It’s been a good while since what most would call the height of the #MeToo phenomenon. At the end of 2017, Time declared the “Silence Breakers” — women, famous and not, who had spoken out against sexual predators in positions of power — its person(s) of the year. Some of the accused would tumble from disgrace into prison; others only lost their jobs and went into hiding; the president of the United States would go on to serve the rest of his term, never answering for a long, clear pattern of gross misconduct with women. These days, we are perhaps more occupied with the survival of democratic government than creeps and abusers in our midst.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. An interesting if unfortunate side effect of taking down big name perpetrators like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer is that the culture moved on as if that was closure enough; for every Jeffrey Toobin fired, many lesser-known men continue in their intolerable behavior. Instead of confronting them over the whispered rumors and allegations, we work around them, and each becomes the kind of “open secret” that all those notorious men had formerly been. Or, in another phrase, a “missing stair.”
In 2012, on his BDSM and kink blog The Pervocracy, registered nurse and writer Cliff Jerrison coined the phrase “missing stair” to refer to an individual recognized as a problem within in a community, but treated and managed as a feature of it. You just have to teach yourself to leap over that part of the staircase. The problem with this conflict-avoidant approach, Jerrison explained, is that not everyone lives in this particular house with the missing stair. The people familiar with it know how to avoid falling victim; the outsider does not. And they get hurt.
This extends beyond the issue of harassment and abuse — you can probably think of a few acquaintances, peers or colleagues from different times in your life who took advantage of your unwillingness to call out their troubling, unethical and immoral actions. If the man of towering status can put off consequences because subordinates fear to challenge him, the ordinary missing stair does so by relying on your civility and manners. We love to celebrate the whistleblowers who dared to speak the truth on supposedly untouchable giants. Yet it’s quite another thing to grapple with the responsibility of doing this within your social circle, likely without the support of a broad digital movement or reporting and accolades from the press.
I’m neither one for New Year’s resolutions nor confrontation. Even so, I want to keep the hazard of the missing stair in mind as we journey on through 2021. With Trump out of office and (one hopes) the pandemic coming under control, it will be tempting to return to business as usual, as all those insufferable tweets about going back to brunch warned us. Up to a point, it will always be more convenient to ignore the offender in your midst, as long as you aren’t a primary target for them. That’s one aspect of the privilege of being a straight white man: You are least at risk from the missing stair, and it takes the smallest effort for you to clear it. A subconscious habit, bordering on the oblivious. But others don’t have that luxury, and they notice how carelessly you enjoy it. I want to resist this role as part of a protective bubble of faked ignorance. It’s awful.
Last summer, Jerrison laid out a guide to dealing with your missing stair, and I recommend it. He advises that you suss out specific wrongdoing (as opposed to vague gossip), band together with allies in the effort, use official channels if you need to alert leadership, figure out a suitable remedy for the harm caused, and finally break the silence, publicly if necessary. It’s never going to be easy or comfortable, but letting the issue fester as a normalized fact of life is exactly what must end.
Of course a handful of high-profile cases was not enough to effect a sea change in how we believe and support each other when a bad actor inflicts their damage. The real test was always going to be in our individual lives, and it’s worth remembering this. Otherwise, another generation of missing stairs will go unaddressed, until they, too, seem like a fundamental element of the architecture we all inhabit.
Let’s step forward — not over the gap.