13th stepping

Surprise surprise: there’s a lot of sexual predation in Alcoholics Anonymous. You don’t say! Who would ever think that a quasi-sacred secretive all-anonymous “program” to rescue alcoholics with a success rate of around 6% would foster predators?

“AA has absolutely saved my life,” says Amy Dresner, who has been in and out of AA for 20 years, and recently published a memoir about her addiction and recovery called My Fair Junkie. “I was never sexually harassed per se,” Dresner says. “What I did feel happened to me was that I was preyed upon when I was very vulnerable. When I came in and I was new, no girls pulled me aside and said ‘Hey, these are the guys who usually wait for the fresh meat to come in. These are the guys that fuck the newcomers.’ I was fucked multiple times by guys with who had double digit [years of] sobriety while I was still counting days. I was 13th stepped.”

“13th stepping” is a phrase all of the women I spoke to were familiar with. It is not an actual step in the program, but rather an expression commonly used within the fellowship to refer to the practice in which elder members with more years of sobriety sexually pursue newcomers because they’re in a vulnerable state and more open to manipulation. A 2003 study in the Journal of Addictions Nursing showed that 50 percent of the female AA members surveyed had experienced the 13th stepping phenomenon.

In spite of this, Dresner says it’s the responsibility of those entering the program to go in with their eyes open. “If you’re expecting it to be a room full of saints, you’re an idiot. It’s a place where sick people go to get better. It’s a looney bin. Wherever there’s a power hierarchy there’s going to be sexual abuse. AA is no different. There is a power hierarchy,” she tells me.

Hmmmm yes it’s a place where sick alcoholic people go to get better that fails around 94% of the time and is all anonymous. There’s going to be sexual abuse, you can’t do anything about the abuse because anonymous, and it won’t help you – but it’s awesome all the same.

Monica Richardson was a member of AA for 36 years before she walked away and embarked on a personal mission to expose abusive practices in the 12 step community. She produced a documentary about sexual and financial exploitation in 12 step groups called “The 13th Step,”and states that since starting her blog LeavingAA in 2010, she has received “thousands” of emails from current and former members who have experienced sexual harassment, assault and abuse from other members of “the fellowship.”

One of Richardson’s major points of contention with AA is their refusal to warn newcomers to the program that they may be sitting next to someone who has been court ordered to attend meetings as a condition of probation or parole. AA’s own 2014 membership survey states that 12 percent of members were referred to the organization by the criminal justice system.

They’re not there by choice, and they’re protected by anonymity, and for all you know they’re rapists. Cozy.

“AA needs to warn its members that there could be a sex offender or violent offender who’s been sent there, so be careful who you trust,” Richardson says. She also thinks that the group should tell the court system to stop requiring attendance for violent offenders, that the program should institute a hotline for members to call if they’ve been sexually assaulted by another program member, and that safety guidelines stating that sexual harassment, assault, and exploitation within the group are “not okay” should be read and posted at all meetings. Meeting leaders and sponsors are not required to go through any sort of training.

And there’s no question of evidence or comparing outcomes. It’s just a thing, and you go to it and take what you get. There are actually medical treatments for addiction, and AA is not that.

She also rejects AA’s assertion that the program is a “microcosm of society” where sexual harassment and assault are no more likely to happen than they would anywhere else. “It’s not a microcosm,” she says. “You’re pulling together a group of people who are malfunctioning. They’re addicted to drugs and alcohol. They may have issues with self-esteem and being assertive. And they’re all reading a book from the 1930s.”

It doesn’t work, and there are a lot of risks – yet AA is widely seen as an unquestionable good. It’s nuts.

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