DOCTOR’S NOTE: Today’s column is by Cliff Jerrison of The Pervocracy.
In 2012, I wrote a blog post about the missing stair – a person who is widely known within a community to be dangerous, but is allowed to stay while everyone else works around them. Welcome to the club, we meet Thursdays, the bathroom’s down the hall, call Alice if you’re locked out, and if Bob invites you to his house you should say no because he’s kind of our resident date rapist.
It’s like living in a house with a missing stair, where the inhabitants have become so used to taking that one extra big step, they’ve forgotten it’s a problem at all.
But it is a problem, and sooner or later someone’s going to break an ankle. Not everyone gets the whisper warning, sometimes being forewarned isn’t enough to protect you, and even if Bob never touches you, it’s not exactly a welcoming vibe. A lot of women quietly withdraw from the community. A visible dividing line emerges between Bob apologists and the Bob-wary. Because of this one person, and the well-intentioned actions of the people who work around him rather than against him, the whole community is poisoned.
My experience with missing stairs has mostly been with men who sexually harass and abuse women, and that’s the context I’m writing this post in, but similar dynamics can emerge with other genders, with people who have explosive tempers, racists, financial scamsters, and so forth. The details are different but the pattern of a community silently reshaping itself around a half-open secret is the same.
So that’s the problem. Harris has asked me to write about the solution. This is where things get messy and uncertain. There’s no single formula for fixing communities stuck in this pattern, I haven’t always had success with it, and a lot depends on how much the people with the most influence in the community are willing to help. But here’s some things you can do besides entrust lives to the whisper network.
Solidify The Whispers
The first step when you suspect you’re in a missing stair situation is to gather the facts. Start writing down the things you see and hear–names, dates, locations, witnesses, specifics. Keep this documentation private. Women reporting sexual misconduct are often subject to retaliation, and it’s important that you don’t expose someone to that unless she has agreed to taking on the risk.
This is useful not only in case you need it for a disciplinary or legal process, but for your own understanding. Sometimes you have a “sense that something is off” but when you reflect and write down what gave you that sense, it turns out there are very concrete reasons for your discomfort.
In missing stair scenarios, it’s easy to feel alone when you start pushing back. Sure, you know other people are aware of the problem – their awareness is part of the problem! – but are they willing to take a stand, or are you going to be fighting alone? Trying to combat a missing stair alone is hard, especially if you’re new or a relative outsider in the group. And outsiders often are first to notice a problem, because the old-timers and core group can be frog-boiled into compromises they never intended to make.
So find one other person who’s willing to join you in taking action. Even if it’s just one. You don’t have to build an army. What you have to do for each other is the opposite of gaslighting–use each other’s perceptions to confirm that the problem is real and action is warranted. And when multiple people come forward at the same time, it’s harder for abusers to derail the conversation to be about the accuser’s credibility instead of their own behavior.
Some communities have well-established channels for dealing with accusations of abuse and harassment. If that’s the case, use them! Make a code-of-conduct complaint, message a moderator, whatever the process is. Even if you feel like you don’t have any proof to show, or the behavior that’s bothering you seems mild, at least do a “hey, just wanted to put this on your radar” with leadership. Often, they’re well aware of the missing stair but feel like they can’t do anything until they have a specific complaint to act on. You can give them that.
Breaking The Silence
In a smaller community, or one that doesn’t have any established process, you have to do the work more informally. First, figure out what outcome you and other people affected by the missing stair want. Do you need them gone altogether, or banned from certain activities, or is there restitution they need to make, or would a sincere apology and promise to change suffice? Are you interested in making Bob himself part of this process, or do you not believe he’s capable of doing that in good faith?
Then start having the conversation openly. Begin a group discussion about making the community a safer place. Lay out the problems Bob is causing and the outcome you’re asking for. Depending on your group and the exact nature of Bob’s behavior, this may require a lot of education and persuasion, or it may just be a giant relief that someone is finally saying something.
If people insist the current safeguards are enough, ask them to formalize that – would they be comfortable adding “and don’t make Bob angry” to an orientation packet, or making “Bob handler” a club officer position? No? How ‘bout that.
Make it clear, also, that the decision is not between “Bob leaves and there is a big fight about it” and “Bob stays and nothing happens,” because people walking on eggshells all the time, or being unable to participate in the community because of Bob’s presence, is not “nothing.” There is no way to resolve the situation that causes no harm at all to anyone. Bob made sure of that. Your goal is safety and justice, not peace and quiet.
The Nuclear Option
If other avenues have been unhelpful, and you’re braced for the backlash this entails, which can be considerable: Just put it out there. Fuck it. Right out in public. Twitter, Facebook, local news, anywhere you can be sure it’ll be seen. Write out the specific facts; ”Bob has repeatedly groped me” is more impactful than “Bob is a creep.” (Do not include other people’s accounts about this person without their explicit consent.)
This is a callout. A cancellation. It’s making a scene. It’s all the things everyone has been trying oh-so-hard to avoid. It’s also impossible to ignore. People have to react to something like this, and while some of the reactions will be deeply disappointing, there will be no more keeping it unspoken. If someone’s viewpoint is “I don’t believe women” or “but he’s my friend,” they’re going to have to say it out loud.
Some communities can emerge from the crisis stronger, developing an awareness that they didn’t have before, that abuse and harassment can happen here and “we’re all friends” is not a safety policy. Some communities do not survive. Either way, one thing’s certain; the abuser no longer has the privilege of operating in secret.
Not My Problem
Finally, let’s talk about what isn’t your responsibility. You are not responsible for helping an abuser mend their ways. This community isn’t their personal therapy team. If they want to get help and change their ways, that’s great; but they should do that work with someone who specializes in it, in a setting where they can’t do harm in the meantime.
You’re not responsible for making sure Bob has a support system. “But we’re his whole life, he has nowhere else to go!” Really, nowhere? Are you on a space station? Bob may experience pain and loneliness after losing his place in a community he enjoyed, it’s true. This is a consequence of his actions. Maybe he will learn from it.
You’re also not responsible for protecting everyone on Earth from Bob. If you can pass along the word to another community he’s joining, that’s good; but often you won’t be able to. And it’s not your job to track him down. Ultimately, you know who should have to warn people about Bob? Bob should.
The root causes of harassment and abuse in communities are systemic in society, and playing whack-a-mole with bad actors isn’t going to fix the world. But you can make your corner of it a little bit safer. And if enough corners of the world get safer at the same time, that begins to chip away at the system.
Cliff Jerrison has been blogging irregularly about sex, gender, kink, and ethics at The Pervocracy since 2007. He is a registered nurse and lives in Massachusetts, and is “pervocracy” on pretty much every social media site, primarily Twitter these days.