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Women and Addiction Recovery: The 13th Step

The likelihood of someone new to sobriety becoming sexual prey is very real.

Key points

  • "Thirteenth-Stepping" refers to the too-common occurrence of the newly sober being treated as sexual prey.
  • In a small group of women involved in AA, 50 percent reported having been subjected to this behavior.
  • Predatory behavior in recovery is becoming more well-known thanks to media coverage.

In 2010, a newly sober 31-year-old Karla Mendez Brada met and fell in love with 40-year-old Eric Earle, a fellow Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) member with 20 years of off-and-on sobriety under his belt.

Within six months, the two were engaged, and Karla was dead by asphyxiation.

Eric was nearly 10 years her senior and a common fixture on the sobriety scene. He had a criminal record whose details Eric would disclose to Karla only in pieces.

As both of their sobriety became tattered and torn, the violence escalated.

During the trial, the jury learned that Eric was known amongst his fellow AA members as a man who had a history of contentious relationships with several newly sober members of AA.

In addition, his ex-wife informed investigators that he would frequently batter the women in his life while intoxicated.

What Is the Thirteenth Step?

The "Thirteenth Step" is a colloquial term used to describe the potential for someone who has a lengthy period of sobriety to seek out sex or a romantic relationship from someone who has less than one year of sobriety.

Some Thirteen-Step behavior can look fairly innocuous when viewed through a certain scope.

Engaging with people of the gender you are usually most attracted to can seem like a potential path to a romantic relationship for one or both individuals to an outsider.

And since many long-term members of AA are familiar with the fear of a newcomer being taken advantage of—mentally or physically—this behavior is often frowned upon for newcomers.

The defining characteristic of Thirteenth Stepping seems to be an underlying power differential between the newly sober member and the more experienced member who is essentially on a rollercoaster ride themselves, albeit one that is more predictable at this point in their sobriety.

When Does a New Friendship Become Dangerous?

A new friendship can become dangerous when this power difference is used to take advantage of another person in an attempt to further the relationship in an emotional, romantic, or sexual manner.

There are some characteristics that those who take advantage of addicts have in common, including the following:

  • love bombing (excessive praise and adoration early in the relationship)
  • inability to delay gratification
  • obsessive behavior
  • a history of dysfunctional or short-lived relationships

Also, there is one rule that is fairly reliable regardless of the setting: If someone seems too good to be true, they're probably not all that great.

Why Is There So Little Research on This Thirteenth Step?

Anecdotally, the idea of the existence of the Thirteenth Step is quite common. However, a surprisingly small amount of empirically validated research exists.

In 2009, researchers Cathy Bogart and Carol Pearce collected data on a rather small sample of 55 women (aged 17-72) involved in AA and found that 50 percent of those surveyed had experienced seven of the Thirteenth-Stepping behaviors. The percentage in the number of respondents rose after those who had never attended a women-only AA meeting were exposed to the women-only environment.

It is important to note that this study is one of a very few of studies that attempted to gather data from members of AA (or another organization aimed at recovery) and to look at whether the interaction between new and old group members had a negative impact.

Possible reasons why this topic has not been explored further are likely to be related to the anonymity of AA and distrust of individual members to participate in a research study, as well as the subjectivity of many of the oversteps and missteps described previously.

Also, sobriety can feel like a very lonely place—especially if you are new to this lifestyle—and it is human nature to look to be connected to people similar to yourself.


If you are newly sober (or know someone who is), it is wise to be wary of being romantically involved with someone in your support group—especially during your first year of sobriety.

There is an expression I learned long ago from a supervisor in my post-doctorate training:

"Like meets like."

We tend to gravitate toward (and settle down with) people who are similar to us. From an environmental perspective, this is often sound logic, since it is likely to lead to similar communication styles, which can conceivably lessen the quantity and quality of arguments in the relationship.

Recovery is filled with those who are suffering to differing extents from the same ailment, which increases the likelihood of both romantic and non-romantic bonding/attraction.

Taking it one day at a time, every day, will feel very different depending on where you are in your recovery.


Bogart, C. & Pearce, C. "13th Stepping: Why Alcoholics Anonymous is not always a safe place for women." Journal of Addictions Nursing 14(1):43–47. July 2009. DOI:10.1080/10884600305373

Sinclair, D.L., Sussman, S. Sex as a Substitute Addictive Behavior: a Scoping Review. Curr Sex Health Rep 16, 1–11 (2024).

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