Opening an Inquiry: Do Cults Always Abuse Women?

News over the last week or so on the cult front has featured multiple cults who seem to focus on sexual abuse of women members.  We wrote extensively a week ago about the arrest of Keith Raniere, founder of Albany, New York-based Nxivm (pronounced “Nexium”).  The indictment alleges that Raniere headed a secret “master/slave” group where the all-female membership were branded with his initials in their pubic region.  Be Scofield, a journalist specializing in new-generation Internet gurus, recently published an article on yet another abusive group.  Scofield looks at the followers of Padma Aon Prakasha, who leads various workshops in the US; 15 women and 2 men have accused Prakasha of physical and emotional abuse and other things.  And the well-received Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country about the 1980s Rajneeshee cult in Oregon recounts stories of physical abuse aimed at women.

We are writing to start a discussion about treatment of women in cults, including in Scientology.  For those of you who are ex’s, we would be interested in understanding what happened to you, for both former staff/Sea Org and for rank-and-file members.  And we’re particularly interested in whether high-control groups always end up committing abuse of women (and, probably equally of children).  What general inferences can we draw and what can we do about it?

Summary of Padma Aon Prakasha Sexual Accusations

The article by Be Scofield about Prakasha details many of the abuse patterns that we’ve seen with many cultic groups, particularly smaller groups with a single charismatic leader.

There have been numerous accusations of sexual abuse lodged personally against Prakasha, who often preyed on new members at spiritual retreats by telling them that they had dangerous evil forces within them that could only be exorcised through sexual contact with him.  If they did, he promised them that they could be powerful teachers.  Apparently, the guru often used the same story about how he was marred to the new recruits in a past life in ancient Egypt.

Prakasha apparently controlled many of his members’ intimate relationships, breaking up families or relationships and assigning new sexual partners to members to help them “explore new experiences.”

Prakasha became more paranoid over time, with increasing apocalyptic messages to his followers, culminating in a move to a compound in Australia in 2011, ahead of an imagined awakening of multiple supervolcanoes he claimed would devastate most of Earth in 2012.  The dozen or so followers that went were subject to the usual cult control mechanisms of chanting, sleep deprivation, meditation and other trance-inducing exercises.  He then moved the group to France in 2012, and the group mostly fizzled out after that as the remaining members drifted away.

Former members describe Prakasha’s demands for them to abort fetuses, and the use of a technique called “pulsing,” where one member would sit on the abdomen of another and violently rock up and down, a practice claimed to “open the energy” of the womb.  This practice was performed on pregnant women as well, and some members noted that it was done in an extremely painful manner.

Interestingly, Prakasha claims to have been a child prodigy in multiple fields of endeavor, just as Nxivm’s Keith Raniere and Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard did.  Presumably, Prakasha’s claims would be as flimsy if scrutinized as Raniere’s and Hubbard’s.

Summary of Keith Raniere Sexual Accusations

Nxivm founder Keith Raniere was indicted on charges of slavery and human trafficking.  Residences and offices searched after his arrest may lead to other charges as well. Frank Parlato, former publicist for Nxivm, who operates the leading site critical of the group, suggests that Raniere may be the subject of a money laundering investigation (we understand that Nxivm is a for-profit corporation, and could thus be the subject of tax evasion charges as well).

The most shocking allegations in the indictment and news coverage of Nxivm is that a secret all-female group called “DOS” (an acronym for the Latin term meaning “dominant over submissive women”) branded women in their pubic region with Raniere’s initials using an electrocauterizer, but without anesthesia. Members were also required to submit “collateral” including explicit nude pictures and other information which, if disclosed, would be severely damging to the member or her family.  This “collateral” served to enforce loyalty to the DOS group.  The estimated several dozen DOS members were required to be celibate, only available to service Raniere.

Raniere’s group also practiced other forms of pressure aimed specifically at women. Raniere reportedly liked his women to be extremely thin, so many female group members, both in DOS and in the larger Nxivm group, were required to follow a highly restrictive 500-600 calorie diet, and were required to be weighed and to log their food consumption.

