To My Male Counterparts in Recovery:
I write to you as a guilty party. Through my words, my actions, my thoughts, and my tolerance of other men’s degrading behavior toward women, I’ve played a role in the continuation of the sexism and patriarchy faced by all women as they move through the world. I did not arrive in recovery an enlightened person. I have not always been capable of seeing outside my own very narrow experience of the world. Sometimes, I still fail, but I’m learning. Empathy has been something that I’ve had to work at, and I write this letter in hopes that it might inspire you to begin the work of stepping outside of your own perspective, to considering the ways in which your own actions, words, thoughts, and tolerance of other men’s actions have a very real impact on women’s lives. Ultimately, I hope this letter will inspire you to change, and encourage other men to do the same.
As I witness so many courageous women stepping out and saying, “me too”, I can’t help but think of all the times I’ve heard women say they don’t feel safe in our recovery communities, whether it’s AA or NA meetings, community centers, detoxes or treatment centers, or other spaces where people in recovery congregate. Obviously, our recovery communities are not the only places where sexual harassment and assault are an issue—they are present everywhere—but the majority of you who will read this letter are men in recovery, and our specific communities are places where respect and empathy toward women are of paramount importance. Why? Because to push people away is a potentially lethal act. Our recovery communities are often the last stop before addiction completes its work.
Most women arrive in our communities bearing the weight of violence they’ve experienced at the hands of men. The link between sexual violence and addiction is clear. Studies show that 75-80% of women who struggle with addiction have experienced sexual or physical violence prior to seeking treatment (also, this study). This is what the studies show, but I suspect the number is higher than this. #Metoo speaks to the numbers. Just taking the stats at face value, this means that eight of the ten women you encounter in your community are not only recovering from addiction, but also recovering from experiences of violence committed against their minds, bodies, and spirits. Hold this number in your heart. It should inform every interaction you have in your recovery community, and in a broader sense, the way you act in the world at large.
All of us come to recovery seeking environments that are safe, where we can connect in healthy ways, and begin the difficult work of recovering from addiction. Unfortunately, women often struggle to find the kind of safety necessary to heal in our communities. If you don’t believe me, read some stories written by women in recovery. Google it. There are multitudes. If a significant component of a woman’s addiction is rooted in her experience of sexual violence (I.E. assault, harassment, abuse), recovering from addiction requires a space where she can find reprieve. This should not be that difficult to understand.
If, for just a moment, we might be able to step outside our experience of the world as men, the necessity of creating safe spaces becomes much more clear. If your addiction were rooted in your experience of feeling physically unsafe, of having your body commented on, gawked at, touched without your permission, treated as an object, and so forth, it should make sense that comments, gawking, touching, or treatment that suggests you’re anything other than a human with a complex experience of the world would be counterproductive to your recovery. Furthermore, experiencing these actions might prevent you from returning to places where they occur. If you had a wound that must heal in order to recover, you’re not likely to continue spending time in a place where that wound continues to be reopened and prodded. And here, I want to be very clear, the harm I’m talking about includes comments, gawking, touching, or treatment that are intended to be nice, playful, admiring, or otherwise benevolent. You’re intentions don’t matter. What matters are the ways in which your words and actions impact others.
Right now you may be thinking, “What? Am I supposed to go around worrying all the time about whether or not what I say/do is going to offend anyone?” The short answer is yes, you should. It’s the absolute least you can do. Contrary to popular belief, our words and actions matter. Our words and actions especially matter when they have the power to drive people away from environments that are intended to offer a way out of addiction, or to look at it from another angle, a chance at survival. As hard as this may be to understand, just because something doesn’t impact or offend you, doesn’t mean it won’t impact or offend another person. Our lived experiences matter, and your words or actions may have a very different meaning, and a very real impact on a woman who has experienced violence at the hands of men.
What I am suggesting here is not all that radical. All I’m asking you to do is interact with the women in your communities with some respect and common decency. I think it’s absolutely reasonable to ask you to consider how our words and actions will impact the women around you. I think it’s totally fair to ask that if you are not sure if your words or action will have a negative impact on a woman in your presence, don’t say or do it. I believe the correct reaction to a woman (or man) who calls you out for a harmful comment or action is to recognize your mistake, own up to it, and show some gratitude for the insight this provides you. If you’re not sure how to interact with a woman without making comments about her body, gawking, touching, or treating her like a human, ask a man who knows how to do this to show you a thing or two. If a woman in recovery approaches you looking for help, know that the best way to help is to introducing her to other women who can guide her. Like I said, all of these suggestions are the very least you can do to make a difference in your community. There is so much more, but I offer this as the most basic starting place. If you feel inspired to learn more, I’d be more than happy to email with you or have a phone call about ways to become a better man.
Perhaps you are a man who is already enlightened, and what I’m writing here seems obvious or does not apply to you. This is great! We need more men like you in the world. Before I give you a pat on the back, however, let me ask you a question: what are you doing to actively make our communities safer for women? Ultimately, it is not up to women to solve this problem. They did not create it, they do not choose it, and they are not the ones perpetuating it. The problem is on us, and I’d like to suggest that if you are enlightened, and you’re not actively participating in the dismantling of the problem, you’re part of the problem. Again, I admit now, as I did at the start of this letter, that I have been part of the problem. So, here are some things I try to do, and commit to continue doing. I will talk to my male counterparts about the problem of sexual harassment and assault, and the broader issues of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy, always framing it as our problem. I will call out behavior that does not show respect and dignity toward women, whether or not there are women present, and explain why I am doing so—I will pull no punches here. I will continue to talk about this issue with the men in my life, even after #metoo is no longer a trend. I will shut up and listen to women. I will continue to elevate women’s voices, bear witness to their experiences, and let them know they’re heard. I will not stop until #metoo no longer has a place here, and even then, I will not stop.
I encourage you to join me in doing these things, and I hope you will share with me anything I’m missing. I recognize I don’t know it all, but I am teachable.
With hope in my heart,