5 Facts To Understand About The Complex & Controversial NXIVM Sex Cult Case

Inside the alleged “sex cult,” where a Hollywood star reportedly recruited women who were branded and groomed to be sex partners for the leader, Keith Raniere.

June 30, 2021
Keith Raniere [CBS This morning/screenshot]; Allison Mack [Jemal Countess/Getty Images]

Photo by: Keith Raniere [CBS This morning/screenshot]; Allison Mack [Jemal Countess/Getty Images]

Keith Raniere [CBS This morning/screenshot]; Allison Mack [Jemal Countess/Getty Images]

By: Mike McPadden

In March 2018, authorities arrested Keith Raniere, known as “Vanguard” by his followers, the reputed co-founder of the organization NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ium"), on multiple counts, including sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor. The following month, police reportedly arrested Hollywood actress Allison Mack on charges stemming from her involvement in the organization, including sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and forced labor conspiracy, according to the Justice Department.

Watch The Lost Women of NXIVM now on discovery+.

While NXIVM billed itself as a self-help business, The New York Times, NPR, and other media sources have described the organization as a "sex cult." The New York Post and other outlets have used the term "sex slaves" to describe some of NXIVM's female participants.

A jury has since convicted Keith Raniere of all counts against him. Allison Mack took a plea deal. Other prominent NXIVM figures have pleaded guilty to various charges.

What follows are five essential items to know about Keith Raniere, Allison Mack, and NXIVM.

1. Keith Raniere Reportedly Co-Founded NXIVM In 1998 As A Self-Improvement Organization, But It Has Been Dubbed A "Cult" By The Media Since 2003

In 1998, Keith Raniere and his business partner, Nancy Salzman, reportedly launched NXIVM as a personal development company, offering "Executive Success Programs" (ESP). The company's mission statement read: "NXIVM is a community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human."

It appears the word "cult" initially got attached to NXIVM in 2003, after Forbes magazine published an article on Raniere and his business titled, "Cult of Personality."

The Forbes piece read, in part: "Detractors say [Raniere] runs a cult-like program aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically, separating them from their families, and inducting them into a bizarre world of messianic pretensions, idiosyncratic language, and ritualistic practices."

Controversy reportedly swelled around NXIVM until October 2017, when The New York Times published an exposé titled, "Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded." [The New York Times]

2. Abuse Allegations Arose Quickly Against NXIVM In 2018, Followed By Criminal Charges

Following the widely circulated New York Times article, more alleged NXIVM participants came forward and claimed abuse. The controversy grew as the company's alleged practices came to light.

Among the allegations was that Raniere ordered female members to adhere to severely restricted diets and that he would "oink" as they ate.

Former high-ranking NXIVM member Lauren Salzman, who pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, alleged Raniere demanded members supply him with nude photos and other sensational materials he could potentially use against them. Salzman also reportedly described "group sex" and "dungeon paddling" as part of NXIVM's practices.

Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg emerged as one prominent critic, claiming that NXIVM had exerted undue influence and control over her daughter, India. Oxenberg authored a 2018 book on the subject, "Captive: A Mother's Crusade to Save Her Daughter."

In March 2018, authorities arrested Raniere in Mexico, where he reportedly fled in the wake of the New York Times article. Over the next year, actress Allison Mack and four other high-ranking NXIVM associates pleaded guilty to various charges associated with their participation in the organization. [Business Insider]

3. Per The Terms Of A Plea Deal, Allison Mack Admitted To Recruiting Women To "DOS," An Inner Circle Of NXIVM That Allegedly Branded Its Members

Before NXIVM, actress Allison Mack was best known to the public for playing Chloe Sullivan on the superhero TV series, "Smallville." She reportedly got involved with NXIVM in 2010 and, from there, rose to prominence alongside Raniere.

Prosecutors claim Mack actively recruited new members to "DOS," which she allegedly described as a "women's group." Court documents allege that DOS is short for the Latin phrase, "Dominus Obsequious Sororium," which reportedly translates as "Master Over the Slave Women."

According to the Department of Justice, “The goal of the criminal enterprise was to promote Raniere, for example, by exalting his teachings and ideology, and to recruit new members, including as sexual partners for Raniere.”

DOS members were reportedly branded with a symbol alleged to contain imagery of Raniere's initials. In 2018, The New York Times quoted Mack as saying the branding was her idea: "I was like: 'Y'all, a tattoo? People get drunk and tattooed on their ankle 'BFF,' or a tramp stamp. I have two tattoos, and they mean nothing.'"

In April 2019, Mack reportedly pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy and one count of racketeering. She also said she took "full responsibility" for her conduct involving luring women into NXIVM.

Mack's plea deal removed some of the more "lurid" charges against her, according to Time magazine. But, she still faces up to 20 years in prison for each count. Mack's sentencing will take place in September 2019. [Time]

4. One Ex-Member Likened NXIVM's Naked Branding Rituals To A "Horror Movie"

In a statement, FBI official William F. Sweeney Jr. said, "Raniere displayed a disgusting abuse of power in his efforts to denigrate and manipulate women he considered his sex slaves. He allegedly participated in horrifying acts of branding and burning them, with the cooperation of other women operating within this unorthodox pyramid scheme."

According to a criminal affidavit, DOS members were allegedly stripped naked, branded on their pubic areas, and ordered to perform menial tasks and have sex with Raniere.

Former NXIVM participant Sarah Edmonson reportedly described her own branding ritual to ABC News. Edmondson said a woman first ordered her and other female participants to take their clothes off and put on blindfolds.

From there, Edmonson said, the woman "led us in blindfolded and sat us in a semicircle … buck naked, no clothes, on a sheepskin rug."

One by one, according to Edmonson, the women were branded with a cauterizing device, without the benefit of anesthesia. Edmonson described her pain as feeling "worse than childbirth."

In all, Edmonson said, "It was a horror movie. It was the most inhumane, horrific way to treat anybody. But the most horrific thing is that it's women doing it to women." [Newsweek]

5. A Jury Convicted Keith Raniere Of All Charges Against Him In June 2019

After a six-week trial in a Brooklyn federal court, a jury on June 19 found Keith Raniere guilty of all seven charges against him. The counts included racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and attempted sex trafficking.

Following the verdict, US attorney Richard Donoghue said, "Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was, in fact, a master manipulator, a con man, and the crime boss of a cult-like organization involved in sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion, compelled abortions, branding, degradation and humiliation."

Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison on October 27, 2020. [ABC News]

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