The Appeal of Cults to Women


by Randall S. Frederick

Cults have developed a reputation for oppressing and manipulating members, for changing their language and jargon to fit some new “revelation” that is reductionistic or outright strange. They not only do strange things sometimes, but the mental and physical warping is downright destructive to those who endure difficulty for their beliefs. Yet these new religious movements continue to grow and develop, especially in the West with broad exposure to pseudo-psychology.

The Unification Church, for example, has endured claims of brainwashing. The Family International has been riddled with allegations of sexual abuse and prostitution for decades. Heaven’s Gate became known to America only when the entire cult committed mass suicide. Scientology, a joke in popular culture after the strange claims of Tom Cruise and multiple, continuous, and strenuous claims of abuse and neglect to their members who have lost life savings has become passe – no longer holding the influence and terror it once did. The Branch Davidian sect, from my own childhood, exploded into chaos after a government standoff in Waco, Texas. And the common thread through each of these movements has been an emphasis on the apocalyptic, the destructive and the dangerousYet sociologists remain fascinated with the way that some New Religious Movements empower women.

Dr. Elizabeth Puttick, author of Women in New Religions: In Search of Community, Sexuality and Spiritual Power, says some women are actually empowered by cults. She bases this off of her experience as a member of a cult called the Osho Movement. It was her positive time with the Osho that drove her to look into other women’s experiences.  Broadly’s Steph Bowe spoke to Dr. Puttick to find out how.

(Note: Dr. Puttick uses the term “new religious movement”, NRM for short, rather than “cult”. The term is preferred by many sociologists of religion for its neutrality.)

BROADLY: What made you decide to research women’s roles in new religious movements (NRMs)?

Elizabeth Puttick: I had a very positive personal experience of living in an NRM which offered women a lot of spiritual empowerment: the Osho movement. I wanted to explore how my experience compared with women in other religions, old and new.

Why did you decide to join an NRM?

I was exploring the human-potential movement. I was interested in meditation. I wanted something more actively spiritual, and joined more psychotherapy-type groups. Quite a few people I knew were going out to India, discovering Osho and joining up. He was a very intelligent guru; a philosopher by training. Some movements were very devotional, but the Osho movement had this philosophical side to it as well. It was an adventure.

How long were you part of the movement?

I lived in India for five years. We left when [Osho] left India, and after a while I drifted away.

What roles do women have in NRMs?

There’s a great variety: In more conservative movements, such as the Unification Church (“Moonies”) and conservative Christian movements, women are often expected to serve men domestically, sometimes with restricted access to the teachings and practices. In more progressive movements, such as the Brahma Kumaris and the Osho movement, women are treated as equal or even superior to men, allowed full spiritual and social participation and encouraged to teach and lead.

What types of people join NRMs?

There used to be a view in the anti-cult movement that people who joined these movements were young, naïve, weak—even damaged. Although there was a small minority who fit this stereotype, especially in more traditional NRMs, most people who joined were “active seekers”. In most organized religions, women couldn’t become priests because they were seen as inferior. [But] some NRMs were founded or run by women. An active seeker was somebody who was looking for an alternative to what was on offer, at a time when organised religion was very stuck in its ways and not offering much in the way of spirituality and meditation. Many people were typically [in their] late-20s to mid-30s, well-educated and well-balanced. They were disillusioned with the ideologies offered by mainstream society, which was much less liberal in the 1970s, the heyday of NRMs. They were also looking for community, a group of kindred spirits with similar values and outlook.

What do you think women are seeking when they join NRMs, and what do NRMs provide them?

In the past, women have been badly treated in the old religions, despised as the weaker sex morally and physically. Misogyny is also found in some of the more traditional NRMs. Women who join these either leave—or stay, because they accept traditional gender roles. Other NRMs, like the Osho movement, the more progressive Buddhist movements, Pagan and shamanic groups, offered women spiritual power and status, including a path to becoming enlightened in the Eastern-based movements.

How can NRMs fulfil and empower women?

