News recently broke that exposed powerful sex cult Nxivm (pronounced Nexium). It allegedly depended on the persuasive skills of Smallville actress Allison Mack as a key recruiter. Ranked No. 2 in the group, Mack allegedly enticed a group of young women as sex partners for its founder Keith Raniere. Raniere and Mack stand charged with—and pleaded not guilty to—sex-trafficking and forced-labor charges.
But how does a reasonably intelligent person find themselves part of one of these organizations? Cults often employ something called the BITE model, or specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people. BITE stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control. Some of the cult warning signs can look more subtle than you think.
1. Cults intentionally make themselves hard to find
Up to 10,000 cults still exist today in the United States, according to psychologist Steve Eichel. The president of the International Cultic Studies Association said cults also make themselves scarce on purpose.
“Most cults are extremely small and very deliberately try to to stay under the radar,” Eichel told 48 Hours. “Unless they commit a crime, unless they do something that draws attention to them … we generally don’t know about them.”
Next: Watch out for these warning signs.
2. Any kind of pressure or extortion raises red flags
Cults often extort their members — finally, personally, and even sexually. “Beware of any kind of pressure,” Eichel said. “That’s probably the single most important advice I can give anyone. Any kind of pressure to make a quick decision about becoming involved in any intensive kind of activity or organization.”
Dangerous cults also pressure members to confess to past sins. They can make those confessions public, then use them against the members. Some even keep files on their members’ pasts for blackmail purposes.
Next: If the leader claims unique abilities, watch out.
3. Suspect leaders who claim special powers
Stay wary of any leader who claims he or she has special powers or special insight. And, of course, divinity. “A guy like Charles Manson had the ability to spot who, at a party, that he thought he could control. It just seems to be in his personality,” explained cult expert Paul Morantz. Cult leaders “have the ability to size you up, and realize your weaknesses and get to your buttons.”
Next: Cults also exercise this famous technique.
4. Cults don’t let you leave willingly
Morantz also emphasized the importance of retaining members for cults. “A very important aspect of cult is the idea that if you leave the cult, horrible things will happen to you,” Morantz pointed out. People outside the cult could later become recruits, so they have a different status than deserters.
Most cults also have a secretive, special inner group. “Although there may be outside followers, there’s usually an inner circle that follows the leader without question,” he said. “And that maintains a tremendous amount of secrecy.”
Next: Cults may also gain control over your body in one of the following ways.
5. You’ve received a brand or tattoo against your will
Mack allegedly used her celebrity to lure young women into the cult. Once in, they literally branded their members with a design based on her and Raniere’s initials. Performed by a female doctor, each procedure took approximately 20-30 minutes and intended to show the members’ devotion.
The New York Times reports that, “Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their ‘master,’ a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: ‘Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.’”
Next: Heightened secrecy can also serve as a warning sign.
6. Your partner swears you to secrecy
The FBI’s criminal complaint similarly claims that Raniere, like many cult leaders, made his recruits perform menial chores and have sex with him. He also preached the importance of monogamy for women, but multiple partners for men.
“Raniere has maintained a rotating group of 15-20 women with whom he maintains sexual relationships,” the FBI said. “These women are not permitted to have sexual relationships with anyone but Raniere or to discuss with others their relationship with Raniere.”
Next: Don’t let anyone tell you what to eat or drink.
7. Someone restricts your food and water intake
The Daily Beast also previously reported that Mack allegedly formed a secret sorority within the group. They called themselves DOS or Dominos Obsequious Sororium, which means Master Over the Slave Women.
Women in the group had to stick to a 500- to 800-calorie-a-day diet, “because Raniere likes thin women and believes fat ‘interferes’ with his energy levels … slaves must immediately answer their masters any time they text or call them, and if they do not recruit enough slaves of their own, they are beaten with a paddle on their buttocks.” That behavior control, or making members modify their bodies for the cult, serves as a strong warning sign.
Next: Cults also brainwash their members, often with frightening results.
8. Keep an eye out for brainwashing
In addition, cults often separate members from family and friends, to ensure they rely on the cult for their basic and social needs. Tenets like communal living further enables a form of information control, ensuring no one challenges the cult’s hold on its members.
Sleep deprivation, for example, helps cult leaders control their members. As Chuck Dederich, the leader of the Synanon rehab cult, put it, “If you keep people awake long enough, you can make them believe anything.”
Next: They even impact how their members communicate.
9. Cults even control how you speak
To enforce their signature isolation, many cults replace common words with special jargon, or create new words to describe central concepts. That further isolates its members, since only those involved in the cult will understand the jargon or ideas. It also contributes to emotional control, by making the members believe certain words have power and others may even rank as “bad” or “evil.”
Next: The following might even serve as the most important hallmark of a cult.
10. If they discourage skepticism, get skeptical
The most important tell of a dangerous cult rests in what it doesn’t include: skeptics. Through thought control, it encourages group think, black and white perspectives, and rejects questions and critical thinking. Ask yourself: Does this movement answer my critical questions? If not, get out.
“I went to see Timothy Leary speak, expecting a scientific explanation of what LSD does,” Morantz explained. “Instead, it was a bunch of slogans and everyone screaming and clapping … So I quietly exited, thinking I’d just seen the most dangerous man alive.”
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