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What a modern sex cult can tell us about ancient states
There’s an episode in The Vow, HBO’s documentary about the business-skills-workshop cum sex-cult NXIVM where the lid in slowly lifted on DOS, a secretive women’s group within the organization. (The name stands for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, which is supposed to be Latin but isn’t.) Women who joined the group would quickly be assigned to a ‘master’ who would rule over their ‘slave’ (the inverted commas are hardly necessary), strictly controlling their diet and other aspects of their lives. Slaves would gradually be led to serve the sexual needs of ‘Vanguard,’ that is, Keith Raniere, the unimpressively educated former racketeer who served as the cult’s spiritual leader. Most slaves were also guided to a girls’ day in at which the cult leader’s initials were literally branded into their flesh. Hierarchy, it would seem, can be a hell of a drug.
And it’s a drug that isn’t only giving a high to the people at the top of the pyramid. Among the many, many questions the documentary makes us want to ask is how and why so many attractive, often intelligent women not only got themselves into the situation the documentary finds them in, but also, in some cases, contributed to their own subordination and to the subordination of other women.
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It’s a question that has ramifications far beyond Albany, New York, the leafy town where the sex cult had its main headquarters. If cults are starter-states as well as start-religions, the question about why many of us seem to long for a cult-leader is part of a broader question about why humans have proven so eager to subordinate themselves to civic and religious authorities, even when these leaders (as throughout most of human history) seem to lack any remotely satisfying kind of legitimacy.
One answer, of course, is simple laziness: many of us would simply prefer others to do things - bear our burdens, organize our lives - for us, even when their credentials barely extend beyond an authoritative manner and stories about being abducted by aliens. Classicists might recall Thucydides’ explanation for why so many of the Greek city-states that had banded together to repulse the Persians came, over the course of the fifth century BC, to be dominated by their former ally Athens. In almost all these other poleis, Thucydides tells us, the citizens preferred to pay Athens silver to build up a joint fleet rather than to construct and man their own triremes. This rendered these states utterly defenceless when Athens decided to turn the ‘allied’ fleet against them. ‘For this situation,’ says Thucydides, ‘it was the allies themselves who were to blame.’
Another, related answer might be that life is very complicated, and we tend to be ‘cognitive misers’ who would prefer somebody clever to figure things out than to have to work them out ourselves. Another might be that, like many species, we have a capacity for, and a tendency towards, hierarchy - alongside countervailing egalitarian inclinations - and that part of us feels more secure and more contented once we have found our place in it (even if that place is lowly). The women who effectively ran NXIUM (or at least DOS) on Raniere’s behalf may also have been exploring that particular strand of female sexuality that led to Fifty Shades of Grey becoming a runaway global success.
This isn’t what I want to explore in this piece, though. Nor do I want to explore the other possible answers to the question of why so many women made themselves into madames (as well as sex-slaves) for an ageing, vertically challenged fraudster with an expanding waistline. The question I want to explore today is not why so many women came to serve Raniere’s every whim, but why so many men did.
After all, none of the men involved were, as far as we know, at all amenable to the inexplicable attraction that Raniere seemed to exert over most of the women in the group. Nor does Raniere seem to have any desire to exploit the men in many of the ways that he exploited the women. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, men tended to be outnumbered in NXIVM, especially at the higher levels of the organization. Mark Vicente, the South African-born film-maker whose video and audio footage provides much of the raw material for The Vow, is one of the rare males to attain a leadership position within the group, an anomaly that’s remarked upon several times in the documentary.
So, what was in it for Mark? Well, there is obviously the spiritual content that Raniere was selling - some of which, like the ‘integration’ process that senior NXIUM leaders were trained to perform, probably did some good. (Integration seems to have integrated elements of exposure therapy, an extremely well-supported practice empirically.) There were also all the other things that people find in cults - fun, fellowship, a feeling that you’re involved in a larger, vitally significant movement, and so on. And then there are the women.
There’s no suggestion that Vicente had any role in DOS, or that he took advantage of any of the women that were part of it - indeed, Vicente begins his journey out of the cult when he finds out about DOS. But he does have a good amount of female company. This includes his wife Bonnie Piesse and his close friend Sarah Edmonson, both of whom join him in becoming whistle-blowers, and both of whom, this viewer couldn’t help but notice, are rather winsome.
In fact, among all the deeply weird things about NXIVM - the compound in suburban Albany; the hierarchy of coloured scarves; the late-night volleyball games - what really stands out is the number of attractive, talented women, many of them Hollywood actresses, that decided that the life of a cultist was the one for them.
Women can sometimes attract men. If that’s not obvious enough (at least when it comes to the vast majority of men who are heterosexual), think about why some bars and clubs offer free drinks on ladies’ nights, while also leaving the door (and the bar) open to male customers. Any cult worth its salt is aware of the simple marketing principle here. It’s why one of the only acquaintances of mine who was sucked into a full-on cult was first drawn into the community by an attractive younger woman who’d been sent out to proselytize. At one point in The Vow, Sarah Edmonson says that she doesn’t think Raniere was after her; she thinks, instead, that he wanted to use her to attract men into the group. She’s almost certainly wrong about the first part of that (after all, she was briefly drawn into DOS, whose main function was to funnel women to the cult leader). But she’s almost certainly right about the second part.
In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt’s character picks up a young hitchhiker (played by Margaret Qualley). She takes him to the Spahn ranch, the headquarters of the Manson family, where he meets George Spahn, a blind octogenarian who has his every need met by the young women in the cult. By many accounts the story is true, and cleasr up any confusion there might be as to why Spahn, who used to rent out his Western-style ranch to film producers for a price, allowed the Manson family to live there rent-free.
