Like everyone on Twitter, I have been transfixed by the HBO documentary series The Vow, about the self-improvement cult/pyramid scheme/sex trafficking ring known collectively as NXIVM. The organization’s leader, Keith Raniere, was found guilty on seven counts of racketeering and sex trafficking in 2019, and this week, on October 27, he was sentenced to a hundred and twenty years in prison. The most sensational headlines of the case are about the former teen actress Allison Mack’s involvement in a secret sadomasochistic group within NXIVM known as DOS (“dominus obsequious sororum,” a phrase in a language that could at best be described as Latin-esque that supposedly meant “lord over the obedient female companions”) in which she and other “masters” recruited other women as “slaves,” some of whom were made to have sex with Raniere. Grotesque details abound in this story, particularly of slaves being branded with a soldering iron near their crotches with a symbol containing both Mack’s and Raniere’s initials.
The Vow follows former high-ranking members within NXIVM as they leave the group. It also attempts to answer why anyone would be caught up in something so heinous, what the filmmakers call the love affair before the betrayal. I suppose that’s why the first episode seems oddly positive in its depiction of Executive Success Programs (ESP), the personal growth seminars that were most people’s entrees to NXIVM. Former members talk about being amazed by the “technology” that Raniere had invented to help them overcome their fears and limiting beliefs, and how happy they were to have found such a welcoming, understanding community.
This technology, in reality, is nothing more than a proprietary blend of therapeutic methods cribbed from cognitive behavioral therapy, Scientology, Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism, multilevel marketing sales techniques, and, most notably, neurolinguistic programming (NLP), which NXIVM’s cofounder, Nancy Salzman, was practicing when she met Raniere in 1998. NLP, a kind of hypnotherapy, has been derided as pseudoscience, and of course none of Raniere’s methods were, as he often bragged, “mathematically reproducible.” What is more telling is his reliance on Salzman to form the basis of his self-improvement regime. Members said Salzman “downloaded” information from Raniere in order to create ESP’s educational modules. If this is true, she seems to have extrapolated liberally from Raniere’s ideas in her creation of a practical curriculum. Unlike L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, Raniere has never written a NXIVM scripture or treatise or even workbook; he didn’t teach or manage money or answer emails. There were women for that.
In The Vow, Raniere appears as the laziest and least charismatic cult leader of all time. “What this show teaches me,” I told my husband midway through the first episode, “is that anyone can start a cult.” Raniere slept all day and spent all night either going on long walks or playing in the midnight NXIVM volleyball games he insisted on. He exercised control through the myth he created of himself, based on lies or half truths: he was the smartest man alive, with a 240 IQ, had taught himself calculus at the age of twelve, was a judo champion and a concert pianist. He had his acolytes disseminate this information about him to every recruit, so in person he could appear humble.
To the naked eye he seems remarkably stupid—the only books I can find plausible evidence that he has read are Atlas Shrugged and How to Win at Gambling, the latter of which he’s seen reading in a widely published and very weird picture, lying on a bed in his underwear. For years members of NXIVM videotaped, recorded, and transcribed everything he said, writing their own Gospel of Keith, but the philosophy we hear him drone on about in The Vow is full of anodyne platitudes, some of which seem to actually be taken from Hallmark cards. In one episode, a former girlfriend shows a card he once gave her for her birthday. “Dance like nobody’s watching. Sing like no one can hear you,” it says, perhaps the most overused inspirational cliché there is. “I think of you every time I read this,” Raniere wrote, with all sincerity.
What Raniere knew was mostly how to sell, having learned persuasion techniques as an Amway salesman in the eighties, and he pitched his contradictory, Randian idea of ethics to just the right people. (It is hard not to put scare quotes around ethics, just as it is hard not to put them around basically every word that Raniere twisted for his own purposes.) Since it was devised as an executive coaching program, riding a trend for such services in the late nineties, the ESP curriculum teaches its members that personal business success is the only thing that can create a happier, more peaceful world. “I pledge to ethically control as much of the money, wealth, and resources of the world as possible within my success plan,” members recited in their twelve-point mission statement. This was appealing to the organization’s entertainment industry recruits, who were often desperate for a formula for professional success, even as they said they came looking for personal fulfillment and a way to change the world. “I had some idea that I would become a famous actor and use my celebrity to help people,” says Sarah Edmondson, one of the former NXIVM executives featured in The Vow, echoing the wishful thinking of many people who were drawn to NXIVM. Theirs was a well-meaning selfishness that was validated by Raniere’s me-first humanitarianism.
