Alcoholics Anonymous is Not Perfect

The 12 Step program has helped many individuals overcome their addiction and find a meaningful life in recovery. This is not a recovery option that works for everyone, but for those who it does work for there can be spectacular results. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous offer far more than fellowship and support – they also give the individual a program that they can use to rebuild their life. The fellowship is not perfect, but it doesn’t claim to be.

Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are made up of imperfect people who are mostly trying to improve their life. The only requirement for membership is a desire to quit drinking, and this means that almost anyone can join. These groups are made up of people from every type of background, and some of them will have questionable motivations for attending. There are even those individuals who join groups like AA so that they can exploit other members. One type of exploitation that is particularly disturbing is referred to as 13th Stepping.

13th Step Defined

13th Stepping is not an official part of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous (or any 12 Step group). It is said to occur when somebody who has more than a year of sobriety tries to start up a sexual relationship with somebody who is new in recovery – or less than a year sober. Sometimes relationships like this do develop in AA, but they are viewed negatively and are not a good idea for either of those involved.

The Dangers of 13th Stepping

Thirteenth stepping is dangerous for a number of reasons including:

  • When people first become sober they can be highly vulnerable. It is therefore easy for other people to take advantage of them, and this would be considered exploitative.
  • Early sobriety requires all of the individual’s attention. They cannot afford to be distracted by a new sexual relationship.
  • When things turn sour, as they almost always do with this type of relationship, the newcomer might use this as justification to relapse back to their addiction.
  • When those AA members who have achieved long term sobriety commit such actions it brings the whole fellowship into disrepute. It may be enough to drive new members away from the group – even those who really need the support.
  • In many instances these attempts to 12 Step the newcomer will be a betrayal of trust. These people have turned to the group for help yet somebody in the group is trying to exploit them sexually.
  • In some instances the individual will have turned to alcohol or drug because of sexual abuse. Attempts to 13th Step them will mean that they are not able to feel safe in the meetings.
  • There have been some AA groups where 13 stepping has led to the group becoming dysfunctional. If a newcomer ends up in one of these groups it can be highly damaging for them.
  • The power relationships in these encounters are unfair. The newcomer can easily become manipulated by this other person who is more established in recovery.
  • Those individuals who try to 13th step a newcomer are behaving in a way that is unethical and exploitative. In order for people to progress in recovery it is important that they live an honest and ethical life – if they fail to do this they will likely develop dry drunk syndrome.
  • There are some individuals in AA who move from one newcomer to the next. These sexual predators can do a great deal of damage to the reputation of the fellowship, and they can get in the way of people achieving lasting sobriety.

Why 13th Stepping Occurs

There are a number of reasons for why 13th stepping can occur including:

  • Some people find it hard to develop sexual or romantic relationships without the assistance of alcohol or drugs. Because of this they feel lonely, and this can cause them to view newcomers as potential sexual conquests.
  • Just because people stop drinking does not always mean that they become better people – in Alcoholics Anonymous they talk about the sober horse thief.
  • Not everyone who goes to an AA group will be there to for the right reasons. Some may view it as a type of social club where they can meet sexual partners.
  • When people are newly sober they may believe that sex will help them feel better. This means that some of them may try to instigate sexual relationships with other members of the group – those who are established in the program should be able to gently but firmly reject such advances.
  • Flirting is a normal activity for members to engage in, but some people take such playfulness the wrong way. They may see this flirting as the green light to make a sexual advance.
  • Individual 12 Step groups have a great deal of autonomy. This means that if the group goes off the rails it is difficult to control the situation.

13th Stepping and the Addictive Personality

The addictive personality is a set of characteristics that make people more prone to falling into addiction. When people become sober they can still allow these characteristics to rule their life, and this makes them susceptible to 13th Stepping type behavior. The aspects of the addictive personality that encourage this include:

  • Tendency to act impulsively. The individual is liable to do things without thinking about the possible consequences of their actions.
  • Inability to delay gratification.
  • A feeling of alienation from other people. This may mean that the individual is attracted to those who appear vulnerable.
  • Those who have low self esteem may believe that their own chance of developing a relationship is with those who are vulnerable.
  • Many addicts have a high tolerance for deviance. The can believe that the rules are there to be broken.
  • They tend to be highly insecure in relationships, and this may mean that their relationships tend to be short lived. This can mean that they move from one sexual encounter to the next.

Once people become sober they need to begin chipping away at those character flaws that led them into addictive behavior. If they fail to do this they can fall into maladaptive and destructive behaviors such as 13th stepping. The aim of the 12 step program is to allow the individual to escape the addictive personality and find real happiness in life.

13th Stepping and AA Scandals

Considering the nature of 12 Step groups it is surprising how few scandals have actually developed. After all, anyone can join the fellowship, and the rules of these groups have been created so as to not be too intrusive. Those scandals that have arisen do sometimes involve 13th stepping. One group that did hit the headlines was in Washington DC back in 2005 – this was the Midtown group. There were accusations that newcomers were being pressured into having sex with older members of the fellowship. Most disturbing of all was how a 15 year old girl was encouraged to have sex with the other members of the group. Those who complained about the sexual exploitation in the group were treated as if they were the problem – one sponsor told their sponsee that they couldn’t trust their own thoughts.

How to Deal with 13th Stepping

There are a number of ways for dealing with 13th Stepping including:

  • It is acceptable to have a sexual relationship with another member of the group but only when both partners are secure in their sobriety. Sometimes even people who have been sober for more than a year will be too vulnerable for a relationship.
  • If a sponsor makes any type of sexual advance then it is vital to end this relationship right away. A sponsor is there to provide support and advice, and if they try to exploit this relationship in other ways it can be highly damaging to the sponsee.
  • Newcomers should avoid any type of sexual relationship within the first year of their recovery. Staying sober needs to be their priority and sexual relationships could put this at risk.
  • Flirting is normal behavior in these groups. It is usually harmless, but it is important to look out for how the other person is reacting – some may take innocent flirtations to meaning something else.
  • It is usually suggested that gay members choose a sponsor of the opposite sex, and that heterosexuals stick with same-sex sponsors. The reason for this is to prevent the sponsorship relationship becoming infected with sexual tension.
  • If the flirtatious behavior of another individual is making a new member feel uncomfortable it is a good idea to speak to their sponsor about it. This more experienced person should be able to offer advice on how to deal with the situation.
  • There may be some rare AA groups that have become corrupted by members who are sexual predators. If the individual believes that they are attending such a group they will be advised to change to a different group.

If you believe that you or a loved one are at risk of losing security in a recovery community due to 13th Stepping, consider finding an alternative group to plant your roots. American Addiction Centers hosts virtual AA groups that are open to anyone, whether or not you’ve completed in-patient treatment at any of our nationwide centers.

If you’re feeling insecure in your recovery and would like to learn more about entering treatment, check us out here. Our team answers calls from this site 24/7 at — we’re here to help.