Predatory Behavior Within the Fellowship

By Heather B.

I initially found AA roughly 20 years ago, filled with trepidation and with zero self-esteem.  Much to my surprise, I had been diagnosed with drug-induced psychosis after seeking psychiatric help for what I thought was depression.  Of course, it wasn’t that simple.  I knew I was an alcoholic, but since drugs were the current problem, I went to NA.  I was 30 years old and thin to the point of illness.  Years of subsisting on crystal meth and nothing else – especially food and sleep – had taken a toll, but I was young enough to bounce back. Most NA meetings were filled with men whose sexual overtones before and after the meetings made me uncomfortable and created so much anxiety that I began to dread going. I tried different meetings, but the same people were there.  My therapist suggested AA.  I took her advice and never returned to NA.  Twenty years later, after many false starts and relapses, I am approaching 7 years of continuous sobriety. I am incredibly grateful for the rooms in which I have found support, laughter, and unconditional acceptance. 

In 1999, I was young and freshly divorced from my sexually abusive husband, and sober for the first time.  I had social anxiety and hated speaking up, especially in meetings.  I was full of self-hatred and, therefore, vulnerable. I didn’t yet have the confidence or the tools for self-soothing and part of my drinking/using typically involved relationships with men. I found an established women’s meeting and was warned about new relationships and steering clear of the opposite sex.  One young newcomer described an older man who had volunteered to be her sponsor and offered her a place to stay.  The seasoned women in the group explained why this was a bad idea and told us that AA predators were known as “pigeon fuckers” and to steer clear of them.

As I often did, I ignored the wisdom that was offered to me.  I hated the “no new relationships” rule and, feeling shitty about myself, fell back into familiar patterns of external validation.  While I didn’t date men in the program, I did date men who drank.  Not surprisingly, I relapsed.  In fact, every relapse I’ve had accompanied a romantic/sexual relationship.  The men I dated didn’t know (though they quickly learned) I was an alcoholic and using them to make myself feel better – a quicker fix than doing the emotional labor suggested within the program.  In the middle of my second attempt at treatment, I was asked to leave after getting involved with another patient.  The minute a man showed interest, I was off and running for two reasons: the distraction and the emotional painkiller. 

What I know now is that self-esteem is an ongoing, hard-won battle that never ends, and that real self-confidence can only come from within.  Today I have a relationship with someone in the program and together we’ve helped get a couple of agnostic meetings off the ground.  Still, we rarely attend meetings together and I consciously choose to use the tools – recovery and otherwise – at my disposal when I feel shitty rather than looking to the relationship for validation. 

From where I’m standing now, roughly 20 years later, I see the same predatory behavior I was warned about in the 1990’s and it still needs to be addressed.  When someone with a significant amount of sobriety seeks out a romantic/sexual relationship with someone new to the program and/or sobriety, it’s referred to as “13th stepping”.  It’s predatory because, at best, it takes advantage of another’s vulnerability and interferes with their recovery.  At worst, it compromises the other person’s sobriety, leading them back to alcohol and drugs. 

The program is often the first (and sometimes only) lifeline that many of us find.  Many women, including myself, arrive carrying the weight of sexual trauma. Now we have to get sober in an environment filled with men we don’t know.  Imagine, on top of this, getting befriended by someone who pretends to help – offers you a lifeline – but only wants to sleep with you.  It is irresponsible and reprehensible to manipulate a newcomer in this way.  If we are to carry the message to those who still suffer, it’s up to us to honor, not take advantage of, the vulnerability that newcomers carry through the door.  

Earlier this year, a man from the program was exhibiting condescension and disrespect to women both in and out of the rooms.  Despite being verbally warned and challenged on several occasions, his behavior escalated and eventually, after threatening me with physical harm, he showed up at a meeting with a weapon intending to inflict harm.  My male partner stepped in to protect me and was assaulted.  The man was charged with battery and went to jail; the case is still working its way through the legal system. This example is extreme, I know, but it illustrates why not everyone feels, or is, safe in the rooms of AA.

I think the rooms are in need of an overhaul in the way this behavior and other predatory actions are handled if they are to remain welcoming to women.  Problems need to be addressed before they escalate to the point that women are afraid to attend meetings. I suspect that some people, when faced with this behavior, look the other way and dismiss it as “none of my business.”  Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the business of all of us. Our mission is to welcome and assist every person coming through our doors who wants to stop drinking and drugging and pursue a sober life. If we are to keep the rooms of AA a safe space for sharing and honesty, then we must also be firmly opposed to any threat to that safety.  It is completely acceptable for a group to decide that an individual is no longer welcome.  Groups should exercise this right if necessary, so that intolerance of predatory behavior becomes the new norm.

