Brainwashing, child abuse, even bioterrorism: six sex cults that went well beyond ‘love thy neighbour’
From Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his 93 Rolls Royces to paedophile David Berg and his 10,000 followers, here are six weird sex cults from around the world
Sex cults are different to doomsday, evil or other religious cults in one aspect: the leader of the church generally sleeps with as many of the flock as possible.
A surprising number of sex cults have been founded in the United States (maybe because of the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment), and 1968 seems to have been a popular year for their gurus. This may have had something to with the “free love” ethos of the time.
Almost all leaders are male, none are classically attractive, but all exercise a strong hold over their followers.
Following recent revelations of a Thai wellness sex cult operating on the island of Koh Phangan, here are six other “love your messiah” organisations.
(aka the Osho International Foundation)
The Rajneesh Movement was founded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who called himself the “rich man’s guru”. He wore flashy watches and reportedly owned a fleet of 93 Rolls Royces. All members of his cult had to wear orange, take Hindi names and wear a mala: a necklace of wooden prayer beads with a locket holding a portrait of Rajneesh. Many donated all their belongings and money to him.
Rajneesh expounded the embrace of materialism and sexual hedonism. Sex was a divine act, and the belief that sexual acts are sinful was denounced as atheism.
Devotees took part in “dynamic meditation” – a four part process that was essentially brainwashing.
Rajneesh bought a large property in Oregon in the US in 1981 and built a city with its own fire and police departments, restaurants, malls, and even a casino.
The cult dealt with local complaints by attempting to take political control. They invited thousands of homeless to stay in their city to increase their number of voters. This backfired and they ended up dumping the indigents back on streets around the state.
What followed was the largest bioterrorist attack in the US. In a bid to suppress the voter turnout, cult members poisoned salad dressings and salad bars in supermarkets and restaurants in Oregon, infecting 751 people with salmonella. Wasco County Executive William Hulse and Commissioner Raymond Matthew also became ill after drinking iced water laced with salmonella from the commune.
Rajneesh’s secretary and second in command, Ma Anand Sheela, pleaded guilty to attempted murder, wiretapping and immigration fraud (the cult orchestrated more than 400 sham marriages) in 1985. Rajneesh, who had fled the country, also pleaded guilty to immigration fraud and paid US$400,000 in fines and was banned from re-entering the US. The FBI later uncovered a plan to assassinate Oregon’s US attorney and attorney general to prevent criminal probes against Rajneesh.
Children of God
(aka the Family International)
The Children of God was started in California in 1968 by David Berg (later Moses David), who was the son of a preacher man. Berg became a minister for the Christian and Missionary Alliance but was expelled for charges including (you guessed it) alleged sexual misconduct.
Originally the Children of God Church lived a communal life, memorising passages from the Bible and preaching in the streets. It mirrored the free love movement of the 1960s, the idea being everyone was married to everyone else. Orgies were encouraged.
Women in the cult were encouraged to have sex with strangers to try and get more people into the cult in a practice Berg termed “flirty fishing”. Not many men were convinced to join, but 300 babies were born as a result, most of whom never knew their fathers.
Homosexuality was condemned but not lesbianism. Berg also preached that sex between children and adults was holy.
In 1972 there were 130 communities around the world. At its height the cult had about 10,000 members. Celebrity members have included the Phoenix family (including River and Joaquin) and Rose McGowan.
Berg fled the US due to allegations of paedophilia. He communicated with his flock through Mo Letters, basically pornographic comic book messages. These continued until his death in 1994. The group officially denounced sex with children in 1986.
NXIVM is a marketing company in New York state founded by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman in 1998 that holds personal and professional seminars. It has also been accused of being a pyramid scheme and a sex cult.
During its “Executive Success Programmes” (ESPs), which were attended by a number of actresses, and two heiresses to the Seagrams fortune, attendees were told to address Raniere as Vanguard and his co-founder Nancy Salzman as Prefect. Psychologists branded the seminars as expensive brainwashing.
Smallville actress Allison Mack became heavily involved in the cult in 2006.
In October 2017 evidence emerged of a secret sisterhood within the organisation, known as DOS. Female members were referred to as slaves, were branded with Mack and Raniere’s initials, given corporal punishment, and told to provide potentially damaging information about themselves and nude photos.
In March this year, Raniere was charged with a number of offences including sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour. Mack was arrested in April and faces similar charges. On May 24 the group announced it was “suspending all NXIVM/ESP enrolment, curriculum and events until further notice”.
Church of the Most High Goddess
The Church of the Most High Goddess was founded by Mary Ellen Tracy and Wilbur Tracy in Los Angeles in 1984 after they had a divine revelation.
After the revelation, the Tracys researched ancient Egyptian practices and Mary became high priestess. Her role was to have sex with as many of her congregation as she could as a part of spiritual cleansing. Unfortunately the thousands of cleansed were charged for the service and Tracy was convicted in 1989 of running a house of prostitution.
Ratzon is an Israeli cult leader who believes in the sanctity of marriage. He had 21 women he considered his wives and fathered 38 children with them.
He was convicted of rape and other sexual offences against the women, who were mostly minors at the time of the offences and some were his own daughters.
Ratzon had convinced them that he had supernatural powers. He treated the women as his personal property and they had to serve him sexually and financially. They were forbidden to communicate with other men or their own families. Ratzon was sentenced to 30 years in 2014.
(aka Jesus Morning Star)
Providence was founded by Jung Myung-seok in 1980 in South Korea. Jung was previously a member of the Unification Movement (aka the Moonies) before founding his own Christian-based church.
His teachings are based on 30 lessons (similar to that of the Moonies) that form a numerological interpretation that identifies Jung as the second coming of Christ.
As in the Unification Movement, Jung’s church teaches that original sin was caused by Eve sleeping with Satan. Luckily this sin could be undone by having sex with Jung as a purification rite. Often, young pretty women were presented to him as sexual gifts.
Jung fled South Korea in 1999 amid charges of rape, fraud and embezzlement, and spent time in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China as a fugitive. He was arrested in Hong Kong in 2003 for overstaying his visa, and released on HK$10 million bail.
While he was in China it is alleged that female members of his church were flown from Korea, held against their will and violated by Jung. In Japan he would perform “health checks” on 10 or more women a day. Reports from Taiwan repeated the allegations.
He was arrested again in China in 2007 and brought back to South Korea to face trial. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released in February this year.