Are AA Members Responsible for Influencing Each Other’s Behaviors? Of Course

I very much appreciate Mark Willenbring’s recent post, “Is AA Responsible for Screening Out Dangerous Members? Of Course Not.” I agree with what I take to be his two major conclusions. The first is that AA as an entity is not responsible for screening out and separating members. The second is that the legal system has been using AA as a shortcut or substitute for effective treatment.

As Willenbring states it, “Mandated AA attendance is a lazy and destructive substitute for providing truly effective treatment, which also needs to include up-to-date treatment for mental health disorders and social support of the client’s own choosing (emphasis original).” There is no doubt that the legal system contributes to the creation of dangerous situations for many people who are vulnerable. But that’s an issue for another article.

What is Thirteenth Stepping?

As a moral philosopher and feminist, I see this tragic case of Eric Earle’s murder of Karla Mendez Brada as an extreme instance of a more common phenomenon that is deeply gendered.

Thirteenth stepping is when a member of AA with longer-term sobriety becomes romantically or sexually involved with a new member of AA.

Thirteenth stepping is a predatory practice that is shaped within a background of systemic sexism.-Peg O’Connor

Thirteenth stepping is a predatory practice that is shaped within a background of systemic sexism. Living in a culture where men are accorded enormous authority about virtually everything, is it any surprise that many women who are early in their sobriety or struggling with relapse would look to men as experts or guides? And it is not so surprising that some men find this irresistible and take it to various degrees. Whatever the degree, it is harmful to women.

Thirteenth stepping is primarily done by men to women. Are there some cases of same sex thirteenth stepping? No doubt. Are there cases of a woman with more sobriety thirteenth stepping a man? Again, no doubt. Since AA rightly has avoided the enquiring eye of social scientists because of our anonymity, there are no data. But there are plenty of stories and they should carry weight because stories are the coin of our AA realm.

Women also tend not to like other women. It is a common refrain in a women’s AA meeting that “I never liked other women. I don’t trust them.” Some of this distrust is manufactured in a context in which women compete for the attention and approval of men, which circles back to my point above.

So what do women members of AA owe other members of AA? Are we obligated to do anything?

Enter the moral philosopher in me. Yes, I do believe that women have certain duties or obligations. We do have an obligation to help others some of the time. We can’t always help others, but there are times when we must even or especially when it seems difficult. I do believe we are obligated to share stories about predatory men. And we should work to create more same sex groups. We can act in ways that engender trust. We can show women who are skeptical that women can be trustworthy by being trustworthy. And might there be times when we need to engage in something akin to a “bystander intervention?” Yes, unfortunately.

As feminists have been saying for decades, ‘Rape is not a women’s issue.’ Nor is thirteenth stepping. For it to stop, men must stop doing it.-Peg O’Connor

Men need to take responsibility for the prevalence of thirteenth stepping. As feminists have been saying for decades, “Rape is not a women’s issue.” Nor is thirteenth stepping. For it to stop, men must stop doing it. Those who do not themselves thirteenth step, must not condone it with an “Atta boy” attitude. Nor can men stand passively by while their male peers engage in this practice. Yes, this puts a burden on men, but that is precisely where the burden rests.

There is no violation in AA traditions for this sort of attitude and engagement in AA. Individual members make recommendations and offer observations to other members all the time, ranging from how long one is talking in a meeting, to whether one is acting in a distracting or disrupting manner.

The Traditions were created to help ensure the existence and well-being of AA groups. They are not a free pass on our moral obligations.

Most groups read the preamble at the start of a meeting. It reads, “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” The “our” here is crucial. Individuals comprise AA; we individuals are the “our.”

Individual members in this case have responsibilities to and for other members.-Peg O’Connor

Individual members in this case have responsibilities to and for other members. Only if we meet these responsibilities are we able to meet our primary purpose to stay sober and help others achieve sobriety. An individual who preys upon new vulnerable members is hindering and actively harming other members. Those who condone or remain passive when aware of thirteenth stepping are also abdicating our responsibilities to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

It is time that the practice of thirteenth stepping be directly confronted.

 

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