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Overview: Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded in 1935 by Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson as a type of fellowship for alcoholics to overcome their drinking problems together. It is based on a Twelve Step set of guidelines that are viewed as a blueprint for recovery.  

The 12-Step program is based on theist principles, with an emphasis on spiritual and character development. It is rooted in the belief that alcoholism can be conquered through God’s power if the "Four Absolutes" are followed. These absolutes include honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love, and are shared in a group setting.

AA’s twelve steps are followed in order, but members can go back and revisit any steps that are needed along the road to recovery. The twelve steps, in verbatim, are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

What is the “13th Step” in Recovery?

The “13th Step” is an unwelcome and unofficial part of the 12-Step program. “13th stepping” is a colloquial term for when an individual with over a year of sobriety makes advances on a newcomer with less than a year of sobriety. This can be for a variety of reasons, including physical, emotional, or financial. Whatever the reason, it is problematic, as it entails somebody in a position of power taking advantage of a vulnerable person.

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How Does 13th Stepping Occur?

13 stepping occurs any time a new 12-Step program member is approached by a veteran of the program, also known as an “old-timer,” to develop a relationship that is beyond platonic. Though it is strongly discouraged due to the potential damage it may cause, it does occasionally happen. 

Most 12-Step groups are informal, with regulations drafted and enforced by attending members themselves. In some groups, there is nobody to appeal to unless something illegal has been done, which often results in the occurrence of 13th stepping.

Newcomers are often vulnerable because they find it difficult to develop romantic relationships without alcohol on top of trying to become sober. When starting on the path to sobriety, it is common for people to think that sex will help them feel better. This may lead them to instigate sexual relationships with other members, but established program veterans should know to reject any advances of this kind.

However, veteran 12-Step members may also have a hard time developing relationships without alcohol, regardless of how many years of sobriety they have. This is often why they view newcomers as potential conquests. Quitting drinking does not automatically make someone a better person, and not everyone in AA joins for the right reasons. Some are court appointed to attend by law, and some treat it as a social club and a place to meet potential sexual partners.

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Who is at Risk of Becoming a “13th Stepper?”

Any long-term sober person who remains in the AA program could become a 13th stepper if they are not disciplined. That applies to all genders and sexes, as 13th step predators are not limited solely to being men.

Newcomers in recovery are vulnerable and lonely, with lowered self-esteem and boundaries that have yet to be established. Members that recognize this but still proceed to target these newcomers for their personal gain are at risk of becoming 13th steppers. 

Unfortunately, many new members become romantically involved with a 13th stepper within a few months of starting their alcohol addiction recovery.

Dangers of 13th Stepping

There are many dangers associated with 13th stepping. Aside from the predatory nature of sexual advances on vulnerable people, it can also negatively impact the chances of achieving sobriety. New AA members join 12-Step meetings looking for help; 13th stepping has the opposite effect. 

The ramifications of 13th stepping are almost always problematic. Advances can be successful, with the newcomer entering an inappropriate sexual relationship. Or the advances are not successful, and the newcomer feels uncomfortable at future meetings — or decides not to return at all. The decision to attend a 12-Step group program is usually challenging enough without having to deal with unwanted advances.

Furthermore, AA meetings are meant to be unwaveringly supportive. 13th stepping endangers the entire group’s reputation and could possibly harm the image of all groups.

How to Prevent 13th Stepping 

While there is no surefire way to prevent 13th stepping, there are many things that can be done to discourage it and reduce the rate at which it occurs. These measures include:

  • Making it known from the beginning that it is only acceptable to have a sexual relationship with another group member when sobriety has been secured for both members.
  • Immediately ending a relationship with a sponsor if they make any advancements; sponsors are meant to provide only support and advice — nothing more.
  • Letting newcomers know that they should avoid sexual relationships during the beginning stages (typically the first year) of their recovery journey. 
  • Draw a line between flirting and preying on vulnerable members
  • Encourage gay members to choose a sponsor of the opposite sex.
  • Encourage heterosexual members to choose a sponsor of the same sex.
  • Speak to a sponsor if flirting is creating an uncomfortable situation.

If you or a loved one are concerned with the potential dangers of 13th stepping in a program, consider contacting a healthcare professional or treatment center for more options. There are also virtual AA groups open to anyone, which are beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. AAWS.

AAC Agnostica. 13th Step.

St. Thomas, S. (2016). Inside the World of "13th-Steppers," People Who Prey on Recovering Substance Abusers.

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