How 12-Step Programs Perpetuate Rape Culture

As most of you know, I no longer attend 12-step meetings. When I first told people I was backing away, I made a conscious effort to not offend anyone or talk shit on the program. Okay, well, I’m done doing that. Toxic people and systems encourage the kind of fear I’ve been sitting with — the kind that keeps people silent.

Y’all fucked with a big mouth.

Before I serve the meat of this multi-course meal, I would like to provide you with some real life examples of the way 12-step programs perpetuate rape culture and other forms of oppression. (Note: This post primarily talks about assault and harassment against women, but the problems certainly extend beyond that.)  

  1. When I started with Narcotics Anonymous, I was introduced to a man named Alex who told me he had recently helped a using addict move her things out of her apartment. It was also revealed that he had brought her to a bar, encouraged her to drink an absurd amount of alcohol, and then had sex with her. Hello, this is rape.
  2. This same individual notoriously preys on NA newcomers (people with three months clean or less). He has had sex with dozens of newly clean women, many of whom would relapse after having sex with him because of the disgusting, manipulative ways he treats women.
  3. One of Alex’s friends — Thomas — stalked a dear friend of mine. He was found hiding in her bushes late at night a few years ago.
  4. A 74-year-old man promised he was “not trying to get in my pants,” but wanted to spend alone time with me.
  5. A 65-year-old man asked me out after I confessed to being a sex addict at a meeting.
  6. Last night, I heard an AA-er say, “You’re a lucky fucking Jew. You probably would have survived the gas chambers.” Another asked me if I was racist. I said “No, are you?” “Yeah, I’m a little racist.”
  7. I have witnessed grown men preying on teenage girls on countless occasions. One “friend” told me he “kept having dreams about having sex with the teenagers in the program.” I have watched men literally circle around underage girls, making weird sexual comments posed as jokes.
  8. To top it off, my ex (who I met in NA) groped me while I was sleeping and then apparently told his friends that I was asking for it (or something similar) because I agreed to sleep in his bed.

Now, listen, I am not perfect. As a trauma survivor, I tend to put myself in a lot of dangerous/stupid/retraumatizing situations without intending to or realizing it. But none of that excuses sexual harassment, rape, or assault. Rapists are rapists regardless of how their victims present themselves. Got it? Cool.

While we’re on the topic, it’s worth mentioning that a staggering number of women who attend 12-step meetings are trauma survivors. In my experience, rape victims in NA and AA outnumber non-victims to a disturbing extent. This means that the women who are preyed on are not only newly clean, but are also recovering from abuse. The level of vulnerability is doubled.

Let’s return to my earlier point. Trauma survivors often retraumatize themselves without meaning to. We put ourselves in danger without realizing that a situation is dangerous because trauma creates blind spots (for example, someone gets in a bad car accident. Over the next few years, they get into five more car accidents, all from the same angle. The initial car accident created a mental block that keeps the survivor from being able to see danger from that specific direction.) And again, THIS IS NOT THE TRAUMA SURVIVOR’S FAULT. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to weed out abusers or keep our antennae up in supposed “safe spaces,” but the sad and unfair truth is that we sometimes have to.

Guess where I learned this lesson? Yep, 12-step meetings.

Unless you confine yourself to women-only groups, I can assure you that 12-step meetings are generally not safe spaces for women. There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but I’m speaking from my own experience in the program, which spans two years, three cities, and countless meetings.

This is enormously problematic. Where are female-identified addicts and alcoholics supposed to go? We’re not safe in the “real world,” surrounded by using/drinking friends and family members, but we’re clearly not safe in 12-step meetings (which are often portrayed as the only effective treatment for addiction) either.

Side note, before y’all jump down my throat: There are some rad as fuck dudes in 12-step programs. The problem is that the disgusting, predatory men both a.) outnumber the safe dudes and b.) flock to each other.

Which brings me to my next point.

WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING??

