Are Women Safe in 12-Step Sexual Recovery Meetings*?
By Staci Sprout
When I teach health care professionals about identifying and treating sex addiction, I am often asked the following questions about women and sexual recovery:
- What about female sex addicts? Should I refer women to 12-Step meetings for sex addiction?
- Won’t there be mostly men?
- Won’t there be sexual predators there?
I can understand these concerns, because although my journey in sexual recovery has been overwhelmingly positive, I know that not every woman looking for support has had the same experience. To broaden my perspective, I requested feedback from the first woman member of a large 12-Step sexual recovery fellowship—a wry, witty, effortlessly loving retired schoolteacher I’m grateful today to call my friend. Her answer:
“For women, I think starting sexual recovery surrounded only by men is like wading into the ocean: some can swim, others are devoured or drown, and others leave the water before getting very wet. The overwhelming stigma, secrecy, and shame women sex addicts face creates a different entry-level experience than men. Certain ‘tough cookies’ like you can make it, but it’s not for everyone. There is still tremendous attrition for women seeking help.”
She said that in her experience watching women get started in a fellowship of mostly male sex addicts, two things seem to make the difference between their staying or going. The first is access to women-only groups, and the second is whether they had already found stability in another 12-Step fellowship before starting recovery for sex addiction.
Women-only groups, she said, or groups focused on GLBTQ members that include women, can offer havens for women who need to express vulnerability and come to terms with their experiences of victimization by straight men, but who feel unsafe doing so in regular men’s meetings.
“One of the reasons women stayed in our early fellowship was that eight or nine of the pioneers had recovery elsewhere to build on, and were strong. They were able to transfer what they learned from other 12-Step programs to sex addiction, and then gently help new women demystify the 12-Step culture so they could get traction. Not everyone feels okay about higher power or God issues, and not all meetings are healthy. Some are dangerous, because some members are predatory. Many meetings do not have the gentleness that women often need to learn to be gentle with themselves.”
I could relate. At times I felt preyed upon by both men and other new women during my search for help in 12-Step meetings for sexual addiction.* I remember getting a “program call” from a man I was sure was masturbating while we talked, and another from a man who called to talk about his addiction, but who seemed more into phone sex than phone support. One newcomer woman to whom I offered a ride to a meeting asked me to come into her apartment first, and then undressed in front of me, saying she needed to change. I recall her smirk when she noticed my discomfort, which was cruel. But I also recognized her intent to shock because, before recovery, I’d also often misused the power of my nakedness.
While these experiences were uncomfortable, when I consider the big picture of my journey, the occasional intrusions in the sexual recovery fellowships were minor compared to the transformational culture I found there. But they can happen in an all-volunteer community of self-identified sex addicts, particularly with newcomers, and are worth taking precautions to avoid. I’ve occasionally heard stories of unscrupulous therapists attending 12-Step meetings to attract or control clients, and of meetings ruled by one or two charismatic leaders who used shaming, ridicule, and in-group/out-group fear-mongering reminiscent of harmful cult dynamics. These types of controlling behaviors are outside the traditions of 12-Step programs, but the bottom-up, democratic nature of the 12-Step fellowship structure means it’s up to the groups to police themselves.
To avoid a negative experience, it can be helpful for new women to call a designated meeting contact person before attending to ask questions about the meeting, to get an idea of what to expect about how the meeting works and how receptive the group might be to a woman attending. Women might first want to attend an “open” meeting where they can bring a support person with them who is not a sex addict, as opposed to a “closed” meeting where only self-identified sex addicts are invited (meeting schedules usually designate open versus closed meetings). Having someone trustworthy to discuss experiences with before and after meetings can be helpful as women learn to discern their own safety.
Women can also try attending multiple meetings to get a sense of connection or discomfort with each one, and try phone meetings instead of in-person meetings to minimize risk, especially women-only telemeetings. Telephone meetings were not yet in place when I began sexual recovery, but they have become an incredible resource for women, who can now call in multiple times per day to listen or participate in the audio gatherings.
