Sexual harassment—and worse—happens in 12-step fellowships, as it does everywhere. But should we blame the organization, as well as the perpetrators? Substance.com hears two very different answers.
Originally posted on substance.com
Last November, CBS’s 48 Hours aired a documentary called “The Sober Truth.” The show focused on the 2011 murder of Karla Mendez Brada by Eric Earle, a man whom she had met, and begun a relationship with, through Alcoholics Anonymous. Last October, Earle was sentenced to 26 years-to-life for Brada’s murder.
The same month, Brada’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Santa Clarita chapter of AA, which Brada and Earle attended, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, based in Manhattan, and several other defendants. Their allegation? That AA should have warned members that violent ex-felons, like Eric Earle, are routinely ordered by the courts to attend AA (rather than being there voluntarily, like other members) and could be in any meeting.
The complaint asserts that AA had a “reckless disregard for, and deliberate indifference…to the safety and security of victims attending AA meetings who are repeatedly preyed upon at those meetings by financial, violent and sexual predators like Earle.”
The organization has said that it “has no authority, legal or otherwise, to control the behavior of AA members.”
While Karla Brada’s case is tragic, it is also an extreme example of predatory behavior in AA. Yet it has helped spark an important debate over where responsibility for the predatory behavior of members lies, especially regarding the much more common occurrence of sexual harassment, and what that responsibility is.
The Journal of Addiction Nursing reported that fully half of the 55 female AA members in their survey were the objects of “13th-stepping”—a term for when older members with more “sober time” take sexual advantage (or try to) of vulnerable newcomers.
Sexual harassment is a symptom of our patriarchal society that can infect nearly every facet of our lives—the workplace, walking down a city street and, yes, 12-step meetings. But when it comes to who is responsible for it, we should make clear that the onus is always, first and foremost, on the individual perpetrator.
As a recovering alcoholic who attends a 12-step fellowship, I have experienced some instances of sexual harassment at meetings, ranging from small occurrences like being called “pretty lady” or “cutie” by men I had never met to more aggressive requests for coffee dates, even when I had previously declined. These instances, I figured, weren’t so different from my experiences in the world in general. The 12-step meeting wasn’t the problem—our society was.
But it wasn’t until I spoke to Monica Richardson that I realized how limited my perspective was. Richardson spent over 30 years in AA and had her first experience of predatory behavior from older men soon after her first meeting. She thought that this was an isolated incident, or something specific to her. As she continued in AA, however, she met many women who had similar, or worse, experiences. “Men were coming to meetings with no intention of getting sober,” she says. “They were just there to prey on the young newcomers.”
Richardson is no longer in AA and is now an outspoken critic of the fellowship. She is currently producing a film, The 13th Step, that addresses the problem.
I also spoke to Tina (not her real name), a recovering alcoholic who has been in AA, both in meetings and in related service positions, for over 25 years. Tina emphasizes that she is speaking only personally and not on behalf of AA. (One of the reasons AA is so stringent about anonymity is so that statements made and actions taken by AA members are not viewed as endorsements by the group itself.)
Tina tells me that she has only ever heard about two instances of sexual harassment in the program. “It’s terrible that it happens at all but, in my experience, the vast majority of interactions between AA members is so positive and supportive that it’s hard to see [sexual harassment in AA meetings] as a really prevalent problem.”
Despite our different experiences, all three of us agreed that if anyone is attending a meeting with the sole intention of preying upon a vulnerable person, some intervention must take place. But whether AA as an organization and/or its individual members should be responsible for doing that, however, is harder to agree on.
Richardson believes that the organization should take steps to address predatory behavior, and she has tried to get AA to do just that. In addition to appealing for permission to start workshops on sexual harassment for service members (anyone who holds a service position within a meeting), she has produced pamphlets about stopping harassment and helping people to stay safe in meetings.
She also appealed to the General Service Board of AA with the help of a General Service representative.
“He wrote this beautiful letter,” Richardson says, “about how the organization needed to take action on this issue—take a stand to protect its members. GSO responded with a short ‘We have no opinion on outside issues’ statement and that was that.” Her pamphlets and posters were taken down because they had not been approved by AA. Her appeals to put the issue on the agenda of the district meeting were rebuffed. She was told that it was up to each individual group to figure them out.
While this response was understandably frustrating for Richardson, it raises two fundamental tenets of AA.
First, the organization does not comment on outside issues. The literature reads, “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” This is what AA refers to as its “singleness of purpose.”
Second, AA contends that “each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.” The aim is to decentralize authority and let each group become its own entity, albeit with the guiding principles of the 12 Steps and other AA tenets.
A 2010 article from the GSO entitled “Disruptive Members at AA Meetings” briefly addresses the issue of predation. It reads: “Other experience shared with this office regarding the specific issue of sexual harassment or predation has suggested that one solution is for sober, longer-time same-sex members of the group to surround the newcomer during meetings, take the newcomer out for coffee afterward, where specific information about the predator can be shared.”
But both supporters and detractors of AA are asking whether or not putting the responsibility of protecting vulnerable members on individual groups is sufficient—an approach that has clearly been at best only partly effective.
