Sober in the City: A Feminist Walks into AA

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AA saved my life. There is no disputing that fact. However, AA employs practices and ideologies that are not congruent with my personal, political, or philosophical beliefs — practices and ideologies that I wasn’t aware of until I joined the group out of desperation. But, I learned early on in AA that you do not question the AA hegemony, so I kept my head down and counted my days. As soon as my alcohol cravings subsided and I had a few years of solid sobriety, I decided to leave AA and seek treatment and spaces that were more in line with my core beliefs.

Being an AA defector who speaks out about why the program is not a “one size fits all” solution is challenging because, according to AA doctrine, addiction is a moral failing and if AA doesn’t work for you, then there is something wrong with you and not the program itself.

For much of the past 50 years or so, voicing any serious skepticism toward Alcoholics Anonymous or any other 12-step program was sacrilege — the equivalent, in polite company, of questioning the virtue of American mothers or the patriotism of our troops. If your problem was drink, AA was the answer; if drugs, Narcotics Anonymous. And if those programs didn’t work, it was your fault: You weren’t “working the steps.” The only alternative, as the 12-step slogan has it, was “jails, institutions, or death.” – Maia Szalavitz

This is what most of my clients hear: Follow us or you will fail. If you do not recover, you are a dishonest and unfortunate idiot, and you were born a dishonest and unfortunate idiot. You will die painfully, full of shame for your innate inability to be honest with yourself. Even worse, if you are mentally and emotionally ill (which is highly probable), you will only recover if you follow our path completely and do not rock the boat. – Laura Tomkins

As a QPOC, an atheist, a feminist, and an advocate for social justice, I have been told my entire life not to rock the boat. From the moment we enter this world, society begins programming us to accept and internalize sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, fat phobia, nationalism, and a number of other phobias and isms that are deeply ingrained in our culture. Society expects me to endure a wide range of harassment, violence, oppression, and inequality while also keeping small and silent, lest I be labeled “an angry black woman,” “a man hating feminist,” “unpatriotic,” “a hypersensitive dyke,” or, in the case of AA, “a resentful, unhappy know-it-all.” When I was molested by my stepfather, my brother asked me to keep quiet so that my experience didn’t upset the rest of my family. When strange men on the streets “holla” at me, I am told to either accept it as a compliment or ignore it and not take it so seriously. When a co-worker at one of my first jobs called me into his office and offered to turn me straight, I had to make the decision of reporting him or keeping my job. When I call out blatant racism or racial microaggressions, I am told to stop overanalyzing everything or asked to provide proof of racial inequality. And, when I pointed out the sexist and misogynous passages in the Big Book (the complete text of AA), I was advised to focus on the positive aspects of AA and stop “harping on” the negative because, after all, my negative thinking is what made me an alcoholic. Minorities are reminded at every turn that we need to stay in our place and not question the rules.

It took years for me to unlearn what society and my family taught me about my place and role in this world — for me to find my voice and empower myself to stand up for my beliefs. Hence, one of my greatest challenges in AA: I did not get sober to get silenced. For me, not calling out the sexism and misogyny I experienced in AA would be tantamount to being complicit in my own oppression as well as the oppression of others. Yet, there was no room in AA for me to be critical of the program. If I questioned or criticized, I was dismissed as angry and resentful.

I had found a real sense of belonging during my first few months in the program. I identified with peoples’ experiences and groups accepted me as one of their own. We all came from different walks of life but had one thing in common: we were addicts and we needed each other’s support to stay sober. Our desire to live transcended all else. I hadn’t felt a sense of kinship like that since I came out and found my roots in the LGBTQ community. As such, I overlooked a lot of troubling things about the program. For example, people were allowed to use whatever language they wanted in their shares provided it was not considered threatening or “cross-talk.” The n-word, the f-word, slut, cunt, bitch – any derogatory slur you could imagine was used in shares to describe others who were not in the meeting, such as ex-wives, current girlfriends, bosses, politicians, family members, neighbors, etc. When people did break the rules and start hurling these insults at other members of the group, corrective action would be decided at business meetings where majority ruled. There were no licensed professional moderators to guide us, to help members process, to assist with mediation, or to facilitate debriefings. I was told by other members that I should pray for transgressors because they were “sick and suffering” and to ignore the negativity by putting “principles before personalities.”

The men in the group, some of whom were violent ex-offenders with anger management problems, would use shockingly misogynist, racist, and homophobic language during their shares and then hit on me before and after the meetings! Vulnerable newcomers would get preyed on by men in wait. When I was new and naïve, I had shared with the group that I had been sexually molested by my stepfather. But, after I started becoming more aware of the dysfunction in the meetings, I regretted that I had shared such an intimate experience in what was sold to me as a safe and spiritual space. In a way, I felt violated all over again and didn’t feel safe at all. So, I used that as an excuse to relapse. (I say excuse because, for an addict, any excuse is a good excuse.) However, I was lucky that I didn’t spiral full speed back into my addiction. I was committed to getting sober despite these obstacles. But, others aren’t so lucky. I, at least, am willing to acknowledge that, for some, this type of setting can in and of itself be triggering and lead to relapse or death. If a person doesn’t thrive in AA, it doesn’t mean it’s their fault.