Until very recently, in most organized religions women couldn’t become priests because they were seen as essentially inferior. On the other hand, some NRMs were founded or run by women, including the Brahma Kumaris and Sahaja Yoga.

Mother Meer and Ammachi are Indian women who, despite the restricted opportunities for women in their society, have become powerful and inspirational role models for their female and male disciples. The Osho movement encouraged women to rise above their social conditioning and promoted them into leadership positions. Osho saw women as spiritually superior to male disciples and better equipped for becoming enlightened. This was radical at that time, immensely liberating and empowering. Paganism has also been a very empowering path for women, especially with its rediscovery and honouring of the Goddess.

So do you believe there a basis to the belief that women are exploited in NRMs?

Before the Internet, it was much harder to get objective information about closed groups like NRMs, so most people joined on first impressions. The majority had positive experiences, but there are examples of abuses of power. In newer religions, abuse happens mostly within the more fundamentalist NRMs like the Children of God, the Branch Davidians, the Unification Church, and above all Scientology. 

Sometimes there was intense rivalry to become the guru’s favourite. Being his lover could be a fast track to enlightenment. Many male gurus are known to have exploited their female disciples, encouraging the belief that you have to surrender to your master in order to progress spiritually. A lot of women enthusiastically participated in these relationships. Sometimes there was intense rivalry to become the guru’s favourite. Being his lover could be a fast track to high status as well as enlightenment. Some women felt they benefited from these relationships, but others felt abused and damaged, especially if they were later rejected.

What are the differences between an NRM that exploits women, and one that empowers women?

This question is trickier than it sounds because there is a culture of surrender to the guru. It is believed that total trust is a prerequisite for enlightenment. This can make it really hard to set up boundaries if things get out of hand. Is the guru testing you, is this good for your spiritual growth? Or is it exploitation and abuse? Perhaps the most important test is whether it’s as easy to leave the movement as it is to join. If you’re confused about what’s going on, trust your instincts. Ask yourself honestly if these methods are working for you. Are you becoming happier, more awake and integrated, or whatever the aims of your practice are? If this isn’t happening, it’s better to leave. A spiritual path should improve your life.

What are the modern trends in NRMs?

NRMs were a phenomenon of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, a response to a society that offered far fewer opportunities for spiritual growth. Most of the best ideas and practices of the NRMs have been adopted both within mainstream society and, to some extent, organized religion.

Women now have many more opportunities to grow spiritually and play leadership roles in all religions, apart from the more fundamentalist groups. This means there is far less motivation to join an NRM fulltime. Perhaps the most positive development is the growth of the women’s spirituality movement, which arose partly out of feminist theology, and partly out of neo-pagan Goddess worship.

The biggest change for the worse is the rise of fundamentalism within the old religions. This is bad news for women. The message for women is that we have to be ever-vigilant to safeguard our newly won freedoms; not take them for granted or allow them to be abused in any way—within religion as much as within the wider society.

A tremendous amount of the appeal boils down to two things: empowerment and love.

In 1969, Patricia Krenwinkel took part in perhaps the most notorious killing spree in California history on the instructions of Charles Manson. Krenwinkel joined three other members of Manson’s cult, “the Family”, as they murdered the actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant, and four more people at the home Tate shared with her husband, the film director Roman Polanski, near Beverly Hills. Krenwinkel was just 21 when she chased and stabbed Abigail Folger, a coffee heiress, so brutally that police later thought Folger’s white nightgown had been bought blood red. The next night, Krenwinkel killed again, when she helped to butcher small business owners Leno and Rosemary La Bianca a few miles away in Los Feliz, a suburb  of Los Angeles. Afterwards, she scrawled in blood the words “Death to Pigs” on a wall, part of Manson’s plan to frame African-Americans for the killings and incite the race war he believed was imminent. She and two more young female Family members were eventually sentenced to death alongside Manson himself, but all had their sentences commuted to life in prison when the US Supreme Court banned capital punishment during the 1970s. Speaking to filmmaker Olivia Klaus for a documentary, My Life After Manson, the 66-year-old said she joined the Family and participated in the “horrendous” and “abominable” killings because she was “a coward”.

