Everything You Need to Know About the 13th Step in AA

While you might believe AA is a safe space to recover from addiction, it’s possible you might be wrong.

There are thousands of stories of 12-Step members reporting inappropriate sexual advances from the opposite sex in the rooms.

And while it’s more common to hear stories of male sexual predators in the rooms, it’s not limited to men — there are plenty of stories of women acting inappropriately, too.

What is the 13th Step in AA?

While there are only 12 official steps in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), the 13th step is a term used to describe the sexually predatory behavior of hitting on someone who is less than a year sober.

It is strongly encouraged that anyone in their first year of sobriety avoid starting a new romantic relationship so they can focus on their recovery. However, members can choose to ignore this advice. And so sexually inappropriate behavior is something that can be rife in the world of 12-step.

“I’ll never forget suddenly being attracted to loads of people in AA,” says Becky. “I felt like a teenager again with this level of attraction,” she jokes.

This is a common experience for people in early recovery. When substances are taken out of the equation, we’re left with our feelings —including our hormones. It may feel like we’re experiencing an adolescent libido, but we’re actually just waking up to all of our senses.

While flirting is a normal part of life, it can be particularly challenging to navigate these urges in early recovery. We’re newly sober and that means we return to the emotional age we were when we first started drinking. For some of us we started drinking in our teens and others in our early 20s, but we don’t find recovery until our 30s and 40s, which means there’s often a large gap in our emotional development. We can be impulsive, not think through our decisions, and act on urges — just like an adolescent.

The Risks of 13th Stepping

Time spent pursuing romantic interactions is time spent away from focusing on recovery. I’m not suggesting that it should be recovery 24/7 — we do have lives — but I am suggesting that recovery activities and healing should take up a large part of your life. Romantic encounters take over a large part of your life. That’s why this refraining from relationships is common advice you’ll hear from a sponsor in your early days.

There is another more serious reason we’re told to avoid romance: stories about sexual predators causing harm to newcomers. There is a huge power differential in a newcomer dating an experienced member as they end up turning to them for advice and reassurance and that can be manipulated. Newcomers are considered vulnerable and impressionable; 13th stepping takes advantage of that.

Another more serious issue with getting involved in a 13th step situation is that if you break up, the emotional toll can be a risk for relapse. That is more likely to happen if you’re new than if you have several years in recovery.

Stories of the 13th Step in AA

I have first-hand experience of 13th stepping.

I attended AA for the first year of my recovery, but I always felt like NA might be a better fit. It was a younger member base with more relatable experiences.

While I felt more at home in NA, I also felt very uncomfortable with a lot of the behavior there. I was particularly bothered by the predatory behavior of women with significant clean time.

Women Can Be Predators Too

I recall one member in her 40s who would always show up wearing a short skirt and low-cut top. I’m not saying there is necessarily anything wrong with that — except her motivation was to get noticed.

She had this pattern of behavior that I thought was 13th stepping. During meetings, she’d survey the room like she was at the store trying to find a good cut of steak. Then she’d eye any newcomers by crossing and uncrossing her legs and playing with her hair.

I’d watch her turn to other women in the circle and hear her joke about the good-looking newcomer. She did this during a meeting when other people were sharing and, after the meeting, she’d offer a ride to some of these men to a local restaurant where members went for a meal after the meeting.

Turns out Tony Wasn’t a Real Friend

I also had an experienced member take advantage of my good nature and vulnerability. Tony befriended me, or so I thought, in my first month of recovery. He invited me to coffee, and it wasn’t long before he was inviting himself to my apartment.

He’d ask me to pick up tabs for food, overstay his welcome in my home, and get inappropriately close to me, telling me that he had to wait a year to make a move. I’m not saying I was innocent – I opened the door and got out my wallet, but I didn’t have the resources to set effective boundaries or the experience to know that he was taking advantage of his power and my vulnerability.

When the 13th Step Gets Really Sinister

The experiences I’ve described are on the more innocent end of the 13th step spectrum, but there are some who had more sinister experiences.

Filmmaker Monica Richardson produced a documentary film, The 13th Step, cataloging the abuses of power and sexual predators within 12 Step fellowships. The film exposes some rather shocking 13th step behavior including an AA member killing a mother and child in Hawaii, and the court ordered violent sexual offenders who regularly attend meetings, unbeknownst to other members.

That isn’t the only published media on 13th stepping. In 2007, Newsweek released an expose of a chapter of AA that encouraged newcomers to have sex with older men in the group and compare notes. Only when that member attended a meeting in a different area did she realize that she’d been 13th stepped.

How to Handle Sexual Predators in 12 Step Meetings

Undoubtedly, newcomers are vulnerable even though they may not feel it. This is where we can apply one of the first lessons we learn in recovery: setting boundaries.

These are some important boundaries to set to avoid the 13th step in AA:

  • Always check if a suggestion made by another person is something that is in the literature. Check with your sponsor and with other people before taking on these suggestions.
  • Remember: The only purpose of a sponsor is to take you through the steps. They cannot tell you to stop medication, pursue someone, do chores for them or anything else that seems unreasonable.
  • Avoid flirting or dating within your first year sober.
  • Stick with the same sex when socializing.
  • If a sponsor makes any kind of sexual advance, immediately find a new one.
  • Avoid other people who date newcomers. Those who are secure and experienced in their recovery, and have done the hard work of recovery, would not approach newcomers.

Heed AA’s Tried and True Advice

Just remember that if a fellow member’s behavior feels unreasonable, it probably is. There is a reason why they say women should stick with the women and men to stick with the men.

If you are a more experienced member of a 12-step meeting and you notice this behavior then I would argue you have a responsibility to point it out to protect the newcomer and the fellowship. There are a number of steps you can take to protect the newcomer and the fellowship:

  • Take the 13th stepper to one side of the room and explain that the other person is a newcomer and that the member shouldn’t be making advances as they’re vulnerable.
  • Approach the newcomer and ask if they are OK. You could explain the risks of a romantic relationship in the early days of recovery and perhaps you could suggest an appropriate meeting or social event to help them feel connected.

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