Many have wondered about the inner workings of Nxivm, a so-called “sex-slave cult” disguised as a self-help program, ever since former members came out last year to accuse the organization of mental abuse, manipulation, and human branding.
Now, thanks to an exposé published by The New York Times, we know a little bit more about how the organization was run, the philosophies that shaped it, and most chillingly, what members had to go through to become a “badass” — Nxivm’s term for a self actualized individual.
Times contributing editor Vanessa Grigoriadis dove deep in her article, speaking with founder Keith Raniere (above, left), his second-in-command, Nancy Salzman, and several high-ranking members, including Smallville alum Allison Mack (above, right).
While these conversations were held before Raniere and Mack were both arrested in Mexico on charges of sex trafficking and forced labor, they shed a light on the Scientology-like goals of Nxvim’s founder and why so many women were drawn to a self-improvement company which, at its core, was founded on sexist beliefs.
So, what are the biggest takeaways from this exposé? First off, Grigoriadis learned that Nxvim’s 57-year-old founder claimed to be a child prodigy who played concert level piano by 12.
Born To Scam
Grigoriadis wrote that after graduating from college, Raniere became interested in “the science behind multilevel marketing.” He then launched a company which offered discount groceries to members that was later believed to be a pyramid scheme by the state attorney general.
After the company was shut down in 1997, Raniere moved into the self-help arena and established Nxivm in 1998 — an organization he believed could heal individuals and transform the world through techniques meant to rewire the emotional self.
How To Be A Badass
These techniques — or “technology” — involved members performing Scientology-esque sit-downs called “Explorations of Meaning,” where a senior member helped a junior member dive deep into childhood memories and confront their fears.
The goal of these sessions was to become an individual who was “not only rich but emotionally disciplined, self-controlled, attractive, physically fit and slender” — such a person was considered to be a “badass.”
Getting A Rand
Raniere’s philosophy was based largely on the work of Ayn Rand, author of the novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead — works that would go on to shape modern conservative and libertarian movements.
Grigoriadis wrote that in “Raniere’s Randian utopia, true value exchange was always upheld.” He used this philosophy to make sure that sessions and special classes were always paid for in full – even if it meant members going into debt.
Beneath the surface of the organization, Grigoriadis explained, was an old-fashioned subdivision called Jness, which promoted a worldview in which “women and men are wired differently.”
Members who signed up for Jness, a series of $5,000 a pop, 8-day workshops, were taught that men were naturally polyamorous while women were monogamous; men didn’t understand the same depth of experience, while women struggle more with understanding right and wrong.
Going Real Deep Now
For those who wanted to go even deeper into Raniere’s teachings, smaller, more exclusive groups were provided — for a price. If men wanted to join the “Society of Protectors,” they had to do something called “collateralizing your word” — which basically meant sticking to their word or all the men in the group would suffer a consequence.
But women who wanted to join the “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” or DOS, needed to pledge much more. Since Raniere needed assurance that they wouldn’t speak about their experience within the group, he asked for things like naked photos, a video confession of a crime, or even deeds to homes.
Better Than A Tattoo
According to FBI documents cited in the story, Mack handed over paperwork promising that, in the event that she left the group, Raniere would be entitled to her home and any future children she had. She also gave him a letter claiming she had abused her nephews, which he could turn over to authorities if she rebelled.
But Mack didn’t rebel — in fact, she wanted to, as Grigoriadis put it, “do something more meaningful, something that took guts” within the group. So, she came up with the idea to use red-hot metal to leave permanent scars on DOS members.
The former actress told the reporter:
“I was like, ‘Y’all, a tattoo? People get drunk and tattooed on their ankle or a tramp stamp. I have two tattoos and they mean nothing.”
Members understood the design of the brand to be a symbol that “represented the four elements or the seven chakras or a horizontal bar with the Greek letters ‘alpha’ and ‘mu'” – but it also bore a striking resemblance to the initials “KR” and “AM.”
So… Was It A Sex Cult?
While penance was a large part of Nxivm, it was much more intense for those in the DOS. Grigoriadis wrote that those brought into the group were called “slaves” while the woman bringing the new member in was the “Master.” These masters would force slaves to commit acts of “self-denial,” like counting calories, cold showers, and abstaining from orgasms.
As for Rainere, he considers himself a polyamorist. But he told Grigoriadis that he’s only had sexual relationships with two of the women in the group. The FBI, however, found enough evidence to claim that Raniere displayed “a disgusting abuse of power in his efforts to denigrate and manipulate women he considered his sex slaves….within this unorthodox pyramid scheme.”
Raniere maintains that all the relationships he had were consensual, but Grigoriadis wasn’t too sure about that. She wrote:
“A majority of women in DOS never had anything to do with Raniere sexually. And thus it is impossible to say that DOS itself was a ‘sex-slave cult’ rather than a sex-slave cult and a women’s empowerment scheme.”