Inside the World of "13th-Steppers," People Who Prey on Recovering Substance Abusers
Dee Young*, now 54, was 26 when she realized she had to get sober. Like many substance abusers, she sought the help of a free 12-step program like Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous.
Right before her 90th day of sobriety, an older man in her "home group" (an AA term for the recurring meeting she most regularly attended within the schedule) approached her after a meeting. She had cried in the meeting, and he wanted to comfort her — so he invited her to come to his apartment and see some of his paintings.
"Once I went to his apartment, he said, 'You seem so tense, let me give you a massage,'" Young said in a phone interview. He convinced her it was fine, so she laid down with her clothing on.
"He said, 'It's really hard to massage you. Let me untie this halter.' I'm like '... no.' I was really confused because I wasn't sure if I was being paranoid or not," Young said. "I doubted myself. I was just counting my days, fresh off drugs."
Immediately afterward, Young called her sponsor. That's how she found out about the 13th step.
The 13th step is a term that refers to an experienced member of a 12-step program sleeping with a newcomer. It typically implies an imbalance of power, with one party being new to recovery and vulnerable while the other is more seasoned, having "more time" in a 12-step program under their belt.
Because 12-step meetings are often intimate experiences that promote bonding between members, sexual and romantic relationships between participants are common. "There is an emotional intimacy and social camaraderie in AA that encourages connection. Some people get swept up by this connection and romanticize or sexualize it," Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, an addictions and relationship psychotherapist, said in a phone interview.
To an AA newcomer, dating someone else in recovery has its surface benefits: You understand what the other person is going through, and you're less likely to be around booze than if you were dating a drinker. Unfortunately, these relationships can be perilous to navigate, particularly when you're in an early stage of sobriety. Given the fragile state of most recovering substance abusers, dating someone else in AA when you're newly sober is generally considered a bad idea.
The Fix columnist and author of the upcoming addiction memoir My Fair Junkie Amy Desner experienced this firsthand when she started a relationship with a newly recovering addict while she was in recovery. She said she intensely regretted it.
"We were in such different places in our lives and sobriety. The dynamic was so volatile that I almost got loaded over it," she said in an email interview. "Thank God I didn't, and we remain friends. But I would never date a newcomer again."
Hayleigh*, a member of a 12-step group that she didn't want to publicly identify, said that she met a man who tried to 13-step her in a meeting two years ago. "[He] had asked me to go to a baseball game with him and I didn't do it. He was angry at me. I was like, 'What's your problem?' and he threatened me, and it really, really, scared me," Hayleigh said in a phone interview.
It's not uncommon for 13th-steppers to use their time in the program as a way to establish themselves as mentors for newly sober people, all the while disguising their less-than-honorable intentions. In Hayleigh's case, the man who invited her to the baseball game had a reputation as a 13th-stepper and had been accused of sexual assault in the past.
"I wanted help, from anyone that was willing to help," she said. "So [when] someone who has a lot of time [has] posed themselves as wise and all-knowing, it's easily disguised."
While the power dynamic between 13th-steppers and the newly sober is inherently skewed, it most often takes the form of consensual, if not somewhat coercive, sex. But in extreme cases, it can take the form of sexual assault. Indeed, sexual abuse in AA made headlines in 2007, when the Washington Post reported on a Maryland group that encouraged sex with older men and teenagers.
"There is so much rape [in 12-step programs]," Monica Richardson, a former AA member and documentary filmmaker, said in an interview with Mic.
Richardson was in AA for 36 years before she left the program. In 2015, she released a documentary, The 13th Step, to "[expose] the criminal and sexually predatory behavior that occurs systematically within Alcoholics Anonymous," according to the film's website. She was inspired to make the film by the 2011 murder of Karla Mendez, who was killed by Eric Earle, a man she met at AA who eventually became her fiancé.
But Richardson has also had her own personal experience with 13th-stepping.
"When I was 13th-stepped, it really put me in an emotional spiral. I was going to have one year of sobriety, and I became suicidal," Richardson said. "It fucked me up until I was about three years sober."
The man who 13th-stepped Richardson had also done it, she says, to "hundreds and hundreds of women. He would take them out of rehab, move them in. He had a pattern. There was a two-week limit. Then he would throw them out," she said.
Unfortunately, there are very little safeguards in AA itself to ensure that 13th-steppers don't prey on new members. As the Guardian reported in an article on harmful dating within AA, while group leaders often warn people not to date new members, it's difficult to monitor for such behavior, as 12-step programs are "not equipped to address many of the complex issues that come along with addiction, since they're run by people who are not trained as professionals."
But for those who come into the meetings full of hope, the harsh reality of being 13th-stepped can be a severe letdown.
"I kind of thought AA was this really safe, magical place where everybody had my best interest at heart. It did make me feel unsafe for a little while. I wasn't sure anymore if people were being nice to me because I was new, or if they wanted something from me," Young said.
Along with the normal feelings associated with a traumatic experience, such as anxiety, insomnia and feeling unsafe, those in recovery experience a risk of relapse after being 13th-stepped. Often, they stop attending meetings, simply out of fear of running into the individual, which can interfere with new members' hard-won sobriety.
"I think it definitely affects somebody's sobriety. Being afraid of someone in a place where you are supposed to feel safe will definitely turn people away," Hayleigh said.
Richardson said that AA is not doing enough to address the more perilous outcomes of 13th-stepping. She suggests offering sexual assault training for leaders within the 12-step program. "You would do this in any nonprofit. You need to have meetings for people to feel safe," she explained.
When asked to comment, AA replied: "AA is guided by a long standing Tradition of not commenting on anything that others write about our Fellowship."
"These rooms are really for self-help and that's it. It's not a dating service."
The dangers of 13th-stepping aside, it's worth noting that many recovering addicts can forge healthy and successful romantic relationships with other group members after they've spent some time in the program.
Young, for instance, went on to meet her husband in her program, and they've now been together almost nine years. And Hayleigh also had a positive experience dating a man in her recovery program.
"I learned so much from this person, because he had been sober a long time. It was so nice for me to be able to communicate with someone really openly and honestly, because I'd never had that before. I learned how to be myself for the first time," she said.
Hokemeyer said it's not all that uncommon for people to forge long-lasting relationships while they're both in recovery, though it largely depends "on the quality of their sobriety. The people who succeed are resolved first and foremost to staying clean and sober," he said.
Yet Hokemeyer suggests that those new to recovery wait at least a year before dating, advice that is echoed by AA itself. "People who come into the rooms of AA are very raw," Hokemeyer said. "They have just given up their [addictive substance of choice] and are suffering from incredible emotional and physical pain. Their judgments are cloudy and they are reacting on a hyper-sensitive central nervous system."
Although the man Hayleigh dated later passed away, she said she is still open to having a relationship with another member. But she wants to make it clear that that's not the reason she attends meetings.
"Twelve-step rooms should be used for the 12 steps. If anything else comes out of it — friendship, a relationship — that's an added bonus. These rooms are really for self-help and that's it. It's not a dating service," she said.
*First names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely about private matters.