If you get a kick out of exploring the heaving chasm between what people say and what they actually do, then the World Economic Forum, in Davos, is basically your Disneyland.
This, after all, is where the world’s most powerful figures gather together to insist that something must be done about climate change, before hopping into one of the thousand private jets parked out back and flying to one of their homes. It’s a conference that has the slogan “Committed to improving the state of the world,” but nevertheless invites Saudi princes, Russian oil executives, and Donald Trump.
And now, in a revelation that has stunned approximately no people whatsoever, it has become clear that Davos doesn’t exactly walk the walk when it comes to the treatment of women either. A joint investigation by The Times of London and Channel 4 this week revealed that—despite its grandstanding rhetoric about female equality—Davos is brimming with all manner of seamy debauchery.
It’s a conference that has the slogan “Committed to improving the state of the world,” but nevertheless invites Saudi princes, Russian oil executives, and Donald Trump.
For the duration of the forum, the investigation claimed, the tiny Swiss town is flooded with foreign sex workers. Somewhat incongruously, given Switzerland’s bland, nose-to-the-grindstone image, prostitution is legal there. Davos parties are spiked with beautiful Russian models in tight dresses who swan about with nebulously defined roles. An attendee was filmed entering bathroom cubicles with women for, as one onlooker described, “blow jobs.” A driver reported picking up a distressed woman who said she had been tricked into having sex with an attendee—a much older man who pre-paid her boss $20,000.
Perhaps most damningly of all, female attendees were warned by forum officials to travel in groups and avoid going out after dark, because “if something happens with some big C.E.O., who is going to be believed? You or them?” It’s such a widespread problem that a dedicated sexual-harassment help line was set up for attendees. It’s a worrying state of affairs, not least because it completely upends the theory that billionaires on unchecked trips abroad should be held up as untouchable paragons of moral virtue.
An attendee was filmed entering bathroom cubicles with women for, as one onlooker described, “blow jobs.”
You get the sense that this is less a groundbreaking investigation and more a slight amplification of an open secret. In the Channel 4 documentary, when the undercover reporter ducks into a bathroom to shake off an unwanted kiss by a male delegate, she finds herself counseled by a woman who is no stranger to the issue herself. “W.E.F. is the worst because they’re among their privileged friends,” the woman said. “Actually it’s safer here for them to be inappropriate than anywhere else in the world. They’re behaving more horribly than I’ve ever seen them behave, because it’s all off the record. They can do whatever they want.”
There is a large dollop of “Well, duh” to this investigation. A Sunday Times headline that read, at parties and events, men tried to get sex, basically describes every party ever held. The fact that all of this is now public will nevertheless damage the reputation of Davos. This is, after all, a gathering that permanently struggles against the assumption that it is a place for rich and powerful men to meet up and show off. The term “Davos Man” is pejorative for a reason.
“They’re behaving more horribly than I’ve ever seen them behave, because it’s all off the record. They can do whatever they want.”
The investigation is another sign that #MeToo is slowly heading for the world of business. Two years ago, the Presidents Club—a London charity that raised money for various “worthy causes”—was shut down after a similar investigation. The Financial Times revealed that the 130 hostesses hired for the charity’s annual dinner, given by children’s author David Walliams, were ordered to wear matching underwear, before being groped, fondled, flashed, and propositioned by diners.
One day after the Presidents Club investigation was published, the charity was shuttered. This won’t happen to Davos, of course—if nothing else, it would starve the world’s conspiracy theorists of about 80 percent of their material—but the least we can hope for is change. God knows it’s been a while coming.
Stuart Heritage is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL based in Kent, U.K.