Gender Bias in AA?

By Juliet Elisabeth 11/12/14

The Fix Q&A with Stephanie Covington about women and the rooms.

Dr. Covington

I'd met women in 12-step meetings who agreed that sexism was wrong, but would stop short of wanting AA to change their literature. This spurred my interest in women's issues in recovery, to move beyond my personal experience through deeper research and understanding of the bigger picture. One name that stood out, who seemed most knowledgeable on women's issues in addiction recovery was Dr. Stephanie Covington.

To take a brief excerpt from Dr. Covington's website, she is a well-known clinician, author, and expert in women's issues in treatment. Her focus includes gender-responsive and trauma-informed services. Her current position as co-director for the Institute for Relational Development and the Center for Gender and Justice concentrates on helping women under criminal justice supervision by expanding gender-responsive practices and policies.

Some of Dr. Covington's writings include Women and Addiction: A Gender-Responsive Approach and A Woman's Way through The Twelve Steps including its companion workbook. Today, 95% of American treatment centers use the 12 steps, which were introduced to us 79 years ago by Alcoholics Anonymous. Why a woman's way through the steps? The short answer is that the 1939 AA Big Book presents alcoholism from the point of view of married men. Although I am personally shocked that AA's outdated literature is applied in modern treatment centers, women remain the minority in treatment.

According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) 4.3% of males are alcohol dependent, compared to 2.2% of women. This means, that 79 years after the inception of AA, gender-responsive treatment is still relatively new. What Dr. Covington has done with her work on the 12 steps is important because it provides the missing piece to recovery by including a woman's point of view.

Although I praise this effort, my opinion remains that AA needs to update their literature in a way that empowers both men and women. Until then, we can look to Covington's works and become inspired to work harder and lead this change.

I remain interested in helping women who are seeking help in recovery, so recently I revisited Helping Women Recover: Creating Gender Responsive Treatment, by Covington. To gain further understanding, Covington herself agreed to answer some of my questions and offer some of her own personal thoughts on women's issues in 12-step recovery, including the 13th step, women's unique reasons for rejecting AA's philosophy, and trauma-related issues.

In your opinion, does the sexual harassment of 13th stepping at AA meetings violate the need for a woman's safety in early recovery?

In some meetings, women do experience a form of sexual harassment. Not in all meetings, but some. This can affect a woman's sense of safety. This is why I think it's important for women to have a sponsor or peer when she attends meetings (particularly co-ed meetings) when in early recovery. As she becomes more stabilized, she is more able to deal with these experiences...just as she will be better able to manage these situations outside of meetings. I also highly recommend women's meetings for this reason and others. Women share more deeply in the women-only meetings.

Are women aware that AA has no official policy against sexual harassment?

I think there are very few women or men who know that AA has no policy on this issue.

Even in women-only groups, if a woman expresses her opinion that the AA literature is sexist, and offensive, are her feelings validated if the AA group uses the male-centric Big Book?

There are women-only groups who use the Big Book and do acknowledge its limitations due to the outdated language. This experience varies in meetings. It is possible for a woman to express her concerns and have them heard...and for members to continue to use the official literature. In life, we often have the experience of expressing our opinions without having them change others.

Or on AA's part, not including women in the first 164 pages sends the message that women "don't matter" as much as preserving the early all-male alcoholic example?

It is unfortunate that the Big Book still reflects the time of its beginning/origin when women were in the minority and literally ignored. The Big Book reflects a particular time in history.

Is suggesting for women to use supplemental readings, such as your book "A Woman's Way Through the Twelve Steps," an additional expectation for women that men do not have and how should a woman reconcile with feelings that this is fundamentally unfair treatment?

I suppose that women could see this as "unfair" although I have never heard this expressed before. In fact, quite the opposite. The women that speak or write to me about A Woman's Way through The Twelve Steps are very grateful for this added resource. In addition, there is a similar book for men entitled A Man's Way through The Twelve Steps by Dan Griffin that reflects on the steps through the lens of men's socialization.

If a woman in 12-step treatment refuses to attend AA, do you view this as a refusal of recovery or a healthy instinct to steer clear of psychological harm from patriarchal spiritual terms and sexist literature?

I don't know the answer because I would need to know the woman and have a conversation with her. For some women, it could reflect obstinance and an inability to follow a suggestion or try something new. For others, it may be that their healing process will be reflected in a different pathway to recovery. Women can heal/recover in different ways. However, some women do use the language as an excuse and are unable to get beyond it to see the spiritual principles embedded in the foundation of the program. There are other paths to recovery but not likely to be found in a 12-step treatment program because the 12 steps are the foundation of 12-step treatment.

Does AA's literature encourage gender discrimination in AA, 13th stepping, sexual harassment and other forms of subtle/overt sexist mistreatment of women in real life- as a reflection of the program's attitude and depiction of women in its literature?

I have never really considered this...and I think this is a bit of a stretch. I do think it's very much an individual issue and not universal about 12-step membership. I have actually observed men, in particular, change their views and behavior with women as they have progressed in 12-step recovery. And even more powerfully, I have observed women change their attitudes about themselves while practicing the principles in the 12 steps.

Is it a form of disempowerment for women who are survivors of rape and sexual abuse by men to be asked to accept and tolerate AA's sexism- also, for a feminist woman does it affect her dignity and self-respect to accept AA's sexism? (i.e., Accept AA as-is or encourage women to become activists in AA and change the literature and terms?)

The Steps are not based on racist, sexist, classist nor homophobic principles. They are grounded in what I believe are spiritual truths...albeit in language that, at times, is problematic. However, in meetings, one meets and hears from all types of people with all kinds of beliefs. Ultimately, the Steps are about empowerment for women and not the reverse. I think this question is best answered by one of the women that I interviewed for A Woman's Way through The Twelve Steps. I was asking her about the problematic language. As a Professor Emeritus of Feminist Ethics at a School of Theology, she said "Worrying about the language or wording is to miss the fact that the power of the program is rooted in the spirit beneath the words."

The 4th Covington Curriculum Conference will take place in St. Paul, Minnesota in June 2015. To learn more, please visit her website.

Juliet Elisabeth is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently interviewed Bucky Sinister.

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