“Being a woman in the AA rooms is a bit like being a feminist in a church: you go, ultimately, because its meaning and purpose for you is greater than anything else – but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to grit your teeth at the way much of the good stuff about it is still in the hands of men.”
Sarah, 29, is a recovering alcoholic who has been in Alcoholics Anonymous for two years. Her entry to the Twelve Steps programme was prompted by waking up in hospital following a motorcycle accident where she was a passenger, having no memory of why or how she ended up on the back of it in the first place. Like most members of AA, Sarah credits the organisation with saving her life. Nevertheless, she remains balanced in her criticism when I ask about its pitfalls for women.
We’ve just passed the 80th anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, the world’s leading recovery support programme for those who feel they have lost control of their drinking. In Great Britain alone, 4,400 AA meetings take place every week. It was founded in the US two years after the end of Prohibition by two men – Dr Bob Smith, a physician, and Bill Wilson, a stock trader, both of whose professional and personal lives had been devastated by their own addictions.
“This the first issue with pretty much all discussion of alcoholism since the early 20th century. It’s pathologised as a male disease affecting male behaviour – what motivates women to drink is completely ignored”, explains Kate, a 45-year-old woman who tried AA, relapsed and then gave up drinking on her own. She goes on to say: “The Big Book itself is marked by the sexism you’d expect from a book written by men in the 1930s.”
Alcoholism is pathologised as a male disease affecting male behaviour – what motivates women to drink is completely ignored
By the Big Book, Kate means Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story Of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism, which the two founders wrote. The Big Book established the blueprint for AA’s philosophy and its Twelve Steps programme for recovery. It represents alcoholism chiefly as a disease in response to which total abstinence and submission to God are key to restoring oneself. As a text and misson statement, The Big Book is as important to AA now as it was when first published and remains largely unchanged. Its discussion of women is limited to one chapter, To Wives – addressed only to the spouses of alcoholics. The female alcoholic herself is addressed only briefly: “…our book thus far spoken has of men. But what we have said applies quite as much to women.” This brief word is early AA’s sole consideration of gender.
It is this which partially led Kate to reject AA in her own recovery: “I can’t speak for all women, but AA’s belief system suggests that alcoholism is a disease of the ego and its causes were irrelevant or mysterious – for me, drinking was in fact a response to many anxieties related specifically to my gender: ‘escaping’ abusive relationships, care responsibilities for family members and using drink to self-medicate while still functioning.”
There has been much written on this since the founding of AA; in particular, science has now shown that women’s bodies physically process alcohol very differently and, in her controversial 2013 book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — And How They Can Regain Control, writer Gabrielle Glaser argues many women’s psychological relationship with alcohol is also very different. She states: “Women drink to medicate their negative feelings away – the negative feelings of anxiety and the sad feelings of depression.” It’s a general statement, but one that chimes with Kate: “The first step in AA is ‘admitting’ you are powerless. I don’t think this is, in fact, a huge admission for many women in the programme – they already know. Powerlessness was the cause, not the symptom, of my addiction.”
In many modern manifestations of feminist action and self-care theory, the idea of the “safe space” has become paramount. On UK university campuses and women’s political organising – Sisters Uncut, for example – there’s been a strong reassertion of women needing places and groups free of men in order to organise effectively. The mixed space of many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (known in AA membership parlance as “the rooms”) stands in stark contrast to this awareness of gendered politics. It can seem at best quaint and at worst grossly out of touch with modern feminism.
Women drink to medicate their negative feelings away – the negative feelings of anxiety and the sad feelings of depression
Does this affect the politics and dynamics of the room for women attending? One of the key tenets of AA is that the organisation is non-hierarchical: all members are in a recovery “one day at a time” and so no one’s recovery can be superior to anyone else’s. “Yeah, that’s the principle and it’s an important one,” Sarah tells me, “but people don’t work that way. The first meeting I ever attended, I was told about Michael, who had been sober 31 years – the amount of years was definitely something we were supposed to be in awe of – and people casually referred to the meeting as “Michael’s group”; Michael clearly thought it was ‘his’ group too.” I ask her what impact this had for women specifically: “Well, just the fact that entitled alpha males can come to assume quite dominant leadership roles in some meetings and its not long before they, in essence, start telling women what to do”.
