depressingly, we have a long, long way to go. Grand speeches by Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities might inspire us and make headlines, but unless there are active attempts to make change on the ground, as it were, they’re meaningless. And as Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo campaign, has said, ‘for every Harvey Weinstein, there’s a hundred more men in the neighbourhood who are doing the exact same thing.’
‘How much more shock do we have the energy to articulate?’ Amelia Gentleman wrote in The Guardian last week. Her feeling is understandable. After months of work in the wake of Weinstein, the Presidents Club scandal emerges, and it might just be a ‘new low in everyday sexism,’ according to Gentleman’s paper. Meanwhile The New York Times points out that in Britain––and indeed in the West––‘public morality is not synonymous with private conviction.’ If fatigue prevents us from collectively speaking up and speaking out, then complacency will soon set in––and nothing will change.