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The Missing Stair Theory and Gender-Based Violence



A traffic cone turned on its side

The missing stair theory is a dynamic that many people are familiar with: a person in their social group or at work causes a lot of problems. Instead of addressing the issue, other people warn newcomers of that difficult person and everyone works around them. That person is the “missing stair.”

 

This phrase was first used by a blogger to describe a man that everyone in his social circle knew to be a rapist. He wrote that the man was being treated like a missing stair – that everyone was so used to going around the stair that no one thought to fix the problem. This predatory man became a fact of life, and anyone hurt by him was blamed for not avoiding him.  

 

The missing stair theory is often used to describe sexually predatory behavior. For example, a group of friends might know that one of their buddies often coerces intoxicated women into sex whenever they go out drinking. They might warn their female friends to not drink too much or to stay away from that guy – but they don’t confront him directly or otherwise take action.

 

Recent news stories about British comedian and actor Russell Brand are another example of the missing stair theory.  According to reports, Brand was widely known as a predator in entertainment circles for years. People would warn each other about his behavior – but until recently, few spoke out against Brand or tried to hold him accountable for his alleged actions.


The missing stair theory can also be applied to other forms of gender-based violence – such as domestic abuse. Many families have a person that they tip toe around for fear of setting them off or sending them into a rage. Rather than addressing the issue in some way, the family adapts to try to avoid making that person mad. 

 

This is the core of the missing stair theory: when everyone knows that there is a problem, but instead of fixing it, they tell everyone to just avoid that step. This puts the responsibility for not getting hurt onto others – and often results in victim-blaming. In the example about the predatory man above, this might look the friend group like blaming a woman for not listening to them instead of holding their buddy accountable.

 

How We Can Fix the Missing Stair

At its heart, the missing stair theory urges us to take action to fix a problem instead of just warning everyone about how to avoid it.  Thinking about gender-based violence in this way – as the proverbial “missing stair” – can help us find the strength to address it.

 

It is important to acknowledge that for victims and survivors, confronting an abuser directly is not always the best or safest option. In addition, Blackburn Center uses a trauma-informed approach, where victims and survivors have the agency to decide how they want to move forward in order to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

 

However, other people can and should think about the ways that they can deal with the “missing stair.” Confronting the matter directly (when it is safe to do so) is a great way to be an ally. This could look like:

 

  • Calling out a co-worker or friend who tells inappropriate, offensive jokes;

  • Telling a friend that their sexual behavior towards others is unacceptable; or

  • Ending a friendship with a person who abuses other people.

 

We don’t have to just step around a missing or broken stair.  It also isn’t our fault if we get hurt by a broken stair. Together, we can take steps to fix it – and to heal.

 

At Blackburn Center, we are strong proponents of primary prevention, which involves addressing the root causes of gender-based violence. By talking about broken stairs – instead of avoiding them – we  can take steps to end gender-based violence in our community.

 

As always, we are here for you if you need help. Call anytime at 1-888-832-2272 to talk to a counselor. Calls to our hotline are always free of charge and can be anonymous.

 

 

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