How NXIVM’s Sex-Cult Sorority Started as an Anti-Trump Group
Cult founder Keith Raniere (aka “Vanguard”) exploited women’s (and men’s) outrage surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to the new HBO docuseries “The Vow.”
“This is like Scientology. It’s a cult where the leader is keeping people through fear and dependency and now, blackmail,” offers Sarah Edmondson in The Vow.
Edmondson, 43, is one of several former members of NXIVM, the Albany-based sex cult masquerading as a self-help group, whose testimony illuminates HBO’s nine-part docuseries. Before serving as a whistleblower, she was indoctrinated into the secretive NXIVM sect DOS, standing for “Dominus Obsequious Sororium”—a Latin phrase cult leader Keith Raniere thought translated into “Master Over Slave Women” (it does not).
DOS billed itself as an all-women sorority and operated as a pyramid scheme of abuse, wherein a “Master” would exert mind/body control over a number of “Slaves,” including regulating their food intake (no more than 500 calories a day for some), requiring approval of their comings and goings, and forcing them to submit nude photos and other compromising information as “collateral.” But unbeknownst to most of the initiated, the person at the top of this predatory pyramid was Raniere, who had eight first-line “Slaves” doing his bidding. One of these first-line “Slaves” was Lauren Salzman, the daughter of NXIVM’s second-in-command, Nancy Salzman. It was Lauren Salzman who recruited Sarah Edmondson into DOS.
In an early episode of The Vow, directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, we hear a recording of Salzman explaining to Edmondson that she was “motivated” to become a DOS leader by Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“It became more of a sorority recently… and that was kind of when I got involved in it. And I was super motivated by the fuckin’ Trump election, and thinking, like, we have to fucking do something in the world. And like, what if women could really do something? And excited about the underground concept about it that like, we couldn’t be thwarted because nobody would ever know,” explains Salzman in The Vow, adding, “The women who were doing it were experiencing wonderful things about their commitment. And they wanted to memorialize it permanently. I don’t know who exactly the person was, but I know that somebody raised the concept of branding. Because building a principle of self is you choose self above fear.”
So women in DOS received a brand, on their pelvis, of Raniere’s initials. And that was only the beginning of the degradation.
“One of the women had to go blindfolded to a shed, was tied down onto a table, and someone performed cunnilingus on her. This was after she was branded,” Edmondson asserts in The Vow.
Another former DOS “Slave,” who remained anonymous, recalls how the women were forced to undergo corporal punishment as “penance.”
“There was a penance where you took 10 paddles, and it was to be done naked and on video, because my assumption was it was all sent to our—my Master, just to prove that we did it, because my circle was geographically spread out,” she says. “But now, I don’t really see any explanation for why this has to be done on video, other than it being a contribution to Keith Raniere’s personal porn collection. Same with actually the nude photographs of the collateral, right?”
“Allison [Mack] was like, ‘This is an honor and a privilege—to get this assignment. Only so may women have had it. I’ve had it. India’s done it,’” recalls another anonymous DOS “Slave” in The Vow. “And she was like, ‘The assignment is to seduce Keith and then have him take a naked picture of you, and have him send it to India to prove that you did the assignment.’”
It appears Raniere exploited the outrage surrounding the Trump election to his own nefarious ends. Even though NXIVM operated a media company, The Knife, which dedicated itself to defending Trump from so-called media attacks, Raniere also formed a male fraternity known as SOP, or the Society of Protectors, that aimed to teach men about masculinity—but really acted as a sort of men’s rights group that practiced methods of subjugating women.
“We need a group. We need hundreds of thousands, millions of men who can be a voice of honor so we can do something in the world,” Raniere tells SOP members in The Vow. “So we don’t have a presidential election like the last one.”
In March of last year, Lauren Salzman pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. The following month, Allison Mack pleaded guilty to the same charges. Keith Raniere was found guilty in June of sex trafficking, conspiracy, the sexual exploitation of a child, and possession of child pornography, among other charges. He’ll be sentenced on Oct. 27.