Allison Mack was the celebrity face of a sex trafficking cult. Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

November 3, 2020   5 mins

The weirdest thing about the Nxivm website — which doesn’t exist anymore — is how not-weird it looked. Instagram-style squares floating in clear white space showcased beautiful scenes of the organisation’s centres in the US, Mexico and Canada. By clicking on one of them, you could learn more about the Nxivm mission to “raise human awareness, foster an ethical humanitarian civilization, and celebrate what it means to be human”. You might even recognise some of the faces working the room — hey, isn’t that the woman from that Superman show, Smallville?

If that intrigued you, you could sign up for one of its “Executive Success Programs” (ESPs for short), which promised to help you overcome your “limiting beliefs”, or the “Jness” scheme for “female empowerment”. The centres also don’t exist anymore and nor do the ESPs or Jness or any of Nxivm’s other vowel-light offerings; in fact, the entire organisation was wound up in 2018, because Nxivm was not after all a benign vendor of self-improvement snake oil.

Nxivm, as two new true crime documentaries explore, was a sex cult in which women were enslaved, trafficked, abused and branded. The brand was a design consisting of the letters “KR”, in tribute to Nxivm’s founder and leader Keith Raniere (or “Vanguard”, as Nxivm inductees called him). In 2019, Raniere was convicted on seven counts including sex trafficking and child pornography; he’s currently serving a life sentence.

At what point in the Nxivm process might you have realised something wasn’t right? Perhaps in the very first session you went to, when you were made to relive some traumatic experience in front of the audience in order to achieve a supposed “breakthrough”. But maybe you would have been reassured by the celebrity endorsements (Allison Mack, the woman from the Superman show!) or the general sense of good intention.

Perhaps, it was as you were completing your first course — but then, these were very expensive and you’d wanted to get your money’s worth. (One ex-member says she spent $145,000 on classes over the years.) Or perhaps when you were invited to join the ultra-elite secret society DOS, which stood for “Dominus Obsequious Sororium” — a bastardised Latin phrase roughly meaning “master over the slave women”. The woman inviting you would be someone you looked up to in this organisation, someone you trusted, a friend.

In any case, once you were in, you would be too compromised to think of getting out, because DOS members were required to hand over “collateral”: naked pictures or exposing information. Anyway, who would you turn to? Nxivm taught its members that anyone who criticised it was a “suppressive”; if you were close to friends or family, you would be commanded to separate from them in order to resolve your “dependency issues”.

When you were set a target weight that meant only eating 500 calories a day, or punished with cold showers, or given the task of “seducing Vanguard” in order to overcome your “limiting beliefs”, it would be too late to even think about saying no. By the time you were subjected to the brand, nothing beyond this would make sense to you. The next time, you’d be the one holding it.

The point is, Nxivm worked like a ratchet. To progress up each level of the organisation, you had to swallow more than your dignity would easily allow you to take back. And this is how every cult and every scam works (before Raniere got into the self-improvement racket, he was plying regular pyramid schemes) – by pulling on that thread in your chest where all the shame is. You obey your “master” and pay tribute to “Vanguard” (Vanguard!) because if you stop believing in it, all the humiliation and the crotch shots and the pain will be for nothing.

It’s not really possible to brainwash someone, if by brainwashing you mean to take control of their psyche wholesale and force them into actions against their will. But you can, by a process of habituating shocks, force someone to surrender their sense of self over time; to give up any relationships that would challenge the values you want them to hold; to do things, not against their will, but because they know in advance what they have to do to win approval.

Nxivm’s real genius was to use the jargon of female empowerment to guide this process. After all, what kind of woman is most likely to be attracted to the idea of being “empowered”? Ones who, by definition, don’t feel very powerful. Ones who, for whatever reason, are going to be particularly vulnerable. The cult taught a gospel of “self-victimisation” — if you felt like a victim, you could liberate yourself simply by deciding whatever had happened to you wasn’t that bad. It sounded like a way to shrug off trauma; it was, of course, a way to make women feel wholly responsible for whatever was done to them.

If you participated in the Jness course, you would learn that the way to thrive as a woman was to accept that men are “linear and logical” while women “lack structure” and need to submit. If you went one stage further and took the “Society of Protectors” relationship training in the belief that this could help you understand men better, you’d actually be subjected to a schedule of physical and psychological humiliation: the aim, the women were told, was to show them what a male upbringing was like and teach them that they couldn’t “get away with things” because they were female. The effect, of course, was to drill women into accepting the deeply sexist belief that women are inferior and exist to serve men.

But the complicating point here is that the people who did many of the worst things in Nxivm were not men. Raniere’s second-in-command was a woman, Nancy Salzman. She pleaded guilty to offences, as did her daughter; so did Mack, the Smallville actress, who was in the layer directly below Raniere in the DOS structure. Mack recruited several female slaves of her own, including India Oxenberg, daughter of Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg. India (whose documentary Seduced: Inside the Nxivm Cult attempts to make sense of her own experience) had another three slave women under her. The roles of victim and accomplice overlap and blur, though the power all draws up towards Raniere, whose sexual desires were paramount.

Clearly, fear is the reason most of these women collaborated, but for some of them that fear was surely mixed with a less creditable motivation: because, if you want to talk about “empowerment”, the moment you hold a cauterising iron over another woman’s skin is pretty undeniably a moment of power. Sometimes, knowing how it feels to be a victim is no guarantee of compassion for the next person to take your place — it just means you know that you really don’t want to go back there. Subjects of social media pile-ons can become fervent participants in attacks on other people. Trafficked women sometimes make highly efficient brothel madams. Being bullied is a wonderful education in how to bully.

It doesn’t take a cult to make women hurt other women, degrade other women, believe insulting things about women as a whole, take the side of men over women. Women do this kind of thing to themselves and each other all the time — in the name of religion, or politics, or sexual liberation. Give up any claim to power in your own right, and grasp at the next best thing while stamping on your sisters’ fingers. The weirdest thing about Nxivm, when you strip out all the lurid horrors, is how not-weird it looks.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.