Any substantive conversation about treatment in this country must reckon with the toll levied when a culture encourages one approach to the exclusion of all others, especially when that culture limits the treatment options for suffering people, ignores advances in understanding addiction, and excludes and even shames the great majority of people who fail in the sanctioned approach. – Dr. Lance Dodes & Zachary Dodes

When I got back on the horse, my sponsor suggested that I start attending women’s meetings. But, even in women’s meetings, we read the fatherly 12-steps that were displayed on the walls of every group I had attended. I would mumble along begrudgingly:

Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Step Seven: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Step Eight: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Everything is He, Him, His

Our language is profoundly biased, related to our social structure, and affects the way we think. We pervasively use male generics and that has negative effects. I do it all the time — I can’t seem to break the “guys” habit. We still use male words, usually to denote positive categories, like “mankind” but female terms for negative ones, “hos,” and “sluts.” – Soraya Chemaly

My sponsor told me to disregard the paternal religious terminology and instead interpret “he/him/his” to mean any God of my liking, even though I was an atheist. Ok, but even still, there was that pesky Big Book that we were constantly reading from, the bedrock of AA. The majority of the 500+ page book ­— the first book ever handed to me in the program — primarily focuses on the experiences of men and how AA can work by curing their moral failings. Only a few chapters are dedicated to women; some are published in the personal stories section, but the one and only chapter devoted to women in the instructional section is titled, “To Wives.” Let’s delight in some quotes from that chapter:

Try not to condemn your alcoholic husband no matter what he says or does. He is just another very sick, unreasonable person. Treat him, when you can, as though he had pneumonia. When he angers you, remember that he is very ill…

…The first principle of success is that you should never be angry. Even though your husband becomes unbearable and you have to leave him temporarily, you should, if you can, go without rancor. Patience and good temper are most necessary.

Our next thought is that you should never tell him what he must do about his drinking. If he gets the idea that you are a nag or a killjoy, your chance of accomplishing anything useful may be zero. He will use that as an excuse to drink more. He will tell you he is misunderstood. This may lead to lonely evenings for you. He may seek someone else to console him–not always another man.

If a group I was attending was still printing, distributing, and teaching from a book that was blatantly racist or homophobic, I would get up and leave and/or advocate for change. I do not give special passes for misogyny and sexism, especially in my sobriety, because my self-worth is so integral to my complete recovery.

When I was first motivated to get sober, I had nowhere else to turn except AA. But eventually, I got exhausted of being told that I was resentful, resistant, miserable, and angry every time I challenged AA’s teachings. To begin, no one seemed to understand that a person can be joyous in their personal lives, but simultaneously angry at a system of inequality. I do not believe that anger is always a bad thing. It can be a motivator for change. However, as ilse states in “Why Addiction Recovery Should Be a Feminist Issue,” “[anger] is something that women have not long had permission to feel. In recovery, people are taught that anger leads directly to relapse, and relapse leads to death. Anger is evidence that one has not achieved the spiritual enlightenment required for quality sobriety.”

Moreover, not all criticism is rooted in anger, resentment, and rage. Some of it is rooted in love, and in my case self-love; the love I have for myself to walk away from and/or fight against people, places, and things that contribute to oppression. Ignoring oppression and inequality in any form is a privilege that I, as a QPOC, cannot afford. Unlike some, I didn’t feel that I needed to choose between being sober and being critical of the program. So, I left AA and have been sober (and very happy if you’re curious) for over 5 years now.

There is one piece of literature from AA expressly written for women, a thin brochure titled “A.A. for the Woman.” It contains is a list of reasons why women drink heavily. It asks women: “Do you plan in advance to reward yourself with a little drinking after you’ve worked very hard in the house?” …

…Needless to say, there is no pamphlet “AA for the Man.” Why would that be needed when the Big Book is already all about men? So let me get this straight. Women are supposed to read the AA Big Book because it’s also about them — they’re not unique. But there’s one tiny pamphlet just for women because women are different, albeit it only in trivial, superficial ways. – Juliet Abram

I do acknowledge that AA can work for QPOC atheist feminists. Just as there is more than one way to be a feminist, there is more than one way to get sober. So, then, you might be wondering why I would publicly criticize AA. Someone commented on my last post that I “seem intent on sullying the reputation of an organization that has an inclusive nature and has helped many, many people.” That is far from the truth. I am simply sharing my experiences because others may be struggling with trying to get sober while dealing with AA language and principles that actually impede their recovery. I didn’t know much about AA before I joined and was quite triggered in the program, so much so that I relapsed. I don’t want others to needlessly experience this if there are alternatives. I also want people to know that they do not have to believe that there is something wrong with them if AA isn’t a good fit, because that blame only leads to more shame, guilt, relapsing, and death. I’m letting others who have had similar experiences know that they can leave AA without feeling like a failure and that they can still lead happy, productive, sober lives.

I also want people to consider how AA might impact society on a macro level, considering that studies show that “higher levels of [gender] equality are associated with less alcohol consumption overall.” Researchers are still uncovering the multifactorial biopsychosocial factors that lead to addiction. Before we had access to this new knowledge, addiction was simply dismissed as a moral failing. As a result, clinicians relied on AA as one of the primary means of addiction treatment and it has become accepted truth that AA is the only successful approach to sobriety, despite evidence that research on AA sometimes conflates correlation with causation and the fact that “we hear from the people who do well; we don’t hear from the people who don’t do well.”

AA is such a brand name that most people do not know of other free outpatient treatment options, and inpatient treatment is very expensive. Many people cannot afford fancy rehabs, complete with massages, yoga, counseling, spas, and organic meals. Nor can most people take time off from work for inpatient treatment. Further, our justice system treats addicts like criminals; addicts are often mandated to AA programs as part of their sentencing (aka, coerced attendance, which has been ruled unconstitutional in some cases). Because of these economic and legal factors, some women wind up in AA because they are not given a choice, may not have access to alternatives, or may not be educated about alternatives.

