The downfall of Harvey Weinstein shed a spotlight on an ugly part of the entertainment industry that had been tolerated for too long. While numerous other celebrities, politicians and other public figures have since been called out for sexual misconduct, it’s no secret that progress in more low-profile sectors is moving at a slower pace. But it’s time for people everywhere to start speaking up, and a large part of this comes from acknowledging the “missing stairs” of society. But if you don’t know what this means yet, you’re not alone.
In a nutshell, a “missing stair” refers to sexual offenders and harassers who are casually tolerated by their communities. The term was actually coined less than 10 years ago in 2012, by blogger Cliff Pervocracy. In a post about the BDSM community, Pervocracy wrote the following about a man who was known to be regular sexual predator and rapist:
“People had gotten so used to working around this guy, to accommodating his “special requirements,” that they didn’t feel like there was an urgent problem in their community… I think there were some people in the community who were intentionally protecting him, but there were more who were de facto protecting him by treating him like a missing stair. Like something you’re so used to working around, you never stop to ask ‘what if we actually fixed this?'”
Since then, a growing amount of people have started using the term to describe known offenders across a variety of industries. And while the #MeToo movement has resulted in numerous offenders being outed, the details of most cases show that we as a society still have a very far way to go until the problem ceases to exist (if that ever happens). Since early 2017 alone, well over 200 people in powerful media, pop culture, business and political positions have been accused of having committed sexual misconduct either in more recent years or during earlier stages of their careers. Though many careers, like those of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, have been forever tarnished, many others have yet to face any real repercussions for their actions. They are missing stairs.
President Donald Trump himself could be described as perhaps the most recognizable missing stair today. The man was accused of sexual misconduct by at least 17 women by late 2016, yet went on to become president anyway. He continues to be tolerated by members of his own political party and others. Though the allegations against him have been renewed, so far no standing legal action has resulted.
But as frustrating as it can be to watch the missing stairs among the rich famous continue to be just that, many people seem all too willing to continue ignoring the problem on a smaller scale; one that hits closer to home. It’s rare that a workplace, in any line of business, does not have a person that acts inappropriately towards others on a regular basis yet is not reprimanded. Instead, the average person continues to work around them and do their best to ignore such behavior.
While it’s easy to criticize those who don’t speak out, however, it’s also easy to understand why they do not. A late 2017 assessment by The New York Times found that complaints of sexual harassment filed with HR departments all too often do not yield results. Likewise, a study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that 75 percent of women who are victims of sexual assault in the workplace do not report it out of fear of suffering greater consequences than anything that might come to the perpetrator. After all, it’s painfully common knowledge by now that HR departments exist largely to help protect the company as a whole rather than individual employees.
Still, it’s not too late for things to change. And if the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that the allegations and voices speaking out will not stop anytime soon. Culture change is never an easy feat, but it starts with people altering the way they look at sexual offenders and harassers, the missing stairs around them. Instead of saying things like, “Watch out for Bob. He likes to creep on the younger women around here,” the conversation could be changed to, “If Bob or anyone else ever makes you feel uncomfortable, please tell us about it so we can deal with it right away.” That said, if Bob is indeed a missing stair, it’s past time for HR to look into firing him.