Sexual harassment, racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, etc. are allowed to fester in 12-step groups because the guilty parties band together and protect each other from those who stand up to them. I saw this tendency the most clearly in the Minneapolis NA program. Alex is friends with a group of like minded men who frequently toss around terms like “slut,” “bitch,” and “crazy girl.” When Alex tells his stories of non-consensual BDSM, manipulation, and countless one-night stands, they offer the verbal equivalent of frat boys high fiving each other over date rape.

When one of these dudes gets called out, he tells his friends. His friends, having been in similar situations, blame the woman.

“She was asking for it, dude.”

“I mean, she was totally coming on to you.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, man. Fucking crazy bitches.”

They kiss his boo boos and send him on his way, giving him freedom to continually harass and assault women. It’s a vile circle jerk, my friends.

I attempted to out Alex as a rapist when I had a year clean. No one wanted to hear it. Those who did made excuses for him, throwing out bullshit 12-step platitudes, so often used as excuses for despicable behavior.

“He’s trying his best.”

“No one is perfect.”

“We’re all working a fourth step.”

“Principles before personalities.”

Because these are anonymous programs, you’re expected to keep your fucking mouth shut when you find out about questionable behavior. And because EVERYONE is allowed to attend AA and NA meetings, rapists (current or former) can’t/won’t be kicked out.

Well, hurray, I’m not an NA or AA member anymore and I don’t abide by principles of anonymity when people are at risk of rape, sexual harassment, or assault. If you live in Minneapolis and want more details about these people, contact me.

Final Thoughts

I know I am thoroughly despised by a number of people in Minneapolis, partially because of journalistic endeavors (some funny stories in there!), and now because I’ve spoken out against well-loved people in a well-loved program. What-the-fuck-ever.

Here’s a text conversation I had with one of my closest friends last night about what happened with my ex-boyfriend:

Friend: How do you feel about coming to Minneapolis?

Leif: Pretty nervous, honestly, but I’m trying not to let that keep me from visiting.

Friend: I like your attitude. Fuck them… I was just thinking about [how they’re probably judging me]. Then I was like “oh yeah I do judge you all for how you treat women” and I’m sick of always hearing about some supposedly “gray” situation one of them is in.

Leif: Totally. There are so many times in my life where having a big group of people dislike me would totally ruin me, but it says so much more about them than it does about us. Same thing happened with the dumpster diving shit in Minneapolis — a big group of people turned against me without knowing anything about me. It hurt, but you know, I know my intentions and I know they were good. It’s a struggle to maintain that attitude, but I truly believe that the people who are worth having around don’t act like this and won’t blindly turn against us.

Maybe it’s time to wear it with pride. I feel like being scared and staying away from Minneapolis would be giving them what they want — my silence and disappearance — which in a way would probably be interpreted as me backing down or apologizing. Again, totally man-centered.

Friend: It’s so true. It disgusts me. They rally together and stroke each other’s egos and literally never call each other out on anything. I mean, after years of preying on women instead of improving and changing, more of them do it … and to me, the women who chose to “not get involved” or turn a blind eye are just as twisted. Honestly, I’m angry.

The minute they get busted and called out, they paint a picture of victimhood and that us women are crazy. I’m done with this cycle.

Leif: It’s fucking cesspool, seriously. A bridge that I have no regrets about burning. Case in point, I just went to some AA dude’s house after running into a friend of mine. This is a direct quote from one of them: “God you’re a lucky Jew… you probably would have survived the gas chambers.” Different topic, but same premise — disgusting people getting away with disgusting things.

Friend: It’s crazy to me I honestly have never seen and heard so much bullshit as I have in the rooms. It’s just like you said, a free for all to act however they want and talk about how “it’s a process,” “we are all just addicts…”

Leif: Dude, yes — shitty comments followed by the same hollow “I’m doing my best” excuses.

Fortunately, shit like this leaves us with more time and love to offer the people who really deserve it. It’s like shining a blacklight on all of your belongings and being like “okay, all of that shit is totally gross and has to go, but these things are clean and lovely and they can stay.” Spring cleaning, basically.

