13th step

Men Work with Men, Women Work with Women

You are a newcomer to sobriety and to Alcoholics Anonymous. You look forward to meetings and to waking up sober each day. You probably look up to AA members who have multiple years sober and believe that they achieved long-term sobriety by working an honest program and trying to be good guys in general. In many cases, this is true. However, some parties are acting out by seeking romantic relationships in A.A.

AA Helps You get Sober through a Social Model of Recovery

People stay sober through working the 12 steps because they no longer have to live with the burden of guilt caused by years of drinking and the wreckage alcoholism commonly creates in the lives of others. Recovering people have a new lease on life after taking an honest look at character defects and the harm their selfish behavior caused; making amends where possible without creating more wreckage, and doing their best to live by AA principles on a daily basis.

Nobody works a program of recovery perfectly as we are human beings and prone to error and missteps. Many people who are trying to regain normalcy in their life might want to seek a dating relationship with another member of A.A.  Some may unconsciously pursue this avenue as a form of “acting out,” to cope with the stress and pressures of sobriety.

Although the fear of ’13th Steppers’ is probably overblown, there are surely members of A.A. who seek to take advantage of the vulnerability of newcomers to the program of alcoholics anonymous

13th Steppers

To consciously pursue a relationship with a vulnerable person is in complete opposition to twelve step principles.  Sometimes 13th steppers have years of continuous sobriety, but that doesn’t mean they are living a fulfilling life of recovery as prescribed by the 12 steps. Judging from their behavior, their primary purpose is not to stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety. They seek to cozy up to an attractive newcomer or series of newcomers and have romantic encounters. Like all sexual predation, there is a huge imbalance of power between a newcomer in the rooms and somebody with long term sobriety.

What is the Thirteenth Step?

The 13th step is when a person with a long time sober befriends a newcomer in AA for the purpose of becoming sexually intimate. A big reason this is unethical and predatory is because newcomers in the rooms:

  • have been abusing alcohol or other drugs for years (or decades)
  • are emotionally unstable
  • cannot think clearly yet
  • are usually scared
  • are lacking in confidence and self-worth
  • are frequently in legal, financial, and/or family trouble

Many people, both men and women, have turned to alcohol and other drugs after being abused sexually, sometimes as children even. When this is the case, the newcomer will be especially vulnerable and less equipped to ward off inappropriate advances. Newcomers are vulnerable in just about every way.

13th Steppers and the AA Principles

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous1 is very specific about sexual behavior and recovery. On page 69 of the book, the writer says:

“In this way we tried to shape a sane and sound ideal for our future sex life. We subjected each relation to this test—was it selfish or not?”

There’s not much a person could do sexually that is more selfish than gratifying one’s own desire with total disregard for the other person’s well-being. Anybody who takes advantage of someone who is new in AA and who maybe looks up to them because of their time sober is not thinking about the newcomer; it’s an abuse of power.

Somebody who is newly sober is not really ‘playing with a full deck.’ It takes months, even years for the body and mind to recover fully from the effects of alcohol. Especially in the early days, we are prone to make mistakes in judgment. This is why a healthy AA group will band together to protect and support the newcomer, without trying to take advantage of him or her. It’s a good reason why there are suggestions like ‘men stick with the men; women with the women’.

“No New Relationships in the First Year” (of Sobriety)

A common refrain from sponsor to sponsee is “no new relationships in the first year.” The suggestion is not to make any major changes at first, except of course to stay sober a day at a time and work the steps with a sponsor who has worked them. People have relapsed over relationships in early sobriety. And for someone in recovery, a relapse could be a death sentence.

After somebody has a year or so sober they are in a much better mental and emotional state. This is why we suggest that if you are in a relationship don’t leave until you have some time sober (unless of course the relationship is abusive). You could regret it later on if the breakup generates enough stress which trieggers a relapse. Many have made some big mistakes in early sobriety, owing to a sense of confidence and/or a miscalculation on the repercussions of the decision. Once you’ve got some sober time it’s great to form friendships and romance with the opposite sex in AA.

What to Do if You Like Somebody in the Rooms and You are a Newcomer

Maybe there’s somebody in the group that you like a lot. You’ve been trying to get that person’s attention, but if she or he is truly practicing AA principles, nothing’s going to happen until after you have some time sober. Always remember that a 13th stepper is not really somebody you want to be too friendly towards, as they might have issues with relationships that cause them to be toxic to other people.

After you’ve been sober for around a year, you could ask the person out if you’re still interested, or maybe they‘ll (or someone else will) ask you for a date. It will be closer to the standard of two consenting adults if you’re both sober for a while first. And you’ll have a much better chance of having a healthy interaction where nobody gets hurt if you’re both grounded in the AA way of life, whether it’s just casual dating or a serious romance.

Be Wary of Predators Such as 13th Steppers in AA

An AA group is open to the public. Anybody can join. Somebody could join an AA group claiming that they have years of sobriety when they never had a problem with alcohol in their life. Ted Bundy2 worked as a counselor in a suicide hotline and his friend Ann Rule thought he was the nicest young man she had ever met. It took her years after he had been arrested for multiple murders to accept and believe that he was really a serial killer. While they were friends and during the time they worked side by side at the Seattle suicide hotline, Ted Bundy tortured, raped and killed as many young women as he could lure into trusting him. Ann couldn’t reconcile his kind, frequently gallant behavior towards her and the crimes he committed; he didn’t act like a bad guy. Dennis Rader, the “BTK killer,” was a leader in his Lutheran church.

According to Harvard psychologist Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, around one out of every 25 people is a sociopath, in other words, born without a conscience. It’s a hereditary genetic defect, like alcoholism. One characteristic sociopaths have in common is that they are charming. They work hard at being charming as it is a way to gain power and control over others and is usually part of their cover.

People have died and have been violated in the worst ways by trusting the wrong members of Alcoholics Anonymous and by assuming that because they claim to have years sober they are decent people. It’s an easy mistake to make. Somebody could talk a really good rap at meetings. But the thing is, does their behavior match their talk? And even if it does on the surface, how well do you know them? Always remember that AA is a mixed bag like any other group and there will be a few predators, just like going to a bar. An easy way to single out the predators in the group is those who are obviously thirteenth stepping newcomers.

You May Also Enjoy:


1.The Big Book, available here.
2.Serial Killer and the Revelations of Ted Bundy, available here.