Investigation into a pyramid scheme reveals a sex trafficking cult
By Brittney MacDonald, Life & Style Editor
Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual and physical abuse.
NXIVM is an organization that has accumulated a massive amount of charges brought against it by the FBI. Charges include identity theft, extortion, blackmail, forced labour, sex trafficking, money laundering, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice—to name just a few. Worse yet, the case has some pretty high-profile names attached to it and contains some very key testimony from former victims that have investigators calling the organization a modern-day cult.
To unpack all of this, we have to look way back to 1998, when a man by the name of Keith Raniere created the company NXIVM and began offering “Executive Success Programs” (“ESPs”), a series of workshops that people could take in order to actualize their professional potential. The workshops were very similar to those cheesy ones you hear about that aim to draw people in and give them a pep talk about being bold and unafraid in their career path.
NXIVM utilized ESP and other programs like it to become an overall life coaching brand. Their business model claimed that they helped people overcome psychological barriers to aid them in achieving success both professionally and privately. The company’s website states that it aims “to raise human awareness, foster an ethical humanitarian civilization, and celebrate what it means to be human.” The entire system relied on people becoming members and then buying into the workshops provided. From an outsider’s perspective, they made some pretty ostentatious claims. In a promotional interview Raniere did with Marc Elliot in 2017—available on Keith Raniere Conversations on YouTube—Raniere even claims that his process might help people suffering from autism. Of course, these miracle processes were never really disclosed, since all NXIVM members were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
However, a Forbes article in 2003 revealed that NXIVM members were instructed to use very specific language with regard to their psychological obstacles and how they addressed each other. Raniere himself was to be never referred to by name. Instead he was called “Vanguard”—a point that became key later on in the FBI’s investigation. The Forbes article also mentioned specific rituals for greeting and for opening and closing meetings.
One of the biggest features was an element of hierarchy, or as NXIVM members referred to it, “goals.” Members would wear coloured sashes to indicate what goal level they were at—with people achieving higher goal levels by completing workshops and recruiting more members.
The pyramid scheme aspect comes in with the cost of the workshops themselves. Workshops were a minimum of $5,000 and could be upwards of $25,000 per day. At higher levels you had a greater chance of receiving a commission for recruiting new members—some members even earned a regular salary. To get to that point, however, members would have to pay exorbitant amounts. This left many in debt. They would then work off that debt by performing tasks for the organization itself—yet they’d still be required to take more workshops, which would continually grow their existing debt. This recruitment mechanism fits into the definition of a pyramid scheme.
With the high cost and huge claims of the workshops, Raniere’s programs managed to entice some notable names. NXIVM drew in powerful and influential people like Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET and current CEO of Salamander Hotels, and former American Surgeon General Antonia Novello. Hollywood was not exempt from recruitment. One of NXIVM’s most high-profile members, and someone who has been included in the recent onslaught of legal charges against the group, is Allison Mack. Mack is best known for her role as Chloe on CW’s Smallville.
However, the most surprising connection is the organization’s connection to, of all people, the Dalai Lama. Though the exact link between the Dalai Lama and NXIVM is unclear, the Tibetan Buddhist leader has had repeated contact with Raniere—even to the point of writing a foreword in Raniere’s book, The Sphinx & Thelxiepeia.
You might be asking yourself, how does all this add up to sex trafficking? According to the FBI’s investigation into NXIVM, they claim to have uncovered a disturbing sub-sect within the organization. Early on in his career, Raniere was very vocal about a belief he and his followers have, called the “primitive hypothesis.” This is a psychological theory that men are by nature polyamorous, while women are by nature monogamous.
Media outlets have speculated that in 2015 this primitive hypothesis became a founding principle for DOS, a secret society within NXIVM. Former members have alleged that the name stands for “dominus obsequious sororium.” Loosely translated, it means “Master of the Obedient Female.” According to reports, Raniere was the only man in the group and was thereby automatically identified as a “master,” while all female members were called “slaves,” though female members could move up to “master” status if they recruited more women. This recruitment process involved the potential member providing the group with some form of blackmail material to ensured cooperation, lest the new member risk such material being released.
Of course, the reality of DOS and its system of indentured service was never revealed to potential recruits. Instead, the secretive group used specialized language to claim that membership into DOS was an exclusive chance to achieve higher goal levels in NXIVM, with some referring to it as a “women’s mentorship program.” Recruiters were also taught to target emotionally or psychologically compromised women—women going through a difficult emotional time, or those suffering from depression or financial troubles.
The obligations of “slaves” within the group were called “acts of care.” This could include anything from getting their masters food, to running errands, to obeying a female master’s command to provide sexual favours to Raniere himself. Female masters that did so were rewarded with various accolades, such as receiving financial benefits. Some female masters were even tasked with grooming future sex slaves for Raniere.
If that wasn’t psychologically damaging enough, recruits were required to perform various tasks of self-mutilation and self-torture—including starvation, ice baths, and sleep deprivation. They were also required to undergo a surprise branding ceremony where they were stripped naked and held down as a cauterizing pen was used to carve Keith Raniere’s initials into their skin—a process which took upwards of 20 minutes. These ceremonies were reportedly filmed, and the video was then used as further blackmail material for DOS members.
In March of 2018, Keith Raniere and Allison Mack were both brought up on charges of conspiracy to commit forced labour, sex trafficking, and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking after a former DOS recruit, Sarah Edmonson, spoke to various media outlets about her experiences with the group. Edmondson, a Vancouver-born actress, gave specific details regarding the hierarchy and day-to-day operation of the group, as well as the branding process.
Raniere responded by claiming that DOS did exist but that he had no part in it. However, the FBI claims that they have gained access to emails, WhatsApp messages, and various other digital communiques that identify Raniere as the DOS creator—included amongst these are repeated references to the “Vanguard.”
Raniere’s trial, and that of those arrested with him, is set to begin on April 29.