"The 13th Step": Inside AA's Subculture Of Sexual Predation

By Paul Fuhr 06/04/18

“There are groups in AA where you could call it a meat market," says one former AA board director.

a black and white silhouette of a woman

Sexual predation in Alcoholics Anonymous is a troubling and common occurrence, according to The Orange County Register.

The “avalanche” of allegations against former Hollywood power players like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey “have been a horrifying reminder of the prevalence of sexual assault, harassment, exploitation and abuse in American society,” the Register noted—and AA meetings are no different.

Some men there, too, use their stature and influence to prey upon unsuspecting women who are otherwise simply seeking recovery. (It happens so often, in fact, that it’s commonly referred to as “The 13th Step.”)

Unfortunately, “there is something uniquely heartbreaking” about sexual abuse in AA, Vice noted, as their members are routinely encouraged to “look for their part” in the events that have transpired. 

Many argue that AA, by its very design, is to blame.

“Victims, former officials and some members say the culture of the organization—unregulated and loosely organized—puts vulnerable alcoholics at risk to predatory leaders whose only credential is their longtime sobriety,” the Register reported.

Additionally, some members of AA are sexual offenders whose presence in the rooms is court-mandated. Unless someone volunteers their criminal history, no one would be the wiser.

Offenders, thanks to the program’s core tradition of anonymity, can hide in plain sight. While a representative for AA’s General Service Office in New York told the Register that each local group operates independently, AA leaders in the U.S. and Canada have since developed guidelines and literature that specifically acknowledges the inherent danger of sexual predation.

As such, the fellowship created a “safety card” that reads (in part): “We request that members and others refrain from any behavior that might compromise another person’s safety.” 

Still, many critics insist that AA’s General Service Board can do far more to protect its members than printing up a small yellow card: “Each group is autonomous. That’s… an excuse not to use the power the board has to stop abusive behavior,” James Branscome, a former AA board director, told the Register. “There are groups in AA where you could call it a meat market. You have older guys hitting on newcomer women. Some groups are hijacked by gurus, and AA will claim they have no power to do anything about it.”

Meanwhile, sexual attacks involving AA leaders keep mounting in California, the Register reported, detailing several cases of abuse, rape and murder that have occurred in recent years. Sexual predation, however, remains a thorny cultural issue within the walls of AA meetings.

As some men take dark advantage of anonymity and vulnerability, the women who’ve been victimized continually find themselves in an outrageously precarious position.

One woman, for example, told her sponsor about a rape and was quickly discouraged from going to the police. Sadly, that became a common refrain for the victim, as fellow AA members told her that she was scaring off newcomers with her story.

“They said I was ruining people’s chance to get sober,” she said. “Rape was an outside issue.”

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.