A Rant About Sexism – of Both Kinds



I wish my readers a belated Happy New Year! I have some happy things to report, which I shall do in another blog (soon!), but right now I need to let off steam so my blood stops boiling. I’m sick of sexist abuse of women by men. And of sexist abuse of men by women.

A few evenings ago, the Presidents Club held its annual charity fundraising event in the Dorchester Hotel, London. The guests – invited to (and willing to) donate generously to good causes – were all male and all rich. More than a hundred hostesses were recruited by the Artista Agency for the evening, allegedly for payments of £150-£200. It seems that the criteria for employment for these young women were that they should be tall, slim and pretty and wear short black dresses and black underwear and high-heeled shoes.

There are incontrovertible reports that some of the women were groped and sexually harassed during the evening. Because of those reports, the Presidents Club has been disbanded, the Charity Commission is launching an urgent inquiry, individual charities (including the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, which has benefited from the £20 million raised by the organisation over more than 30 years) have stated their intention of returning the money they’ve received, and several prominent figures who attended the event have been censured. Lord Mendelsohn has effectively been sacked from his frontbench role as shadow business and international trade spokesman. Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi has been publicly reprimanded by Downing Street and there have been calls for his resignation. Professor George Holmes, vice-chancellor of the University of Bolton, has been subjected to acrimonious criticism. All three of those men said they saw nothing untoward in the Dorchester, though Mr Zahawi and Professor Holmes felt uncomfortable about the juxtaposition of middle-aged men and pretty young women, and left early after they’d fulfilled their charitable duties.

No one would argue that if even one of the hostesses was subjected to harassment, groping or other inappropriate behaviour, the act was inexcusable and action should be taken against the offender. Also, the idea of an all-male charity fundraising event seems obsolescent. But as I followed this item in the news, the phrase “hysterical over-reaction” sprang to my mind. I have a number of questions.

1.      Are we to believe that all the men at the event behaved inappropriately towards all the women? That is inconceivable. More than likely, only a minority of the guests were offensive. Of course any offender is one too many, but should men who honestly went along to donate to charity and had no intention of harassing young women face opprobrium because of the behaviour of others?

2.      If the decently-behaved men at the event witnessed misbehaviour, why didn’t they intervene? When my friends and colleagues and I saw another man (usually drunk) causing distress to a woman at a party or other social event we invited him to stop, and if he didn’t stop we invited him to step outside so we could explain the error of his ways to him. Were the good apples in the Dorchester barrel blind to what’s alleged to have happened?

3.      Whoever specified the dress code to the women, presumably the Artista Agency, has questions to answer. If you ensure that women are deliberately sexualised and then fail to foresee or to care about the likely consequences, you’re not fit to hold any position of responsibility.

4.      It’s reported that some of the hostesses were escorts – prostitutes, to be less euphemistic – so they’d have had a professional expectation of being invited to men’s bedrooms and probably being groped beforehand. The others, who it seems included students and other young women in need of income supplements, should surely have heard mental alarm bells when they were told to dress in a way that plainly sexualised them and then to act as hostesses for a group of rich males. It’s not easy for me to think myself into the position of one of those women, but I believe I’d have had second thoughts about accepting the gig.

Further to this point: if a subset of the male guests had known in advance that there were prostitutes among the hostesses and had anticipated doing business with them, didn’t they think about the incompatibility between their intentions to donate to charity and engage in paid sex – at the same event? What is the Artista Agency’s take on this? Does it help to explain why men among that lamentable subset asked some of the hostesses whether they were prostitutes, and then – inexcusably – behaved as though they were?

5.      What can justify the plan by the charities to return the money they’ve been given? It’s one thing to refuse “dirty money”, the proceeds of crime, but that caveat doesn’t apply to the present case. The money hasn’t come from crime but from the generosity of rich men, even if some of them misbehaved during the evening. The Great Ormond Street Charity looks after sick children. What is the moral justification for ill-considered political correctness at the expense of sick children?

6.      The comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, who was also present at the event (and like the aforementioned guests says he witnessed nothing untoward), has protested about the antipathy to men that seems to have underpinned the hysterical over-reaction to the Presidents Club evening and has advised the critics to examine hen parties if they want to see bad behaviour. I don’t entirely concur with Mr Tarbuck’s point because, as the proverb has it, two wrongs don’t make a right; but no one could argue about the disgraceful behaviour of some women at hen parties (some, not all; I’m not going to fall into the trap of over-generalisation, having complained about it earlier in this blog!). Any man who’s been on the receiving end of harassment by women will know what I mean. It’s wrong for men to commit acts of harassment and to treat women or other men as objects. It’s equally wrong for women to do so. Equality, to state what should be obvious, cuts both ways.

Ever since the scandalous history of sexual abuse in Hollywood and elsewhere was exposed – and let’s all be grateful for the exposure, belated though it be – there’s been a tide of anti-male hysteria. Only last week, Philip Neville, who had just been appointed manager of the England women’s football team, was severely criticised because of a couple of light-hearted sexist comments he wrote on Twitter a number of years ago. The comments in question were silly jokes. Anyone who found them offensive needs to examine his or her sense of humour. However, Mr Neville found it necessary to apologise and delete the comments. After his apology, it became apparent that several people who’d been invited to take the England women’s manager post had refused because they knew that if they accepted their entire history would be picked over and the slightest hint of sexism at any moment in their past would make them a target for vitriol.

For Heaven’s sake, let’s all count up to ten and try to recover our common sense. Condemnation and prevention of harassment – by either men or women – is one thing. Witch-hunting is another. Silly jokes are not the same as sexist insults. Romantic pursuit is not the same as sexual predation. It’s time certain people, both male and female, learned to tell the difference.

5 Comments

  • “Hysterical over reaction” seems to sum it up. And the really sucky part of that is, when truly offensive behavior occurs, we’re less likely to pay attention because of so many who have “cried wolf”.

    • Mark Henderson

      Yes, indeed, that’s the danger. Or one of the dangers. We also have to be aware that romantic pursuit can segue into predatory harassment… which isn’t likely to cut much ice if too many have already, as you aptly phrase it, cried wolf.

  • I’m in very close agreement with the sentiments you express, Mark. Sexual predation should not happen and mustn’t be tolerated, but it is beginning to resemble hysteria and a witch hunt when the slightest silly joke amounting to friendly banter is viewed with puritanical wrath.

    • Mark Henderson

      Thanks, Phil. I fear that (anti)social media have a lot to answer for in fostering hysterical over-reaction and marginalising common sense and rational debate. The same forces are at work in promoting extreme politics – the so-called jihadists and the rising tide of far-right idiocy – and they need to be brought under control.

  • Mark Henderson

    Thanks, Phil. I’m afraid that (anti)social media have a lot to answer for in this context – yet again. They’re almost designed to promote hysterical over-reaction and witch-hunting and to marginalise common sense and rational discussion.

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