When I was new in AA, a woman got hold of me before the vultures did and tucked me under her wing. She offered to be my sponsor. I was very lucky (in more ways than one, because she could have been crazy too!). Looking back, I can see she was disillusioned with AA, she’d been in it for 12 years, since her late twenties and had seen it all before. I guess, for her, sponsoring me was her way of trying to stay and be of service. Much of what she taught me, outside of the steps, was helpful. As far as I know, she’s since left for the same reasons I did.
Early on she said, ‘I don’t want to scare you, but be careful who you talk to. The good guys will leave you alone’. And there were good guys and they did leave me alone. But that’s what lulled me into a false sense of security, because these good guys weren’t really doing anything to deal with the ‘bad guys’.
My sponsor told me she’d overheard some guys at a convention talking and laughing, ‘get her on her back before she gets on her feet’. She told me about the ’13th Step’. I was shocked, but I sort of half didn’t believe her. Everyone was so friendly! We were like survivors of a shipwreck, all in it together. I was entranced with AA. I’d never heard men talk like this before, my family were buttoned up, feelings were ‘for girls’.
It’s a miracle nothing serious happened to me, because God knows they tried. Repeated offers of lifts home, phone calls late at night to ‘check I was OK’ (before I learned to say no when they asked for my number), going for ‘coffee’, and I see now that even some friendships were little more than grooming – I was naive, I was young, I was lonely, and I suppose the love starved bit of me wanted the approval. But my instincts were always good enough, and I’d run away, hurt and bewildered, when they made their move. I’d always feel guilty, I must have done something to bring it on, what was my part it in? I thought I was just being friendly [I was just being friendly!].
A few years in I received a text from a guy called Bob – we’d exchanged numbers as I’d done a chair [lead] for him one night. This is a common way men get numbers from girls under the guise of ‘recovery’ and by that point I didn’t give my number to men for any other reason. ‘Dear Rebecca, it was a delight to meet you. You looked radiant. Welcome to AA! I’d love to take you to dinner to talk about recovery and share with you. I can tell we are kindred spirits’. Or words to that effect.
Bob was a stand up comic, a whirlwind of Anima and wisecracks. Popular as a speaker, funny, charming. By then I knew he was a slimebag – I could spot them at fifty paces, they didn’t even need to speak, I could feel that icky energy from across a room. To the girls, I’d often say of a popular man, ‘I don’t like him’ to an amazed ‘Why???’ I was usually proved right further down the line. These are the whispered conversations between women around the edges of the meetings. We’d feel powerless to do anything about it except moan and complain (what a big fat LIE that was, there was plenty we could have done, but we’d taken our AA medicine well!). We felt an obligation to try to protect the new girls, keeping them out of harms way, but we felt obligated to protect the man’s ‘anonymity’ too. Suffice to say, it was a losing battle. I see now that it’s like a bad episode of Downton Abbey, the scullery maids whispering about the nasty master, who had all the power and made the rules. Somehow our feminist instincts got left outside. A bit like that old AA saying, ‘leave your brain at the door’ … ‘or maybe your brain needs a good wash!’.
My text reply to the slimebag was ‘Wrong Rebecca, I hope she isn’t a newcomer’. Suffice to say, I got no reply from ‘reaching out the hand of friendship’ Bob.
My experience is mild compared to most but I’ve seen the most disgusting things over and over. Here where I am now in the Midlands, I heard a story about men doing ’12 step calls’ alone (when a desperate drinker rings the helpline and someone is sent out to their house to talk to them this is called the ’12th step’ or ‘carrying the message’). One poor woman, highly intoxicated, called for help and a man was sent to her house. This woman ended up performing oral sex on the man who arrived. I’d imagine the shame when she sobered up prevented her accessing any further help. I’d imagine she blamed herself. This story was often told with laughter, or with a helpless shrug, ‘what can you do?’.
Many, many people who come into AA are like Daniel in the Lions Den. Sexual abuse survivors are easy pickings because they have such damaged physical and sexual boundaries. They really do not know it’s OK to ask people not to touch them. In fact often they are so shut down, they are out of touch with their body completely. They feel bad, even guilty, when someone offers a hug ‘in fellowship’ even though they don’t want one, and they mistrust their own warning system that the hug is a little bit too tight or too long (in ‘sex addiction’ circles this is called ‘collecting rain checks’). The counter argument is always that there are women (“sex and love addicts”) who act out in AA quite deliberately too, and this is true to some extent. But even then, a good man would see that for what it is, a damaged woman looking for the right thing – connection – in the wrong place. However, by far, 13th steppers are older men with ‘sober time’ and they are scanning the room for those with poor boundaries and trauma issues, as they are easy to manipulate and control.
Lonely, vulnerable, effed up, and full of shame, these newcomers are easily seduced by offers of friendship and help. A process of grooming and abuse begins. Sometimes it’s more blatant than that, predators simply get them drunk and rape them. In some places in the States, they pass them around. I’m sure this happens here too. This culture is further supported by phrases such as ‘under every zipper there’s a slipper’ or ‘under every skirt there’s a relapse’ – said as if there was parity between the two parties. So when the newcomer inevitably gets drunk, or falls apart, it’s all labelled her ‘disease’ rather than a gross violation of her body, her mind, and her trust, and a travesty of the boundaries of the fellowship.
Members also seem to have total amnesia about the pledge, which is read at the end of every meeting in the UK: ‘When anyone anywhere reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA to always be there, and for that I am responsible’. The trouble is the hand of AA reaches out and tells the victim that it’s her fault (it’s usually a her).
Whilst I’ve heard horrific stories of abject abuse, for the most part, in the UK, what I see is more a ‘boys club’ attitude about it. Sexism that would be more at home in an episode of ‘Mad Men’ than 21st century Britain. It’s that kind of casual sexism that makes my blood boil. Tragically, female members of AA reinforce this sexism and ignorance as much as the men by ‘working the programme’.
He’s ‘not a saint’ they say. We are all sick people trying to get well.
Well some of us are sicker than others, and some are trying harder than others, and some aren’t trying at all!
Why is it that a ‘whoops sponsor, I acted out again’ is seen as sufficient, that it is considered to be ‘taking responsibility’? It’s not. Not even close. These predators do a step 10 (a mini inventory, highlighting their ‘wrongs’) and a say few prayers and then they are ‘right with God’ and ‘spiritual’ again. Meanwhile, the poor victim is left picking up the pieces – where was God then? – and looking at what ‘decisions based on self that later placed them in a position to be hurt’.
Do they say this to people who have been trafficked? What was their part in that? Being poor and female? Do they say this to people who have been the victims of racism? Their part was being born black? It’s insane.
This is a big topic and I have much more to say, but a quick Google search very easily turned up the attitudes in AA I am talking about.
The following images were found on a ‘sober’ recovery facebook page of AA members. I doubt these people have even heard of feminism or rape culture. I suppose an interest in the power structures and dynamics of our society would be considered ‘whining’.
This is why I left AA, because AA headquarters will not take a position on this issue. Because AA members reinforce prejudice that belongs far into the last century – with their dogged insistence that a book written in the 1930s (a quick scan of the chapter To Wives will aptly demonstrate my point) is still relevant to women today and their steadfast refusal to intervene on deliberate sexual predation. This paradox that good women in AA have to hold is crazy making. Just below the surface, lurking, is a deep seam of misogyny that is bleak and unsafe.