Time to call harassment “sexploitation”

by | Jan 29, 2018

Hiring women who risk exposure to sexual harassment is sexploitation

Hiring women into situations where they risk sexual harassment moves into the territory of sexploitation. It should be illegal.

In an era when almost every day brings about a news exposé concerning sexual harassment or sexual misconduct or simply sexism, it seemed there was not much left to shock. I was wrong. The scoop by the journalist Madison Marriage at the Financial Times focussed on the darker side of an annual up-scale charity event. It was the President's Ball which took place in London last week. It went that one step further. The outright sexploitation of a group of women hired specifically for the occasion.

 

The great and the good

A group of 360 very powerful and influential male business leaders came together for a men only fund-raiser. Prizes on auction included  lunch with Boris Johnson, tea with the Bank of England Governor, Range Rovers and opportunities to "Spice Up Your Wife" with plastic surgery prizes. Leading figures such as David Meller, a Director on the board of the Department for Education and Chair of the Apprenticeships Delivery Board, was in attendance. He stepped down shortly after the release of the article. Many well-known senior figures from all sectors of industry, politics and business were on the seating plan, although it is not known if they physically attended.

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Beyond harassment to sexploitation

But this event goes beyond the usual and horrific charges of sexual harassment. It goes into the territory of sexploitation. Approximately 130 hostesses were hired for the evening, via an agency called Artista, based on their appearance. They were asked to wear skimpy black dresses and matching underwear. Further to this, they were required to sign a five-page non-disclosure document, which they weren't given the opportunity to read. Told that some of the men could be "annoying" the reality was that:

"Hostesses reported men repeatedly putting hands up their skirts; one said an attendee had exposed his penis to her during the evening."

Annoying is not saying please and thank you, or spilling a drink on your best dress. Not grabbing your backside or other body parts and suggesting you take your "knickers off and dance on the table." That is offensive and assault.

It is one thing to experience random sexual harassment as part of a job or every day life. It is another thing altogether to be deliberately misled about the nature of an event and the sexual undertones and risks involved. This is outright sexploitation and the full force of the law should impact those involved.

Complicit enablers

Just as we saw in the Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar exposures, there was a cohort of complicit enablers feeding unsuspecting ignorant and ill-informed women and even girls into situations for which they were inadequately prepared. It is also time for there to be more specific action taken against third-party sexual harassment. In the U.K. these provisions have been removed from the Equality Act but need to be reinstated. That is: we need to also go after the enablers and bystanders.

In an era when less than 40% of men openly support gender balance and are responsible for 85% of all business decisions, they do these things because they can. This is why movements like #TimesUp are gaining momentum. It has to stop.

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