The good news is, you can be anything you want to be in AA. A writer, a flamenco dancer, a bank robber. I’ve met sober drug dealers and sober Oscar-winners. We’re nothing if not diverse, and to my mind, that’s one of the greatest blessings of the program. There’s a richness and breadth of experience in the rooms that’s unlike any other place I’ve been.
The bad news is, you can also be a sexual predator.
I got sober at 17. For all of my drinking and drugging, I was still pretty naïve. I had never had a boyfriend, I was a virgin, and I’d maybe kissed three boys ever. I was still a kid in all the important ways, except for the fact that I was a blackout drinker.
I thought young people’s meetings would be a safe place to clean myself up, but it turns out, not so much. Without knowing it, I was becoming a target.
I wish someone had told me, “Just because a guy has long-term sobriety doesn’t mean he isn’t going to take advantage of you.”
The young people’s meetings I went to all over Los Angeles featured a revolving cast of men that I would call perverts. They weren’t the obvious kind of creeps, either, with windowless white vans and long trench coats. They looked like everyone else at the meetings: tattooed and cool and smoking cigarettes.
These men swarmed me, as they did every other newcomer too young and inexperienced to distinguish between the loving hand of AA and the clammy hand of a predator. They welcomed me to the meetings, they gave me over-long hugs, they offered me smokes when I was still too young to buy my own. I felt absolutely enveloped by the program. I had never had so many people pay attention to me in my life.
But what I thought of as harmless flirting—and all flirting is harmless when you’re 17 and your curfew is 10 pm—these men rightly interpreted as vulnerability.
There was J, who asked me to his house to “read the Big Book.” When I arrived and asked what we were going to read, he laughed and showed me to his bedroom. I let him kiss me and grope me because I didn’t know I was allowed to say no. He was a grown-up; I was a kid. He’d been sober 15 years; I’d been sober a few months. He was in his 30s; I was 17. My parents had taught me to respect adults, and that’s what I thought I was doing. It can’t be wrong or immoral if J is doing it, I thought; he has a million sponsees and he’s a grown-up.
There was C, who was 36 and also had double-digit sobriety. He had a daughter a few years younger than me. It’s strange to look back and call it rape—because I’ve been assaulted under much less ambiguous circumstances—but that’s absolutely what it was.
Part of what was so pernicious about these experiences was that no one was pointing a gun to my head. At the time, I felt like I was just doing the AA things that everyone talked about: having fun, blowing off steam, and enjoying that we-made-it-off-the-Titanic camaraderie. I didn’t know enough to be terrified when C told me to call him Daddy.
The problem, in my opinion, is systemic. AA is designed for adults, for people who have years of hard-won knowledge behind them, adults who do things like smoke, gamble, get tattoos and have sex. Yay for adulthood! All that stuff is fun.
But what happens when you throw teenagers into the mix—teenagers who, for all their posturing and pretension, are still children, albeit with grown-up bodies? We’re like fish in a barrel.
One of the seminal moments in my sobriety happened when I was about 19. I was at a meeting—one of the biggest in LA—with my best girlfriend. The speaker that night was a handsome guy in his early 40s. He was charming and funny: think George Clooney with tattoos and a former heroin habit. He was about five minutes into his pitch when he casually announced that he used to rape women.
My best friend and I locked eyes—both of us had been sexually assaulted and just hearing the word rape was enough to raise the hairs on our arms. We were dumbfounded that this man was coolly admitting that part of his alcoholic “bottom” was forcing women to have sex with him. For him, raping women was just another part of “what happened.”
It wasn’t his confession alone that was so disturbing, though. It was the room’s reaction—non-reaction, actually. No one stormed out of the meeting. No one threw rotten fruit. I don’t even remember seeing anyone else look uncomfortable.
The message I got that night was deafening: AA will accept you no matter what you did in your drinking days. You can even be a confessed rapist.
Don’t get me wrong: I think that rapist should absolutely be allowed to talk about his past, ideally in stag meetings or with a mental health professional. But to literally ask me to clap for a man who abused women—that’s going too far for me.
Yes, AA needs to be safe for that guy. He needs a program where he can tell the complete truth about himself, no matter how dark it is. But doesn’t AA need to be safe for me, too? Why should his desire to unburden himself trump my desire to not feel terrified and re-traumatized?
We’re not supposed to take each others’ inventories. We’re supposed to love each other until we can love ourselves, and we’re supposed to refrain from judgment of our fellows.
There are times when we do need to judge, though, and when we do need to take each others’ inventories. A man in his 30s who has sex with a 17-year-old is not a “sick man” who needs to be prayed for; he’s a criminal—in California at least—who needs to be kept away from vulnerable young girls, girls who are doubly defenseless for being newcomers.
Back then, I didn’t know any better than to go to J’s house or to let C take me on a “date.” I was 17, that golden age when I was absolutely still a girl but also deeply convinced that I was a woman. I was in so far over my head that I didn’t even know I was underwater. I wasn’t stupid; I was just inexperienced.
I wish someone had told me, “Just because a guy has long-term sobriety doesn’t mean he isn’t going to take advantage of you.” I simply didn’t know. The only adult men I knew back then were my relatives and my teachers, all of whom had only ever been kind to me. I had no frame of reference for discerning between a man who was genuinely interested in helping me and a man who was only interested in taking advantage of me.
I wish that AA’s culture of acceptance didn’t lend itself so easily to creating an atmosphere where predators thrive. I don’t know, though, how to balance the need for utter tolerance with the need to protect the safety of minors. It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time and I’ve never been able to puzzle my way to an answer.
I don’t know if I will ever shake the shame and anger I feel every time I think of C or J, and the way most of the AA community pretended not to notice what was happening to me or to countless other girls I got sober with. Maybe AA will change, and we’ll get better about protecting our most vulnerable members. I don’t know what the solution is, but I hope there is one.
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