DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have a bit of an ongoing issue with someone who I think is a ‘missing stair’. About a year and a half ago, I met this guy through a sports team I’m in and we became acquainted but not close. He had a reputation as a ‘gutter-punk’ type who’d steal your cigarettes or crash on your couch, but he seemed to have outgrown it by this point.
I became aware of some gigs he was co-organising being cancelled as accusations of sexual assault came to light. By the end of the next day, multiple women had mentioned having similar experiences with the guy. A friend and I in the sports team contacted our management who recommended he step back, but felt they couldn’t expel him as the accusations were accusations only.
A few months later, I started dating a person who is friends with this guy’s girlfriend. My girlfriend doesn’t trust him either, but feels that if he is abusive that it would be unfair to abandon her friend who may need support should it transpire this guy is the liar and (frankly) rapist that he’s reported to be. And I agree. I think this guy’s girlfriend has (at best) bought into his sketchy excuses or (at worst) can’t leave due to some kind of duress and might need people in her corner.
As a result, I’ve encountered this guy socially a few times. He’s aware I reported him and I’ve made him fully aware that I can’t ever trust him again and not to read me being civil as friendship, but he continues to try and brute-force his way back into my good graces. Some friends have had the confidence to tell him exactly how unwelcome he is (which has ended in physical altercations in some cases) but with me he seems to engineer situations where if I blew up at him, or even enforced firm boundaries, I’d be the one turning a ‘civil chat’ into drama and ruining evenings. It feels awful every time.
Every time my partner and I acknowledge him, we both feel awful and feel like we’re betraying other people we know who end up in tears or fits of rage when this guy shows his face. I feel like I’m enabling the missing stair, but can’t think of what to do that wouldn’t turn into a screaming match or worse, especially as his girlfriend, who is an otherwise pleasant person, is very defensive about the situation.
We’re not in any other contact and I’ve blocked him on social media, but short of leaving town, I don’t know what to do about this guy and feel like scum for every time he’s wheedled me into tolerating him. This guy’s needled me into hugging him before and the thought makes me wretch. My heart sinks when I hear his voice. What do you think, Doc?
Carpenter In Training
DEAR CARPENTER IN TRAINING: before I get to your question, let’s define some terms.
In 2012, sex blogger Cliff Pervocracy wrote a column called “The Missing Stair”, where he coined the phrase “the missing stair” as part of a metaphor to explain the phenomena of tolerating an abuser or harasser within one’s community, even though their behavior was generally well known. In the column, Cliff compared the malefactor to a known problem with a house – something that was unacceptable and dangerous, but allowed to continue – such as a staircase with no railing in a dark basement that happened to be missing a stair in the middle. While the staircase itself is a known danger, everyone in the house has become so used to its presence that they just remember to leap over that missing step whenever they have to take the stairs.
While this arrangement – as questionable as it may be – has been fine for the folks who live in the house, there are the occasional moments when they forget to warn visitors or newcomers about that missing stair. And then someone gets hurt.
In the column, Cliff refers to someone within his own community who was allowed to stick around despite being a known rapist; people would insist he was ok as long as folks made sure he had a chaperone… a “rape babysitter” if you will.
Take a second. Roll that particular phrase in your mouth. Let the horror of it wash over you. And then ask yourself whether there’s someone in your community who folks try to work around instead of, y’know, fixing the problem.
Now back to your question CiT. You’ve got yourself a bad case of a missing stair. Everyone around knows that there’s a missing stair. But there are folks who don’t want to actually deal with the missing stair. Maybe they think it’s too much hassle. Or it could be that they think the stair’s problem is one of ignorance. Maybe they think it’s not bad enough to warrant fixing. Perversely, there may be folks who LIKE that particular gap and feels like it just adds something to the house that offsets the risks. But the fact is that the stair is still f
king missing and people are getting hurt.
Case in point: the management of your sport team. The fact that they’re unwilling to do anything “because it’s just accusations” is a common response. Many people will fall back on the idea of “well we haven’t proved that this is a problem,” or “what about innocent until proven guilty”. Except there’s one slight problem with this idea: a community or social scene or sports team isn’t a court of law. You’re not putting him on trial in order to determine whether he’s going to jail or not, you’re trying to decide whether it’s a good idea to keep him around. And while it’s good to not just knee-jerk respond to every random accusation with maximum prejudice, there comes a point where people are actively saying that it’s better to keep someone around – someone who’s been credibly accused of some heinous s
t – then actually do anything about it. They’ve weighed the risks of not addressing the problem and decided that the consequences of doing nothing are acceptable.
