I was just 10 years old when I attended my first AA meeting at the AA Clubhouse in Schenectady, New York. It’s not what you’re thinking. I wasn’t there because I had a drinking problem at that age, I was there with my father. It wasn’t uncommon back in the 1970’s and 80’s for parents to bring their young children to meetings if they couldn’t find a babysitter. Thinking back now, the meetings seemed a bit strange to me, but all too quickly I acclimated and began to get quite comfortable there.
As I got older, Dad had many of his AA buddies over to the house. Sometimes they would spend several days or weeks with us. There were definitely a few men that made me uncomfortable, but back then, there wasn’t much talk about what constitutes inappropriate talk and behavior with minors. Thankfully I had strong intuition for that kind of danger even as a young teenager, and I wasn’t afraid to do what I had to do to keep myself safe.
Here’s the thing: I had to keep myself safe far too often. I’d like to say that it was only one or two of Dad’s friends that made me uncomfortable, but it was easily half of the men I met in AA during my teen years. When I entered AA as an adult at 22 years old for my own problem, there were a few men that I had known in my teen years who blatantly hit on me under the guise of helping me within the first few weeks I went to meetings. I spurned their advances quickly and changed meetings to avoid them.
If you’ve ever been to any 12 step meetings, I’m sure you know that it has the feel of a singles bar without alcohol. Some may dismiss this and think, what’s so bad about that? The problem is when people walk into an AA meeting, whether male or female, they are usually at the end of their rope. They are there seeking help. Many are at the lowest point in their lives, which makes them completely vulnerable. When you’re on a sinking ship and you find yourself in the cold, dark water, you will grab onto anything around you that floats. If a passing ship comes along, you are not going to vet the crew to ensure they are good people, you will get on that ship without hesitation. And that’s what happens in AA. You feel like you’re drowning and someone offers to help; you probably won’t check their motives at all.
Sexual predation is nothing new. It happens everywhere; within families, religious organizations, youth organizations, sports teams, workplaces; pretty much everywhere there is a hierarchy set up. That’s not to say that having a hierarchy is bad, to the contrary, it’s necessary for organizations to run smoothly and effectively. But it is incumbent on those in a position of power to do the right thing, and it turns out many don’t, especially when there is a culture set up to keep their dalliances secret.
Recently there has been much attention focused on this ugly subculture of sexual predation in many organizations from the Boy Scouts, to the Catholic Churches, to youth sports, to our government. With the recent arrest of Ghislain Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein’s accomplice in a massive child sex trafficking ring, it now appears that this is much more prevalent than anyone could ever imagine. So, why wouldn’t it happen in a totally anonymous organization, like Alcoholics Anonymous?
You would be shocked how many teenagers are sent to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. They are shuffled off to rehabs after being caught with weed, Adderall, or opiates. These rehabs bus them to meetings, and they are introduced to the dangerous subculture known as recovery. You would think the recovery subculture would be a safe haven compared to the drug world, but it’s not always this way in AA and NA.
I can provide countless stories from both young women and young men, with whom I’ve personally spoken, of how they were victimized by treatment counselors, by would-be AA/NA sponsors and other “old-timers” in meetings. The entire addiction recovery system is a perfect set-up for this kind of victimization. When you’re sent to meetings, you’re told to seek out someone with some “sober time”, get to know them, spend time with them, begin to trust them, and do what they tell you to do. The saying goes, “do what they did, and you’ll get what they got” – meaning sobriety.
This means you’re expected to not only spend time with this person in meetings, but outside meetings as well. You’re told you must put your sobriety over everything, and this includes all your other relationships: friends, family, even your spouse or significant other, as those relationships are said to be fraught with stress and danger for your sobriety. After all, you were getting drunk and high around those people. So you become isolated from the people that truly love you, and are thrust into a world of total strangers. All of your energies must be put toward these strangers and your 12 step group. When you’re sincerely trying to figure out how to solve an addiction and you’re committed to that end, you will try anything.
So you seek out those people who seem trustworthy; the ones with several years of sobriety and you see the face they show in the meetings. They are pictures of self confidence and success. Many are financially successful and may be upstanding leaders in the community, but remember this is an anonymous program, so you’re sworn to secrecy about who you know from the rooms. They may take you to coffee after the meetings and buy you food. They may help you financially, or with finding a job, with transportation, and even child care. They quickly can become a trusted confidant and friend. While some are genuinely kind and caring and their motives are pure, others use your newfound trust for their self-serving motives.
From cases of outright rape of minors in teen treatment facilities, to going out for “coffee” only to be forcibly groped in the car, to falling in love with someone who turns out to be controlling, violent, and abusive, the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are not a safe place to find help for anything.
To be clear, I don’t recommend that anyone attend Alcoholics Anonymous, as the 12 steps do nothing more than set people up to feel bad about themselves and struggle endlessly. And based on the data, you are far more likely to successfully change your substance use habits by doing literally anything else, including nothing at all. But I specifically don’t recommend that teenagers and young adults attend meetings, because there is an accepted culture of sexual predation that I have personally experienced and witnessed. And over the past 30 years, I’ve talked to thousands of people all over the world who have seen and experienced the same.
Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use problem, there is an empowering solution that has proven to be three times more effective than addiction treatment and twelve times more effective than 12 step meetings. Go to www.TheFreedomModel.org for more information or call 888-424-2626.
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