More memorable to me than awkward or scary moments in recovery are the times I’ve been nurtured, supported, and taught important insights from men about men: their hopes, dreams, failings, and triumphs. I have seen male beauty that outshines the flashiest superheroes, not because of big muscles and feats of daring, but through daily acts of heart-centered courage and integrity, built week after week. These men taught me true character, regardless of gender. All genders and sexual orientations are welcome in sexual recovery, though specific meetings are only as welcoming as the people who happen to attend them. In my experience, most people who have admitted their own powerlessness over sexual addiction were less judgmental about others’ sexuality in general, but not always.
I look back fondly at an early meeting I attended in a rural area where one man was so shocked to see a woman there that he launched into a soapbox testimony about how men must stop objectifying women, must quit seeing them as “only tits and ass.” I was instantly irate, reactive to hearing the words “tits and ass,” and interrupted the meeting in protest.
“How dare you talk that way in front of me?” I roared. “Tits and ass? That’s insulting!” I reacted to only those words and missed his underlying sentiment, which was actually nobler. The fifteen or so other men in the room rallied, led by the longest-time member, and explained gently to me that my concerns and feelings were valid, but that the protocol of the meeting was “no cross talk,” which meant that everyone listens without interruption. The man in question apologized for causing insult, and the group held a special “business meeting” after the regular meeting to hear more about my feelings, the intent of the man I’d reacted to, and generally discuss what it was like to have a woman appear at what had been an all-male meeting for years. After that discussion, I always felt at home in that group because we set a precedent of talking through conflict safely, in a way that honored everyone. (In my experience, sharing in meetings doesn’t usually include provocative language.) This pattern, where I would express frustration or offense about something and have the men with me in recovery remain patient and present during the dialogue until we worked things through, was priceless to me. It was a key part of my starting to learn how to turn conflict into deeper intimacy.
And then there are the women of sexual recovery. It’s important to note that there are at least five different 12-Step sexual recovery fellowships, and some have more women attend than others. The fellowship I felt most at home in had very few women members. Though my experience of women at my various stages of recovery has been mixed—it is a wounded population prior to serious healing work—my most lasting impression is of the women who have been working in recovery for many years, like my sponsor. There is an intelligence and kindness in this “elder women” population that defies imagining, considering the brutal life circumstances that often brought them into the rooms of recovery. These women glow with love, humility, humor, and tender caring. To this day, I can never seem to get enough time with them; I feel like I’m sitting at the feet of the Goddess incarnate, soaking up their wisdom and thinking: someday I want to be just like them. They are all races and creeds, all shapes and sizes and sexual orientations, and their life circumstances range far and wide: teachers, nuns, writers, hippies, entrepreneurs, former sex workers, welfare recipients (so many struggle financially, at least at first), computer techies, accountants, and more. Yet their enduring recovery lifestyles unite them in a single word that universally applies: grace. Best modeled by my sponsor, she and other recovering women sex addicts taught me how to love and embrace all parts of myself, no matter how wounded I was and what damage I did in my addiction.
In addition to the love and support from men and women in recovery, I also believe I’ve been kept safe by forces far larger than myself, and random good fortune. I’ll summarize this belief in one anecdote:
During my first year of recovery, a burly black man approached me right before a meeting was getting underway. He had a serious look on his freckled face. I’d seen him in the meetings but we’d never formally met or talked before.
“Uh, hi. I’m Cliff. You’re going to think this is strange, but I want to tell you something.”
“Okay-y-y,” I said, bracing myself a little. I hope this isn’t another intrigue confession.
“As you walked down the stairs into the meeting just now, I saw two angels at your back.”
“Two angels, like, you know, beings of light. I can’t explain it, but I saw them. I think they are protecting you. They were right behind you, at your back.”
“Uh, thanks.” I was dumbfounded. What do you say to something like that? I thought of it all meeting, barely hearing a word said. I was curious, doubtful, and hopeful all at once.
So that’s why no one sits next to me on either side, I mused. Those seats are taken by my angels. I decided I liked the idea of two angels at my back, and named them Chip and Chet, after two characters in a fantasy novel I loved as a kid. Even today I smile, thinking of this brief conversation, the risk that lovely man took, and the angels who had my back. I think they always have.
* Attempting to seduce a vulnerable new addict (male or female) seeking help in a 12-Step fellowship is called “13th-stepping.” It is exploitive and, in every instance I’ve heard about, extremely damaging to the newcomer.
About the author:
Staci is a Licensed, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) and author of “Naked in Public: A Memoir of Recovery From Sex Addiction and Other Temporary Insanities”.