There are people who participate in AA even though they find it oppressive and unsafe, and women can be particularly vulnerable given the aforementioned examples of sexism and misogyny. Even though AA has a popular mantra of “take what you need and leave the rest,” people are desperate when they come to AA and willing to go to any length to get and stay sober, including internalize and perpetuate the sexism and misogyny found in AA’s texts. What does it mean for those who cannot or do not want to ignore the dated language in the Big Book, especially when members are told that their lives depend on following the AA doctrine as close as possible? Is there a way to derive all of the positive benefits of AA without propagating the sexism and misogyny? Given that there are an estimated 2.1 million AA members worldwide, how does AA’s sexist and misogynist language impact members’ views of gender, and in turn, how does that play out in the world outside of AA? Do we have to legally mandate people to attend a program that still prints and refers to a sexist and misogynist book? And, lastly, while AA has saved many lives, it has also failed many others. If people leave on their own free will because AA wasn’t a good fit, can we at least stop blaming the addicts for AA’s shortcomings?

Do you or someone you know need help with an alcohol or drug problem? Seeking alternatives to AA? Contact:

Women for Sobriety (WFS): (215) 536-8026

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.): (323) 666-4295

Moderation Management (MM): (212)871-0974

SMART Recovery: n a choice, may not have access to alternatives, or may not be educated about alternatives.

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Ginger Hale

Ginger has written 13 articles for us.


    • The AA program doesnt promote any of the negative “isms” you site. I challenge you to show me where it does. You will encounter some people in the program who do and some who don’t but the program can’t be blamed. It also does not promote self pity and victimhood, both of which you have embraced. Would it be too difficult for your ego to accept the fact that, yes, you will encounter some bad individuals in your life, but it is not you against the world or you against society? You’re not special. You’re suffering is not unique or special and it’s mostly self imposed. Maybe you rejected AA because it didn’t acknowledge the exalted victim status you imagine you have.

  1. This is wonderful/illuminating; I’m sorry you had to deal with such blatant homophobia, misogyny, unapologetic disregard for anyone who isn’t religious, and racism while overcoming an addiction. That combination of factors sounds absolutely horrifying.

    Thankyoukindly for sharing.

    Also congratulations! I’m glad that (despite the aforementioned seemingly institutionalized absurdities) you’re doing well/happy! Here’s hoping more people are able to have access to a greater range (and way less uncomfortable options) of support in the future.

  2. My mom had sent me AA/Al Anon literature for years, it seemed to perpetuate the idea that I was somehow deeply flawed because my parents drank and thus I would be an alcoholic. For my mom it seems to feed the need to perfect and control all areas of her life and the masculine deity angle is a bonus. I’m sending her this article, hopefully it can open up dialogue in new and helpful ways.

  3. Thank you so very much for writing this. What you describe very much matches experiences I had with AA and NA (which I no longer attend). It’s very difficult, as you point out, to say anything negative about AA publicly, because it’s often read as a sign of one’s own moral failings, or as code that one has used this all as an excuse to go out and get drunk. I admire your courage in writing this.

    I attended very, very faithfully for 12 years, held leadership positions, abstained entirely, went to meetings regularly, and worked the steps. I followed suggestions as scrupulously as I could. When I raised concerns about the misogyny, sexual violence, or predatory sexual behavior I encountered on a regular basis, both directed toward myself and others, I was nearly always told to pray for the sick and suffering, or to realize that the perpetrators had just come from the bar lifestyle, or not to have a resentment because it was potentially deadly for me. I went mostly to women’s meetings for most of those years, and even there I found an environment that made excuses for perpetrators (I did feel safer—no one ever touched me without my consent at a women’s meeting, though they did many times at coed meetings).

    The thing that’s hard to express (and that you’ve done quite well) is how those incidents of sexism and sexual violence affected me over the years. I did feel I had nowhere else to go and couldn’t leave (or I would die drunk or fulfill some similar threat), and yet the program was not working for me because it was totally twisting my response to trauma, while simultaneously frequently exposing me to more trauma. By not working for me, I mean that my mental state was worsening, and working the steps seemed to have a negative, counterproductive effect on me (related in many ways to what you said about anger and silencing). I totally abstained and was taught to think of this as the most important thing to pay attention to. I later came to believe that other things are more important to me (such as not feeling suicidal).

    In addition to the language you describe hearing with regard to people outside the room, I heard the same language being used to describe people within the room. In one city where I lived, a man would regularly describe the violent acts he would like to commit toward his wife while she was sitting right there. Men would talk about the (terrible) way they treated sex workers while sitting with sex workers. And so on.

    I’m not comfortable sharing too many specifics on the open Internet, but I hear what you’re saying and want to add my voice to it in confirmation.

    On my 12th anniversary of sobriety, I used the opportunity to speak about these things, because I could no longer ignore them. Nowhere else in my life were people touching me and refusing to listen when I asked them to stop. Nowhere else was I being asked to shrug off harassment. Nowhere else was I putting up with blatant sexism, homophobia, racism, misogyny, and disturbing misunderstandings of the workings of trauma.

    The response I got was more of the same—that I shouldn’t take the bad apples so seriously, that I should have compassion for the sick and suffering, that I should work the program harder because that would resolve the anger I was experiencing, that I should not have contempt prior to investigation (despite the fact that 12 years of devoted participation seems like a lot of investigation).

    I tried attending a little longer, but that was basically the end for me. I am very angry at 12-step recovery, it’s true (and I know that completely discredits me in the eyes of some). When I hear the praises of AA being sung, and when I hear the seemingly obligatory statement that it saved one’s life, it makes me cringe. I don’t believe it saved mine. I’m still working out the ways I got twisted in the program, and I saw plenty of other people getting twisted the same way (and, as a sponsor and member of the organization’s service structure, I helped produce that, which I deeply regret). I feel about it the way I do whenever a respected figure or organization is lauded despite a history of terrible, widely reported harm. Lots of people have talked about the ways misogyny, racism, and homophobia in the program harms them. I wish it didn’t seem like the most common response is to shout them down and bark at them about all the program has done for them.