I wanted to feel like someone was going to care for me because I hadn’t felt that from anywhere else in my life. In giving up and moving on with Manson [I] was just basically throwing away the rest of my life… It is countless how many lives were shattered by the path of destruction that I was a part of, and it all comes from such a simple thing as just wanting to be loved.

At the risk of sounding sexist, Krenwinkel’s summary has a ring of truth to it that I have seen while working with religious communities. “Wanting to be loved” is something I have seen and heard women express, though it has been said in different ways. I might add that men want to be loved also, but women desire a sense of community and family that is culturally supported by other women. Surrounded by family and friends, women are more likely to experience a sense of love and acceptance. While men are encouraged to seek respect, integrity, power, justice, religion holds out the promise of acceptance to women and softens the edges of these pursuits to become “love.” But cults offer an instant community, as Puttick suggests, that often goes askew. “Power” and “love” come at the price of dignity and, of course, sexual favors.

It is this desire that The Family International, previously known as the Children of God, The Family of Love, and The Family, capitalized on and routinely exploited. Under founder David Berg, “the Family” promised love and glory to women who “saved” souls through sex. In 1976, before the dissolution of The Children of God title for The Family of Love, Berg introduced a new proselytizing method, “Flirty Fishing“, which encouraged female members to “show God’s love” through sexual relationships with potential converts. Flirty Fishing was practiced by members of Berg’s inner circle starting in 1973, and was introduced to the general membership in 1976. It became common practice within the group during the late Seventies, and in some areas Flirty Fishers used escort agencies to meet potential converts – prostitution – though the cult maintains the revelations of their founder were pure. According to The Family International (the latest update to the name of the cult) “over 100,000 received God’s gift of salvation through Jesus, and some chose to live the life of a disciple and missionary” as a result of Flirty Fishing. Researcher Bill Bainbridge obtained data from The Family suggesting that, from 1974 until 1987, members had sexual contact with 223,989 people while practicing Flirty Fishing. He published his findings in the 1996 book, “The Sociology of Religious Movements” which raised international awareness of the movement; so much so, that they entered yet another incarnation after members of local “houses” began to be questioned about the practices of their leadership and began to split off from the movement.

Understand, The Family was no small movement. By the end of 1983, they claimed to have 10,000 full time members living in 1,642 “homes” around the world. These “homes” (more accurately, communes) were to protect the privacy and evangelistic efforts of the movement, its practices, and its leadership. Their “Music with Meaning” radio club, which went easy on actual religious teaching about the impending apocalypse to come, instead familiarizing listeners with the name of the movement itself, founder David Berg’s teachings on spiritual “revolution and happiness,” and vague distrust of the outside world, which the members called “the System”. According to statistics published by TFI itself, evangelistic efforts were resulting in an average of 200,000 conversions to Christ and distribution of nearly 30 million pages of literature per month.

Berg and the leadership of the movement were, at this time, routinely introducing the youngest members of the cult to sexual enticement,

In March 1989, The Family issued a statement that, in “early 1985”, an urgent memorandum had been sent to all members reminding them that “any such activities [adult-child sexual contact] are strictly forbidden within our group” and such activities were grounds for immediate excommunication. In January 2005, Claire Borowik, a spokesperson for The Family International, said that “[d]ue to the fact that our current zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual interaction between adults and underage minors was not in our literature published before 1986, we came to the realization that during a transitional stage of our movement, from 1978 until 1986, there were cases when some minors were subject to sexually inappropriate advances… This was corrected officially in 1986, when any contact between an adult and minor (any person under 21 years of age) was declared an excommunicable offense.” During the 1990s, allegations of child sexual abuse were brought against The Family from members all around the world.

