What makes someone join a cult that forces them to participate in humiliating sex acts, hand over their money and brand themselves with their leader’s initials?
Very few people who fell under the control of Keith Raniere believed they were in a sex cult.
When Raniere was on Wednesday sentenced to 120 years in prison for crimes he committed as leader of US cult NXIVM, full details of the manipulation and depravity emerged.
Under the guise of self-help and wellness, Raniere used guilt and shame practices to groom and coerce members into sexual submission – tactics one expert told The New Daily are quite common in cults.
Members were branded with Raniere’s initials and forced to hand over compromising videos of themselves performing sexual acts or discussing details of their sexual traumas as part of the initiation process.
Sarah Steel, cult expert and host of Let’s Talk About Sects podcast, said NXIVM used psychological manipulation to prey upon vulnerable people.
“Nobody really joins a cult. All people are really doing is joining a group that looks like a really great community,” Ms Steel told TND.
When they do join cults, it’s because they are at a certain point in their life when they’re looking for something or reassessing their purpose in life.
“The thing with all these cult leaders is that what actually happens in the end is very dependant on what their particular predilections are, and so often it ends up being some awful sex thing, but I would say most commonly it ends up being financial abuse.”
Raniere’s charges included sex trafficking, racketeering, alien smuggling, extortion and obstruction of justice.
The 60-year-old was also accused of confining a teenager to a room for nearly two years, and molesting a 15-year-old girl.
Other senior members of the cult, billionaire liquor heiress Clare Bronfman and Smallville actor Allison Mack, have also been charged for their role in recruiting ‘slaves’ for Raniere.
Mack also allegedly reached out via to Harry Potter star Emma Watson, though it is believed Watson did not respond.
.@EmWatson well to your vision and what you want to see in the world. I think we could work together. Let me know if you're willing to chat
— Allison Mack (@allisonmack) February 19, 2016
But what exactly is NXIVM and how did it sink its teeth into some of the wealthiest and most successful people in the world?
Behind closed doors …
Marketed as a “unique human development program and women’s movement”, NXIVM (pronounced Neks-ee-um) had chapters in Mexico and Canada but was based in Albany, New York.
Since its formation in 1998, NXIVM has seen more than 17,000 members through its doors, however the number of consistent followers is significantly less.
Ms Steel said cults use “coercive control” a tactic seen in domestic violence cases, and often target university students, people coming out of divorce or those processing other life-altering events.
“The red flags come out in terms of isolation from friends and family. It might be taking up all of your time. It might be not letting you sleep a lot of the time. It could be moving into a commune but that’s not always the case, a lot of the time it’s about surveillance,” she said.
“Keeping someone so busy that they don’t have time to think, that sleeplessness aspect … they’re not in a good critical mindset to think through if this is something they really want to be doing with their life.”
Selling professional and personal development workshops (some of which lasted 12 hours a day for 16 days in a row) NXIVM members were told they would be able to retrain their emotional triggers and beliefs about themselves formed in childhood.
Members would use intense, hypnotic sessions to explore and unpack painful childhood memories to reduce the power the memories held.
Ms Steel said “some sort of confession session” was a classic feature of most cults.
“You’re handing over your deepest fears or your darkest secrets and something you’re ashamed about,” she said.
Someone who is a real charismatic narcissist is really good at using those things against you on a psychological level and then undermining your sense of self-trust.’’
They would also work extensively on strengthening their self-discipline, which included dieting, starvation and exercise.
The inner circle …
Under the NXIVM umbrella stood multiple, smaller divisions or societies led by ‘Masters’ – JNESS was a society aimed at women and Society of Protectors was directed towards men.
Raniere was referred to as ‘Grandmaster’ or ‘Vanguard’ and recruits were known as ‘slaves’.
Another “badass” feminist group in the inner circle was known as DOS – a Latin phrase meaning ‘master over slave women’, and was the group US prosecutors allege much of the abuse occurred.
Former members recounted they were given low-calorie diets and told to give up “collateral” as part of the initiation process, which included explicit, identifiable images and videos of their genitals that also included their faces.
— Kristin Kreuk (@MsKristinKreuk) March 29, 2018
When speaking in court, assistant attorney Tanya Hajaar said Raniere groomed and conned members of DOS into thinking their submission would assist them to overcome their intimacy issues.
“The defendant maintained a charade: Even though he controlled the victims’ lives, it was about female empowerment,” Ms Hajaar said.
Members of DOS were made to believe “working with” Raniere (code for engaging in sexual acts with him) was a crucial step in their spiritual journey towards enlightenment and those who refused weren’t “committed to [their] personal growth”.
Though Raniere was the founder and guru, many high-ranking members of NXIVM were women, as he believed they would give the appearance of female empowerment.
“He was very manipulative and charismatic. He was able to bring people into his orbit and make them think he has all these answers,” Ms Steel said.
He also reportedly brought women on board because he believed he would be able to exert his control over them.
Raniere and Clare Bronfman are the only two members to be sentenced so far, with Mack, Salzman and Russell experiencing delays in sentencing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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