  4. My mom was an alcoholic. In a period of about 5 years she went from being (seemingly) happily married with two kids and a good career, to drinking in secret to deal with some difficult memories, then losing her job, to divorce, to losing custody of her kids, to not being able to hold any kind of job, to literally stealing bottles of liquor when she couldn’t afford them, to the DTs, to not being able to eat without vomiting, to alcohol-induced dementia, and then to death when her malnourished and seizing body succumbed to a pneumonia infection. She was 35.

    I try not to dwell on it but now and then I get to wracking my brain with the “whys”, wondering just what went wrong. She had a kid young but went back and finished a BA and a professional career. She had a strong marriage, a good relationship with her family and strong Christian faith. She also did not just one but two stints at Hazelden. But still, she couldn’t control it.

    I have noticed that most addiction and family support material seems to be geared toward men. And I also knew that my mom’s experience with her own not-so-secret addiction probably carried a lot more shame than her alcoholic father who used to drink openly. I sure felt the shame as a kid when I’d close my eyes and pretend not to notice her sneaking out to the car every 20 minutes or so on her supervised visits. But it never crossed my mind that misogyny itself might be built into the system of treatment.

    This article has opened up a whole new set of “whys.”

  5. I cannot thank you enough for writing this. I was a pretty faithful member of AA for three years before I finally felt so alienated by the program that I stopped attending meetings, and spent the following two years still feeling alienated because my sobriety was important to me, but I didn’t know where to go anymore. My experiences, although not entirely the same, were similar, so I didn’t feel like I could be a member of AA any longer…but outside of AA, I didn’t know anyone who also struggled with substance abuse. So I felt I was either trying to stay sober in AA and stuffing down my feelings about how problematic the program is, or talking to like-minded friends about how problematic AA was but still could not help me when I was struggling with something that I used to go to meetings in order to work out.

    By the tail end of those two years not going to AA, I noticed that my behaviors had changed significantly and that my urges to drink had gotten sharper and more frequent. In the last few weeks I’ve been going back to meetings (one a week, because I’m still pretty reluctant) and have been feeling better, somewhat. But after reading this, I’m frustrated all over again, and feel alienated once more. I am not one of those people who felt okay not going to meetings by the end of it, but for all the help AA gave me, it was damaging as well, and I internalized a lot of shit in the process that took me a long time to sort through and heal from. And now I’m puking in a comment because this is literally the first place ever where I felt like I could talk about it in a forum where at least a few people who share my beliefs AND also have a history of substance abuse will hear me.

    tl;dr: Thank you so much for writing this, I have a lot of conflicting feelings about stuffnthings, and again thank you so much because you gave me a place to emotionally throw up.

    • Hey Nikki

      I can relate to the thread and what you gals are saying. For me, I mostly stick with women/women’s meetings in the program and that provides me a lot of comfort and a safe space. When I am not interacting with women that share the commonality of addiction, I tend to become rather unstable. I get into moments of isolation and hating everybody,but I just keep going. I remember too that if I keep my problems, even problems with the language or anything else in the program, I begin to feel super disconnected…and then it is harder to come back, because I back off back off back off so much so that it is again extremely uncomfortable to go talk to people at meetings. I’m just saying, if it is helping keep you sober, I think it’s worth it to give it a shot…maybe a gay clubhouse, women’s meetings…change he/him, to she/her…who heck cares…this is your life we are talking about ya know. xxoo good luck sister!!

    • Just tell someone how you are feeling…we have all been there. We alienate ourselves. It’s not worth it to have to struggle through life because we cannot accept that the book was written in 1937- and it has not changed…whatever, just use your pen. Don’t be stubborn ;)

  6. Great piece. One fallacy though. AA did not save your (or anyone’s) life — YOU did that. The ‘program’ forces members to chant that ‘AA saved my life’ thought-stopping chant so much that even when you get free, you have that fallacy stuck in your belief system.

    You saved your own life in SPITE of AA, not because of it. The peer aspect is one thing. The negative affirmations and the ‘powerless’ dogma is quite another.

    Thank you for this piece.

    • I didn’t save MY life. If I did then why did I need AA. I couldn’t stop drinking no matter the will or money spent on psychologists etc. I went to AA and have been sober ever since.
      I didn’t do that,as if I did I wouldn’t of needed AA.

  7. Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. The timing on your publishing this piece could not have been more perfect. I spent the majority of Tuesday calling all of my feminist leaning sober friends as well as my sponsor because of THIS. I have over 3 1/2 years of continuous sobriety and finally hit a wall with the sexist language of the literature and perpetuation of harrassment in the rooms of AA. I am trying really hard not to walk away because some of the most amazing relationships I have ever had are within my AA community, but I am beginning to find myself struggling to have a positive experience when I go to meetings. Your piece really helps validate my feelings in spite of all the responses I’ve gotten along the lines of “stop looking at the garbage and look to the miracles.” Thank you for helping me feel less alone.

  8. THANK YOU. I don’t feel comfortable saying more than that on the wide open interwebs, but thank you for this.

    • Something I feel like I can say: I was starting to think I was crazy, and I’m so grateful to read this and know that I’m not alone.

  9. THIS. SO. MUCH. A lot of my family members are in AA, including my mom and dad, who’ve been in “the program” as it’s called since before I was born. I briefly attended Al-Anon (AA’s sister program, which is run on the same lines and literature and exists as a support group for family and friends of alcoholics) three years ago and came to the same conclusions you did.

