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Clare Bronfman is allegedly a leader in Nxvim, the controversial sex organization that also claims Allison Mack as one of its members

Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram fortune, and three others were arrested Tuesday and charged with racketeering for their role in a secret society that’s been frequently called a “sex cult” in news reports. Bronfman, alleged to be one of the senior leaders in the multi-level marketing organization Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ium), founded by entrepreneur Keith Raniere, is set to be arraigned in a Brooklyn federal court.

Earlier this year former Smallville actress Allison Mack, another senior member of the organization, was arrested and charged with sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and forced labor conspiracy, as was Raniere. Mack faces life in prison.

Ostensibly a self-help group advertising “executive success programs,” Nxivm has been condemned by former members as a cult, in which female members are ritualistically branded and pressured to engage in sexual “master-slave” relationships with higher-ups in the program, and in particular with the group’s founder and leader, Raniere. Known to his followers as “Vanguard,” Raniere was arrested last month on charges of sex trafficking.

Raniere maintains his innocence, and the Nxivm website has posted a statement denying all allegations, saying, “We are currently working with the authorities to demonstrate his innocence and true character. We strongly believe the justice system will prevail in bringing the truth to light. We are saddened by the reports perpetuated by the media and their apparent disregard for ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ yet we will continue to honor the same principles on which our company was founded.”

Tabloids and mainstream media outlets alike have almost uniformly described Nxivm as a “sex cult.” And the allegations of sexual abuse, humiliation, and deprivation are chilling. But when you read more about Nxivm, what’s striking is how ordinary its marketing rhetoric seems to have been. Recruiting new members by promising feminist empowerment and anodyne self-actualization schemes, Nxivm took advantage of female insecurity — and capitalistic notions of being one’s own “best self” — to recruit members.

Nxivm has been around for two decades

While Allison Mack may be the most notable member of Nxivm, the group has been in existence, and attracting wealthy and famous adherents, for almost two decades. The Albany, New York-based organization was founded in the late 1990s, peddling self-help seminars and “executive success programs” designed to, in Nxivm’s words, “help … people realize the potential that exists within them.”

Nxivm wasn’t Raniere’s first attempt at a multilevel marketing program; in 1993, he settled with the New York attorney general after being accused of running a pyramid scheme through an unrelated company. Nxivm was by far his most successful attempt, though. Attendees included Stephen Cooper, then acting chief executive of Enron, and heir to the Seagram’s fortune Edgar Bronfman Sr., whose two daughters would go on to become heavily involved in Nxivm.

A Forbes article from 2003 characterizes the seminars as an Ayn Rand-inspired glorification of selfishness:

Days begin at 8 a.m. with the “ESP handclap,” akin to using a gavel to open a court hearing. Students then go through sessions on “Money,” “Face of the Universe,” “Control, Freedom & Surrender” and more. They learn baffling and solipsistic jargon: “Parasites” are people who suffer, creating problems where none exist and craving attention. “Suppressives” see good but want to destroy it. Thus, a person who criticizes Executive Success is showing suppressive behavior.

A New York Times piece on the group reports that approximately 16,000 people have taken Nxivm’s seminars, although only a small fraction of them were inducted into Raniere’s inner circle, known as DOS (from the inaccurate Latin dominus obsequious sororium — “master over the slave women.”)

While it’s unclear when exactly DOS began, one ex-member recalls that Nxivm’s seminars started featuring a course called “Human Pain” in 2011 or 2012. The course encouraged members to engage in extreme forms of self-punishment if they “broke their word,” techniques that would be replicated within the DOS. That member, Sarah Edmondson, who joined Nxivm in 2005, recalls being recruited into DOS in March 2016.

According to ex-members quoted in the Times report, the DOS functions as a kind of master-slave pyramid scheme, in which “slave” members swear fealty to designated “masters,” who in turn are the slaves of their own “masters,” with Raniere at the top.

Ex-members have reported being forced to provide intimate photographs and video of themselves as “collateral” — which were later used to discourage them from speaking out. They report being forcibly branded with Raniere’s initials, being coerced into unpaid labor, and being kept on extremely low-calorie diets to maintain the physiques Raniere found most sexually attractive.

