If the title doesn’t fully get it across, content warnings for violence, transmisogyny, and general “here there be assholes, ye navigate around them by naming what they do” vibes.
I (they/them) am in a relationship with a lovely transfeminine musician & organizer (she/her) who holds a lot of space for very traumatized people, sometimes to her detriment. She has a friend/professional connection, who I shall call Garment (they/them).
I have met Garment twice and they have been nothing but pleasant to me but their reputation precedes them. They are transmisogynistic, they are an alcoholic and very mean when drunk, they have a dark past that they tell people about in great detail on first introduction, and my girlfriend has a permanent scar from where they bit her when she was trying to prevent them from driving drunk. Apparently they made up over the biting incident, but I still don’t trust Garment (and Garment knows I hate them).
The other night I was spending time at my girlfriend’s with a mutual friend of ours, one I’ve known since before we both transitioned (let’s call her Cindy, she/her). Garment came over to visit and Cindy agreed to stay at theirs later that night. While Garment was out my girlfriend and I warned Cindy extensively of Garment’s past behavior. Cindy stayed over anyway and Garment got drunk, put on a movie about a man cannibalizing women and getting his penis bitten off for it, and said that Cindy only found it off-putting because she’s “not AFAB.” After that they talked about their harrowing history of experiencing sexual violence from men, and complained that my girlfriend lords the biting incident over them but really they could have bitten her much harder.
Cindy feels horrible and unstable, my girlfriend feels guilty and doesn’t know what to do (I’ve suggested “enact social consequences for this kind of shit” but easier said than done obviously), and I’m trying to curb my judgment at both of them since this is fundamentally Garment’s fault and my girlfriend is just as much a victim of their behavior. I have no role here but for the fact that I only know them for gleefully mistreating people I care about. Are we doomed to deal with this violent freak forever? Can they be chased away or is my girlfriend doomed to have to constantly warn people of their nonsense?
Norm L. Person
Dear Norm. L.,
Thanks for your letter. You’re bang on about social consequences being one of the only ways to successfully deal with the Garments of the world. And there are lots of ways to enact and enforce those.
Before I just start singing “There Must Be 50 Ways To Ban Your Biter,” let’s review some terms so everybody reading knows what we’re talking about. The Missing Stair™ as first described by Cliff at The Pervocracy, is a regular in a social circle (kink scene, subculture, friend group, workplace, creative community, activist space, or what have you) who presents a safety hazard due to a history of sketchy behavior, poor boundaries, consent violations, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse, and other kinds of toxic behavior. Unlike Schrödinger’s Jackass (a newcomer who may or may not turn out to be a jerk upon further acquaintance), longtime group members and event organizers in the scene know that the Missing Stair is bad news, but instead of kicking them out, they try to put safeguards around the problem person, like warning newcomers to move around the gaping hole in the staircase instead of through it.
Back to your letter. If I’m understanding events correctly, Cindy is a long-time friend of both you and your girlfriend, but she didn’t know Garment or had not spent significant time with them until everybody met up at your girlfriend’s house the other day. For reasons I cannot currently account for, Cindy planned to stay overnight at Garment’s place, so you and your girlfriend dutifully unfurled the scroll of “Reasons Why Garment Sucks And Should Not Be Trusted,” but Cindy was undeterred.
From there, events unfolded suckily, as advertised. Garment, who sometimes gets so drunk that they bite people, invited Cindy over, got a similar amount of drunk, forced her to watch a film about graphic sexual violence and people who bite people, monologued extensively about sexual violence and biting people. And who’s “lording” what now? “By the way, the last time I bit someone in real life, I really could have done it much harder.” That’s allllllll on Garment, from where I sit.
Then, after hours of drunk rape history and and drunk remembrance of bites past, Garment blamed their guest’s dismay on…:checks notes:…some bold, inappropriate, and frankly downright TERF-y assumptions about whatever the person who filled out Cindy’s birth certificate glimpsed inside her very first diaper. Sounds fun, and not at all aggressive, ominous, or deliberately threatening!
While I still have many, many, many questions about whose idea was it for Cindy to stay at Garment’s place, you mentioned both doom and social consequences, and it’s probably time to talk about what some of those might look like.
First, Cindy has a very interesting choice right now. She was warned about how much Garment sucks, and after the full Chez Garment experience, she knows firsthand, no Schrödinger about it. So what to do?