This was even truer for the one-percenters who went through ESP. Sara and Clare Bronfman, the heiresses to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, bankrolled NXIVM for twenty years to a comically lavish degree: buying the organization a private jet, funding litigation against ex-members, covering sixty-five million dollars Raniere lost in the commodities market, buying an island in Fiji to use for retreats, and pulling strings with massive donations to convince the Dalai Lama to visit Albany in 2009. It seems that the most profound teaching Clare Bronfman gained from ESP was that her masses of wealth were not something to be ashamed of. “I thought that money made people bad,” Clare told Vanessa Grigoriadis in the New York Times magazine in 2018. “Money’s money. And people are people. So rich people can do good and bad, poor people can do good and bad.”
Raniere and NXIVM exercised a unique hold on its super-wealthy members by offering them teachings that were a mix of what they wanted to believe and what they most feared. Your money is a good thing, they were told, but you are blowing your chance to use it to help people. The only way they could do that, of course, was to give as much of it as possible to NXIVM. If you look closely, these ideas about privilege and complacency are laced through all of NXIVM’s teachings, including the way that women were recruited for DOS. As time went on, Raniere’s teachings became more misogynist, particularly in NXIVM’s women’s retreat, Jness, that started in 2006. There Raniere taught that women were naturally emotional, where men were rational; this difference made women dishonest, disloyal, unreliable, and lazy. Echoing sexists since Aristotle and before, Raniere continued to have zero original ideas. The other fundamental difference was that women were protected their whole lives, never facing humiliation or discomfort, thus making them rely on men instead of themselves. In this way, as Raniere and his lieutenants sought to break their female students with a form of tough love, they could claim they were doing it for the women’s own empowerment.
This reasoning is obviously completely false: humiliation is arguably a fact of life for women far more than it is for men, not least because our bodies are considered public property for anyone to ogle, touch, or comment on. But this story of a sheltered upbringing is true for some women, and I can imagine that for the child actors and heiresses in NXIVM, when Raniere derided women as “spoiled princesses,” it felt personal. “Coming from a family where I’ve never had to earn anything before in my life, [it] was a very, very moving experience,” Sara Bronfman said of being promoted in NXIVM in Forbes in 2003. “It was the first thing that I had earned on just my merits.” (Although Clare Bronfman has never disavowed Raniere, even after the revelations about DOS and her own conviction on crimes relating to NXIVM, there is no evidence the Bronfmans were involved with DOS.)
This is one answer to the question that plagues the conversation around DOS and NXIVM: how were over a hundred women convinced to join a secret organization where from the beginning they were called slaves, forced to collateralize their commitment with naked photos and secret confessions, and vowed loyalty to their masters for life? One answer is that many of these women had already internalized the belief that they were weak and spoiled, with no ability to work for anything. Their indoctrination at the Jness retreat would only have reinforced these beliefs. DOS was described as a “badass bitch boot camp” that would steel their commitments and help them achieve their goals, but more than that, they were told it was the only way they could help the cause of women, preventing nightmares like the election of Donald Trump from ever happening again. Yes, that’s right. This brutal sex cult, where young women were dogged by their masters to stay on starvation diets so they’d be more attractive to Raniere, was pitched as a sort of Pantsuit Nation, a secret group advancing the cause of feminism.
