Women are more susceptible than men to falling under the control of cults
I don't pretend to have a full understanding of it but I have long noted that women, particularly older women, are very commonly "spiritual" -- to the point that by the time they are 50, they nearly all seem to believe in something weird -- aromatherapy, Reiki etc -- so they are an easy mark for con-men.
"Little Pebble" was one in Australia until he went to jail for sexual offensiveness.
And you just have to look at the congregation in mainstream churches -- mainly old ladies. So the NXIVM group differs only in being more criminal than most
I actually see the "spirituality" as a form of schizophrenia, as it is a belief in things that are not there. I have spoken at length with some of the women concerned and they say that they know they are part of something that is all around them and bigger than themselves and they feel they are in partial contact with it. So there is definitely a delusion involved. But why women lose reality contact so readily is the puzzle. Its pervasiveness suggests that it has a function so is it some sort of safety valve for the big stresses that child bearing and rearing places on women?
As a psychologist, it is my job to understand human behaviour and I do understand a lot of it (or think I do) but female gullibility in the face of improbabilities is a challenge that really stretches me. My best guess is that females have to be gullible to believe and rely on men. The one thing I am sure of is that it is very deep-rooted and, as such, almost certainly genetically encoded
As more details spill from the NXIVM trial, we get an insight into the cult world: branding, sex slaves and physical constraint
NXIVM has described itself as “a company whose mission is to raise human awareness, foster an ethical humanitarian civilization, and celebrate what it means to be human.” Critics have alleged other definitions for the group; definitions such as “sex-cult” and “pyramid scheme.” Federal U.S. prosecutors, meanwhile, are focusing on NXIVM’s alleged criminal activity: racketeering, wire fraud, sex trafficking, and forced labour, for a start.
The group’s spiritual leader and founder, Keith Raniere, goes on trial later this month, a bonus charge of possession of child pornography having been recently added to his already extensive list of alleged crimes. It’s ugly and confounding. How do people get away with this stuff and who falls for it?
Part of the answer is well established, if not well explained: women are more susceptible than men to falling under the control of exploitative movements. Or they do so more often, anyway. Research suggests as many as 70 per cent of cult members in the world are women.
In the NXIVM scandals, most of the worst stories emerge from something called “DOS” — a sort of sorority within NXIVM in which women allegedly recruited other women for all manner of abuse, including having their bodies physically branded with Raniere’s initials and submitting unconditionally to Raniere’s sexual wishes.
There are many theories about why women are disproportionately represented in the population of cult followers, perhaps the most common being that women are conditioned and/or wired to believe there is something wrong with them. The urge to self-correct to find outside acceptance is human, but it’s also familiarly female: lose weight, be gracious, be grateful, be obedient. Win without hurting anyone’s feelings. Be better than who you are.
That theory may be simplistic given that it rests on broad generalizations — which are themselves based on thought patterns whose cultural, evolutionary and biological bases are tough to tease apart. (Women certainly have no monopoly on feeling inadequate.) But even if it’s only part of the story, women’s general tendency to make self-acceptance contingent on improvement and external praise must play its role.
Others say that more women join cults than men because women have a greater need for spiritual fulfilment. According to Pew Research Center, women are indeed generally more religious than men, with women across the globe being somewhat more likely to affiliate with a religious faith than men. Or maybe women join cults because it’s what they know given their long history of oppression. (This made me wonder if other historically oppressed groups, such as African Americans, are more susceptible to cults, but I didn’t find ready evidence one way or the other. I did find a weird story about ties between Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and Scientology. And I learned that most of the people who joined the Reverend Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple — most famous for guiding its members to mass suicide at their compound in Guyana via poisoned Flavour Aid — were African American. Women in Jonestown also outnumbered men, with black women making up close to half the population.)
What’s interesting, if not unique, about NXIVM is the strong role women appear to have played in attracting other women to the group and then keeping them in the group’s grips. Remember the disturbing branding of women’s flesh I mentioned earlier? This allegedly took place with several women holding down another woman on a table while a female doctor allegedly burned the restrained woman’s skin with a laser-like device. Raniere had a female cofounder, who is now accused of many of the same crimes perpetrated against women as he is. That woman’s daughter has admitted to keeping a female slave. One of the reasons NXIVM has been such a headline-grabber is that Smallville actress Allison Mack has pled guilty to two racketeering counts for her involvement in DOS, which included blackmailing women into compliance with Raniere’s demands.
So whatever part subservience may play in attracting women to cults, they are clearly also capable of the predatory instincts of male cult leaders like Raniere — even if often ultimately in service of the male leader himself. Anyone who watched Wild Wild Country, the Netflix documentary about Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, can attest that most of the aggressive acts taken in that movement (including brazen bioterrorism attacks) were initiated by Rajneesh’s personal assistant, a woman named Ma Anand Sheela.
The best we can hope for is that when the NXIVM trials are done, the worst exploiters and abusers are brought to justice, male and female. And that women reading about the NXIVM story may become less likely to listen to that voice — whether from inside their own head or from a charismatic guru — telling them how much better they could be. Because they will be able to see they are good enough as they are.