Of course, women’s meetings afford an environment that feels both emotionally and physically safer.  Having recently helped to start one, I can say from personal experience that I find an intimacy there – with women willing to share more openly and at a deeper level – than I find at mixed meetings.  For those of us grappling with sexual or physical trauma, these may be the only rooms in which we are comfortable sharing.  I know it was difficult, initially, for me to relate to the men who displayed huge egos when I was so far down in the gutter.  I was also feeling the weight of my own guilt in a world where women are expected, above all, to care for others. Still, I don’t think complete segregation is the answer.  Limiting ourselves to 50% or less of the recovery population seems antithetical to benefiting from those characteristics that we all share.  Someone much smarter than I once said that connection is the opposite of addiction.

Predation is a serious problem within our community, the program that has saved us from jail, insanity, and death.  Therefore, it will take the community as a whole to change this culture.  We need to talk about this topic in meetings.  It should be discussed with sponsees of both genders from the outset.  And men, I implore you, do not let this behavior go unchecked.  When you see another man preying on newcomers, say something.  Do not let the solution to this problem rest solely with women.  Take a stand and protect the women in your recovery circles so that everyone is safe and has access to the gifts of sobriety. 


About the Author, Heather B. 

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Bob
Bob
4 months ago

What you say is true. I have seen it go the other way too, sexual predatory females who can do just as much damage to the vulnerable male newcomers. Men with the men and women with the women is a great suggestion.

Joshua Robinson
Joshua Robinson
5 months ago

After reading all these stories, I got to thinking of how to fix this issue. There should be some database or website to list/keep tabs on offenders. Not something so hardcore as a sex offender registry, but something like that. A place where people can tag you with legitimate claims, maybe on social media somehow? I do computer work for a living, but I am too focused on my own recovery to begin this project right now. However, in a few months, I think I will personally begin something to track and monitor these predators. A publicly listed picture/real name… Read more »

Allise B
Allise B
8 days ago

I would hate for newcomers to think the problem is so rife we have to keep a large database–that would certainly scare me off, Such a database would also hinder someone trying again honestly and sincerely. Unfortunately, you further run the risk of privacy invasions and libel if you’re wrong. Strong sponsorship and group leaders keeping an eye out for both the predators and the prey will better serve the alcoholic who still suffers, IMHO. We should also spread the GSO guidance on safety at meetings (there is a printed service piece). To qualify myself, I was brutally raped by… Read more »

Victoria B
Victoria B
7 months ago

Started dating a guy in AA last year. I wasn’t in the program at that point, but after 4 months in I realized I needed help and joined AA myself. He had a fit! Informed me we needed to break up because he didn’t want to be accused of 13th stepping me, and that he didn’t date in the program. Reminded him that we were already together before I joined so that didn’t apply; I asked him that if we were married, would he divorce me for joining AA? We stayed together, but I agreed to not go to any… Read more »

Suzi
Suzi
7 months ago
Reply to  Victoria B

Victoria, I basically have the same story as you — and I completely get how you want to intervene and help his latest victim, I felt the same. But I knew 1) that HE would twist everything to make me appear as a jealous, unstable drunk, 2) I decided that I needed to put me first because I still needed some healing and walking back into the fray of drama and dysfunction was not in MY best interest, and 3) she would never have believed me over him anyway! I have no idea how things went for the new victim… Read more »

Joshua Robinson
Joshua Robinson
5 months ago
Reply to  Victoria B

Guy sounds like a loser. Put him in the past and stop trying to save everyone. Worry about yourself, find someone who deserves you.

Allise B
Allise B
8 days ago
Reply to  Victoria B

Have you discussed this with your sponsor? If you were one of my sponsees, I would walk you through a 4th and 5th step on him and suggest you pray about what God would have you do. Once you have done your 5th, hopefully you will be clear of any resentment and able to act out of love and tolerance. Others have asked the new girlfriend “Would you want to know if he has a history of 13th-stepping/infidelity?” That leaves it up to her to decide if she is unique or if she would like to hear your experience and… Read more »

Gregg C
Gregg C
9 months ago

Hi… Would love to get in contact with Heather B. (author of the article)
It’s important timing I found this article.
Thank you.
Gregg C.

Joshua Robinson
Joshua Robinson
5 months ago
Reply to  Gregg C

Another predator…

Annette P
Annette P
10 months ago

thank you. Right now I’m getting ready to launch into the arena of stepping out and facing this due to this issue coming up in our area here in Columbus Ohio. Predators are taking advantage of newcomers in ways that are just horrible. I reached the point where I can no longer have people ignore this. I myself was verbally abused by a man 2 years ago and a group refused to help me or stand up for me. Right now I am looking at preparing a flyer to hand out at meetings and draw people’s attention to the fact… Read more »

Joshua Robinson
Joshua Robinson
5 months ago
Reply to  Annette P

I wish I could tell you AA would have your back. Every meeting is different, but you probably won’t find what you are looking for there. Safety/security and AA are not mutually exclusive. You have to stand up for yourself and see each place as its own.

Joshua Robinson
Joshua Robinson
5 months ago
Reply to  Annette P

You have good intentions, but can you stop them all? Until the organization changes as a whole, all across the board, these losers will keep using AA for “fresh prey.”