By Steve K.
Anyone who’s been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for a significant amount of time will have heard the saying: “it’s men for men, and women for women” stated in the rooms. It’s often asserted as some sort of AA law or rule, by well-meaning members of the fellowship.
However, according to the AA traditions there are no absolutes in the fellowship, other than the tradition three requirement of “a desire to stop drinking”, and that is an “ought”, not a “must” according to tradition one.
As far as I’m aware the only advice/suggestion from the General Service Office in relation to this issue is in the ‘Questions & Answers on Sponsorship’ leaflet published by AAWS, Inc. This advice amounts to two brief paragraphs as follows:
“A.A. experience does suggest that it is best for men to sponsor men, women to sponsor women. This custom usually helps our members stay focused on the AA program. Some gay men and lesbians feel an opposite-sex sponsor is more appropriate for similar reasons.”
“In most instances, A.A. custom does suggest one limitation, already noted on page 10: If the group is large enough to allow a choice, sponsor and newcomer be of the same sex. The reasons are the same from both viewpoints; we A.A. members, no matter how long we have been sober, remain thoroughly human, subject to emotions that might divert us from “our primary purpose.”
I would like to emphasize that the leaflet on sponsorship produced by AA is predominantly aimed at the sponsorship of newcomers to the fellowship.
It seems to me, from the advice given, that the issue is specifically one of sexual orientation rather than gender. The custom of same sex sponsorship is mainly suggested as a safeguarding practice towards newcomers, from sexual or emotional exploitation by more experienced members of the fellowship. It’s a well-meaning custom or practice aimed at preventing harm to the sponsee, or in some cases the sponsor.
The AA leaflet on sponsorship states that the sponsor-sponsee relationship is one of equals, and that the sponsor has no authority over the sponsee. While this is a nice ideal in theory, in reality the relationship is inherently unequal, particularly in relation to newcomers, who are often emotionally and psychologically vulnerable when they enter into a sponsor-sponsee relationship.
The roles involved in the sponsorship relationship also put the sponsee into a disadvantaged position. The sponsee is seeking guidance and direction from the sponsor, who generally has more knowledge and experience than the sponsee, and so has a psychological advantage. This “power differential” places the sponsee newcomer in a vulnerable position in regard to possible manipulation by the sponsor. (1) An experienced and ethical sponsor will be mindful of their sponsee’s vulnerability and not take advantage of it for their own gain in any way.
My concern is with AA members asserting the custom of same sex sponsorship as a moral absolute, that must be adhered to within the fellowship. Insistence upon applying the practice beyond the sponsoring of newcomers to more established members, may not be appropriate in all circumstances. For example, difficulty with trusting members of the same sex due to a history of abuse or neglect (other reasons may apply).
Personally I have felt morally judged by others in AA due to the above rigid attitude, in relation to my recent sponsorship of an opposite-sex member of the fellowship. My sponsee is two years sober, has formally worked through the Twelve Steps with a previous sponsor and is very committed to her recovery. There is no sexual motivation or inappropriate emotional involvement between us, and the relationship seems to be very beneficial for both parties in terms of recovery.
I consider the relationship to be a positive one and morally good rather than unethical, and is ultimately the concern of the two adults involved. As with other aspects of AA literature and practice, the problem of rigid interpretation is often used to justify member’s personal prejudices, against others’ choices that do not conform with the majority.
I am aware of several examples in my area of opposite-sex sponsorship relationships, that are long-term, between experienced members of AA that work well. These relationships clearly do work for the individuals concerned and they should be free from the cynical judgement of others.
Abuse of newcomers does occur within AA, and we’ve all heard of the term “Thirteenth Stepping” (2) by unscrupulous members of the fellowship. However, emotional abuse and other types of controlling behavior also occur between same sex members of AA.
My view is that the current advice on same-sex/opposite-sex sponsorship provided in the AA leaflet is too simplistic, and should be expanded upon to include greater diversity (and not just with newcomers in mind). The focus could be taken off gender and placed upon sexual and emotional motivations. It’s the sponsor’s motivations and capacity for maintaining ethical boundaries that are important, as they are responsible for engaging with a sponsee’s well-being as their primary concern.
It’s ethical to advise newcomers to choose a sponsor carefully, giving them objective information with an emphasis upon the importance of healthy, appropriate boundaries. I would suggest to newcomers that it’s wise not to rush into a sponsor-sponsee relationship, taking time to get to know people first.
I also think that as a “mutual aid fellowship” AA has a responsibility to collectively care for vulnerable newcomers, and should employ ethical strategies aimed at preventing abuse. However, these strategies should be well thought through, free from prejudiced assumptions that are oppressive and that can be harmful towards the people they are employed to protect, as well as more experienced members of the fellowship.
1. Twelve Step Sponsorship: How it Works. By Hamilton B.
2. AA Agnostica article, The 13th Step, by Erin J.