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What is the 13th Step in Addiction Recovery?

The 13th step is an informal term for those in addiction treatment programs who seek sex with other members. 

The name refers to the “twelve-step” format used by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). 

The “13th stepper” is often a senior group member who has been sober for a significant period. New members look up to them as role models because they have more time under their belts working the program. 

This trust is easily abused. 

People in recovery seek relationships for various reasons: 

  • Due to the intimate and charged atmosphere, members are tempted to become romantically involved with each other.
  • People in recovery are eager to return to normalcy and may see dating as a way of doing that. 
  • Members may date as a way to cope with the pressures of staying sober.

13th stepping is discouraged within groups like NA and AA due to the ethical questions and dangers involved. 

New 12-steppers are strongly advised to wait at least a year before starting any new romantic relationships. Members of the same sex are usually paired together to reduce the likelihood of a sexual encounter.

What are the Dangers of 13th Stepping?

New members of NA and AA groups are highly emotionally vulnerable. Because of their vulnerability, 13th steppers can easily abuse the trust they place in more senior members. Substance use recovery groups can sometimes draw predators for this reason.

Because these groups are open to the public, they can make attractive targets for sociopaths. Sociopaths are skilled in manipulating people for personal gain. They tend to go after vulnerable people, making those with substance use or mental health issues easy prey. 

Ted Bundy worked for the Seattle Suicide Hotline Crisis Center for several years. 

The 13th stepper is usually, but not always, an addict. Sexual predators are known to falsely pose as addicts and join groups to instigate sexual relationships. 

13th step relationships have been reported to involve sexual assaults.1 Results can sometimes be tragic.5

Here are some other dangers of 13th stepping:

  • The relationships tend to be short-lived. When they end, new members are at risk of relapse to cope with the emotional pain.
  • It undermines the atmosphere of mutual trust that groups like AA and NA work hard to build.
  • It damages the reputation of NA and AA groups, driving away people who need addiction treatment. 
  • Early sobriety requires a stable personal life for the person in recovery. 13th step relationships distract new members from focusing on working the program.

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Who is at Risk of 13th Stepping?

A person at risk of 13th stepping tends to have an addictive personality. 

Here are some traits of an addictive personality:

  • Tendency to engage in destructive behaviors
  • Dysfunctional or short-lived interpersonal relationships
  • Inability to delay gratification
  • Need for excitement
  • Impulsivity
  • Obsessive behavior
  • Penchant for secrecy

There is no scientifically agreed-upon definition for an addictive personality. However, studies indicate at least some genetic basis for addictive behavior.4

Those with heritable disorders such as depression have also been shown to be susceptible to addiction.2

How to Avoid 13th Stepping 

An easy way to avoid 13th stepping is to avoid sponsors of the sex to which you are attracted. Heterosexual members should stay with the same sex; gay members, the opposite sex.  

While a little flirting is natural, avoid anyone who makes sexual advances on you or other new members. If you suspect 13th stepping is going on, you may need to avoid going to future meetings and find another group.

If you and another member are interested in each other, wait at least a year before starting a sexual relationship. Sometimes, more than a year may be necessary, depending on where either of you is in your recovery.


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Find Treatment for Substance Use Disorder  

Substance use is a chronic disease and can also be a medical emergency. Those who are addicted should seek immediate professional care. 

The first step in seeking addiction treatment is usually a consultation with an addiction treatment center. Depending on the severity of the addiction (and what the insurance provider will cover), the next step may be a residential program or outpatient care.

After an initial series of tests, the patient will undergo detoxification (or “detox,” for short). Medications may be used to help manage withdrawal symptoms. This may take two to seven days. 

After detoxing, the patient can receive treatment for the addiction. Underlying disorders can also be treated. There are a variety of treatment options available.

One of the leading substance use treatment options is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This aims to treat underlying disorders driving addiction. Mutual support groups such as AA or NA are helpful for many. 

Medications are also available to restore brain function and reduce cravings that can help one to stop drinking

Those suffering from addiction should consult their health care provider for options.


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CBS News. “The Sober Truth.www.cbsnews.com, 2014.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.www.nimh.nih.gov, 2021.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.www.drugabuse.gov, 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Twin Studies Help Define the Role of Genes in Vulnerability to Drug Abuse.archives.drugabuse.gov, 1999.

Thomas, Sophie Saint. “Inside the World of "13th-Steppers," People Who Prey on Recovering Substance Abusers.www.mic.com, 2016.

Wilkinson, Amy. “Ted Bundy Worked At A Suicide Hotline — And It May Have Made Him A More Skilled Serial Killer.www.yahoo.com, 2019.

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