Richardson argues that if the issues of sexual harassment and predation are affecting AA as a whole, as she believes they are, the organization itself must take action. She advocates that AA make the meetings safer for its members by implement the following measures:
1. Separate meetings. People have been mandated to attend AA by the courts for offenses not related to drugs or alcohol (such as DUIs). “Create separate meetings in the courthouses or municipal buildings for violent and sex offenders,” Richardson says. She also believes that anyone under 18 should attend separate meetings with other young people, to prevent older members from preying on minors.
2. Training and education. While AA meetings have no official “leadership” positions, members fill “service commitments,” such as treasurer and secretary. Richardson believes that members in service positions should have outside training and education about sexual harassment so that they can (a) share that knowledge with the entire meeting in general and (b) have more awareness about under what conditions these behaviors typically occur and how to stop them.
3. A hotline. For counseling and reporting incidents of sexual harassment that take place in meetings.
4. Explicit warnings. AA should mandate that information about the potential dangers of predation be announced at the beginning of meetings as well as placed on the organization’s official website, says Richardson, “like OSHA does for employers.”
5. Discussion of sponsorship. Richardson would also like to see more public clarification about the nature of sponsorship, especially of the fact that sponsors are simply other alcoholics who have gone through the program. “They have no authority over a newcomer and should never give advice about medication or medical treatment,” Richardson says. While AA pamphlets are already dedicated to the message that medical advice should only be sought from professionals—a measure taken in response to a debate in recent decades about whether or not antidepressants and other medications fall under the rubric of sobriety—Richardson says that this rule gets lost in practice.
The most definitive of Richardson’s recommendations, and the one most frequently mentioned in light of the Brada case, is that of segregated meetings for court-mandated members. It is also, according to the people I spoke with, the least likely to occur. The problem is one of perspective: Is it AA’s responsibility to “oversee” people who are in meetings because they were sentenced to attend rather than because they want to attend? Or is it the court’s responsibility to establish different sentencing guidelines for these people?
Tina says that it’s the moral imperative of the group to protect its vulnerable members, and that in cases of sexual assault or rape, the victim, should he or she choose to contact the police, should be supported in doing so. She also believes that the courts shouldn’t be “abusing” AA by sentencing people to meetings when those people have a different set of needs and circumstances than do voluntary members—some people sentenced to AA, for example, have not been convicted or alcohol- or drug-related crimes and may not even have a problem with substances.
“I don’t know that it helps the sentenced individual [to be mandated to attend AA], and it can certainly have a negative effect on the meeting overall,” Tina says.
At the same time, she adds, there’s no practical way for AA to enforce a separate-rooms rule or monitor membership. Anonymity is a central tenet of AA. “By definition, AA doesn’t keep track of who is attending meetings or why. You can’t have members jumping down people’s throats and questioning them about their background and why they are at the meeting.”
AA organizations outside the US and Canada have already addressed one or two “outside issues.” The AA Service Handbook for Great Britain released guidelines on inappropriate behaviors (see page 70 of this document). And the About AA section of Alcoholics Anonymous Australia’s homepage reads in part, “You’re a member of a group if you choose to be. You can come and go as you please. No one is ‘in charge’ of a group. We work through the offer of help and suggestion only. No one can tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.” Under “What AA Is Not” are the following rules: “Follow up or try to control its members,” “make medical or psychological diagnoses or prognoses,” and “Provide drying-out or nursing services, hospitalization, drugs or any medical or psychiatric treatment.”
As for training and educating members, Tina is all for it. “When I first started attending meetings, people really watched out for newcomers and intervened when it looked to them like 13th-stepping was happening,” she says. “Over the past 10 years or so, that sense of responsibility to the group seems to be diminishing in many places.”
Tina believes this is, in part, down to environment. “In areas where there are only a few meetings per week, members are very willing to deal with these kinds of issues head on, because the health of the meeting depends on it and that’s the only meeting they have,” she says. “In more populous areas, I think people feel like they can switch meetings if they don’t like the behavior at a certain meeting. There’s a more hands-off, non-confrontational approach that’s really detrimental to the overall meeting environment. If service members attended workshops where they learned how to handle issues of sexual misconduct, they could not only model the appropriate way to do it but also remind members that the health of the group is up to the members themselves.”
So what’s the answer to the question of AA’s responsibility for sexual and other predation among its ranks?
On the one hand, the status quo—no official policy—would seem to leave a lot of room for improvement. On the other hand, AA principles such as decentralization of authority, autonomy of meetings and anonymity of individuals seem to conflict with the establishment of a specific enforceable rule.
AA was created for the sole purpose of helping alcoholics achieve sobriety, which many members find improves—or saves—their lives. But if there is a way for it to better achieve that goal—for example, by preventing predation—it stands to reason that the organization should consider that.
Similarly, each AA member should do everything in their power to make sure predation and harassment don’t happen in their own meeting.
Ultimately, though, individuals are responsible—morally and legally—for their own actions. That’s why Eric Earle is in prison for what he did to Karla Brada.