The Sexual Exploitation of Women in Cults

There are countless numbers of cults in America and across the world. One of the common threads that ties them all together is the sexual exploitation of women. Not only this, but this common “thread” is actually a three-fold chord that’s strength is nearly indestructible! The second common “thread” that is interwoven with sexual exploitation is “submission”. Women in all cults are taught to submit to the authority of men. The third strand in this chord is “male-dominance and/or control” over every aspect of a women’s life. There is not one single area in a women’s life that men in cult religions do not control and dominate.  All this, aimed at women for one primary purpose – sexual exploitation.

The following excerpt is from the Cultic Studies Journal. I genuinely believe that this information will be helpful to victims of religious abuse in that it will educate them and give them the understanding that the abuse “was NOT their fault”.  The other aspect of knowing this information is that it will help victims to identify those that fit into the category of “Psychopath.”

Cultic Studies Journal

Janja Lalich, Community Resources on Influence & Control, Alameda, California

With approximately 5000 cults active in the United States today (Tobias & Lalich, 1994), and an estimated 185,000 new members being recruited each year (Martin, 1996), public or professional discussions and analyses of life inside a cult are surprisingly sparse. I define a cult as a particular type of relationship that not only is based on an enormous power imbalance between the leader and followers but also includes a hidden agenda….a cult relies on deception, manipulation, and exploitation, and almost certainly results in abuse. At the head of the cult is a self-proclaimed leader (or sometimes two or three) who demands all veneration, who makes all decisions, and who ultimately controls most aspects of the personal lives of those who are cleverly persuaded that they must follow, obey, and stay in the good graces (i.e., the grips) of the leader.

All cults, no matter the stripe, have the same common denominator as well. The leadership uses “thought-reform” (i.e. behavior control and modification) without the knowledge or consent of the person being manipulated. By attacking a person’s behavior or attitude, cult leaders manage to “dissemble and reformulate members according to the cult’s desired image (Lalich)”. In other words, they take away YOU and give you back a cult personality. They make you a CLONE of their system. And when the old you tries to rear its head, they punish you. When you conform to their ideals and standards, they reward you. Before you know it, you don’t who you are or how you got there. You only know that you have to stay there. (paraphrased)

In a cult, there is only one way – totalitarianism – set up to serve the leaders whims and desires, be they power, sex, or money (Lalich, 1996)

Sexual exploitation is defined as the exercise of power for the purpose of controlling, using, or abusing another person sexually in order to satisfy the conscious or unconscious needs of the person in power – whether those needs be sexual, financial, emotional, or physical. Sexual abuse can range from having to live in a sexually coercive environment (whether or not one is personally abused) to unwanted touching to rape. It may masquerade as a “marriage” to the leader or as some form of “spiritual” practice, or it may come about as the overt seduction of vulnerable females (or males) by those in power. In many groups, if not the leader, then the husbands are given absolute control over their wives ( and children), including a license for sexual activities without mutual consent. Marital rape is an accepted standard in certain cults.

Sexual exploitation includes reproductive and general sexual controls through such policies as enforced celibacy, arranged marriages, mandated relationships or intimacies, and regulated childbearing. Even if no such specific practices are overtly employed, most cults govern the sex lives of members with myriad rules and regulations.

According to the Cultic Studies Journal and one post-cult recovery workshop, “40% of the women present said they had been sexually abused in their cult (Tobias & Lalich, 1994, p. 171). If we were to take that figure as an indicator of the prevalence of sexual abuse in cults, I would predict that when solid research is finally done in this area, we will find that 40% is actually an extremely low figure. I base this on my own work as a cult information specialist and educator who meets regularly with former cult members to help them get some clarity on their cutlic experiences. The 26 female former cult members seen by me in the past 9 months came from a wide spectrum of cults. Fifteen of the women were directly abused (14 by their leader and on occasion also by others in the cult, and 1 raped by her cult husband at the leader’s orders). Eight had their personal, marital, and/or sex lives manipulated and controlled by the cult. The remaining three were not personally abused but eventually became aware of the sexual victimization of the other female members by the leader. In four of these cases, the sexual activity included lesbian and/or bisexual liaisons; and in three, the women were also subjected to physical abuse, one of which was ongoing and extreme” (Lalich).

From these data, it becomes apparent that the sexual exploitation of women in cults of all types is widespread, and, to date, is possibly the least talked about, and certainly the least researched, aspect of cult life. There is, in my opinion, a two-fold reason for the prevalence of sexual misdeeds in cults.

First, those who wish to dominate others discover that their power increases as their areas of influence over the other person become more intimate and personal. Therefore, controlling someone’s sexuality or sex life is an effective method of all-inclusive manipulation and control. Once sexual control is in place, no part of life is left untouched by the cult leader’s influence. the satisfaction of the leader’s desires (be they real or conjured up for the purposes of sheer display of power) becomes an expression of the cult member’s faith – her cross to bear, so to speak.

Second, many cult leaders fit the profile of the psychopath. Psychologist Robert Hare, a specialist in the study of this particular personality disorder, estimates that there are at least two million psychopaths in North America. He wrote:

Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret. (Hare, 1993, p. xi)

Certainly not all psychopaths become cult leaders, nor are all cult leaders necessarily psychopaths. Yet, when studied, the backgrounds, personalities, and behaviors of many of those who have led and lead cults fit quite nicely into the framework for this particular character disorder. Several psychopath’s characteristic traits lend themselves to acts of sexual exploitation and abuse of others. Those are:

  • Need for stimulation
  • exploitation and abuse of others
  • poor behavioral controls
  • promiscuous sexual behavior and infidelity
  • glibness and superficial charm
  • grandiose sense of self
  • pathological lying
  • lack of remorse, shame, or guilt
  • manipulation and conning, and
  • incapacity for love.

Sexual acting out of all sorts is frequent among cult leaders; and for them, as with psychopaths, sex is primarily a control and power issue. Such behavior goes hand in hand with more flagrant forms of irresponsibility. In one cult, for example, multiple sexual relations were encouraged even while one of the top leaders was known to be HIV positive. This kind of negligence toward others is not uncommon in the world of cults. Whether sexual behaviors are kept hidden or are part of the accepted and expected group practices, the fact remains that because of the power imbalance between leader and followers, sexual contact is never truly consensual and is likely to have damaging consequences for the follower.

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