AA’s Publicity Problem Part 3: patriarchy, the problem is patriarchy
Updated: Jan 19
Assault, sexual abuse, victim shaming
Disclaimer: I speak only for myself, express my own opinions and my own experience, and not as a representative for Alcoholics Anonymous or any other 12-step program or fellowship.
Alright I thought of something else. This whole piece really was supposed to be a calm reasoned explanation about the breakdown in information dissemination from the 12-step program to the outside world.
It’s kind of just turned into me yelling via words “YES THERE REALLY IS PATRIARCHY IN AA.”
I will illustrate my point with an example, though first can I just say...
If there is patriarchy in our culture (modern western industrialized nations culture), how could there possibly not be patriarchy in AA? If AA is a ”cross-section” of our society, how could it NOT be patriarchal? Do people think that in AA we’ve become so healed and wise and woke that we’ve eliminated all patriarchal structure and dynamics? Or do the people who deny patriarchy exists in AA also deny its existence in general? Because to believe it exists in the rest of society but not in AA is some pretty epic cognitive dissonance.
But anyway here is an example I’ve been thinking about for a while.
If someone is at an AA meeting—and I mean before, during, or after—and punches somebody, chances are the other people around might do something. They might intervene, they might even ask that person to leave, they will at least notice. Watch. Feel on edge. Hope it doesn’t happen again.
If someone won’t calm down and keeps being physically violent, somebody in that room is gonna do something about it. Police may even be called. They might get a restraining order from that location. This happens in AA. Because despite our tenant of everyone is welcome and we will never ask anyone to leave, OF COURSE we make an exception for someone who is threatening the safety of everyone else. I believe we have whole written protocols about this.
Soon after I moved to Auckland, after a meeting a man grabbed and rubbed my hip. It was a hit and run assault, he disappeared immediately into the crowd before I could react. Not that I did react, because I’m a freezer. Fight flight or freeze, I freeze. (See Part 4 for more about that.) I told my then sponsor about it and she said yep, he had slapped her ass once at a meeting. She said she’d confronted him and he’d laughed in her face and told her there was nothing wrong with that. She said she’d heard similar stories from other women. She said to stay away from him. She said she’d teach me a technique for deflecting hugs from men I don’t want to hug.
As far as I know there have been no consequences for this guy. At least nothing out in the open, no protocols, no group consciences, no restraining orders. The backchannel network of women warning women is alive and well, though, and we silently and secretly take caution around him.
So why don’t we speak up, you might be thinking. Because of all the times we’ve ever spoken up in our lives. Because of all the times we see others speak up. Because we get laughed at at BEST. Because we get dismissed, argued with, talked over. Because of the stories of women going to police to report assault and getting assaulted by the police. Because of the stories of women being fired, ostracized, publicly humiliated and tormented. Because the majority of the time people don’t even believe us. Why don’t we speak up? Why would we?
AA doesn’t exist in a vacuum and all this cultural context comes with us into the rooms.
And it’s easier to see a punch than a slight of hand. It’s easier to take it more seriously, and we just DO take it more seriously. You can see a bleeding nose, you can’t see the flashbacks I relived for months after that guy touched me.
Since we live in patriarchy, we value what we can see over what we can feel. We need evidence, hard facts. And feelings aren’t facts, right? And if I have a resentment, I need to look at my part, right?
When all this went down, I told my then sponsor I wanted to get more counseling to help with all the trauma that was coming up. I was paralyzed in post traumatic stress; my body was shut down and I could barely eat, which is really fucking serious to a recovering anorexic. There had been other triggers and other creepy male encounters around that time and even more assaults later, but this one—IN a meeting, with a man who seemed liked and respected—had a major effect on me because AA was supposed to be my safe place, my home, my family. It brought up my childhood trauma in that home and family. All that to say, I was freaking out, I was struggling, I needed support.
My sponsor told me I just needed to do a 4th step and that counseling wouldn’t help.
I fired her and picked up a second therapist who specialized in anxiety. I talked to my female counselors and cried to my female friends and I went into fierce self preservation and self care mode, and we got me through that.
I received suspicious questions and judgmental looks in the fellowship because I had left a sponsor. I found myself having to explain why I was turning to counseling. Later I would find out other women had experienced biased advice and straight up bullying from that sponsor.
In AA, we aren’t supposed to gossip. We aren’t supposed to take each other’s inventory. We get told off for telling each other what members have done to us. We’re told we’re playing the victim, wallowing in self pity. This is where you might be thinking, that’s the fellowship not the program. Of COURSE it’s the fellowship. Of COURSE that’s not the intention behind not gossiping or anonymity or looking at our part.
But THIS is how the patriarchy has affected AA. This is how it takes advantage of it to keep itself in power. That female sponsor has been programmed to dismiss feelings and suck it up the same way men have. THAT’S patriarchy.
Remember the safety protocols I mentioned before? I haven’t read them, have you? Are they at every meeting? Are they hung on the walls? Are they suggested reading? Are we told where to find them? Are there workshops and conventions dedicated to learning and practicing them? THAT’S patriarchy.
When I came home and told my male partner that this man—a man he respected and loved and felt indebted to for helping him so much—had “merely” touched me and I was feeling (what could be easily seen as disproportionately) horrific and terrified and abused all over again (see Part 4 for more on all this) he had a really hard time processing it. He’s had his fair share of abuse too but hasn’t experienced it the way women do, and he almost never hears about it. And of course he has a really hard time wrapping his head around the fact that the men who helped him get sober and save his life and who treat him with nothing but kindness and love and respect don’t always do the same with women. THAT’S patriarchy.
My partner comes from a world and a past where brotherhood is everything, where honor means taking the blame to protect a friend, where you don’t dare fucking snitch. And he has to undo all of that, an entire way of life and psychic programming, to just be able to have empathy and compassion for his female partner and other women who have suffered under those same dynamics, in order to even just HEAR what I’m saying. And I have to carefully and patiently and compassionately teach him about all this, all while taking care of myself, and staying on the lookout for other women. THAT’S patriarchy.
When a woman attends enough meetings to know there is patriarchy in AA and then writes a NY Times piece about it and men write in to tell her how wrong she is and others take to the comments sections to call her a feminazi and say feminists are the reason society is fucked up, THAT’S patriarchy.
And by the way, patriarchy fucks over men too. The way my partner was raised and programmed, the life track that this society put him on, the way he had to raise his fists to stay alive but is forced to wear a scarlet letter because he did? The way he’s emasculated for showing any pain or weakness, force-fed angry and violent role models, then vilified for the natural response to that? The way he’s used by our economy as a tool to build our cities? The way his company values his muscles but doesn’t give a fuck about his lungs or his joints let alone his mental or emotional health? That’s patriarchy too.
And fuck do I wish people in AA told him to rest, care for his emotional wounds, stop pushing past his limits for a paycheck, that his mind and heart are as strong as his body, to be proud of himself, that he is loved as much as they tell him to go to work, work his program, don’t get complacent, don’t get cocky, apologize for being an asshole. You can only miss your homegroup for a funeral and it’d better be yours. That's patriarchy in AA.
I’ll go into the intersection of patriarchy, AA, and abuse in Part 4.