Raniere’s most persuasive evidence that his goal with NXIVM was to empower women, despite the despicably misogynist sentiments that came out of his mouth, were the women who ran every aspect of his business, from his cofounder, Nancy Salzman, on down. These women helped to sanitize his message and explain away misgivings students might have had, while also acting as his enforcers, particularly as the Bronfmans pursued legal vendettas against ex-members. It is significant that women recruited other women for DOS, since it would probably have been a much less appealing prospect had Raniere himself posed it to them. The women high up in NXIVM could make legitimate claims on empowerment, although they paid a high price for it: Raniere’s five codefendants, all of whom pled guilty rather than stand trial with him, were women.
Raniere’s female deputies were caught in the same bind as his hero, the author Ayn Rand. In her view, in order for women to be totally free, they had to devalue traditionally feminine work, communication, and ways of knowing, subjecting themselves to the punishing dominion of logic and ambition. As Sam Anderson wrote of Rand in New York Magazine in 2009, Rand saw herself as “a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock” who claimed “that she could rationally explain every emotion she’d ever had.” This triumph of stereotypically masculine values seems to be linked directly with the emphasis both NXIVM and Rand put on the righteousness of achieving success within the capitalist system. If you believe that time is money, and money is necessary for doing good in the world, then it follows that emotions, instincts, and physical needs would be subordinated to a numb efficiency and all-consuming self-discipline and self-denial.
In this way, NXIVM was a distillation of all the failures and lies of corporate feminism. Often exemplified by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, corporate feminism emphasizes the ingenuity required for an individual woman’s success in the workplace, instead of questioning the systemic barriers to women’s economic advancement and the unchecked nature of corporate power. One of the key aspects of the NXIVM story is how the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing when it came to the interlocking web of businesses that made up the NXIVM consortium, which was comprised of numerous companies including an acting studio and experimental preschool. This was for legal reasons, to ensure Raniere would be able to continue his work even if authorities shut down one of the organization’s branches. But it was also his way of hiding his worst abuses and beta-testing fringier ideas. He took a more overtly apocalyptic tone with his outreach in Mexico, where students were taught, according to the New York Times, “that Mr. Raniere had developed a sophisticated mathematical formula to predict that the world would end within 15 years.” When Salzman said at the first Jness retreat in 2006 that women were naturally monogamous while men were naturally polygamous, Susan Dones, who was at the time the head of NXIVM’s Seattle center, said she recognized that “they were introducing the idea of polygamy, but with a soft sell, laying the groundwork.”
In addition to the secrecy and confusion built into its arcane corporate structure, surely the self-interest the group preached kept members from asking questions about the way the organization was run. People who were trained to focus monomaniacally on their goals had little time to question the ethical pitfalls of pyramid selling, the organization’s regressive views of gender, and the exploitation of women Raniere was committing before their eyes. Salzman, Raniere’s closest deputy and collaborator, reportedly had no idea about DOS, even though her own daughter was one of Raniere’s first-line masters, as federal prosecutors described them in court. This blindness predictably had disastrous consequences for the organization’s most vulnerable targets. Some of Raniere’s trial’s most horrifying details came from the testimony of an anonymous Mexican member called Daniela, who moved to Albany when she was sixteen to work with NXIVM. She started having sex with Raniere when she was eighteen and facilitated Raniere’s sexual relationship with her underage sister, whom he called “the virgin Camilla.” At one point, Raniere convinced Daniela and her older sister, who was also sleeping with Raniere, to go to bed with him at the same time. Later, Raniere had Daniela’s parents confine her to her room for two years for what he called “an ethical breach”: her admission that she was attracted to a man other than him. All of this abuse was compounded by the fact that Raniere had helped Daniela enter the country illegally. “I was without a doubt a captive from a moment I was illegal in the country,” she said at trial.