    I do see merit in the program, because it has worked for many, many people, including my parents. For me, as a radical leftist, what’s most interesting is that the organization is very decentralized and operates in ways that have a lot in common with anarchist/socialist traditions like mutual aid, etc.

    HOWEVER! This does not balance out the many troubling aspects of the organization that actively uphold or gloss over institutional oppression. The steps, in particular, reflect the Christian background of the founders – the 12 steps are, essentially, IDENTICAL to the conversion process.

    I stopped attending Al-Anon for the same reasons laid out in this article, and wrote an analysis of the organization making the same critique. I also, around that same time, chose to stop drinking, and have now been a non-drinker for 3 years. I don’t think of myself as an alcoholic, but I know I would have become one had I continued to drink. The “AA wisdom” so prevalent in my upbringing instilled a lot of positive values in me, but it is also an institution founded on oppressive ideology.

    I think the strongest takeaway I’ve gotten from AA is not that you must do the 12-steps and follow their program in order to stay sober. Actually, I think what makes AA work the most is the sense of community and the decentralized, reliable support structure. And that’s great, because feminists and queers have a long history of creating those systems.

    TL;DR You’re right on, AA is founded on oppressive beliefs, we can learn from some of the program’s aspects but the sexist BS has to be challenged.

  10. Hey ladies. I just wanted to say that I totally get where you are coming from. I understand disliking the language usage in the Big Book, and all the he’s and him’s. I do think we have a choice though if the rest of the program is working for us. I cannot say I agree with the idea that the program is “misogynistic.” I do not see the promotion of hatred, mistrust, or mistreatment of women; Although, I do agree that some of the men can be predatorial.

    For me, sticking with women, women’s meetings, and going to groups I feel safe in helps with that a ton. This is generally the same way I operate in society…I prefer safe places where men are not cat calling, around people I feel comfortable with, and where I do not feel threatened. I stay away from seedy neighborhoods the same way I stay away from seedy AA meetings. The ratio of women to men is steep in AA. Alanon is just the opposite. Who knows why- I don’t. If I have problems at meetings I try to affect change, or stay away from the ones I dislike.

    It sucks that whatever meetings you were going to felt that way. A shame because a lot of the tools the program offers are extremely helpful in leading a sober, generally happy, and definitely much happier life than before. Sometimes I decide I hate AA, and everything about it; but I have noticed that I am much more content, and way more sane when I just keep going and stay in contact with my girls from the program.

    I actually know quite a few atheists who go to meetings and have stayed sober for very long periods of time. I attend meetings at a Buddhist center as well, and those are a lot less God focused, although personally I have no problem with the spiritual aspect…no one’s making me go to church so- whatever. My life was a complete wreck before.

    Anyways, I think it is respectable to have a backbone- to have beliefs, and to express our frustrations with culture and society. I am glad people can come here and vent. There are many ways to implement self care, I do agree that AA is not the only way to stay sober- although it has worked for me for the last 10 years. It is a non-profit organization and I enjoy hanging with women who understand me. There are no rules, and that’s even better. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do or how to think that’s for sure. It’s my nature to be a rebel.

    Just as I respect your feelings and opinion, I also like to share mine. I think the things you speak of are problems that are general in American culture and society as a whole. The world is not nearly as progressive as one may think. Still so much discrimination in a myriad of ways- and it goes completely ignored or invalidated. I am very grateful for the help and friendships I get from attending meetings, talking to my sponsor, and fellow-shipping with all sorts of different people who have been through the wringer of addiction. I think that when the book speaks to the constitutionally incapable, it is not regarding people who actually have the ability to form an opinion. To wives is also not the best chapter, I agree. Actually it is b.s. in my opinion and Alanon teaches something quite different. Come on, you think a HUMAN alcoholic is going to say- “Girl you need to dump that chump on her/his arse, and move on!” Doubtful. I like the benefit of the doubt just as much as any. I don’t agree with everything in AA, just like I don’t agree with society and how it operates all the time.

    My life has taken a 360;I have been able to do things I used to only speak to doing. I am happier, I handle my business, and I have become the person I always wanted to be. I have self-respect and love for myself and others- genuinely! And it is a really good feeling. 99% of the time I do not think about drinking or drugging, I’m not driving around drunk in my car about to kill someone, and I am making a difference in my life and in the life of others. I’m just going with the flow, following my gut, and doing a ton of yoga. Life is good, and hard, but good. So many awesome things have happened since I have continued to participate in this process–I think I will keep going, regardless.

  11. I don’t know anything about substance abuse, but it seems kind of weird and cultish to me that if AA doesn’t work for you, that’s presented as some kind of moral failing. It honestly sounds like a manipulation tactic to keep people going to the meetings.

    It’s always tempting to think we’ve found some kind of miracle cure for all the ills of the world, but the world is way more complicated than that. The only truth we can really stick to is “There is no ‘one true way'”… and hey, maybe someday we’ll find out we’re wrong about that, too.

