The man behind the disturbing sex cult which branded women

People who write about cults like it when cult leaders are found guilty of things by a court, because then they can openly write about what grubby, pathetic little men those cult leaders are.

Keith Raniere, the former leader of NXIVM, is a grubby, pathetic little man.

Despite the greatly exaggerated stories he told his followers about being a concert pianist, genius, inventor and judo champion, Keith Raniere, the subject of the third episode of Yahoo News Australia's Cults Unpacked series, was really only good at two things: multi-level marketing and pep talks.

Originally an Amway salesman, Keith started his own MLM company called Consumer’s Buyline, but had to shut it down when authorities busted him for running a pyramid scheme.

Keith Raniere. Source: Supplied
Keith Raniere borrowed a lot of ideas from Amway and Scientology. Source: Supplied

Not one for originality, he borrowed heavily from both the Amway and Scientology models and started NXIVM, a company that offered higher and higher tiers of executive success training for more and more money.

People who joined NXIVM were looking for success, to stop self-sabotaging and start winning.

If they paid for classes and learning materials and recruited new customers, they could reach new levels within the organisation, signified by cheap sashes of different colours.

This approach most definitely worked for a while, as success within NXIVM - while definitely meaningless in the real world - likely felt a lot like actual success in the real world might have.

Additionally, NXIVM targeted wealthy potential donors and minor celebrities, making the group seem even more powerful and glamorous than it was, a neat trick also employed by Scientology.

Videos of NXIVM events – and there are plenty, due to Keith’s relentless narcissism – show Keith finding a thousand different, verbose ways of summarising other people’s TED talks, beautiful-looking aspirants lapping up his expensive wisdom, and the annual narcissism festivals called V Weeks, which involved a series of activities, talent shows, and genuflections at a resort to celebrate Keith’s birthday.

The V stands for Vanguard, a name Keith gave himself to sound important.

NXIVM leader Keith Raniere in court. Source: AP
NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, shown in court, had to trick women into sleeping with him. Source: AP

Members flocked to live near Raniere's home

Those seeking success and fulfilment flocked to Keith, so while the group didn’t have a traditional cult compound, many of his followers moved to Albany in upstate New York to be near Keith and each other, living and socialising almost exclusively with other NXIVM members.

Keith’s followers were not at all put off by the fact that the best way to ask Keith questions directly was to attend one of his late night volleyball games, that would often run until dawn, dotted with impromptu sermons by their diminutive, hairy guru.

The headquarters of NXIVM. Source: Getty Images
The headquarters of NXIVM in Albany, New York. Source: Getty Images

Many of us prefer our gurus to not be wearing short shorts and sweatbands, but each to their own I guess.

When he wasn’t preaching at night-volleyball half time or getting people to bow to pictures of him when they entered a room, Keith would sometimes pretend he was a genius by applying for patents for his “inventions”.

Some of these inventions were astoundingly similar to existing inventions, but Keith would just keep changing tiny details and keep applying until the US Patent Office was satisfied that his dumb ideas were different enough from existing ideas.

Women watch on as Keith Raneire speaks on stage. Source: YouTube/ The Lost Women of NXIVM: Rumors vs Reality
The women of NXIVM had their own group. Source: YouTube/ The Lost Women of NXIVM: Rumors vs Reality
NXIVM followers raise their arms. Source: YouTube/ The Lost Women of NXIVM: Rumors vs Reality
NXIVM followers joined the group to improve themselves. Source: YouTube/ The Lost Women of NXIVM: Rumors vs Reality

With things like a slightly different way of exercising, a slightly different "find my phone" device, and a slightly different splint for broken limbs, the only real newness in Keith’s inventions was the way the patent applications were written.

He even applied for a patent for the sashes handed out to followers who reached new levels of fake success within NXIVM. Apparently the patent office doesn’t care if your idea is useful or good.

Disturbing revelations emerge about cult's female group

Many of the features of NXIVM and Keith are dumb, but things get dangerous and criminal when we consider the smaller groups within NXIVM.

The one that finally brought Keith down was called DOS, or Dominus Obsequious Sororium, loosely meaning master over female slaves, if you’re after a red flag.

To most of its members, DOS was a women-only sorority designed to teach women to be the independent, successful masters of their own lives by becoming "slaves" to their nominated female "masters".

Tasks slaves had to perform included answering their masters’ text messages within one minute, severe limitation of calories as part of a starvation diet (Keith likes skinny girls), and having sex with Keith.

Keith was absolutely the leader of DOS, but most of the members didn’t know that, thinking actress Allison Mack – one of Keith’s early NXIVM recruits – was its figurehead.

Allison Mack sentenced to three years in jail over shocking sex cult charges. Source: AP
Allison Mack sentenced to three years in jail over shocking sex cult charges. Source: AP

Allison was Keith’s slave and recruited her own slaves, who recruited their own slaves, and so on – just another multi-level-marketing idea rip-off by Keith, albeit considerably more nefarious and icky.

Even worse, DOS members were subjected to a naked, restrained initiation ritual to Keith’s specifications in which a symbol was burned into the skin of their pelvises.

Supposed to represent the elements, in reality the brand was designed to represent a sneaky mix of both Keith and Allison’s initials.

The painful brand given to all DOS members. Source: YouTube/ The Lost Women of NXIVM: Rumors vs Reality
Women in a female group with the NXIVM cult were branded with what turned out to the Keith Raneire and Allison Mack's initials. Source: YouTube/ The Lost Women of NXIVM: Rumors vs Reality

Further, DOS members had to provide "collateral" in the form of graphic nude photographs or scandalous written confessions to prove their loyalty.

Or in short: women were coerced into sex, branded and blackmailed.

Keith Raniere, who was not a prodigy or a genius or a guru or a god, had to trick women into having sex with him.

Thankfully, Keith’s reign as leader of NXIVM and DOS ended with his arrest in 2018 after his ex-followers started talking to the press.

As testament to his robust bravery and strong leadership, he was found hiding in a cupboard in Mexico, sacrificing his followers to police arrest while he cowered.

There’s good news, though. Keith Raniere was convicted of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour and sentenced to 120 years in prison, where the volleyball games are very, very different.

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