It is no surprise that NXIVM’s Mexican members received its most extreme teachings and bore its most egregious violence. In all of the frenzied reporting on Mack’s involvement with DOS, many have missed that five of the eight first-line masters in DOS were Mexican. Despite the wealth of the Mexican contingent’s most high-profile members, which included the children of two Mexican presidents and the daughter of Mexico’s most powerful newspaper publisher, white supremacy and American chauvinism meant they had a subordinate position in the NXIVM power structure. All of this is intimately linked to the perverted corporate feminism the group preached, which held that the success of elite women would trickle down to more marginalized women, all the while ensuring that the opposite was true. Corporate feminism is one brand of white feminism, and they are both the close confreres of postfeminism, an enfeebled feminist marketing that gained ascendance in the nineties by emphasizing consumer freedom, lifestyle choice—especially the choice to conform to traditional gender norms—and success for women within a capitalist framework. It was in no way interested in the intersection of oppression, systemic change, or class critique, and was in fact designed to defang feminism as a radical political movement, distracting women with the attractive lie that what the feminist cause needed was more women making lots and lots of money and doing whatever the hell they wanted.
This is the way I’ve come to see the NXIVM story: as one of the horsemen of the broader postfeminist apocalypse, a sign of how far degraded feminist rhetoric has become. DOS was, for one thing, the horror-movie version of a multilevel marketing company, or MLMs, which have received more attention in recent years on social media, YouTube, and podcasts as fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes specifically targeting women. (I can picture the Blumhouse B movie about Tupperware sex parties now.) MLMs use individual salespeople to sell makeup, leggings, essential oils, and a million other consumer products directly to their friends and family for a small commission. The real money is not in selling but recruiting other salespeople who stand below you on the pyramid and will attract other recruits, all of whom will owe you commission. Raniere ran his first illegal pyramid scheme in the early nineties through his first MLM, Consumer’s Byline, and signed a consent order with the attorney general of New York to never run another multilevel marketing company. He broke this order almost immediately, starting an MLM called Innovative Network where members received discounts on “top-grade health products,” and, shortly after, in 1998, starting Executive Success Programs, where in order to move up the ranks, members had to aggressively recruit other students to take the ESP intensives, which were by invitation only. All of NXIVM’s programs were extortionately expensive, with five-day intensives costing between $2,000 and $10,000, and students were pressured constantly to re-up, often going deep into debt. The only exception to this was DOS, which was, at least on the face of it, free—members could join for the low, low cost of naked pictures and a lifetime vow of submission. But they were still expected to recruit their own slaves, preferably women who were young, thin, and single.
Raniere knew what he was doing when he used the MLM model for every venture he ever undertook, even enlisting a harem of sex slaves. Considering his beliefs about women, who could be surprised that he was drawn to an industry that targeted women’s vulnerabilities and subordinated them to the imperial apex of the pyramid scheme (him)? At least ninety-nine percent of MLM sellers lose money, but these companies still recruit with the promise that prospective salespeople can grow their own business in their spare time. This sales pitch is particularly attractive to women who have trouble working otherwise, often because they are taking care of children, and takes advantage of the kinship networks women build of friends, neighbors, and relatives. (Expect an avalanche of new MLM scams as the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a feminist nightmare, with 865,000 women dropping out of the workforce in September alone.) Just as Raniere did with DOS, these companies are sure to couch their predation in the language of feminism, marketing themselves as empowering a new class of #girlbosses, even as they prey on women’s economic precarity.
Raniere’s sentencing coincides with the entrance of another postfeminist horseman in the form of Amy Coney Barrett, the ultraconservative judge Donald Trump nominated to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. She was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice on October 26, the apotheosis of Senator Mitch McConnell’s campaign to reinvent the American judiciary as a conservative political engine. In her short time as an appeals court judge, Coney Barrett has argued for expanding gun rights and restricting abortion rights, couching all of her contradictory convictions in that great conservative judicial fantasy: total adherence to the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. Since the outset, when her law professor at Notre Dame secured her a clerkship with Justice Antonin Scalia, Coney Barrett’s career has been paved by men who saw her as a useful political tool. In a profile in the New York Times, Elizabeth Dias writes how Coney Barrett benefitted from a Republican initiative “to cultivate female and minority candidates for the courts to help counter the perception that the party was interested mainly in promoting white men.” Trump had planned for years to nominate Coney Barrett in the event of Ginsburg’s death, setting up an obvious, if cheap, comparison between the two female judges. Democrats’ opposition to her nomination has of course been met with Republican whining about how women should support women, with the Republican senator Martha McSally saying, “You would normally have the feminists on the left lining up to defend her. So we’re asking, where are those women?”