Since 1986, sex between minors and adults has been forbidden. Adult members may have sex with any other adult member of the opposite sex, and are encouraged to do so, regardless of marital status, as a way to foster unity and combat loneliness of those “in need”. This is commonly called “sharing”, or “sacrificial sex.” While policy states that members should not be pressured into sex against their will, numerous former members have alleged they were coerced to “share” or were cast as selfish or unloving if they did not. These issues were also re-addressed in 2010, reflecting a need to change this aspect of the culture to respect personal sexual decisions and become more inclusive of differing personal views.

Despite all of this, the movement empowered women, or at least offered that opportunity. It was through women that converts were made, souls saved. There was a need for their bodies and attitudes – relationally and in the salvation process.

A central tenet of The Family’s theology was (and remains) the “Law of Love” which, stated simply, claims that if a person’s actions are motivated by unselfish, sacrificial love and are not intentionally hurtful, they are in accordance with Scripture and thus lawful in the eyes of God. Though the romantic and sexual implication of this principle is polyamory through “sharing,” the “Law of Love” emphasizes unselfishness, giving, caring, respect, honesty, and other essential Christian values that should be enacted in every facet of life. The Family uses Matthew 22:37–40 and Galatians 5:14 as the ostensible bases for this belief, though members believe that this law supersedes all other Biblical laws, except those forbidding male homosexuality, which they maintain is a sin. Female bisexuality is allowed, though a lesbian life that completely excludes men is not. Rather, The Family teaches that God created human sexuality as a natural, emotional, and physical need, and that heterosexual relations between consenting adults constitutes a pure and natural wonder of God’s creation, and are therefore permissible according to Scripture. This teaching was particularly appealing to women, according to multiple sociologists and ex-members of The Family because it offered more “opportunity” for women previously denied to them in fundamentalist Christian expression. They were not only given more latitude in their relationships and sexual expression, but again, these aspects of their individuality were essential to the salvation process. They were encouraged to act on their desires, as they were proof of closeness to God. They were encouraged to share their bodies, as this was important to the expansion of the movement. In all ways, women were told they were important, even necessary, for the will of God to be brought about.

That’s a pretty heady theology. And a popular one at that.

Jemima Thackray argues that women make up to 70% of global cult members. Elsewhere, she points out that women make up 65% of all congregations in the United Kingdom. Which begs the question, Are women inherently more religious than men?

Thackray doesn’t buy that. “The ratio of men to women in other places of worship in the UK is 54% to 46% – other religions seem to show the opposite, that men are more spiritual than women. It’s only in the Church where girls outnumber guys.” Concerning cults, she writes that while yes, there may be something in the female experience that makes them more aware of the supernatural and ineffable, there’s also a history that needs to be named.

There will be plenty of sociological explanations for this, to do with the fact that in many cultures women are less well educated than men, are less empowered and therefore more attracted to the illusion of security that a cult offers. And yet this can’t be the whole story because the pattern is the same when it comes to well-educated western types who join extreme sects.

This begs the question: do women have a greater need for spiritual fulfillment than men? It’s certainly the case that women trump men when it comes to church attendance by some margin. But if this was truly the reason then we’d see the same pattern in rest of the major religions, when in fact men outnumber women in other places of worship in the UK.

This leaves the rather boringly predictable conclusion that women, even emancipated ones, are more vulnerable to cults because of our history of oppression. We are simply more comfortable being under authority because, even on a subconscious level felt merely as a legacy of the past, we’re used to it. But being in the clutches of someone like Inri Christo is not just a case of submitting to a man as a spiritual guru, it’s worshipping him as a higher being.

Dr. Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School offers a complementary explanation.

All too often, we explain strange, unexpected behaviour (like joining a cult) in terms of the dispositions (personality) of others; they (the poor gullible naïve indoctrinated members) have quite defective personalities  But we explain more common behaviour in terms of the appeal of an accepted group’s philosophy, leaders or benefits. Thus sad inadequates join cults; but altruistic, caring people join the church.

Applying misunderstood psychiatric labels to those who join extremist groups offers little or no explanation for their behaviour. It often represents little more than a moralistic condemnation. Rather than immediately trying to blame extremists for being different, it is equally important to try to understand the psychological appeal of cults, extremist groups and political cells, as well as some business organizations.