It’s easy to imagine how alienating a macho culture in AA meetings could be to those who fall outside of it and Kate confirms this: “There’s no awareness of distinct issues women members might have when sharing in the group. Take for example, discussion of kids – our society still demonises the alcoholic mother as a monster in a way that fathers who drank and fucked things up can only begin to imagine. If I shared about failures as a mother, it was loaded with a very specific kind of cultural shame I don’t think men can relate to.”
A key part of the reasoning behind the “safe space” in feminism is sexual and there are issues for women in recovery alongside men here, too. Worryingly, in AA slang “the Thirteenth Step” has come to mean the practice whereby more established male members prey sexually on women in the early stages of recovery. “Initially, I loved going to meetings – the people were so kind and non-judgemental. I did, however, use it as a way to meet people and, in particular, men. We'd binge for days or weeks, then decide to sort things out and start going to four or five meetings per day as a way of absolving the guilt we held over our relapses,” Irene tells me.
Irene was in AA’s sister organisation, Narcotics Anonymous, and says sexual dynamics were ever-present. “I feel the fact that I was 19 and, in retrospect, beautiful meant that a lot of men seemed to gain interest quickly. One man, in his forties, texted me a picture of his penis the day after we met. Looking back, I cringe but, at the time, I loved the attention. I had no sense of self-worth beyond what I got from men,” she says, adding that, speaking to other women in recovery, “there was always this sense that the programme wasn't really designed for us, that we weren't safe.”
Our society still demonises the alcoholic mother as a monster in a way that fathers who drank and fucked things up can only begin to imagine
It’s important to make a crucial distinction between residential treatment facilities that are professionally run (even if they follow the Twelve Steps programme) and community AA meetings. AA is a “lay” organisation administered by its own members. As such, male members who approach vulnerable women in their meetings are subject to no ethical codes of conduct – it is frowned upon, but relationships of this kind are still consensual, however exploitative. One of AA members’ many maxims is “you can’t work anyone else’s programme”, meaning, in essence, your own recovery must be your prime focus. Perhaps this attitude inhibits many acts of solidarity within groups and discourages women from collectively resisting gendered exploitation beyond whispered warnings about certain male members over coffee.
Women-only AA meetings do exist, however, and this is perhaps a sign that, in some places, women have decided that this is important for recovery. Similarly, there are women-only professional treatment centres. Hope House in London is one such rehab – at any given time, the facility has 22 live-in female residents and is staffed entirely by women counsellors. Nicola Schlesinger, a counsellor with the clinical team, explains how women who are funded by the NHS or local authority end up at a women-only centre: “It’s normally recommended by their care manager – often there will be a history of domestic violence or sexual abuse which prompts this.”
I ask Nicola if there is a specific difference she notices about women beginning their recovery in a women-only space. Interestingly, she says it’s not a sense of freedom from men, but the company of other women, which can have a huge impact on residents: “A lot of the women who come are actually scared of other women. They may have had issues with women in their own family growing up, their addiction may have cut them off from other women and being here gives them the opportunity to discover new similarities and shared experience with women that increases their sense of safety.”
I mention this to Kate, who left and remains critical of AA and the Twelve Steps programme (which is still used at Hope House), and she tells me: “The problem I have with AA is not that it doesn’t work – it does for many women – it’s that it is ‘one size fits all’. If women can create a space and use whatever from AA’s approach that helps them achieve sobriety, that is a wonderful thing. I just question anything that asks me not to question it and AA is not the only way, despite what it says.” This, in fact, echoes Sarah, who remains a staunch defender and advocate for the programme. Her earlier analogy to a church seems apt, as does her concession that anything, AA included, must adapt to fit with the times. Indeed, as Nicola Schlesinger at Hope House reminds me – the male God of early AA is now just referred to as a Higher Power and she says “Women of all faiths and none are encouraged to think what that Higher Power may be for them.” Perhaps, for many modern women, the Higher Power is nothing beyond themselves and that is enough to stay sober.