  12. “Leaving AA, Staying Sober” at
    That’s a really interesting article. I couldn’t agree more, Ginger.
    I attended AA (for 14 years) then left and have remained sober, and now blog about it with resources for others in a similar situation.
    Like you, I’ve been criticised on pro-AAs blogs for pointing out the obvious things wrong with AA. It turns out the fellowship can’t stand criticism!
    However, this is the 21st century, not the 14th century, and no institution can remain above scrutiny – be it AA, the British Monarchy, the Catholic Church… That’s what scientific progress is all about, the ability to challenge and “falsify” the findings of other, as Karl Popper put it.
    The fact that AA hasn’t, can’t, change is not a good thing. It’s a bad thing, because addiction and recovery has changed.
    When the book was written they didn’t think women could be alcoholics – which is why it’s all so blatantly sexist. Not only that, but science HAS made normal drinkers out of alcoholics via The Sinclair Method, so the whole idea of abstinence is wrong too.
    Most worrying of all there’s no safeguarding in AA. That is inexcusable in a therapeutic environment – witness the Karla Brada AA murder case.
    So, yes, you’re right, sensible criticism of AA is not only warranted but it’s long overdue.
    Jon S

    • Yes. Sober sister also not in AA, and it drives me nuts that they cannot hear perspectives from other points of view. That I did things differently meant I was just waiting to relapse in their eyes. They were so smug, waiting for failure. I detest that rigidity and policing. Anti feminist to the max. A good, sound group should not succumb to dogma, group think, etc., or else I want no part of it. Keep up the good work.

  13. thank you for this article, and the previous one.

    i’ll be brief. after 3 1/2 years “in the rooms,” i was really struggling with some similar concepts. i knew the book was old, yadda yadda, but i just couldn’t move on (or pray, or write, or whatever) some of this stuff away. i did not SPIRITUALLY and MORALLY feel comfortable propagating it any longer!

    somewhat sadly, i had made my ENTIRE life revolve around AA (i moved across the country to a sober house, and started my life over from there). outside of work, for nearly four years, my only hobby was AA! yoga, coffee dates, concerts, travels.. all AA-related! don’t get me wrong — i made some of the most amazing friendships through the program, and yes of course, it opened up so many doors! i learned so much about myself and don’t regret a single thing, it was all meant to be. i cherish those memories and miss those people fondly. but the second i really started questioning things, or seeking other options, people disappeared. it was taboo and people thought i was sure to go back to being a junkie in no time.. a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    granted, what other people think is none of my business! but i have felt so much guilt and shame over the last year — processing everything has felt so fucked up — given everything i was told and taught in AA. aside from that, i have remained healthy, happy, and clean, and try not to dwell too much on the relationships lost due to a few of my beliefs changing (: i am still an honest, giving, caring being of the Universe. i am still a loving and involved daughter, sister, aunt, and girlfriend. i am getting back into art, looking into roller derby, and trying to make new friends!

    this article made me feel less crazy and alone, so thank you.

  14. Unfortunately we have a woman who is an feminist, atheist and Wiccan who has shared in our AA meeting that she hates men and has told the male chair of the meeting that she hates him. There was a group conscience to elect new people to chair meetings and she and a racist black gay man got elected. Now she is toying with the format and readings of the group that previously remained unchanged for 25 years and the AA group is beginning to fold. Previously we had a feminist vegan who kept trying to persuade members to take up veganism. She gave up and left.

  15. And there you have it folks. THIS ↑ Members like Larry are precisely why I do not leave my sanity, mental health, and sobriety to a group with absolutely ZERO trained professionals in the bunch to facilitate/educate.

    • Ginger!!! Don’t forget…. “AA saved my life. There is no disputing that fact. However, AA employs practices and ideologies that are not congruent with my personal, political, or philosophical beliefs — practices and ideologies that I wasn’t aware of until I joined the group out of desperation.”

      I really think that if it saved your life, there was a lot more good than harm. There are messed up people in the rooms, because, like you did – people go there when it’s the last freaking option, no place else to go…but we invite you in, and love you even though you are a hot mess….and there are LGBT clubhouses, meetings for women (in which people change the he’s and him’s to she’s and her’s), and all sorts of other specialized groups.

      Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and some are spoken with more experience and wisdom than others- but I’m having a tough time understanding why the deconstruction and tearing down of something that literally saved your life? I’m all about equal rights, but it’s like when people who have been discriminated against, discriminate against others–it makes no sense to me at all…So two wrongs make a right?

      I’m sorry, but I have a ‘feminist’ friend who preys on males in the program, but then gets upset with me for posting a politically incorrect joke on an email…so not all women are angels either. Equal rights are important….and this is true, but simply venting about something is not going to change anything. There is a 12 step book for women, and hey, maybe let’s put out a pink, hot pink actually (cause that’s my favorite color) Big Book that uses all she’s and hers, and a to the husbands chapter?? Change it all up- you know, we can do something about it…

      I think it’s all about being tactful, and wise about advocating for a cause…I get where this blog came from, I do…and I don’t think there is something wrong with someone for not wanting to be a part of AA…there are other ways to improve yourself and to quit drinking…and that’s totally cool…do that!! I love professionals! I have 2 that I seek for help- as recommended by the Big Book – get outside help if you need it.

      The people in AA do not represent the institution, just like feminists don’t represent the institution of feminism….b/c people are people, and if we took a small group or one violent, ignorant, or manipulative feminist and said there ya go, that is what I am saying…see how feminists are…that would not necessarily be fair, would it?

      It’s not for everybody…and I actually admire people who can do it alone and be happy…that’s just not my story. I like the camaraderie of my girlfriends in AA, I like the principles I live my life by, and I like the values I have now as a result. Anyways, I love all of you ladies, and I appreciate being able to say how I feel about this as much as you all appreciate being able to speak your minds as well. Thanks for being here, and more power to all of us…Equality is important!