Instead, Furnham offers that the focus on women as a population of New Religious Movements is a fruitless exercise since “cult groups shows surprising large diversity in terms of age, career, education, ideology and talents. They can attract the post-graduate and the illiterate; the teenager and the senior citizen; the solidly middle class and those on the fringes of society. It is not so much their demography that is important as their psychological needs.” Gender is yet another blurred marker for an appealing in-group.

Perhaps, when focusing on the involvement of women in New Religious Movements, we might direct our attention to the unmet needs of traditional religious groups. With the election of Donald J. Trump to the office of the American Presidency, many Evangelical Christians have had enough – especially women.

“I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it,” popular Evangelical teacher Beth Moore said recently. “Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal.” Moore, who has publicly refused to speak about politics in previous elections, broke her silence about the 2016 race because of a widening gender divide in Evangelicalism. Increasingly, moderate and conservative Christian women are speaking out about the misogyny and divisiveness they are seeing expressed in pulpits and potlucks, condemning the silence of fellow male Evangelicals sitting with them in the pews.

Katelyn Beaty tells The Daily Beast, “When Christian women like Beth Moore choose to publicly speak about their own experience with sexual assault, it signals to me that they do not feel heard or understood by fellow Christian leaders who continue to support Trump.” Beaty was previously the print managing editor of Christianity Today, the country’s largest evangelical Christian publication. “Moore and others are saying to their fellow leaders… ‘When will you believe me and stand up for me?’”

Dr. Russell Moore (no relation to Beth Moore), head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says he is hearing privately from women “all the time… I have heard from many, many Evangelical women who are horrified by Christian leaders” and fellow congregants who ignore the issues of misogyny, disrespect, and sexualization that have reawakened in local churches across America by the recent political cycle. Women, Moore says, “have spent their entire lives teaching girls and other women to find their identity in Christ and not in an American culture that sexualizes and objectifies them. And they are now disgusted that Evangelical men are not standing up and speaking out.”

These are women who, disillusioned, now find no material difference between a church and a cult, and will likely find a new community with which to socialize – be it another church, no church at all, another religion, or perhaps a New Religious Movement. These are women who may very well cobble together a new religious experience to meet needs left unmet elsewhere. It is no surprise to find that cults tailor a message to accommodate the disenfranchised.

Women are more susceptible to cult recruitment because cults offer them security and answers in a world where we paint women’s roles in a conflicted, inconsistent manner. Our culture makes demands on women that heighten their insecurity, that pull them in different directions, and that provide no fixed images, levels of achievement, or values by which they can measure themselves. To the degree that cults pose an attractive offer of security to people who are conflicted–about career, the future, self‑image, or personal goals–cults become especially compelling for women. This effect is heightened in situations where women move from highly protected, restricted environments to more open, undefined ones. We find this situation, for example, when looking at women who emerge from a Third World culture and arrive in an American urban university setting. Suddenly, they see open to them choices and possible roles never before available: not only things that they could only have dreamed about before, but also things they have no idea how to handle. In such circumstances women are particularly vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.

Similar vulnerabilities exist for women who come from protected, rural, isolated families and move into an urban atmosphere. When we recently interviewed a number of people who were recruited into the New York Church of Christ while they were in a university environment, we found a significant number of female recruits who had emerged from very restricted rural backgrounds. One of these recruits was a Vietnamese woman who had settled with her family in the Midwest and then came to attend a college in New York. Within a matter of weeks she was recruited into the New York Church of Christ. It was the first time she had been in an environment where she could establish social relationships with a group of seemingly genuine, clean‑cut Christian men. She had no concept of self‑protection or of the possibility that these men were not interested in her solely for herself, but merely as a potential recruit, after which they would drop all contact.

A similar situation occurred in the case of a young woman who was upwardly mobile, moving from an environment in which her family insisted that she achieve, but provided no model of their own achievement as a guide. The young woman unqualifiedly sought opportunities for achievement, and became involved in an urban cultic group.

