The story of Nxivm is as disturbing and compelling as they come — a suspected “sex slave cult,” notable for its alleged sadistic practices (slaves, human branding, bizarre sex rituals), and also for its cadre of elite female followers: successful actresses (Allison Mack, Kristin Kreuk, Grace Park), celebrity and political scions, and honest to god (Canadian) heiresses (Clare and Sara Bronfman). In other words, not your run-of-the-mill misfits that many people associate with cult life. Similarly, the Manson Girls weren’t a bunch of unbalanced burnouts, but mostly middle class, well-educated young women who may have experienced a moment of vulnerability at exactly the wrong moment.
“People have this image of cult members as weak willed, not-that-smart social outcasts, but in fact, the opposite of that is often true,” says Janja Lalich, a California-based sociologist who has spent 25 years researching and writing about cults and extremist groups. Here, she explains how groups like Nxivm gain control, how cults have adapted to the modern age, and why you are (almost certainly) more susceptible to a cult than you might think.
No offence, but I think I would know if a cult tried to recruit me…
…says every person who has ever been recruited by a cult. Most of us think we would be savvy enough to sniff out a cult’s luring strategies, but in fact, that sense of imperviousness is in itself dangerous. “People who arrogantly think they are too smart for a cult are often the ones who get sucked in because they don’t have their guard up,” says Lalich. The idea that only weak and/or witless individuals get involved is also way off (see: the list of bold-faced-names associated with Nxivm). The desire to improve oneself and/or the world around you is maybe the most commonly shared motivator amongst cult members, says Lalich. So idealistic, ambitious people are the rule rather than the exception.
Still, when the pushy Scientology person with the clipboard approaches me on the street corner, I’m walking the other way.
This is another misnomer, ie — that people are recruited into cults by some mysterious and nefarious “other.” In fact, over two thirds of cult members are brought in by a family member or a friend. “You’re not necessarily going to be suspicious when someone you trust asks you to come along with them to this cool new professional development seminar or yoga group,” says Lalich.
Wait — work seminars and yoga? I thought cults had more of a flower power vibe.
The association between cults and the free love era is common, mostly because the most famous cult scandal in history, The Manson Family, occurred in the 1960s. “The goal of cults is always to capitalise on the wants and ideals of the society in which they exist,” says Lalich. These days that means many of them look a lot like contemporary institutions like self-improvement seminars, political activist organisations, or fitness/wellness-related groups.
What other factors could make a person more or less susceptible?
It’s less about personality traits than the situational vulnerability that may accompany a period of transition. A move to a new city, graduating from school, starting or leaving a job, going through a break up, or a death. “It’s these moments when life changes and we may be looking for new opportunity or greater meaning,” says Lalich.
I know cults use brainwashing, but what exactly does that look like?
Experts like Lalich don’t generally use the term “brainwashing,” preferring terms like re-socialisation, which describe the process where a person is broken down and built up over and over again. The repeated trauma results in disassociation that destroys the crucial connection to one’s own gut instinct and ability to judge right from wrong. “As you internalise the cult’s mentality, the you that might know better has effectively disappeared,” says Lalich. But all that happens later. At first cult life is fun and alluring. “Love bombing” is the process where a new member is enveloped by this welcoming, exciting, and in some cases glamorous community. Early on members are often required to share secrets or other personal info, which creates a false sense of intimacy. Good behaviour is venerated and failure to comply is punished, which is all rationalised as part of the journey.
That all sounds weird, but not as creepy as I thought.
You want creepy? Members of Nxivm were allegedly submitted to the same form of training used on suicide bombers — forced to watch extremely violent videos (including the rape scene from The Accused) for the purposes of desensitising them to violence.
Are women more likely to join cults than men?
Since cults don’t fill out census forms, these sorts of statistics are at best an educated guess. There are experts who estimate that up to 70% of cult members are female. Dr. Lalich says it’s at least over half. She also says that certain recruitment techniques may be designed to appeal more directly to women: “The modern cult sales pitch really taps into our desire to better ourselves: to improve our careers, to be a better speaker, to look prettier, to look thinner. I think women today are still very vulnerable to those appeals.” And women may also be more vulnerable to certain abusive power dynamics. Lalich is the author a book called Take Back Your Life: Recovering From Cults and Abusive Relationships. The reason the same book can cover both scenarios is because cultic control techniques mirror the tactics and power dynamics in abusive domestic relationships: the giving and rescinding of love and affection, the demeaning, the isolating from friends and family, and the use of sex as a control instrument.
Is sexual exploitation the norm in cults?
“It’s certainly rampant,” says Lalich, explaining how, in general, the motivations of cult leaders tend to be some combination of money, power and sex — which, she adds, is really just another form of power. “In some cases sex may be a goal from the start. In other cases a cult leader figures out that controlling someone sexually is one of the deepest and most profound ways that you can control them.”
Signing up for self-improvement seminars is one thing, but submitting to a branding ritual is quite another.
It’s true, but again, it all happens very gradually. A lot of cult members (including Nxivm whistle-blower Sarah Edmondson) use the fable of the boiling frog: Throw a frog into a pot of boiling water it will try to jump out, but if you place it in warm water and slowly turn up the heat, the same frog will slowly boil to death. The alleged sexual exploitation that took place DOS (an elite women-only organisation within Nxivm) happened after members had been involved for months if not years. In many cases they had signed over “collateral” (an embarrassing photograph or confession), which is another way that cult’s exert control.
How can I tell if my yoga class is a cult?
Do your research! Unlike in the Summer of ’69, we have the Internet that can provide a lot of information. “If you Google an organisation and multiple posts come up suggesting it might be a cult — don’t go,” says Lalich. And trust your instincts while they are still in tact. Lalich recently did research on an alleged yoga cult where the leader sticks his finger up your butt: “If you are in an environment like that and everyone is acting like it’s normal — run out the door.” The other thing to remember is that cults exist on a continuum ranging to from the extremely harmful to the more benign, “but none of it is good,” says Lalich. There are a whole bunch of mixed-level-marketing companies and personal development organisations that, if not full-blown cults are employing cultic pressure tactics and membership structures. (Lalich declined to name any because these groups can be litigious.)
Are cults illegal?
The ones that engage in criminal activity are. In the ongoing Nxivm trial, for example, founder Keith Raniere is facing charges relating to sex trafficking, forced labour, racketeering, and possession of child pornography.
How can you help a friend who you think could be involved in a cult?
The key, says Lalich, is to keep the lines of communication open, since the cult is trying to do the opposite by separating and alienating members from the friends and family. If you have a group, different people should play different roles, so one person might be the tough cop, while another person is more neutral. “The cult is running damage control, so if you’re saying, ‘This organisation is horrible, you are in trouble,’ that is exactly what they cult is telling the person you will say,” says Lalich. The danger is the person feels that the cult is the only one that understands them, so the best thing you can do is demonstrate that that isn’t true.