Thursday, November 19, 2009

13th stepping

I was talking to a sponsee today about how much resentment he has that his girlfriend who is in AA is being hit on by old timers in the program. We talked a bit about "Thirteenth-stepping" which is a euphemistic term used to refer to those people who target new, more vulnerable members (typically women) for dates or sex.

The sponsee thinks that there is a lot of sexual predation in AA. I read that a research study described the frequency of various 13th-stepping experiences in a sample of women involved in AA. Fifty-five women, aged 17-72 years, completed an anonymous survey to describe their experiences with 13th-stepping by men in AA. Results showed that at least 50% of the participants had at least occasionally experienced seven of the thirteen 13th-stepping behaviors listed in the survey. Also, compared to women who had never attended a female-only AA group, women who had attended such groups reported more 13th-stepping experiences from their attendance at coed groups. Two of the study participants volunteered that men they met in AA had raped them.

The character defects that show themselves aren't really surprising to me. I have been to enough bars to see that drinking and trying to hook up are coexisting behaviors. And when the booze is put down, the bar room behavior may continue. Character defects, some more glaring than others, abound in each of us. How vulnerable people are though when they first come into a recovery program and that people take advantage of that is something I find pretty sick.

I don't think that this behavior is unique to AA by any means. I remember reading an article in which men looking for easy sex were told to go troll Al-Anon meetings. The idea was that the women there were needy and would give them the hottest sex of their lives if shown the slightest affection. Vulnerability hurts enough on its own. Hopefully, there is some kind of "gatekeeper" who sees this action happening (such as a sponsor) and gently guides the person to safer waters away from the sharks.

I suggested to the sponsee that just because people belong to 12 step programs doesn't mean that they are cured of alcoholism and all that it entails. (I think of Bill W. as an example of one who traded one addiction for another). It just means that the masks being worn may be changed frequently.


  1. I never thought about that. Good posting.

    I went to several narcotics and alocholics anonymous meetings with my wife. In all but just a very few I was the only man in attendance. My son is an addict. I saw the behaviors you mentioned but never put 2+2 together. Even with my wife sitting in attendance every time I spoke or showed any compassion it was if all eyes were on me. After meetings we would talk and a couple of women talked to me almost as if my wife wasn't standing there. I recognize these are support meetings but I see what you mean now.

    Truthfully I got so little out of those meetings I haven't been to one in over a couple years. I'm sorry to say most of the time when I left I felt like all it was a womens pity party. I'm sure that is not how they all are but that's my honest reflections.

  2. Excellent post on a touchy subject, Syd. I believe we need to talk about these things openly, in an effort to protect the vulnerable.

  3. Ugh. I have heard about this.

  4. A good friend of mine had a sponsor who said to her, "girl, where do you think those idiots who were in the bars ended up?" AA...with the same issues they had in the bars, they just don't drink.

    Of course this is sad but true. I haven't experienced this ever, I am not a woman that men "pick up" in any way, so it's a non-issue for me, but I see it happen before and after makes me sad too because I have seen people leave AA or go back out over it. Sadly we're all human with our character defects sometimes glaring.

    Thanks Syd, as always great post!

  5. Yep, I've had uncomfortable advances/pressure from male members in AA which is why I attend an all-ladies meeting now.

    Just curious -what was that addiction that Bill W had traded alcoholism for?

  6. Great post Syd! This is a topic that I would use in group therapy to warn my newly sober women about 13 steppers. I would also talk about it in my large education mixed groups.
    When I was newly sober it happened to me too. I was coming out of treatment, trusting and totally vulnerable. Men with what they claimed as multiple years of sobriety would have so much power.I thought they were telling the truth because they had so much "time". I was clueless and still very sick.
    Two "sickies" does not make a "wellie" I used to tell my girls. Relationships seemed to universally be the first thing a single, newly sober,addict or alcoholic is interested in. Great topic. jeNN

  7. Of course this doesn't just happen in AA, it happens everywhere. It isn't that I believe we are weaker than men we are just different in the parts of us that are stronger and unfortunately it takes a great deal of work within you internally before you can discern the lion roaring at you in the whispers of sweet NOTHINGS. If we had that component within us in the first place we might not be needing a recovery program to begin with.

    Thank you for discussing this topic. It is very important in all places we travel in society.

  8. Good point,sometimes it is difficult to get rid of the charter defects totally.

  9. Troll an AlAnon meeting??

    I must go to a really boring one..LOL

  10. How sad is that....and so true about the changing masks.

  11. you know a suggestion would be to tell your friends wife that every time a guy or gal looks at her as anything other than an alcoholic looking for recovery they are breaking the 12th tradition.
    we have predatory behavior here, on of the reasons i don't attend many face to face meetings, though i seriously need one right now. i made a design for a t-shirt that said "give the newcomers a chance, keep your (insert rooster) or (insert kitty cat) in your pants." women when they come into the program and men usually know nothing of real intimacy. i remember the first time i found out my vagina was not my god hole, that was a trip, i thought being intimate meant having sex. you need to be with strong women and tell the newcomer guys to hang out with the men and same for the gals. there are some strong groups around the region where the women just flock around the girls and i mean they are down right mean to the men who try to say "hi". but you have to be, until we get a good foundation in recovery, we have no business talking about sex. and my t-shirt design, someone through it away, they didn't want to hear it!! seriously, i thought it was in your face and funny!! oh well i will find another use for it. great post

  12. As others have said, this deserves much discussion and honest support. I've seen it happen and hate it but I can only do what I can do - which is honest and direct sharing anywhere I can.

    I only hope that anyone who is ready and willing to get better finds the support they deserve rather than the predations of the perverts they may share the rooms with.

    BTW - I don't know if Bill was a sex addict but I do have a pretty good idea that he was a womanizer and a heel. I don't think we do the former any credit by presuming the latter are all of their number.

    Thanx for this article.

    Blessings and aloha...

  13. I can speak first hand, yes women do get hit on, A LOT! Not just by men either. Same sex offers come to surface as well. It's a very fine line between walking with sobriety while staying in the lines of sanity when you put down the bottle (or addiction of choice). It's comforting to know while many others may resent your drinking and not now how to deal with it, others in the programs "get you". However, the more sober one becomes, the more the realize the triggers and deal with them more appropriately. I dated one man from AA. On some levels it was an intense dangerous relationship. On the other hand it was a calming, no secrets sort of freedom.

    I would advise against it obviously but there are exceptions to all rules. THis one is just a bit murky.

    Great post Syd.

  14. Now this makes me feel bad, I have 20 years sobriety and have only been hit on 1 time. Dang!! Deb

  15. Syd, THANK YOU for writing about this! I don't know if you are aware of this but I've been trained as a Sexual Assault Victim Advocate. I know that hitting on a woman in an AA mtg. does not fall into the category of crime, but emotionally a woman can feel "raped" when she realizes she's been used for sex then tossed aside so the predator can go after his next victim. I've seen this happen at a singles group at church and when the truth came out...the guy had slept with about 10 of the 15 women in our group, the vulnerable ones. You can imagine how they all felt when it was brought to light.

    The point is - as women we need to be aware not only for our physical safety, but for our emotional safety as well. I have a blog dedicated to this topic:

  16. The unfortunate thing about Alcoholics Anonymous is that it is full of alcoholics. We are sometimes less than stellar characters. Women and men. And frankly, I think a woman who calls other women "her girls" and talks about them as if they are infants is just as guilty of abuse as men who want to sleep with them.

  17. You hit this topic square on the head.

    It's one of the first things I tell a new sponsee. Stay away from the men. Period. No exceptions. They don't always listen, but I have done my part.

    As they say, if a drunken horse thief gets sober, then you have a sober horse thief. :)


  18. Good post Syd. '13th Stepping' is just a euphemism for sexual harassment and no different to what goes on in bars and workplaces. My experience has been that meetings with strong long-sober women are able to detect and counter this predatory behaviour very fast.

    And I do know of two cases where men who raped women were charged and prosecuted. AA is not above the law and anonymity should never be used to cover up criminal behaviour.

  19. it would be good to remember that sex predators are in EVERY aspect of society...

  20. Hi Syd, thanks for the post. I haven't faced 13th stepping... hmmm, but thanks for bringing this up.

    This is Dreamdancer. I'm moving my blog and I hope you will join me on my new one:

    Have a blessed day :)

  21. Definition of 13th stepping:

    Step 1-My life is unmanagable
    Step 12-I want to share this with you.

  22. I have never personally experienced this in my own home groups but I know it happens. This is a good topic for a group conscience..a sensitive subject, no doubt, but I think a valid subject for discussion.


  23. As usual, you've found another post that a lot of us can relate to. I've seen it happen in and out of meetings. I remember once a male friend helped me break up with my long time boyfriend, and then before the day was over he was trying to get in bed with me. Of course that was a couple of lifetimes ago, but it happens all the time I think.

  24. I have an AA friend who 13th Stepped almost immediately after he became sober. I would consider him a poster-boy example as to why it's a bad idea. The woman was newly sober herself, a few weeks less than he. What a mess. I give them both a lot of credit for learning & growing; they now stay far away from each other and they're both sober the 8 or so years since they met.

    I learned the concept of 13th stepping by dating a recently divorced man some years ago. After a few months we broke up and I made a new rule (boundary) for myself to save time, energy, heartache. Never date the recently divorced. Give them a year or two to mellow from the trauma.

    When I read the part in your post about Bill W. my first thought was to remember something I read about Lois and her being being upset with Bill because a life of sobriety was nothing but "damn meetings." I really related to that from some of my own similar experience, but mostly with drunks. I admire Lois for recognizing that it was a life with a drunk or a life with a sober man and one damn meeting after another. It's one reason I keep going to meetings. I like the way she put her time to good use to establish Al-Anon which is why she's a shining example to me as a person who had a life aside from loving a man with an alcoholic nature & going to one damn meeting after another. And a life because she went to meetings and that the two nourished and sustained each other. I've read the Blue Book a couple of times and often came up with this question in my mind. In sobriety did Bill W. have a hobby, past-time, career... or was his life of sobriety just one meeting after another as his life as a drunk was just one drunken episode after another? Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for Bill and all he did but I'm equally grateful to Lois for sharing her side of the story and for giving us all in Al-Anon a sense of the perspective we need to stay humble and care for ourselves so we can care for others honestly and appropriately.

    Good post. It sure did get me going. Thanks.

    1. Bill made his living as a professional alcoholic in recovery. His income was the royalties of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Although it was a group effort, Bill claimed authorship. When he died he left his share to Lois and his long time mistress Helen Wynn (

  25. It is wonderful to have a man look at this problem, Syd. Even though I was 56 when I came in to AA it didn't stop the predators.
    You are so right when you say that we are so vulnerable and fragile when we try to get sober and a (seemingly) friendly shoulder seems like a God-send. Often these are "old-timers" and it makes me sick. I've seen way too many young girls leave in disgust and a lot never get sober.

  26. I think most people in early recovery experience a lot of emotions (some for the first time), and the need for "comfort," in whatever form, is not surprising.

    When I went to my first gay meeting, my sponsor took me aside before we walked in the door, and said "I wish I didn't have to do this, but I feel like I have to," and warned me about a guy with multiple years sobriety and a reputation for 13th-stepping. He didn't tell me the man's name, but warned me about the signs to watch for.

    Sure enough, I could have checked off a list. It was like he took his pick-up lines from a bar and adjusted them to AA.

    The behavior (not the person) have been addressed in group conscience meetings, but the predator (and he is) does not see himself that way. He sees himself helping newcomers.

    How do you solve a problem like a serial 13th-stepper? Love and tolerance, but still.

  27. Attraction is a huge mood elevater! I'm not so sure that it's always a conscious decision to "hit" on a newcomer. Once that attraction has begun, it's hard to reason with someone about how dangerous it can be for their sobriety. These are adults, usually a little on the stubborn side, and they get to make their own choices.

    Our job as sponsors is to warn the newcomer of how risky this can be. This is frowned upon in the meetings I attend, because of strong men in the program. I would suggest she look for another meeting that is most of them are. Great post Syd.

  28. ya, stuff like that ahppens alot in aa, unfortunately... and it often leads to relapse and other awful stuff...

    having said that, I met my wife in AA and when we began dating, I caught some looks and comments from a few old salty dogs about what they percieved I was doing.

  29. I can so relate to this. And now I have the proper term for it. It amazed me, the gall some of the men I met had. It didn't matter to them that I arrived with Paul and that we were a couple. Embarrassing enough Paul had to step up and say something a few times.

    One of the first things they tell you in AA is, dating within the program is discouraged especially during that first year. (Hugs)Indigo

  30. GREAT POST! Just found your blog and I think it's awesome! Thank you!!

  31. EXCELLENT post Syd! Thanks for talking about this. What an important issue....

  32. I am so glad I am not the only one that is infuriated with these sick predators and not the only one talking about it


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