Members were required to text their “masters” every morning and evening and be available to answer their masters’ texts at all time. Minor transgressions were punished with ritual humiliation, such as being forced to wear cow udders or suffer extreme deprivation of food or heat.

Nxivm promoted itself as a chance for feminist empowerment

One of the most striking elements of Nxivm was the contrast between its alleged internal “master-slave” dynamics and its public face.

Nxivm’s recruits, including Allison Mack, billed Nxivm as a chance for feminist empowerment. In January 2016, for example, Mack tweeted at actress Emma Watson, a known supporter of feminist causes, telling her that she wanted to give her more information about an “amazing women’s movement.”

Another actress, Samira Shoaib, recalls Mack attempting to recruit her by characterizing the gathering as “a bunch of women … [who] go on a retreat upstate, and we share our experiences and support each other.”

In the mid-2000s, one of the major recruitment efforts for Nxivm was through Nxivm-funded a cappella music concerts and gatherings popular with college-age women, at which Mack and her Smallville co-star Kristin Kreuk (who left the organization in 2012 and denies any knowledge of DOS’s use of “sex slaves”) would be present.

Meanwhile, Seagram’s heiresses Claire and Sarah Bronfman, who are believed to have taken over Nxivm after Raniere’s arrest, reportedly bankrolled the organization to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sarah Edmondson, who shared her story with the New York Times and other outlets, says the DOS was pitched to her as an opportunity to transcend stereotypically feminine weakness like being “over-emotional” or having a “victim” mentality, encouraging women to develop their capacity for obedience and discipline through submission. In a personal essay for Vice, she writes:

Keith taught us that one of the strongest imperfections of the female gender—among other things—is that we’re weak and have no character, we’re indulgent emotionally, and we’re princesses … The tricky way I believe he got that indoctrination in, is he wasn’t saying these are his views, he was saying this is how women are perceived and this is why women aren’t equal in the world, because they’re perceived this way. This is how men see you.

Only by learning to master her perceived self-indulgent tendencies, Raniere implied, could Edmondson truly become empowered as a woman.

Likewise, Edmondson recalls that the language of feminism was used by other women in the group to convince her to perform acts that made her uncomfortable. When she was told to strip naked alongside other women during her DOS induction, for example, her co-DOS members characterized her “body issues” as something she had to work to overcome. “We’re a sorority,” Edmondson recalls other members telling her. “We’re a sisterhood — relax.”

Nvixm is the perfect “cult” for 2018

Unlike many organizations termed “cults,” Nxivm does not seem to have any theistic or theological content. Members didn’t join because they believed Raniere was a representative of God on earth or that he had any particular spiritual powers.

Rather, Nxivm attracted the members it did by capitalizing not on spirituality but on culturally potent concepts like “female empowerment,” “executive success,” and “self-actualization.” Edmonson recalled feeling like she was initially being inducted into a “badass bitch bootcamp,” and that “The group was supposed to be women that were going to be a secret society, sort of like the Freemasons, as a force for good. We were going to be able to change the world.”

The tools used to recruit members — the same tools that characterize other controversial multilevel marketing schemes, like the “essential oils” phenomenon — are the building blocks of basic capitalism. Promise empowerment. Demand a down payment.

In a society in which religious “nones” are the largest single religious bloc, Nxivm is the perfect, chilling example of a “secular” religion: one that speaks to contemporary cultural neuroses and anxieties and capitalizes on them. It uses some of the same structures as (theistic) religion — a way to order the world and make it meaningful, a sense of ritual and community — but marries them with the cultural values of secularism: independence, self-improvement, and “empowerment.”

One of the most uncanny elements of so-called cults is how they’re able to leverage our wider cultural hungers — for success, for “wellness,” to be our “best selves” — to lure us in.

In that sense, Nxivm doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Dismissing it as a “sex cult” — something “weird” and “creepy” that exists outside the bounds of ordinary society — fails to take into account that Nxivm attracted members because it purported to offer something highly culturally potent: a “badass bitch bootcamp” in which women could self-actualize, and an Ayn Randian narrative of capitalist self-improvement structured around freeing oneself from would-be “parasites.”

Update: this story has been updated to reflect Bronfman’s arrest

Author: Tara Isabella Burton
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