Friend: Clean house, clean mind, clean spirit. I truly believe that’s how we make room for more good things in our lives. Energetically, you can’t take up space for shit heads.

PREACH.

Stay safe out there, y’all. Get mad at me if you want. I’ll be dancing to Cyndi Lauper and brushing it off.

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7 thoughts on “How 12-Step Programs Perpetuate Rape Culture

  1. Truly a sad state of of affairs when someone takes advantage of someone in a weakened state of mind. Granted, we are all responsible for the decisions we make – and I know my experience is different from anyone else’s – but every AA meeting or 12 step program I had attended, had a strong emphasis on men working with men and women working with women. I was told that it is BECAUSE of the reasons you cited. Granted, for myself, I knew I wanted to get clean, so I simply attended meeting and kept going and kept listening to people that gave me advice that was geared towards my best interest and not towards anyone else’s.

    Obviously, there are problematic people throughout society, and as a society, it is imperative that we work towards giving a sense of safety to those that would ordinarily be subjected being taken advantage in a weakened state.

    Intriguing post!

  2. Minnesota is the capital of these 12 step circuses. You can tell where things are going after the first step advises entrants to abdicate all personal responsibility and confer their agency to a “higher power” or to reduce their choices to uncontrollable symptoms of some “disease”.

    Good luck on your recovery and if you need further support, try an individual CBT-oriented approach — I’ve found that treatment modality to be far more useful and enlightening (not to mention less risky).

  3. Heyyy thanks for this. I am a member of a 12 step program. We actually have some mutual friends….

    I wanna say that i do totally think it is absolutely horrendous that youve had these experiences. I agree that the “he’s sick” blah blah “accept where hes at” approach is bullshit. It excuses their behavior, its wrong. Bottom line. The area that I am a member of had a man like the ones you’ve mentioned. We have had a couple, but this one in particular was a long time repeat predator. He would hook up with girls who were brand new and often under age… Most of them didnt come back. A meeting i frequent had a business meeting about it. Because some are sicker than others but no one gets to show up and harm other members. The men and women at the meeting had all indiviually talked to him and we decided we needed a different approach so we started directly inserting ourselves in his conversations. If he was offering a ride we would say things “yes, except if he offers you a ride, expect him to ask for a blowjob on the way home. Actually, just avoid the ride entirely.” He had 8 years clean. I think he still does but i wouldnt know because after a few times of doing that he stopped coming to meetings. And i dont feel bad. There was another man who “allegedly” raped an underage girl and when the men and women of the area found out about it they started going to meetings he went to and making it clear to everyone to avoid him and why.

    I know you acknowledged that what you experienced is not what all have experienced. I just was hoping that i could share some positives as well. Because that is not how we do things in the area i am a member of. I’m pretty sure youve been to a few meetings in the same area as me given our mutual friends. I wish that people in the meetings you attended had been more helpful to you. This is why we have made it a point to make it clear to these men that they cannot behave this way. I have attended plenty of meetings. I hooked up with the first guy i spoke of when i had less than 30 days clean, which is why its so important to me that we not let these guys behave this way. All addicts, any addicts, means you dont get to push people out. I would love to talk more about this with you. I believe it would help me better understand how to help facilitate growth and change in recovery so other women do not experience what you experienced. Thank you for your article.

  4. Pingback: Afraid of My Female Rage? You Should Be. | Big Mouth

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  6. Alcoholism is a disease.
    Drug addiction is a disease.
    Sex addiction is a disease.
    Raping and assaulting people IS NOT A DISEASE. That’s a crime!
    I am not going to challenge the wisdom of AA/NA as I am not an addict and have never been to a meeting. But the problem seems to be the anonymous part. Anonymous for the ill intentioned is just a cover for their crimes. And it’s not a stretch, even for the uninitiated to think that these AA/NA meetings is prime hunting ground for rapists.

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