“I met Chris at this big Friday night meeting in Hollywood—which is pretty much like a bar without alcohol,” says Laura, a 31-year-old marketing executive who’s now three years sober and engaged to a non-alcoholic. “He had 13 years, and I had about one month.” She ignored her sponsor’s suggestion to avoid him and the two went out on a couple of dates. “I would tell him I was going to a meeting, and he would tell me that I didn’t need to do that—that I should go out with him instead. The last time we hung out, he tried to have sex with me, and I refused. He broke it off the next day.” Soon after, Laura met another newcomer girl who’d also dated Chris. “She told me that he would take her to bars even though she was having trouble staying sober,” she says.
In 12-step programs, there is a term for this: 13th stepping. It’s not an official part of the AA program but rather a colloquial term for when someone with more than a year of sober time hits on a person with less than a year. And it can be perilous. Says Melody Anderson, a therapist who specializes in addiction and once ran the Friends and Family program at Hazelden, “It creates a differing power ratio where someone is gaining power over someone who is weaker, and it can endanger both of their sobriety. The one thing I always want people to realize is this is not a gender thing. All sexes and gender preferences can be predators.”
Theo, a production assistant who’s been sober for eight years, has seen his share of female 13th-steppers but doesn’t believe he was harmed by any of them. “When I had a few months sober, I started seeing a girl who had over two years,” he recalls. “It had been easily over a year since I had any connection to a female and my sponsor told me that that if I was going to start dating in AA, I should be honest and have fun but I didn’t need to be in a relationship.” Theo followed the advice and, through dating, “learned how to be honest with a woman. I started to discover how to communicate with the opposite sex.”
For many in early recovery, flirting can be an important part of the experience in learning how to connect with other people. Says Vivian, a newcomer to AA, “I have 90 days now, and my sponsor keeps telling me that I should wait a year and spend this time working on me. But I’ve recently met some cute guys in program. My last years drinking were really dark and lonely so it’s been nice. There is that fun side to it, and then there is that sleazy, not cool side.”
So how can newcomers decipher healthy flirting from inappropriate advances? According to Melody Anderson, this is where other AA-ers come in. “If you’re not sure you should be speaking to someone, reach out to your sponsor or someone of the same sex, and ask their opinion,” she says. “We must have another pair of eyes.”
But then there are the predators—people who have made reputations for going after the newbies. Such behavior even made national news when accusations were made in 2007 against leaders of an AA fellowship in Washington, DC. According to a Newsweek article
detailing the accusations, women reported feeling “pressure to sleep with older group members.” Other press about the scandal mentioned that underage girls were encouraged to be sponsored by older men, as well as advised to quit therapy, stop taking medication (including antidepressants) and only see their families in the company of other Midtown members.
The charges against Midtown ran deep, hinting at an institutionalized form of the 13th step, and a civil suit was filed against one of the group’s members. Despite all of these accusations, there were many from the group who said that nothing of the sort took place, and that if it did, the harassment only impacted a select few. Others quoted in the Newsweek article were adamant about the fact that Midtown is a thriving meeting that has saved their lives.
Either way, the story caused many AA groups to stop and look at sexual behavior within the fellowship—something that, according to Dr. Ellen Dye, a Maryland-based psychologist who has treated members from the DC group, is a good idea. “A lot of the people coming into recovery are vulnerable,” she says. “They don’t have great boundaries, and if they go into a group and feel alienated or violated, it’s very hard for them to go back in. This is why recovery movements need to be willing to look at their strengths and weaknesses.”
Karen, a blonde artist with four years of sobriety, experienced a meeting that did exactly that when she first got sober. Her home group decided to discuss one of its members, a man with 20 years of sobriety and a penchant for reaching out to nubile newcomers. “Everyone went around and said whether they thought he had acted inappropriately,” Karen remembers. “Paul, the man in question, was there, and he just had to sit there and listen. After that, you definitely saw him staying away from the ladies.”
Many in AA have found, ultimately, that the 13th step is far less important than the 12 actually recommended. Laura perhaps puts it best. “Once I stopped focusing on the guys and started focusing on the steps and being in AA, everything changed,” she says. “I got sober. And I stopped dating sleazebags.”