Is Opposite-Gender Sponsorship in AA Ok?

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.”

And…..

“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.

no-13th-step-button

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.

8 thoughts on “Is Opposite-Gender Sponsorship in AA Ok?

  1. Regarding those with a history of abuse I totally agree. I also think meetings that require people to hold hands can as equally cause added trauma for those who find physical touch difficult. I won’t go to meetings that require me to hold hands. I also found it very difficult to find a sponsor of the opoisit sex. I belive this unwritten rule is discriminatory and it also implies that people can’t be trusted which is absurd really. Fantastic read. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this. At eight years sober I found myself starting my steps over. After my sponsor relapsed I went about three years with a few guys as senior advisors, for tenth step work and such, but I missed the level of accountability. For about three months I was making a list of prospective sponsors. I had settled on my pick, a woman I met via area service and was a big help when I was looking to change up some meetings after I moved. I felt she was fully qualified. The only real question would she be cool with it too, because there is a HUGE stigma about this. She said yes, and it has been great. Sponsorship is hard, period. Why limit the number of quality people to work with based solely on gender or societal stigmas?

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  3. The primary purpose is to help another alcoholic stay sober if you live the spiritual principles of Alcoholics Anonymous it doesn’t matter what Sex You Are sponsor somebody I sponsored 11 women and all 11 of them are still sober God loves you and so do I

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am the wife of an alcoholic in recovery, who is very active in his program. I am in Al-Anon. I support my husband in all his AA endeavours and we frequently go to special events together. Well, until recently. With 3 years of AA under his belt, I think my husband has now awakened to life without alcohol. And all of life looks different to him. Including me. And he has become aware that his feelings for me are not the same as in the beginning. Duh. The honeymoon has been over for quite awhile between us, and we have both had our struggles. He with 30 years of drinking, myself with depression. But I thought that our problem was never lack of love. We are having a rocky time for the past 6 months and I am not even sure the marriage will survive after his revelation. I am trying to work my program as hard as I can, I go to therapy and I do my best to give him as much space and peace and quiet as he needs. And I put the focus on me.

    I would like to present my position in the discussion about same-sex sponsoring and fellowship. Because I feel neither of our programs cannot afford to be cavalier about this.

    One of the complicating factors of my situation is that my husband has an extremely high volume of text/voice/picture contact with one of his young, single, female fellows and he had never told me about it. I was paying our phone bill and saw an unknown recurring phone number on the list and found out whose it was. I know her personally, from Al-Anon, as she goes to that program as well and even is a member of a group that I used to go to myself; this is why I had her number on record myself. We always greeted each other fondly. She is a nice person, she is active in service with my husband, but he is shielding me from it ever since he told me about his changed feelings in the marriage. This made all my alarms go off.

    When I confronted him with it, he got very mad. He said nothing romantic was going on. I want to believe him. And I do believe nothing like an affair is going on (yet). But I am so uncomfortable with it. He threw his phone on the table for me to see the content of the text messages but I did not read them, because it is not about that. It is not even about her. I am not married to her. It is about the fact that it was hidden from me. So this is a highly sensitive subject. My husband and I are both in our second marriage and when we started out first, this is what we did: an endless stream of texting that gradually turned into a romance. So this all looks very familiar to me, I am frightened and, admittedly, I am jealous of the attention that goes out to her. This is attention that is not focussed on the marriage and the marriage really needs it right now.

    If my husband sends 100 text messages to his (male) sponsor from 4am up to 11pm, I would not perceive this as a problem. I might raise an eyebrow, silently, but hey, it is all for the good of recovery. So I would not get in his way. But he does not contact his sponsor that frequently.
    Change the gender in the above and the whole stage changes. For me at least it does.

    What I want to say in this comment is that there is a reason that AA is cautious about cross gender fellowship for a good reason and this is it.

    For the supportive wife of an alcoholic, after being lied to for long, long years, this is a re-assurance that should not be thought about too lightly. I personally only have my in-depth conversations in my program with other women. I talk to men too, sure. But I would think twice to enter into this kind of intensity with a single male of my own age, without my husband knowing about it. If the person had something essential to contribute to my recovery, I would first discuss this with him, so that all is out in the open and to give him a chance to object. I want to be sensitive to that. If all would be out in the open, it would just be a situation that I could accept. Why hide and add complexity?

    This is what I wanted to bring to the table. From the viewpoint of an Al-Anon this is really tough. We want to see our personal growth move away from being pushy and controlling and we want be a part of the recovery process of our spouses. They go to their program, we go to ours and sometimes the two meet in the middle, with respect for our individual privacy and space.

    But in a disease where lies are so prominently present, especially in the active drinking, but also in recovery, adding this to the mix destroys a lot of marriages. I myself am quite lost in the situation, for the simple reason that I don’t know where to turn. I work on me, keep the focus on me, but I walk around with constant nerves in my stomach. I cannot ask his sponsor or any other AA to get involved because of our confidentiality principles. All I can do it bring it up with my husband and hope that I am still important enough to him to make some adjustments. But the risk is there that he will not be willing to do this and just sees this as interference.

    I think that keeping the program pure and simple is the best way to go. Err on the side of caution before you get involved in cross-gender / cross-sexuality interactions. That I why I am writing this in openness. I wish this on no other spouse. I would love it if the literature would give some guidance here.

    Discussing it with the spouse would have taken off a lot of unecessary tension for me. I don’t even have to know who it is, but bringing to the table when you want to work with a female fellow before you dive in so deeply as my husband, would have strengthened my trust in the AA program and my husband’s recovery so strongly.

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    • I’m sorry to hear you are going through such personal distress and anxiety in your relationship with your husband. This is an issue between the two of you and about your relationship boundaries and not something AA can really legislate for. Groups are only guided by the traditions which don’t address this issue. Adults are free to have friendships etc with whoever they choose to, but I think that your feelings about your husband talking to you about women he’s helping, being friends with etc, are very valid, and a caring partner should consider your feelings about the relationship with this other female. My point in writing the article was really about AA not having the authority to dictate who people sponsor or members being judgmental in this respect. However, I do express caution and an emphasis upon individuals, particularly the sponsor, being able to maintain healthy, appropriate boundaries. I don’t feel in a position to give you advice but hope your relationship worries get easier. Best wishes and take care. Steve

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