As Ellen Willis wrote in 1979 about the pro-life movement, “Its need to wrap misogyny in the rhetoric of social conscience and even feminism is actually a perverse tribute to the women’s movement.” The same is true now: as Coney Barrett becomes the right’s greatest hope of overturning Roe v. Wade, we are told that feminists are being hypocritical in our opposition to her. In truth, conservatives’ clumsy use of feminist rhetoric is an instinctive appeal to something more basic than the formalized women’s movement. They are calling on women’s powerful loyalty to one another, thus recognizing it as feminists’ most potent tool. When the pro-life movement became ascendant in the late seventies, it was because of its brilliant methods of undermining that loyalty, most often by reframing abortion not as “as a political issue affecting the condition of women,” as Willis writes, but “as an abstract moral issue having solely to do with the rights of fetuses.”
Coney Barrett belongs to a charismatic Catholic sect called the People of Praise who famously used to call their women leaders “handmaids,” though they stopped after the Hulu started airing its series A Handmaid’s Tale, possibly seeing it as a little on the nose. All members are assigned a male “head” who counsels them spiritually and practically; married women are “headed” by their husbands. If Coney Barrett managed to pursue a career that is mostly foreclosed to women in her religious group, particularly those who have seven children, there is no reason to believe she sees economic opportunities for women as something worth fighting for. Her solidarity with other women has been thoroughly eroded by both her conservative and religious indoctrination and her adventures in leaning in. According to the New York Times, “[The People of Praise] is almost entirely run by men in part because it ‘communicates to all men their shared responsibility for the life of the community,’ ensuring men do not leave family and community matters to women.” This statement also nods toward feminism, with its emphasis on men pitching in with domestic duties. But it can also be interpreted as a radical rejection of the high status of women in even many conservative church communities, where they can gain positions of authority and influence through teaching, volunteering, and music ministry. As MLMs exploit close-knit networks of women for their buying power, conservative Christianity has been seeking to cut those networks off at the root, making women ever more directly beholden to men. But when you look at all this manipulation up close, something startling becomes clear: would the corporate and political systems be trying so hard to stop women from organizing if we didn’t pose a threat? As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez captioned an Instagram post about the squad, herself and three other progressive congresswomen who have become the conservative movement’s favorite villains: “When your sisterhood is so powerful the President of the United States can’t stop thinking about it.”
There is an unsettling symmetry to the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, an echoing dread many women will feel even if they don’t examine it. The last confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court justice were a notably ugly moment in the Donald Trump presidency, amid a stream of ugly moments. At Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the judiciary committee for four hours, calmly describing how Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when he was seventeen and she was fifteen. When it was Kavanaugh’s turn to testify, he threw a disturbing tantrum where he cried, yelled that he liked beer, and whined that he may never be able to coach children’s sports again. And still he was confirmed by a 52–48 vote in the senate, with the moderate, pro-choice Republican Susan Collins giving a mealy-mouthed speech on the floor of the Senate defending her yes vote by saying that Kavanaugh had assured her that he would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. I can’t be the only who felt this like a blow to the chest. It was the feeling that Kavanaugh’s confirmation was the end of the #MeToo movement as we knew it.
Now, along with Kavanaugh, Coney Barrett is poised to make life harder for millions of women, threatening abortion rights, the availability of contraception, and most immediately, the health care of families that rely on the Affordable Care Act. This confirms something we may have suspected, which is that the #MeToo message had been muddled and undermined. Despite all efforts, the connections were not clear, the message was not heard: there is a larger system keeping women on the margins of American life, of which sexual violence is only one tactic of enforcement, and for which justice against individual abusers is only a salve and not a cure.
