Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Presidents Club is the tip of the iceberg

Samantha Rea in The Independent

The Financial Times has revealed that the Presidents Club Charity Dinner procured a harem of “tall, thin and pretty” hostesses for its exclusively male guest list. Wearing “skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels” the women were apparently groped, propositioned, and subjected to lewd comments. The report, which the FT has hailed as their “most read story”, has prompted apoplectic reactions in the media, the business world and on social media, where #PresidentsClub topped the trends on Twitter.

The event has been perceived as so scandalous that the money raised is now being rejected by charities. David Meller, Chair of the Presidents Club, has had to step down from the board of the Department for Education, and Children and Families Minister Nadhim Zahawi faces pressure to resign since it was revealed that he attended the dinner. Big businesses were quick to distance themselves from the event. The backlash has ultimately resulted in the disbandment of the Presidents Club.

All the outrage may well be justified – but I can’t help feeling that it’s disingenuous. Because the Presidents Club Charity Dinner is no different to a normal night in a lap dancing club. 

I’ve spent the last three months investigating the lap dancing industry, working undercover in eight different lap dancing clubs in London. Like the charity dinner, the attendees tend to be well-off men, and those working there are usually young women, many of whom are at university or supporting children, and often from poorer countries.

Hostesses at the dinner reported men repeatedly putting hands up their skirts and one said an attendee had exposed his penis to her during the evening. At the lap dancing clubs, I witnessed men grabbing women’s bums, breasts, and genitals while sitting there rubbing their erections through their trousers. I was on the receiving end of this myself.

For although the licensing laws forbid touching, the women’s financial instability meant the men were able to push the boundaries. Working on a self-employed basis and having paid the club a fee to work there, the women are effectively pitted against each other to compete for custom. Under pressure to earn money (and to make back the “house fee” which could be up to £85) straying hands were often tolerated in an effort to keep the customer. And in more than one club, I was shown the camera “blind spots” where licensing laws are flouted with impunity. 

The FT referred to the hostesses receiving “repeated requests to join diners in bedrooms elsewhere in the Dorchester”. In the lap dancing clubs, I was repeatedly propositioned by customers who asked me to join them in their hotel rooms. They were not ambiguous about what they wanted. One asked me specifically, “how much for a f***?” Another was willing to pay for VIP if it ended in a blow job.

VIP is where the money’s really made, with some clubs in central London charging upwards of £500 an hour for a customer to spend one-to-one time with a lap dancer in private. Typically, the women take home around two-thirds of this after the club take their cut. So if a customer spent several hours in VIP, it was possible for the woman to take home over £1,000. However, it wasn’t unusual for customers to make it clear that if they paid for VIP, they’d expect sex or a blow job at the end of it.

When I turned down a guy who wanted a blow job, he said he’d give VIP a miss – then he casually told his work mates he was leaving as he wanted to go and get “sucked off”. He was a Mayfair based lawyer in his 50s, out for his work Christmas drinks.

There were businessmen, sales directors and – creepily – a gynaecologist. In one club, a surgeon told me he’d heard about the place from guys at work. He’d finished a shift and wanted to relieve some stress. Another guy was a partner at one of the Big Four accounting firms, out entertaining a client.

How do I know who these men were and what they did for a living? Because when I wouldn’t give them my contact details, they’d insist on giving me theirs. I exchanged messages with the Big Four guy, via his work email address.

One of the lap dancing clubs that I investigated was actually linked to an event very similar to the Presidents Club Charity Dinner. The club paid lap dancers to work as hostesses at a men-only black tie charity boxing dinner at a central London hotel. The men – who paid £250 a ticket for ringside seats – were encouraged to follow on to the club, to join the lap dancers in VIP once their hostessing duties had ended.

MP Maria Miller has condemned the Presidents Club Charity Dinner, saying: “How seriously is business taking equality at work if they are still using men only events for entertainment?” She’s suggested that the event could be a catalyst for tightening equality law. This can only be a good thing. But I hope that the Presidents Club Charity Dinner isn’t made a scapegoat, only for similar events to continue slipping through the net, along with “normal” nights in lap dancing clubs, where the same sort of behaviour is re-enacted every day of the week, all over London.

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