Raniere tended to focus on women for his inner circle; many of his large donors were women, including two of the heirs to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, who appear to have given Nxivm substantially over $100 million, including bankrolling a number of unsuccessful business ventures that Raniere had created.

And like Scientology and the Rajneeshee cult (detailed below), while humiliating women was woven into the group’s practices, Raniere also had many women in senior leadership roles. Nxivm’s second-in-command is a former psychiatric nurse named Nancy Salzman; Salzman’s daughter also held a senior position in the group.  Former actress Allison Mack gave up acting to work full-time with Nxivm, and apparently led the DOS sub-cult and helped brand new initiates.

This last detail suggests that women in cults may be both abused and abusers themselves.  If Allison Mack is indeed the head of the DOS group (her initials are visible on the brands placed on members, in smaller letters than Raniere’s initials), then she is knowingly enabling systematic and severe abuse of women, just as Harvey Weinstein had female assistants who would schedule women and book hotel rooms for his conquests.  It would be interesting to understand the mechanism by how someone could rationalize this.

Abuse of Women in Rajneeshee Cult

An article appearing last week in The New Republic reviews the Netflix Wild, Wild Country documentary.  The story leads with two incidents of physical abuse of women, in one case at the hands of another woman.  The two incidents recounted seemed to focus on making the women involved more compliant to group leadership, and weren’t a sexual assault.

However, the group did practice significant “free love” — some reports claim that 90% of the residents of the rural Oregon commune had STD’s.  Child abuse and rape were, by some accounts, common.  The group apparently officially sanctioned group sexual encounters that could turn violent, usually against the women.  And the group also allegedly required women to get abortions.

Rajneesh, like Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, doesn’t appear to have been running the group primarily as a “babe farm” to procure sexual partners for himself.  It seems like Rajneesh was personally more interested in money, also like Hubbard; the hard sell for donations began immediately on arrival at the Oregon site, and many were convinced to donate their retirement savings. Rajneesh owned 93 different Rolls-Royce cars at the group’s peak, and was driven around the ranch to greet followers in them daily.

At the same time that members were being abused, many women were in positions of authority in the cult. Rajneesh’s second-in-command was a woman named Ma Anand Sheela, who appears to be a true believer to the present day.  Sheela masterminded the group’s paranoid security measures and the bioterror attacks committed against restaurants near the compound, which sickened more than 700 innocent people with salmonella, in the largest bioterror attack ever on US soil.  Other women were in key positions in the group, and the gender ratio of senior leadership appeared to be somewhere near parity.

Scientology and Women

With the groups mentioned above, it’s pretty clear that in two groups, the founders were predators and used their groups to supply women for their own use, and all three groups had institutional structures that systematized abuse of women.  With Scientology, it’s clear that women were widely abused, based on stories that many ex members and ex staff have shared.  But the question about the degree to which abuse of women is systematized is a little more complex.  Also, given the size and complexity of the organization, and the enormous blizzard of policy directives from Hubbard, it’s very difficult for a researcher to put together all the relevant data and to resolve conflicts to say definitively whether the cult intentionally and institutionally  abuses women.

On the surface, Scientology seems to give women equal opportunity .  Hana Whitfield quickly rose from rookie Sea Org member to be captain of the Apollo and other ships in Hubbard’s motley fleet in her 20’s, with no formal training. She was also one of Hubbard’s top aides in running the organization for many years.  Debbie Cook was the “captain” of Flag for almost 20 years, serving as one of the longest-surviving senior executives in the cult until her fall from grace.

And Scientology’s two leaders, Hubbard and David Miscavige, leaned heavily on their wives as confidants and senior managers, at least until they fell out of favor and were “disappeared.” (Hubbard went into hiding, leaving his wife behind, in 1976 and she never saw him for the last ten years of his life; David Miscavige’s wife Shelly was purged in 2007 when she did something without authorization, and is kept at a remote Scientology facility).

We talked to 27-year Sea Org veteran Chris Shelton about sexism in the organization, and he points out that the organization was basically an “equal opportunity abuser,” and that in many circumstances, managers were essentially gender-blind in making hiring decisions.