If Cindy chooses to shrug off the other night, minimize her own discomfort, and keep subjecting herself to an unkind, uncool, unfunny, unsafe person she dislikes in order to smooth things over for your girlfriend’s sake, then “doom” looks like someday when Cindy’s the one researching “vitamin E or silicone adhesives for bite marks (human)” and unfurling Garment’s Scroll of Warning, Now With Even More Warning for the next shiny new cool person. Doom is when all of you put another layer of metaphorical gaff tape down where the stairs have splintered under the weight of normalizing Garment’s behavior, and hope the next person doesn’t fall in.
But that’s not the only option! If Cindy decides, nope, never doing that again, she could message Garment and say, “You were so kind to put me up the other night, but I don’t think we’re compatible as friends and I’d prefer not to stay in touch in the future,” and then block every single number, email, and social media profile, and never look back. The social consequence is, people don’t like assholes and might not hang out with you more than once if they think you are one. If Garment gets upset, that’s not Cindy’s problem. Sometimes you meet people who just don’t like you and there’s no pretending that they do, oh well! Not everyone is meant to be friends!
Boundaries work best when direct, specific requests are backed up by consistent actions (consequences) when and if those limits are not respected.
A boundary: “Hi, Norm L. and Girlfriend! I’ve already told Garment that I don’t think we should be friends, so I figure I’d tell you as well. I loved catching up with you both, and I’d love to do it again sometime, but not if Garment will also be there, so let’s make plans for just us from now on.”
Some consequences: Decline invitations that also include Garment or take place in environments where Garment is likely to be. Do not explain or negotiate, just automatically RSVP “Another time, perhaps!” and follow up later to plan something else.
Sometimes gentle reminders are necessary. “That sounds great, but you said ‘a couple of people’ are getting together, so I just want to double-check. Is Garment also invited? Oh, in that case, count me out. Uh-huh, I know you care about them, and I hope they have in fact ‘changed a lot,’ but one evening in their company was more than enough for me, and that’s going to be a ‘forever’ rule I’m afraid.”
Make an action plan in case a hangout is already underway and Garment shows up unexpectedly, which doesn’t have to be a big confrontation or scene.“Oh hello, Garment, you’re looking well.” Politely get up, go the restroom, wait 5 minutes in case it really is a quick errand. If, upon departing the bathroom, Garment’s ass is touching furniture, or their hand is holding a beverage? “Oh, hey, I was just about to get on the road, so I’ll leave you all to it. Have a great night!” Then leave. Don’t explain or negotiate. Everybody knows exactly why. “I had a lovely time, thanks, but it’s time for me to go.”
Once Cindy’s boundary is set at “I don’t spend time with Garment, period,” there’s no need to argue or convince anybody of anything. She’s in control of the situation and can absent herself anytime.
If your lovely girlfriend keeps trying to force the issue, Cindy may need to reconsider how much she wants to stick around in a friendship where tolerating Garment is the price of admission, or where she can’t trust your girlfriend’s word that Garment won’t be there. Your girlfriend undoubtedly has her reasons for wanting to keep Garment in her life. She also has many options for maintaining bilateral, non-Garment relationships with others, same as for her non-asshole friends, since not everyone is destined to hit it off with everybody else. Does your girlfriend want to risk the social consequences of seeing Cindy less or damaging their friendship?
Your girlfriend feels guilty after the other night because on some level she knows that if she routinely inflicts somebody who requires a software license worth of caveats on innocent people, and those people hit “Dismiss” or “I decline,” and she keeps suggesting updates anyway, something’s bound to crash.
So if there’s a doom here, it’s this: You asked if Garment “can be chased away.” And the answer is, no, not until somebody starts chasing. As long as your girlfriend includes Garment in the spaces she inhabits without setting limits or visiting consequences for bad behavior, Garment will stick to her like gum on the bottom of a shoe. To avoid this doom, your girlfriend can set boundaries:
- “Garment, you can drink if you want to, but not at my house, and not around me. Go home.” “Garment, you’re not invited, today I made plans with other friends. I’ll see you later.”
- “Garment, sure, we’ll watch the move you brought, but if we get 15 minutes in and nobody’s enjoying it, we’re watching something else.” [This script brought to you by an awful ex who loved to “surprise” me with “challenging” “material” like Phantom of the Paradise, Re-animator, and many other things that really, really, REALLY require informed, ongoing, and yes, enthusiastic consent before infliction, and then arguing with me for hours when I didn’t love it. He and Garment would hit it off, is what I’m saying.]
- “Garment, hahahaha nice offer, but no. After last time, I’m not sending anyone home with you. [New Friend], you’re sleeping on our sofa.”
- “Garment, let me interrupt you. Now is not the time or place for that story, and you really need to check and make sure people consent before you share graphic or personal stuff.”