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  17. Hey Ginger. I’m SO GLAD I came across your article. I left AA for similar reasons years ago and I often run into other sober people who think AA is the only way and that they have a monopoly on recovery. They police the choices of people who choose not to attend AA and you can feel their disdain. I love meeting others like myself and you because it empowers me to keep doing what I know is right for me. My old sponsor, an amazing woman, supported me by saying “Just don’t put me in a box and I won’t have to break out of it.” I loved her because she supported me In doing what was right for me. The rigidly and anti-feminist views were not a good fit for me in the end. I needed AA in the beginning, but ultimately it was not for me. I never want to judge anyone’s recovery process or be so rigid to think my way is the only way. I HATE this about the AA monopoly. They say principles before personalities, but both are problematic here. Thank you again! Working in the recovery field, it can be tough to not count clean time (which I chose not to) and not be affiliated with AA, even though I still love and support it for others who chose it. I just wish everyone could do what works for them (for some that may not even be abstinence, what do I know about others’ situations), without judgment.

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  21. to Silver

    11 Major Alternatives to AA

    (circa 2016)

    Free Self-Help (includes men for sobriety) (entirely online)


    Help involving paid professionals (for alcohol)* (for opiates)**


    Sinclair method and Ibogaine use medication to rewire the addiction pathways in the brain

    *most doctors can prescribe the medication Naltrexone, but is a treatment center specifically based on the Sinclair method.

    **aftercare is recommended, such as,, and

  22. 11 Major Alternatives to AA

    (circa 2016)

    Free Self-Help (includes men for sobriety) (entirely online)


    Help involving paid professionals (for alcohol)* (for opiates)**


    Sinclair method and Ibogaine use medication to rewire the addiction pathways in the brain

    *most doctors can prescribe the medication Naltrexone, but is a treatment center specifically based on the Sinclair method.

    **aftercare is recommended, such as,, and

    11 Major Alternatives to AA

    (circa 2016)

    Free Self-Help (includes men for sobriety) (entirely online)


    Help involving paid professionals (for alcohol)* (for opiates)**


    Sinclair method and Ibogaine use medication to rewire the addiction pathways in the brain

    *most doctors can prescribe the medication Naltrexone, but is a treatment center specifically based on the Sinclair method.

    **aftercare is recommended, such as,, and

  23. My favorite quote from this very good article was, “”What does it mean for those who cannot or do not want to ignore the dated language in the Big Book, especially when members are told that their lives depend on following the AA doctrine as close as possible?”

    I think it very useful that Hale emphasizes that AA is a literal and fundamentalist culture where “the Big Book” is seen as an infallible guide for behavior.

    What I would have liked to see more of would have been an exploration of AA and 12 Step’s toxic patterns that go beyond sexism and racism and are based in a very deep “blaming the victim,” which might be considered a kind of grandparent to sexism and racism.

    Thus, when one admits that AA members follow the “Big Book” literally one also should admit that it is a serious problem that the “Big Book” advocates “blaming the victim.” Perhaps the most obvious juncture of “blaming the victim” occurs on page 62:

    “Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.” (p.62)

    What is even more disturbing is that this same kind of toxic thinking runs throughout the entire “Big Book” and members will even explain it as a “spiritual kind of taking responsibility.”

    Thus, while I want to applaud Hale for highlighting the sexism that is so much a part of the culture of AA, I also want to emphasize that the problems with AA and abuse are much larger but still have roots in the actual written texts of AA culture.

    What I would have liked to see more of would have been an exploration of AA and 12 Step’s toxic patterns that go beyond sexism and racism and based in a very deep “blaming the victim.”

    When one admits that AA members follow the “Big Book” literally one also should admit that it is a serious problem that the “Big Book” advocates “blaming the victim.” Perhaps the most obvious juncture of “blaming the victim” occurs on page 62:

    “Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.” (p.62)

    What is even more disturbing is that this same kind of toxic thinking runs throughout the entire “Big Book” and members will even explain it as a “spiritual kind of taking responsibility.”

    Thus, while I want to applaud Hale for highlighting the sexism that is so much a part of the culture of AA, I also want to emphasize that the problems with AA and abuse are much larger but still have roots in the actual written texts of AA culture.

  24. One of the most egregious statements in the AA literature is in the chapter “Step Six” of the book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” (“the 12&12”) where it discusses the Seven Deadly Sins on page 66: “No one wants to be angry enough to murder, lustful enough to rape…” This book has been reprinted with these words for the last 65+ years with no changes.

  25. I am so incredibly grateful for this article. It was just what I needed. Tomorrow I will be attending my 2nd Smart Recovery meeting and I now feel empowered and validated thanks to your story in making this transition from the twelve steps. I am so tired of the PATRIARCHY! I know it exists everywhere but the unchecked bullshit that I have experienced in HA (Heroin) is triggering. I need to be around people with a rational mind who have a protocol against sexual harassment. I need to be around people who care about social justice. Thank you. I can’t wait to share this article. You are so brave!!

  26. You’ve misrepresented AA through the lens of your own challenge. If You’re trying to paint yourself a victim, you’ve characterized that very well.

    First, It’s not merely men waiting to pounce on vulnerable women. I’ve seen women pounce on both men and women, drag them into the personal drama and derail their progress. Once, i brought a known female with me and, in front of me, a female AA said to her,”why are you here with him, he just wants apiece of your ass.” She replied, “no he doesn’t. I’ve been trying to give it to him for over a year and he won’t take it!”

    As for the literature, you unfairly characterize it as misogynist with its male references. You paint it as make dominance. Has it occured to you that this was devised during a time when it was basically men who were considered bum husbands or the town drunks? You think we could give them some credit for getting together and coming up with something meant to help them? Nowadays, AA has meetings explicitly for atheists, gays, even lesbians specifically, etc.

    I’ve been to 1000s of meetings and have encountered all kinds of people… including some, like you, who turn everything they don’t like, or that doesn’t cater directly to them, into their Joan of Arc story of oppression and victimization.

    And, of course, it’s for the good of potential victims, right? That’s how it gets justified. It couldn’t just be that those who don’t like what you have to say generally find you disruptive or in self pity or a martyr complex, etc.. that not all push back makes the other an oppressor. Sometimes, ones personal crap gets in the way and makes them misrepresent whatever it is that isn’t helping them.

    How about just moving on instead of assigning all the latest victim and victimizer labels you can? I’m truly surprised you left out “white privilege”.

    Anyways, thanks for tolerating my oppressive, paternalistic, white privilege, misogyny.

    • Thank you so much for this article! I feel so much better after reading it. For me, the fact that women weren’t considered capable of being an alcoholics in 1935 when the Big Book was written made the program pretty much impossible for men to relate to. I tried for 21 months and over 500 meetings. I got a sponsor and worked the steps to the best of my ability. But, I could not relate to a program that was written by white guys for white guys. That and the fact that I am spiritual but not Christian and the program is a Christian program in spite of what it claims. There are no trained professionals to deal with mental illness and I find it dangerous in that respect. The program leads you to believe that you can pray away your mental illness. I’ve been going to less meetings because I keep getting triggered. I will go to a meeting in a good mood and leave feeling awful. I don’t need that in my life. I learned a lot in AA about not controlling everything and changing your reaction to things. I did learn a lot. But, my heart is just not into it anymore so I think I will take a break. Spend more time with my husband and daughter.

  27. One of the many things I struggled with along with the gaslighting, shaming and stripping of autonomy and critical/ free thinking is the co- dependant thinking that encourages and enforces the very “ traditional “ social pressures for women to be self- sacrificing stepford wife who meets everyone else’s needs and has non of her own. To be an appendage / spare rib to husbands and dutiful, obligated carer and people pleaser daughter/ daughter in law and to fulfill her role in the natural order of things to be first if not solely a primary caregiver/ mother of children. I am still consider a suspicious unnatural freak, especially by other women, that I did not have children and expected to explain myself. The constant use of the term service which are probably the very reason’s some women develop additive coping mechanisms in the first place to numb out the pain of not mattering, silenced, shut down or attacked, shame backlashes even ostracised if they voice or behave otherwise. This is not advocating for lack of empathy consideration cooperativeness and collaboration , to believe only I matter but rather the audacity to suggest I matter too. That autonomy, self-defining self- determining are not against others or the inclusion of others but basic human needs and dignity. To be for me is not against you or in direct competition with you. It is not a master slave narrative it is healthy boundaries.
    AA etc attempted to guard against such “ calling out” by adding foot notes rather than amending or reforming the text. They will say but it’s inclusive because it is a god or your choosing or the higher power can be the group etc. But there is an emphasis on spirituality not personal power, I am a humanist, I have empathy and I care about “ social justice” and the rights an well being of all but I do not consider these values to be spiritual. I do not believe you need to be spiritual to be a decent human being, but it seems to be pushed everywhere these days; even in more generic “ self help” literature.
    One pamphlet suggested dressing to please someone. Then other footnotes will talk about oh but we need boundaries. There’s a moto me true to yourself but I was then told “where had thinking for myself got me so far.” My gut was screaming red flag. It feels too similar to a cult.
    Because we have a maladaptive coping mechanism for our trauma we are now not allowed to trust our own judgement in any area of life. We are flawed and morally defective in every way and need to be a compliant child surrendering to strict and conservative parenting from AA that we clearly missed out on in our youth.
    Many models focus on the idea that through addiction we have arrested development and must doubt not only our maturity but our intelligence. We are not meant to trust ourselves or our own judgment in any area and ignore our gut and intuition that those who know better could be wrong in anyway, or right for us anyway.
    We are shamed and asked to list all our character defects and if we have painful reactions to it, some from vulnerable people who have been stripped of self worth and self esteem at the hands of parents, teachers and even society for being the wrong shape and probably why developed addictions to cope in the first place, are then further shamed in saying that that reaction is also flawed: ego and self pity. You can not win. One member chose to keep using the word sin and said it is exactly that “ moral / character defects are sins and it is an acceptable exchange of like for like terms.”
    The idea being like the army that you need to be broken down to be rebuilt as they see “ correctly “. Whilst we must not let ourselves of the hook we must passively accept or “ forgive” all that is or has been done to us.
    Many of these things and more recreate the wider societal dominance structure, patriarchal, traditional,conservative, oppressive, prejudice, passive codependent values that lead those – other than perhaps ( I emphasise perhaps) some more “privileged “ males or people who are higher in a pecking order that they may not have ever considered others- to cope by misusing substances or numbing, escapists behaviours in the first place.

  28. I say Goodbye to AA, been in and out of the Rooms for 28 years, Court Ordered to start. Everytime I come back and try it again it is always so much drama and tragedy with the people .They really would have been better off out there drinking/drugging than this!
    Most of the people real cool, some Meetings the Freaks come out , the girl with the pink hair and a million piercings, the long haired dudes with earings wearing funky clothes, the ex bar fly girls dressed like they going out clubbing, the cowboys from the old west, the bums from the street, the mentally ill crazy people, a million tatoos, wild hair, piercings, carnival workers, dancers, etc., etc., every freak in the world shows up for a meeting sometimes.
    They say AA is full of people who would not normally mix .You got that right, I would be ashamed to be seen in public with them “hang out with clean and sober people” yea right.
    I grew up in the Baptist church with revival meetings, the tents and campfires, people came on stage crippled and through “faith Healing” they were healed and danced around.What a FreakShow. Faith Healing like in the Bible works but is very rare. AA talks about a Wholesale Miracle, hey this ain’t McDonalds there ain’t no Billion served!

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