A woman’s treatment for addiction shouldn’t require her silence about sexual abuse.
Last month, Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx and creator of the recovery group Refuge Recovery, was accused of sexual misconduct. Levine denies that he hurt anyone, and in an email to followers, he said the encounters between him and his accuser were “mutual with clear and open communication.”Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, which Levine founded, has suspended him from their organization after receiving the complaint. Has #MeToo finally come to recovery?
Levine’s accusation reveals how rape culture pervades and influences recovery — a culture where silence, discretion, and anonymity are the rule. Recovery programs rely on anonymity to make participants feel safe — that they can reveal the darkest parts of themselves and still be supported. While those rules allow some participants to build trust, they often are a gag order for rape survivors, putting women with substance use disorder at risk when they seek help for addiction.
Levine is a powerful, influential figure who has built a spiritual empire within the world of recovery. His books, which include Refuge Recovery and Against the Stream, are used to teach Buddhist principles to people seeking relief from addiction. Refuge Recovery is additionally the name of a Buddhist treatment center, also founded by Levine, and the recovery program he started. It is described as an alternative to 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. As a guru who has preached a message of spirituality for over a decade to millions of followers, Levine is a potent figure: Accusing him of sexual misconduct is akin to admitting you were raped by Saint Peter.
Many women who have made an attempt to get sober have learned the hard way that recovery meetings are not the safe, sacred spaces that they’re intended to be. Every recovery group, from Narcotics Anonymous to SMART, preaches a message of inclusiveness. All are welcome. Yet, that inclusiveness — which keeps the door open to rapists and predators — isn’t truly inclusive. It is the inclusion of all, at a high cost to some.
One woman described a harrowing rape that resulted in not only victim-blaming, but also exclusion from her 12-Step community. Other women say that creepy guys, stalking, and pressure to distrust their instincts have caused them to leave meetings and try to recover on their own. Some have given up on recovery completely, and gone back to drinking and using, feeling that there’s no safe alternative. There are women-only meetings, and women-only programs, but once someone’s initial trust is broken, how many women are willing to take another risk? A woman’s sense of unease doesn’t mean the meeting will change, or the program. Victims are likely to be pushed out or punished for complaining, or told that raising concerns may alienate their attacker, who “needs recovery too.”
The culture of silence and “anonymity” that surrounds recovery is harmful to women, and allows leaders, elders, and trusted community members to prey on women with little fear of repercussions. There’s a commonly held myth that the wrongs committed before getting sober don’t count. Victims of harassment or assault are told to pray for their attackers, rather than report them. Some are encouraged to “see their part” in the attack, or try to reframe sexual assault as a spiritual gift, a gateway to growth. Levine said, “We all sort of have a different doorway to dharma or spiritual practice. Suffering is a doorway.”
For women, that doorway is often sexual assault.
Women are more likely to be raped, harassed, and abused. Women are also at higher risk of developing substance use disorder: Physiologically, addiction advances quickly in women. Also, there’s a strong, well documented connection between surviving sexual assault and substance use disorder. However, although there are some female powerhouses in the recovery world, the vast majority of recovery programs were created by men. There are fewer recovery resources designed for women, especially women from marginalized groups. (Trans women, in particular, have almost zero options for help designed specifically for them.)
Put those numbers together, and it’s unsurprising that women are less likely to recover than men. Women often describe feeling unwelcome in recovery meetings, even those like Refuge Recovery. On its website, Refuge Recovery indicates some of the measures it’s taken to create safe space for women: “Our aspiration is to provide a safe place for women that is free of stalking, lurking, geographical information, or any other technology, that could place our members in a vulnerable and/or dangerous position. Also, it is true that women thrive who have a safe place to tell their truths, to speak aloud in their creatively defined ways and to hear others do the same.” But there’s nothing about how to handle or report sexual harassment by other members — or the program’s founder.
Asking women to take a vow of silence in order to access potentially life-saving recovery is part of rape culture. The message: Keep your mouth shut, and you’ll stay sober. Speak up, and you risk relapsing. Gossip, which can help women share information about dangerous men, is discouraged. The stigma of addiction works with sexism and the stigma of sexual assault to silence the people who need help most. And it creates the ideal environment for predators: a ready-made community of vulnerable, frightened, silent women.
Allegations against Levine or any other recovery leader are not shocking, to people who have longevity in recovery. Although it’s often billed as a “safe, inclusive space,” recovery meetings do not leave rape culture at the door. Human nature and human problems, including male entitlement, toxic masculinity, and power structures that silence and punish women, are not only present, but reinforced by “group tradition” — traditions that were created by men, and largely for men. What’s surprising is that, in this case, the problem is being treated with transparency.
Whatever the implications for Levine’s personal life, this accusation should open the door for women to share their stories, demand safe spaces in recovery, and hold attackers accountable. Silence should never be the price women pay for access to recovery support. Those who perpetuate rape culture within the rooms, no matter how powerful they are, must be shown the door.