Sex

The Dark Side of Sexuality

What cults like NXIVM can teach us about ourselves.

Posted Oct 15, 2020

If you think that what happens in sex cults—the manipulation, exploitation, and sexual abuse of women that leave lasting emotional and physical scars (such as the pelvic branding on cult members of NXIVM)—can only happen to those who are insecure, weak-willed, or mentally unstable, well, think again.

The story of NXIVM is a teaching moment for us all.

To those of you unfamiliar with the NXIVM cult, the founder, Keith Raniere, and his protege, actress Allison Mack, were indicted in 2018 on federal charges of sex trafficking. Five others, including the heiress to the Seagram fortune, Clare Bronfman, who bankrolled the evil shenanigans, have pleaded guilty to a host of crimes associated with their involvement in the cult. If you missed those details as they unfolded, recent media productions such as The Vow on HBO and the upcoming docuseries Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult are giving us a very sobering look at the long and harrowing journey that led to the crash and burn of the cult, as well as the wrenching collateral damage inflicted on those who Raniere enrolled along the way. 

As an aside, I had the privilege of participating in the filming of Seduced. In my role as a sex therapist, I was called upon to do an onscreen session with the subject of the documentary,  India Oxenberg, to help her continue the process of healing from her ordeal. India is one of the loveliest human beings I've ever met. She's kind, friendly, and a genuinely down-to-earth person, in spite of being raised by Hollywood royalty, and even being related to real royalty—her mother, actress Catherine Oxenberg, is the daughter of the Princess of Yugoslavia. It's incredibly hard to imagine such a gentle human being getting wrapped up in what turned out to be such a dark debacle.

And India was not alone in being enrolled in Raniere's insanity. 

First question: How do so many smart, savvy, and sophisticated people get bamboozled into participating in what ended up becoming a veritable nightmare? And secondly, what can we all learn from their experience?

Let's start with some myth-busting.

Myth #1. Only weak and wacky people are susceptible to cults.

Cult leaders and recruiters tend to go after the best and brightest in society. Cults manipulate by appealing to our desire to grow and create a better world for others. Cults prey on the heartfelt desires of decent, honest human beings. Cults don't always start out looking like cults. Over time, the dark side emerges and through a process of immersion, like the proverbial frog in water that heats up slowly and over time, the individual is subjected to mind control and the breaking down of personal power until they are indoctrinated and have imbibed the Kool-Aid.

At least two factors, however, can make individuals particularly susceptible; depression and being in transitional periods. That sure describes a lot of us.

Myth #2. Sex between cult leaders and followers is consensual.

By definition, a cult involves a huge power disparity between the leader and followers. And this disparity makes it impossible for the followers to actually give true consent to sex. This makes sexual involvement with the leader potentially deleterious and damaging for the member.

Myth #3. Sexual abuse is unusual in cults.

Sexual abuse of women seems to be quite common in cults. This might seem surprising, but at the same time, think about how many women in everyday life have reported experiencing some form of sexual trauma, abuse, exploitation, or harassment. One need look no further than the #MeToo movement.

My own clinical experience, although not a random sample, has indicated that many women have experienced some sexual harassment or abuse along the way. Whether it's being manhandled by a friend of the family or groped at a party, or raped, many women, unfortunately, have histories of sexual distress or trauma.

Why is sexual abuse (in and out of cults) so sadly prevalent? 

The short answer? In our culture, there remains a deeply embedded structural sexism that tolerates the covert and overt misogyny and sexual inequality that shows up in our everyday lives. This is the culture in which a certain person who was heard on camera talking about grabbing women by their genitalia was elected president.

This institutionalized sexism is what makes women in particular susceptible to leaders who exploit the fact that females in our culture are not equally valued as a result of rigid and outdated traditional gender roles that are disempowering.

And finally, what can we learn from all of this? 

The dark side of sex is essentially a product of our keeping sexuality in the dark and not embracing, appreciating, and celebrating our sexual selves. As I write in my book, Why Good Sex Matters, our capacity for pleasure—in and out of the bedroom—is not a luxury, but a necessity for a well-balanced emotional brain and healthy life. When women take a stand for their own sexual healing and embrace sexual pleasure, we're taking a stand for all women. Although each woman's journey is different, speaking up and accepting the support and love of family and friends—with a bit of help from an experienced therapist—can make all the difference.

Bottom line

Men and women need to stand together to create a culture of equality in which our sexual lives connect us deeply with ourselves and each other.

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