We might have also suspected that #MeToo did not go far enough in its demands at the height of its cultural power. Since then, #MeToo seems to have devolved into a circular conversation about celebrity cancel culture, abandoning exactly the women who need defending most, those at the intersection of race, class, and gender oppressions who are not only the most likely to be sexually harassed and assaulted on the job, but who suffer most from abortion bans, the lack of childcare and paid parental leave, and the assault on affordable health care. In other words, when there was a national conversation around gendered violence, there was a failure to overtly integrate it with the other issues at the heart of the feminist cause. There were barriers to this, of course, mostly that the movement’s power was in its ad hoc coalition united by the barest of feminist demands: stop harassing us; stop raping us. Anonymous hotel workers and Fox News anchorwomen were gathered, uncomfortably and temporarily, under the same banner. If some of us saw the inconsistency in fighting for women to be able to safely spew hatred on Fox News, it still seemed like a net good, not to mention a source of delectable schadenfreude, to see Roger Ailes go down in flames.
This is clear evidence of how the organized feminist movement has deteriorated in this country, even as calling oneself a feminist has become more socially acceptable. We dare demand only safety, never security. Solidarity will only take us so far—we need theory, infrastructure, diversity, and nuance in fighting the forces of revanchism that seem to strike with more violence after any moment of feminist progress. The evangelical movement, corporate interests, and far-right forces have mounted a massive backlash against women’s equality since the seventies, comprised of many mini backlashes, of which the Trump presidency is only one. #MeToo was just a start to building back what has already been eroded. The fact that many people cannot differentiate between postfeminist “empowerment” and real feminism is a victory for those forces that have systematically opposed real gender equality. (Confusing the issue is a classic move in the conservative playbook: the greatest enemy of the Equal Rights Amendment was the empowered woman Phyllis Schlafly.) Postfeminist rhetoric has caused tangible harm, playing an active part in perpetuating the widespread sexual abuse that women until #MeToo were told they had to learn to live with. We are trained to believe that being a girl boss means persevering and not playing the victim. As the ESP mission statement says, “There are no ultimate victims; therefore, I will not choose to be a victim.”
NXIVM is also a #MeToo story: high-profile serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein led authorities to take the case against Raniere more seriously. There had been newspaper stories as early as 2012 detailing NXIVM corruption and accusing Raniere of violence and statutory rape. But when former DOS slaves took their story to the New York Times in 2017, they were told that it wasn’t necessarily newsworthy at the same time that the FBI told them that the branding of their flesh was consensual. After #MeToo, the tide turned quickly against Raniere, with an exposé in the Times, the exodus of dozens of members from NXIVM, and, soon enough, federal charges.
But, of course, defeating Raniere does not destroy the cultural forces that allowed him to belittle, control, and indoctrinate women through NXIVM for two decades, and broader #MeToo activism doesn’t either. A notable thing about DOS is the way that women’s relationships with other women were leveraged against them. Women were afraid if they left, not that they would lose access to Raniere, but that they would lose the close friendships with women that the group had forged. When recruiting for DOS, Allison Mack invited women to join her “women’s group,” and women with the same “master” often called each other sisters. Women still need sisterhood. There is no reason not to start more formal women’s groups like those who read, organized, commiserated, and raised their consciousnesses together as the decentralized structure of the women’s liberation movement during feminism’s second wave, and whose vacuum DOS, MLMs, church groups, social media communities, and group texts have made their feeble and/or sinister attempts to fill. Antiwoman forces tell us we should be satisfied with takedowns for people like Raniere, with our chance for a woman to replace a woman on the Supreme Court, no matter who she is. We know better. Interpret NXIVM as a new fairy tale, with Raniere as a particularly pathetic Bluebeard, and take its lesson to heart. Any women’s movement that does not demand justice for the most marginalized, that does not threaten the status quo, will eventually contribute to our oppression. In materials from the first Jness, Nancy Salzman said, “Welcome to the first women’s movement started by a man.” She seems to be foreclosing this as a criticism, but also to be pitching it as an improvement on all of those previous, irrational movements led by emotional women. This is a lesson of the NXIVM story, too: the way a false women’s movement can be taken down by a real one.
Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession.