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The Adventures of a Female 13th-Stepper

The serial seduction of newcomers isn’t a male-only pursuit. Here's the story of one woman who's taken in-the-rooms romance a step too far.

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By Leah Riley

07/15/12

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Find me a woman who hasn’t been 13th stepped—successfully or unsuccessfully—and I’ll show you a post-menopausal nun or a tragic case of facial acne. Old-timers have been seducing newcomers ever since Bill Wilson started the tradition in the 1940s. Since that time, Step 13 has been judged, disparaged, reviled…and perfected. “Let’s go to coffee. We can talk program.” “There’s a great meeting 50 miles from here. I’ll drive.” “Have I showed you my First Edition Big Book? Oh, wait, I left it in the bedroom…”

When I was new, 20-something years ago, a man with 17 years of sobriety (and a wife) wanted to read his latest fifth step to me because his sponsor “didn’t get him.” I was so flattered. Me, with my under 90 days, had something to offer an old-timer! It turns out I had something the old-timer wanted, all right; it just wasn’t my wisdom. His number one resentment, he explained, was toward his frigid, alcoholic wife. He was so sad, so lonely…and I was so naïve. Let’s face it; newcomers are easy. Getting sober leaves a honking great empty hole in us, and Mr. 17 Years was more than happy to (ahem) fill it. 

The affair ended when my sponsor told me I had to either stop sleeping with a married man or find another sponsor. It was him or her. “I’m not telling you which one to choose,” she said, “but I’m the one who doesn’t want to sleep with you.” 

This explains why I told Mr. 17 Years to take a hike, and also why I have had the same sponsor since 1988. It doesn’t explain why I turned around and did the same thing to others. Yes, I was the 13th-stepper as often as I was the stepped upon. You don’t have to have a dick to be one.

Newcomers are needy, and I convinced myself that they needed me. 

I know. The usual picture is the innocent girl who is seduced by predatory old-timers offering sobriety by injection. But males, too, can be naïve, and women can be predatory.  The difference is that men rarely complain about getting laid. It makes it easy for a seductress to convince herself she didn’t do anything wrong. If anything, I was conferring a gift on the lads: Sober sex! You’re gonna love it!  

I imagine this was the same justification Mr. 17 Years used: he wasn’t taking advantage of my fragile state to get his sexual needs met. He was healing a broken bird with his warm embrace. 

Yes, recovery lies between my thighs. That’s how I played it for my first five years of sobriety, give or take a year. Or two. It took a while before I shook the cobwebs off and took a good look at my behavior. Frankly, my behavior sucked, no matter how much I rationalized it. And, trust me, I rationalized the hell out of it. “He’s not really new. He’s been sober before.” “He has an old soul.” “If I don’t make a play for him quick, someone else will snatch him up.” “He’s the one who was coming on to me.” “I’m still pretty new myself, you know!” And, of course, the big one: “I’m not hurting anybody.”

It’s called denial. Kind of like believing the calories don’t count when you eat the brownie leaning over the sink.

There was the snub-nosed blond actor whom I offered to sponsor because, when they’re new, they either haven’t heard that men should sponsor men, or they have heard it but they’re too defiant to obey. There was the long-lashed rock’n’roller I put up in my spare room because, well, newcomers tend to be “between addresses.” I had a relationship (I use the term loosely) with one tall, dark and tattooed fellow who still lived in a recovery house because he needed me for experience, strength and hope. Also for rides and small loans.  

Newcomers are needy, and I convinced myself that they needed me. They were hungry and I fed them. They were lonely and I befriended to them. They were confused and I gave them direction. In return, they gave me the attention and affection I craved. Also multiple orgasms.

I have not made amends to most of the newcomers I slept with, as it clearly falls under the “except when to do so would injure them or others” clause. His wife/husband (some newcomers are more confused than others) does not need to know what he did and with whom. And who really wants to hear “I never really had feelings for you; I boned you because you were easy”? I have had that particular amends made to me, and, believe me, it was no fun. Next time, fella, just send a check to the Salvation Army.

I have been able to look a couple of my lust objects in the eye, though, and apologize for having been selfish, dishonest and inconsiderate. For having taken time away from them that could have been better spent working their program, or meeting a more appropriate partner. They invariably said no apologies were necessary; that’s what guys do. While women are likely to feel used and abused—and happy to tell you about it in great detail—men don’t get upset with you for having sex with them. At least, that’s what they say.

But honestly, the men aren’t the ones to whom I owed the amends. The real amends I owe is to AA itself. When I “worked the 13th step,” I was using the program as a seduction tool and the rooms as an alcohol-free singles bar. I was manipulative, self-seeking and dishonest. I made a safe place unsafe, and I set a bad example of sober womanhood. 

Feel free not to make the same bad choices I did.

Leah Riley is the pseudonym for a prominent television and book writer. 

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