Exploitive and predatory at worse, light-hearted and flirtatious at best, the “13th Step” is often a wobbly stumbling block for new Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous (AA/NA) members seeking support during early recovery.
What is the 13th Step?
The act of “13th Stepping” is when a more experienced member of a 12-Step group – man or woman – pursues a romantic relationship with a new group member.
In early recovery, new members of a 12-Step group should always look for and use the strongest foothold to remain sober. Needless to say, the 13th Step rarely offers that stable footing.
Human Nature or Program Failure?
For millions of individuals in recovery, 12-Step groups like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous are highly effective, supportive programs. However, groups comprised of people are as imperfect as the people – no matter the group’s good intentions.
When men and women are together, especially with shared goals, a certain amount of harmless flirting naturally develops. It’s human nature. However, 13th Stepping is essentially manipulative, damaging, harassing and a serious threat to sobriety.
Shedding Light on the Issue
In 2007, Newsweek wrote an exposé on an AA group in Washington, D.C. accused of systematic 13th Stepping.
Accusations included young women being encouraged to sleep with older group members, coerced to cut-off ties with family and friends, and being assigned to exploitative sponsors (sponsors are chosen, not assigned).
Needless to say, this incidence of systematic 13th Stepping was borderline cult-like. And although extreme, the Washington AA group (as a whole) and the alarming number of reported incidents within the group clearly shows that 13th Stepping can be damaging.
Specific dangers of the 13th Step include:
- Individuals in early recovery are vulnerable. Taking advantage of this vulnerability is exploitive.
- New sexual relationships are distracting to the primary goal of sustaining sobriety in early recovery.
- When a relationship fails, individuals may feel it justifies relapse.
- It can be a betrayal of trust, driving new members away.
- 13th Stepping can damage the reputation, goals and purpose of individual groups, along with the fellowship of 12-Step groups as a whole.
New members to 12-Step groups are emotionally raw and vulnerable, so it’s normal to seek the acceptance of the group. However, new members (both male and female) should be cognizant that 12-Step groups are not perfect, and 13th Stepping may be the agenda of a few bad apples.
Flirting, dating and even marriage is not uncommon among 12-Step members, but the predatory act of taking advantage of vulnerable new members is not only exploitive; it’s destructive to the integrity and goals of the 12-Step group. For this reason, it is recommended that new members do not date during their first year of recovery and always find a group you are comfortable in.
Additional Reading: Top 5 Reasons You Should Keep Going to 12-Step Meetings
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