Does AA Help Men & Women Differently?

Alcoholic dependent men and women may reap different benefits from 12 step programs

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Originally designed for men, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) now welcomes women. But does successful abstinence from drinking through AA differ for men and women?

A recent study followed alcohol-dependent men and women from treatment through AA for 15 months. Men reported temptation to drink in social situations more, whereas women were more likely to drink when feeling sad or depressed.

AA can be a form of socializing for men and can help women cope with sadness.

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John F. Kelly, PhD, associate director of the MGH-Harvard Center for Addiction Medicine and associate professor of psychology, and Bettina B. Hoeppner, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, at Harvard Medical School, co-authored this study.

Speaking to the Harvard Gazette, Dr. Kelly said, “Men and women benefit equally from participation in AA, but some of the ways in which they benefit differ in nature and in magnitude.”

“These differences may reflect differing recovery challenges related to gender-based social roles and the contexts in which drinking is likely to occur.”

For the study, 1,726 people with alcohol dependence were assessed. Twenty-four percent of them were women. Assessments took place during treatment and attendance at AA meetings, and then nine months later, and 15 months later. Researchers were looking for gender differences in people’s relationship with AA. One-third of AA members are women.

Men have reported benefits from AA having to do with social factors like being able to avoid drinking in social situations. Women have reported benefits from AA having to do with avoiding drinking when faced with feelings of sadness, depression or anxiety.

Assessment outcomes looked at the number of days without drinking and how many drinks were consumed on days of drinking.

Women were abstinent from drinking 49 percent of days and men were for 53 percent of days.

Men reported experiencing benefits from AA in their change of social factors, more so than women.

Dr. Kelly said, “AA helps both men and women stay sober following treatment by enhancing sober social networks and boosting confidence in coping with high-risk situations.”

“[W]e found the ability to handle negative moods and emotions was important for women but not for men. Conversely, coping with high-risk social situations—which could be attending sports or other events where people are likely to drink—was important for men but not women.”

Authors recommended further study into the biopsychosocial effects of AA participation, particularly among women.

Contributing expert, Darold Treffert, MD, said, “While it may be that different aspects of AA effect women and men differently, the good-news-bottom-line is that AA is helpful to both men and women for whatever reasons.”

“Actually, there are no doubt reasons why AA is effective individually in each person that extend beyond gender, such as age, culture and family history for example. The overriding news is how often and well AA works.”

This study was published in November in Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Funding was supported by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 12, 2012
Last Updated:
December 13, 2012