Hubbard did not use the women in Scientology as his own personal “babe farm,” as he appeared to be afraid of women and maybe even impotent or asexual, as the fears in his bizarre “Affirmations” document revealed.  Yes, the teenage girls in the Commodore’s Messenger Organization wore skimpy uniforms, which would today be seen as inappropriate, but this was not excessively out of line for other uniforms for predominantly female jobs (cocktail waitresses, etc.) of the time.  And there’s no real body of evidence to suggest that Hubbard pursued the Messengers sexually.

Commodore’s Messenger Uniforms, c. 1975. Source unknown.

Chris Shelton suggested that in some sense, Hubbard may have preferred women in the CMO because they were more able to pass the sec checks that often dealt with subjects such as sexual habits (including one’s history with masturbation) that teenage boys would have trouble passing.

Some of Hubbard’s advice about marriage is banal and sexist, but it needs to be considered against the standards of the time.  For example, in 1970, Mary Sue Hubbard penned a document called the “Marriage Hat,” which outlined the responsibilities of husbands and wives.  “Once_born,” who comments here and on Tony Ortega’s blog, captured a copy on his web site, and surfaced some of the juicy bits.  The advice to wives is insipid and patriarchal, but no more so than countless articles in women’s magazines advising wives to look pretty for their husbands and have dinner on the table when he arrives home from work.  This document was issued in the 1970s and perhaps later, but is no longer issued by the Church of Scientology to members, and should be considered a historical curiosity only.

One of the most appalling things about Scientology is the forced abortion policy for Sea Org workers. This is an appalling action, but it’s not actually clear that this was driven by an intentional desire to subjugate or abuse women.  Rather, it seems that the overall motivating factor was to maximize productivity of the work force; child-rearing served only to distract from the all-important mandate to make one’s stats grow each week. We might suggest that the mandatory abortion policy was more anti-child than it was anti-woman, and that it is thus evidence of institutional anti-child behavior in the cult, a bias well documented through the cult’s punitive policies against children and Hubbard’s treatment of children on board the Apollo as well as his treatment of his own children.

Another appalling issue in Scientology is how it treats wealthy rapists, most notably accused but not yet charged actor Danny Masterson. In Masterson’s case, the cult’s attempt to use its own “ethics” procedures on three of Masterson’s alleged victims who were Scientologists, in an attempt to avoid causing PR reputational damage to the cult — an interesting concept given that the cult’s brand identity currently ranks well below Ebola in terms of positive perception.  But again, with Scientology, it’s unclear that the cult’s interference in the Masterson affair is about aiding sexual predators; it seems possible that the cult’s focus is on sweeping any negative PR under the rug, and it would take exactly the same actions if Masterson were accused of mounting another Reed Slatkin-like Ponzi scheme and ripping off members.

Some Questions and Areas to Discuss

The above discussion about Scientology touches on only a few areas that are part of a much larger and more complex discussion.  Here are our questions, which we hope commenters will address below.  At some point in the future, when we’re confident we’ve covered the issue with enough breadth, we can come back and write a longer piece talking about how Scientology fits in with other abusive groups in sexual abuse of women.  Our key questions:

  • What evidence is there of policies that had the intentional effect of enabling sexual predation of members or staff? It’s important to distinguish between policies that enabled members or staff to engage in a broad spectrum of bad behavior and policies that specifically enabled sexual abuse.  This might include auditing/sec checking practices, course work, policies about selecting berthing, etc.
  • Which policies had the unintended effect of enabling sexual predation of women by members or staff? This might be policies that hid predators who abused women and children in order to avoid an sort of bad PR, but which weren’t specifically aimed at enabling abusive behavior.
  • What common practices at lower levels of the organization were sexist in how they were delivered? For example, was there specific training material that told people doing the “bull baiting” exercises to focus on women’s looks and other things about a man?  Or did that arise spontaneously in the minds of the people doing that “training routine?”
  • What personal experiences did you have of abuse, either done to you or that you witnessed done to others?

Author: John P.

John P. is a Wall Street money manager and IT technologist fascinated by irrationality in all its forms, and Scientology most of all. He's a lifelong Steely Dan fan.