And she can enforce them with consequences: If Garment can’t be trusted to take no for an answer or behave, then Garment will be sent packing or not invited in the first place. Garment has choices, and if they want to maintain a friendship with your girlfriend, they can either follow some simple rules or GTFO!
My dear Norm L., I realize that I just typed out a lot of advice for Cindy, who didn’t write to me, and for your girlfriend, who also didn’t write to me, so what about you? I promise I didn’t forget you, I just thought it might be easier for you to ingest all my advice for you if you read it all as advice to Cindy first. Cindy doesn’t have to hang out with Garment if she doesn’t want to. Cindy doesn’t have to pretend that Garment’s behavior is acceptable. Cindy can just leave unpleasant situations anytime she wants to. Fuck yeah, Cindy! Oh, wait.
Cindy’s choices are your choices, too. “Girlfriend, you’re the boss of you, and if Garment is important to you, so be it. But I’m not spending time with them again, so please don’t ask me to.” “Oh, hey Garment, didn’t know you were stopping by! Wait, why are you taking off your coat? Oh, you’re staying. Uh-huh, well, that’s my cue, then. Good night!”
There’s a double-bind here, the way there always is with bullies. If you stay away from Garment-heavy events and leave rooms whenever they walk into them, then you’re potentially leaving your girlfriend alone with an unsafe person, and Garment technically “wins.” Plus, leaving visits social consequences on your girlfriend, not the obvious problem person, who already knows of your loathing and doesn’t care. Ultimatums carry risk, as in, what if you ask your girlfriend to choose and she doesn’t choose herself/you? So there’s understandably going to be a strong a temptation to stick around and see if you can mitigate the situation, or at least hold your ground, or at least cosplay as an orange safety cone and warn everybody about the gap in the stairs.
You see the problem, right? At some point, somebody has to set a baseline for acceptable behavior and stick to it, or else join the tacit agreement that the Missing Stair may be an asshole, but at least their “our” asshole, and we know how to deal with them so nobody gets hurt. Nobody…except the people who didn’t get the warning in time, but we don’t talk about that, that’s all in the past. Nobody…except the people who silence their self-preservation instincts and erode their own integrity in order to remain in community with abusers. Nobody…except all the people who tend to “freeze” or “fawn” in the face of danger, who are conveniently* the only ones left after all the “fight” folks got tone policed out for “creating drama” and all the “flight” folks sensibly noped back down the stairs, never to be heard from again.
(*Conveniently for the bully, that is. “It didn’t kill me, so shut up, hold still, and let me make you stronger” is fucking great for manufacturing consent.)
You can only control your own choices, my dear Norm L., so what will it be? Complicity or consequences? The lady or the biter? Whatever you choose, choose it with your eyes open.
As I’ve been writing this draft, I keep cutting and pasting this next part to see where it fits, and it fits nowhere and everywhere, so I’m putting it here: Trauma runs through your letter like the nervous system runs through the body. Your girlfriend “holds space for very traumatized people.” Garment overshares about their “dark past” and traumatic history with violence to dominate conversations and keep the attention on themselves. Cindy feels “horrible and unstable” after her experience. I have five opinions about trauma and Missing Stairs based more on experience than expertise, so use whatever you find useful:
- It is possible to be both a trauma survivor and a bully.
- Trauma, especially repeated exposure and long-term, ongoing trauma can erode a survivor’s sense of what’s normal and acceptable. In spaces where lots of trauma survivors tend to congregate (say, “queer and trans people,” “social justice organizers,” and “artists,” just for example), a charismatic bully can do a lot (!!!!!) of damage to total sweethearts who, through no fault of their own, have been conditioned to have a high tolerance for pain and little or no evidence that saying “no!” and “stop that!” would accomplish anything.
- It is possible to have compassion and empathy for someone’s suffering without excusing or normalizing unacceptable behavior.
- Bullies, predators, and other Missing Stair varietals thrive when the compassionate people around them assume that understanding and explaining the reasons for their bad behavior is necessary before (or worse, the same as/instead of) taking action to stop it.
- There’s no perfect way to deal with a bully, because they ruin everything, but I suggest the following order of operations: Stop the harm now, take care of the targets now, contain and limit the bully’s power and access to do more harm now, and delve into the bully’s origin story later (if at all), when everybody is safe.
This has been yet another blog post that should probably be a book chapter about the Schrödinger’s-Jerkface-to-Missing Stair-pipeline. Speaking of, I have an actual deadline to turn an actual book draft in on February 27, so I’m closing the inbox to new questions until after then. Thank you, as always, for your patience.