And honestly, it’s worth noting that the underlying message of saying “well it’s just accusations” is “…so we think ALL those women are lying or exaggerating about this.” Something to keep in mind.
This doesn’t mean that the people who are refusing to act are pro-rapist/harasser/creeper. It could be that they’re the sort of people who fall victim to the idea that “causing drama” is somehow worse than actually addressing the source of the drama. Or they may feel that if they exclude the creeper from the group, it may have greater consequences than letting him stay. After all, if people just apply the correct work-arounds, then he’s not a problem, right?
But the reasons why they won’t address the problem don’t mitigate the fact that there IS a problem. A problem that is harassing, abusing or assaulting people within their community. And, for whatever reason, they’ve decided that they’re more comfortable dismissing the very valid concerns and accusations of the community as being less important than the current status quo.
And to be fair: the status-quo is a motherf
ker. The longer something has been the status-quo, the harder it is to convince people to change. There is a lot of pressure to not rock the boat, no matter how awful the boat may be. Anyone who decides to flout those social niceties is going to be seen as an unmitigated a
hole. Someone who’s making a scene and ruining an otherwise nice evening.
This is where you are, CiT. You’re feeling stuck in a position where you can’t act because you’re going to be the one who causes drama. Isn’t it easier to think of others and not make a scene and ruin the night for everyone?
That’s exactly what this dude is doing, and it’s not by accident. He’s leveraging those social fallacies against anyone who might actually hold him to account. The only way that’s going to change is if somebody gets a case of the F
k Its. F
k this, f
k that and f
k that guy in particular. Somebody needs to be The A
hole Who Said Something and it may as well be you because – as you’ve seen – nobody else is willing to step up.
So you need to muscle up and decide that being quiet in the name of Going Along To Get Along is un-goddamn-acceptable. It’s time to reach deep down, find your inner Drama-Causing-A
hole and let it rage forth like The Hulk. It’s time to get angry because in the words of a wise man, Angry Gets S
t Done. Yes, you’re going to cause a scene. Some scenes need to be made. You’re going to be uncivil. Civility is overrated when it comes at the expense of people’s health, safety and right to not be assaulted by somebody. You’ll ruin the night. Some nights need to be ruined.
You need to speak up, loudly and bluntly. No, he is not allowed to be part of your community. If he is allowed at a party that someone else has thrown, then ask the organizer why he’s there and make it very, unpleasantly clear that this is unacceptable and why. If he tries to engage you, tell him to f
k all the way off. Loudly. Make it clear that he is unwanted and unwelcome, no matter what “let’s be civil” bulls
t he pulls. If he tries to manipulate you into explaining or being reasonable, refuse, flatly and loudly. You have no reason to be reasonable. You are a blank, imposing wall that is unresponsive to appeals to decency, community or civility. If he tries to shake your hand, pointedly refuse. If he tries to pull you into a hug, push him away and loudly remind him that if he tries to put a hand on you, he’s pulling back a stump.
If other people ask you to be reasonable, ask them if they’re comfortable with somebody who’s been accused that many times, presumably by people they know and trust. Are they willing to call ALL those people liars or say that they’re mistaken or that it’s ok that they’re no longer comfortable around this guy?
I’m not going to lie: this can be an incredibly uncomfortable thing to do. It may be that you’ll simply be the first pebble that triggers the avalanche and more people will be willing to speak up now that somebody else went first. But you might also find yourself out there on your own. As disturbing as it may be, it’s still necessary. Do it anyway, because somebody needs to do the right thing. And while you may be the guy who’s Causing Drama and Making A Scene, at the very least, you’ll also be able to sleep at night knowing that you’re no longer willing to be dragged into being an unwilling accomplice and accessory to this guy.
And what about his girlfriend?
Well to be perfectly honest: there’s not much you can do. It sucks that this may blow back on her as well but, to be quite frank: her comfort doesn’t override what her boyfriend has done to other people.
Now this doesn’t mean that you need to isolate her as well. She very well may be a victim rather than an accomplice. You and your girlfriend can make it clear: she is welcome. She has your support if she needs it, especially if she decides to leave him. You can be in her corner – if and when she needs it –without enabling her boyfriend’s horrifying behavior. But right now? She’s just one more line of defense, another accessory in his malefactions.
You may not be able to fix this particular stair by yourself. But at the very least, you can make sure that everyone knows that it’s there and that the answer isn’t to just make sure to keep leaping over it – and blaming people for not jumping far or hard enough.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)