How Can We Stop Sexual Harassment in AA?

originally published on rehabs.com

A controversy has erupted over the safety of women in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step fellowships in recent months—and not for the first time. To suggest that sexual harassment is the norm in meetings would be inaccurate. But one exploitative practice is common enough to have earned a widely known nickname: “13th stepping” occurs when a regular member, usually someone with years of sobriety, makes sexual advances towards a new member.

It’s the responsibility of every person in a meeting to make sure that the environment is a safe place for everyone.-Tina

This is obviously inappropriate. Merriam-Webster defines sexual harassment as: “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate (as an employee or student).” While nobody at a 12-step meeting is in a position of authority exactly, longstanding members and sponsors have an advantage in experience and confidence over newcomers that it is wrong to exploit. As Tina*, a 49-year-old woman with 25 years of sobriety, puts it, “It’s the responsibility of every person in a meeting to make sure that the environment is a safe place for everyone.”

And this should apply to newcomers above all.

Every 12-step meeting is different, of course; sexual harassment might be a serious problem in one meeting and never an issue in another. When I spoke with two women who have each been attending different meetings for over two decades, one of them said that she had seen and heard of innumerable examples of sexual harassment—everything from inappropriate comments to assault.

The other, Tina, said that she had only ever heard of two instances.

Even two instances are still two too many. Sexual harassment is never acceptable, but it’s especially appalling when it happens in what is supposed to be an intimate, trust-based space. So why does it happen?

“It’s the blessing and the curse of the way 12-step meetings are run,” Tina says. “They are run by and comprised of imperfect individuals. The goal is to have meetings feel unpretentious, just like one alcoholic talking to another.”

The General Service Office (GSO) of AA, which is by far the biggest 12-step fellowship, categorizes sexual harassment as an “outside issue”—i.e., an issue on which it has no official policy—and says that it’s up to each group to police itself. (Some other 12-step fellowships, however, do have specific policies—and in the case of Alateen, background checks are required before you become a sponsor.) Many members do engage in the sort of self-policing that the GSO suggests, though without official guidelines it can be hard to know how best to pursue this or what the outcome will be.

The General Service Office (GSO) of AA… categorizes sexual harassment as an ‘outside issue’—i.e., an issue on which it has no official policy—and says that it’s up to each group to police itself.

Cindy, a 50-year-old recovering alcoholic with five years of sobriety living in Northern California, has witnessed this approach. “I have seen people in my home group confront other members about 13th-step relationships,” she tells me. “I don’t know what became of the relationships, if being confronted changed anything or not, but I do trust, at least in my own home group, that swift and strong action would be taken if there was ever talk of sexual harassment.”

While she feels confident in her current home group, Cindy did have an experience with “13th stepping” when she first joined AA. “I felt some of that [unwanted sexual] energy coming my direction when I first came into the meeting,” she says. “One person in particular seemed to cloak his 13th stepping as friendship and support. It was confusing, especially since I knew that this person was in a long-term relationship.”

But Cindy had found a sponsor by that point and was able to lean on her for support and guidance. Cindy elaborates, “I was able to call him out [on his behavior] and ask why he was behaving that way when he was in a long-term relationship. Even then he responded with murky, open-ended answers, so it became up to me to put boundaries and structure on knowing that person. My sponsor coached me through this.”

Other women also report feeling like they were forced to set boundaries as a result of unwanted sexual attention in meetings. Kim, another Northern Californian, has eight years sober. For her, learning how to draw lines with certain members of the group was a positive development in her sobriety. “I have learned how to set clear boundaries and say something if necessary,” she says. “This has helped me to feel empowered and not a victim.” It has also made her more confident in setting boundaries in her life outside the rooms—although she still shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place.

Many women in AA avoid the “13th step” by simply minimizing interactions with the opposite sex. (Although we should note that sexual harassment isn’t perpetrated only by men, nor limited only to opposite-sex interactions.)

Angela, a 36-year-old Washingtonian with three years in recovery, has done all she can to make her 12-step meetings a place where she doesn’t interact with men. As a result, she says she’s never felt uncomfortable or experienced unwelcome attention or behavior. “I go to women’s meetings and I sit with women at the occasional mixed meetings,” she says. “That’s not to say someone couldn’t approach me, especially someone with bad intentions, but for the guys who come to meetings looking for girls who want to hook up, I make it as clear as I can that I’m not the girl they’re looking for.”

Of course, the burden of preventing sexual harassment shouldn’t be on potential victims—it should be on potential perpetrators. But it can often be helpful for newcomers to go to at least one or two gender-specific meetings. The women (or men) they meet there will help form a support network, and offer guidance if a sticky situation arises.

Another way newcomers can protect themselves is by learning what is and isn’t considered acceptable in a 12-step meeting. It’s easy for someone with negative intentions to try to normalize certain behavior, but by being aware of these distinctions, a newcomer can recognize when lines are being crossed.

Here are six further tips for avoiding or dealing with sexual harassment that I’ve picked up from my conversations with people who attend 12-step meetings.

    • Good sponsors are great but you don’t have to take their word as gospel. There have been instances of sponsors not taking sexual harassment seriously, minimizing the experience of their sponsees or protecting the behavior of the harassers. This is patently unacceptable. If your sponsor says something that doesn’t sound right, there’s no reason you can’t run it by other experienced people to see if they agree.
    • Years of sobriety do not automatically connote wisdom. In many cases, it’s useful to listen to the advice of people with long-term sobriety. They can share what they did to achieve that, and you can use the information on your own path. Just don’t take that to mean that someone with more sober time is automatically behaving appropriately.
    • Especially for newcomers, men should work with men and women should work with women. It’s easy to bristle at this one – I know I did at first. I mean, come on, I’ve always had plenty of male friends, you’re going to start telling me who I can and can’t be friends with now? The answer, of course, is no. You can be friends with whomever you want. But working through the 12 Steps is an intimate process that requires vulnerability and trust. While there are exceptions to every rule, it’s generally wise to follow the suggestion on this one.
    • If you do experience any inappropriate behavior, tell someone. If they don’t take it seriously, tell someone else. As Tina mentioned, it’s important that regular members (i.e., not newcomers) shoulder the burden of ensuring meetings are safe. You’re not just protecting yourself by letting someone know about inappropriate behavior, you’re also protecting other people—and protecting the integrity of the meeting.
    • You are not “weak” or “allowing yourself to be bullied” if you change meetings because someone in your meeting makes you uncomfortable. In a perfect world, every meeting would make every person feel 100 percent safe. Realistically, that’s a tall order, though it is certainly something to strive for. The most important thing, however, is that you find meetings where you feel safe. If a situation is making you uncomfortable, leave. Staying just to prove a point is never worth it.
    • You can contact the police. In extreme situations, like sexual assault, being part of a 12-step group should not prevent you from contacting law enforcement. While it’s up to every victim to determine whether or not they want to take legal action, scruples about potentially “outing” a fellow member of a 12-step group should not impact that decision.

Twelve-step meetings, many of us have found, are wonderful, potentially life-saving and imperfect. But as Cindy says, “Just because someone is sober, it doesn’t mean they have good judgment or have left their own agendas at the door. Some are sicker than others, as they say, and some live with more integrity than others.” Being aware of this will go a long way towards protecting your safety and your sobriety.

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