‘I was not there as an equal; I was there as a showpiece.’
The events at the Presidents Club charity auction were disgusting; but I am in no way surprised. This toxic culture is cultivated behind closed doors and it starts young, at university.
Recently the Dorchester Hotel hosted a collection of some of the most highly educated and privileged men in the country; more than 360 representing figures from British business, politics and finance and the entertainment.
The men at this occasion acted the way they did, under the assumption that they would be are protected by a shroud of money, power and secrecy.
The waitresses were there exclusively for the pleasure of men, be that serving their dinner or sitting on their laps. Made to sign disclosure agreements – to protect the status of its attendees – these women were reduced to pretty playthings, who could be touched and taunted. Sexual harassment was just part and parcel.
This approach to women is harboured in exclusive ‘men’s only’ clubs across the country and this toxic culture starts young.
These attitudes are not solely reserved for creepy older men with buckets of cash. In fact, FT journalist Sarah O’Connor (who accompanied Madison Marriage during the investigation) was most shocked by the range age of the men in attendance:
They weren’t all old. Many were my age or younger – millennial men. This stuff isn’t dying out.
— Sarah O’Connor (@sarahoconnor_) January 24, 2018
I witnessed it first hand at university. No other intuition can offer better insight than the infamous Pitt Club, Cambridge University’s Bullington Club equivalent.
I had just turned 19, a fresh faced fresher. I was eager to explore the seemingly magical allure of tradition and history that I had never been exposed to at my local all girls comprehensive.
In my second week, I received a handsomely embossed invite to the Pitt Club’s first ‘Secretaries Drinks’ of the year. I remember posting on Facebook ‘…what’s the Pitt Club?’.
I was quickly informed that it was a prestigious ‘men’s only’ members club and I had been selected to attend an exclusive cocktail party. ‘Erm why?’…because I had caught the eye of the committee. Basically I was ‘fit’ and enjoyed a drink or three.
It soon transpired, I was the only girl in my year at my college to receive an invite. I felt instantly alienated.
These parties were renowned for their swarms of public school boys, intoxicating ‘Pitt Juice’ punch and gossip worthy hook-ups in the unisex loos. But still, I should take this as a compliment, right? It’s just a bit of fun, right? I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, so I decided not to go.
A month later I received another invitation. Apparently, the secretary of the club had taken a shine to me and wanted me to attend a private dinner hosted at the club. I had never met or spoken to him before, so assumed he had only seen my profile picture.
Nonetheless, this spiked my curiosity. What is all the darn fuss about? So after being reassured by my friend’s older brother (who was also a member) that it would be a laugh, I agreed to go.
I was the only woman in attendance. The dress code was lounge suits for men and cocktail dresses and heels for the ladies. There was a butler; towering mahogany bookshelves and wine, lots of wine.
The conversation was amicable but the dynamic was profoundly off. These men were maybe two or three years my senior, yet the difference was clear. I was not there as an equal; I was there as a showpiece.
Dinner was called and I was sat next to the secretary, whose family had a fancy title and family crest. I was promptly asked out on a date. But given the circumstance, this did not feel like a gesture of romance; it felt like an assertion of dominance.
I declined politely and decided not to attend any parties in the foreseeable future. For the rest of the year, each term I was sent a fresh invite. I was on the hit list of girls; there was no escape.
Thankfully, in my second year the invitations stopped – I’d had a boyfriend for over a year now and thus the chances of them sleeping with me had diminished.
(In my third, I did attend two further gatherings at the club, this time I was a few years wiser and accompanied by a number of friends, both boys and girls. The party was fine. The private dinner was not. But that’s another story).
Evidently organisations like The Pitt Club normalise the patriarchy. I wasn’t groped, but a clear hierarchical power structure was established; one which could be nurtured into the grotesque behaviour exhibited at the Presidents Club.
At the time, the ‘men’ who attended these gatherings were essentially glorified teenagers; living off mummy and daddy, playing polo on the weekends, turning up to lectures hungover. Institutions like this are catalysts for the Harvey Weinstein’s of the future.
In that dining room I sat next to potential leaders in business, politics and the entertainment; in a setting that categorically treated women as lesser, all behind a mask of sophistication and prestige. Sounds ominously similar, no?
Since I graduated in 2014, The Pitt Club has opened its doors to female members. Thus, my account cannot shed light on what it is like today (though I doubt it has an access scheme in place).
Nonetheless, this serves as an example of an elitist environment where entitlement and hostility towards women was actively encouraged.
So what’s next? We need to ensure that these behaviours are not continued. Anything this putrid must be stopped. Organisations like the ‘Presidents Club’ must be exposed and the momentum of the #metoo and #timesup movements must not be stifled.
In the meantime, I can only echo the words of others fighting for equality ‘This is only the beginning’.
This opinion piece is part of The London Students’ campaign on behalf of Revolt Sexual Assault