Because of these special vulnerabilities, we find, not surprisingly, that a significant number of cultic groups tailor their message specifically to appeal to women. For example, a significant number of Eastern groups in the New York metropolitan area seek to promote a particular body type, diet, and appearance. Groups link their appeal to body‑image concerns via Eastern meditation techniques or a guru’s inspiration, but the message that is sold is essentially one of shape, health, and appearance pitch that is specifically directed toward and appealing to women.

Finally, perhaps the most convincing attribute of New Religious Movements is the pseudo-psychological language of human potential and self actualization, the Human Potential Movement.

In 1982, Margaret T. Singer, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, spoke with The New York Times. At that time, she noted that “the techniques of many cults fall under the general rubric of brainwashing.” She based this on her study of 700 cult members between 1974 and 1982, and investigation of mind-control techniques used on American prisoners of war during the Korean War. “Consciously and manipulatively,” said Dr. Singer, “cult leaders and their trainers exert a systematic social influence that can produce great behavioral changes.” These movements and groups, she said, “have taken techniques from the human-potential movement, from the encounter, sensitivity training and humanistic psychology movements, combined them with cult ideology and persuasive sales methods, and packaged them in various combinations.”

At that time, Dr. Singer estimated that there are 2,500 to 3,000 cults in the United States, “with dozens of small cults too numerous to keep track of.” The number of cult members nationally presently has been estimated at 300,000 to three million, depending on which qualities one wants to emphasize in their measure.

Given the popularity of psychology in popular discourse, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, with the support of cultural icons like Oprah and Dr. Philip McGraw, many of these cults look and feel a lot like community groups, book clubs, exercise classes, yoga under certain teachers or gurus, and everyday social organizations with a notable bend towards particular topics and familiarity with certain texts. Not all cults are destructive and many of those who join and remain in them, I believe, do so out of a sincere quest for religious connection and community. Whether or not a cult is destructive is determined by the morality of the cult leader and the nature of the leader’s charismatic dream.

Because these groups reject psychology, they instead adopt pseudo-psychological language to adopt those pieces of pop psychology that best fit the narrative and goals of the leader. There is something very appealing about the exotic and ascending “truths” of experience. Self-actualization is regularly emphasized and, because familiar language sets are used (but modified), the cult member is introduced to what sounds familiar and slowly indoctrinated to increasingly new “truths” that come with rewards like emotional freedom, personal fulfillment, diplomas and certificates, recognition, and social reinforcement through “friendship” and readily made community. Or, as Janja Lalich puts it,

Cults may be formed around almost any topic, and are categorized by nine broad themes: religious, Eastern-based, New Age, business, political, psychotherapy/human potential, occult, one-on-one, and miscellaneous (such as lifestyle or personality cults).

All cults, no matter their stripe, are a variation on a theme. The common denominator is the leadership’s use of a thought reform program (i.e., behavior control) without the knowledge or consent of the one who is being manipulated. By attacking a person’s innermost self, cult leaders manage to dissemble and reformulate members according to the cults desired image. In other words, through a variety of social and psychological influence techniques, they take away you and give you back a cult personality, a pseudopersonality. They punish you when the old you turns up, and they reward the new you.

In general, cults appeal to that part of ourselves that wants something better. A better world for others or a better self, these are the genuine, heartfelt desires of decent, honest human beings. Cult recruiters are trained in how to play on those desires, how to make it look as though what the cult has to offer is exactly what you’re interested in.

Still, one is left to notice a wide gender gap in New Religious Movements. As Thackray pointed out, between 65 and 70% of women are involved in regular religious experiences. New Religious Movements of course capitalize on a ready-made market, selling classes and merchandise and retreats to seekers. But the lingering question remains why this disparity exists in Western religions and, knowing the principles of marketing, whether there will come a point of collective disillusionment like the one we are seeing among Evangelicals right now. Will there come a point where women notice that they are being exploited and finally shrug off religion in all its forms or simply begin demanding (through their absence, if nothing else) a prominent role in local religious leadership, or whether they will continue to migrate from established religions to questionable cults.

Further Reading

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