All of which brings us to ancient states. Ancient states were war-machines. The sociologist Charles Tilly’s famous observation that ‘war made the state, and state made war’ is arguably even more true for ancient states than for the early modern states that Tilly was chiefly concerned with. The Achaemenid Persian state is a case in point. Satraps may have sent all sorts of tribute to the great King, and the Achaemenid state did pay to broadcast itself in great monuments. Overwhelmingly, though, the Persian Empire gathered itself into being during the great musters of troops, during which men and materiel flooded into the imperial centre; and it manifested itself most clearly in its great armies on the march towards Egypt, India, Greece. War made the state, and the state made war.
What’s more often overlooked is that ancient states were also, in some sense, sex machines. The Greek term andrapodizein (ἀνδραποδίζειν), commonly encountered in historiographical descriptions of military defeats, literally means ‘to enslave’ - but we should remember that this involved the capture of sex slaves, something that has sometimes been glossed over in modern accounts. Nor were the Greeks alone in this practice; sexual slavery is only one of the many types of human bondage that have a pervasive and well-documented presence in empires across the ancient world. Herodotus even tells us that he has heard from Persian sages that the enmity between the Greeks and Persians goes back to a series of tit-for-tat abductions of women, a series that included Paris’ abduction of Helen that sparked the Trojan War.
This is of course mythology rather than history, but as we have seen, historical wars in ancient times often ended with women being forcibly enslaved partly for sexual purposes. Nor should this surprise us. Chimpanzees, our nearest relatives, not infrequently fight over females, and may even engage in a type of warfare partly in order to secure more female mates, though this is controversial.
The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, after years of field research with the Yanomamö people in the Amazon, concluded that the main drivers of violence in the Yanomamö world were revenge feuds and women. The Yanomamö themselves seem to have confirmed this. When Chagnon asked a Yanomamö shaman what the leading cause of violent conflict in his society was, he replied ‘Women! Women! Women! Women! Women!’ When Cagnon later summarized a rival anthropologists’ theory that what Amazonian tribes were really most likely to come to blows over was nutrient-rich meat rather than women, a Yanomamö man told him that ‘Even though we like meat, we like women a whole lot more.’
The (almost invariably male) heads of pre-modern empires similarly seem to have had a soft spot for women. Walter Scheidel has documented ancient autocrats’ predilection for young women and the tendency of imperial households to keep vast harems, often watched over by eunuchs (who could, of course, be trusted not to tamper with the emperor’s property). Time and again the pattern repeats itself, from China to the Islamic caliphates. In the West norms of monogamy often ruled out the open keeping of concubines, but Roman emperors were no more models of sexual restraint than the European monarchs that succeeded them; even the revered Augustus ‘was fond of deflowering virgins' procured for him by his wife - or so Suetonius tells us.
Nor were the men at the top of the pyramid the only ones to reap sexual gains. Roman military and economic dominance helped ensure a steady inflow of slaves, and Greek and Latin literature are littered with casual references to sex with slaves. Plautus’ comedy Casina is about a slave girl whose favours are sought by every male in the household, not excluding the senex (Roman comedy’s standard grumpy old man). A slave in Petronius’ notorious Satyrica says bluntly, ‘For fourteen years I pleasured him; it is no disgrace to do what a master commands.’ As the Greek novelist Chariton put it, addressing master-slave relations, ‘You are her master, with full power over her, so she must do your will whether she likes it or not.’ Not for nothing did Seneca call unchastity a crime for the freeborn, a duty for the freedman, and an obligation for the slave.
It makes perfect sense, of course, for the sultans and czars of this world to grant some of the spoils of conquest to anyone willing to join their cause. One of the theories about how countries become more democratic is that elites cede rights to more and more people as a way of getting them to fight in elite-led wars. In earlier times, many of the men who swelled the ranks of imperial armies may have been drive by much cruder incentives.
If male leaders and male followers’ interests often converged, though, there is always the possibility of tensions developing over the distribution of booty. This, of course, is what drives the plot of Homer’s Iliad. Agamemnon confiscates Achilles’ slave-girl Briseis after being forced to give up his own slave-girl Chryseis. One of Achilles’ chief complaints against Agamemnon is that he always gets more of the spoils than Achilles, even though Achilles has done more of the fighting. As he tells Agamemon (in Samuel Butler’s translation),
Never when the Achaeans sack any rich city of the Trojans do I receive so good a prize as you do, though it is my hands that do the better part of the fighting. When the sharing comes, your share is far the largest, and I, indeed, must go back to my ships, take what I can get and be thankful, when my labor of fighting is done.
Achilles and Agamemnon’s sense of honour are to the fore here, but it’s worth remembering what these women were often captured for (even if Agamemnon later makes the awkward promise, when offering to return Briseis to Achilles, that he ‘never went up into her couch, nor did I lie down with her, even though it is right for humans, both men and women, to do this’).
High ranking males within NXIVM are also a source of tension, with other ex-cultists agreeing that Raniere would be privately furious at strong couples like Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse developing.
There are obviously differences between modern cults and ancient empires. Modern cults don’t tend to conquer territory (though they may buy some), and their main way of getting what they want tends to be a combination of persuasion and deception rather than warfare. There are also important differences, we might note, between ancient and modern states. Ancient states were overwhelmingly preoccupied with war-making; even in democratic Athens, the biggest item of expenditure by far was the military. Modern states obviously do much more, from keeping public order to running comprehensive medical and educational systems.
But there are also similarities between cults and ancient states. The idea that cults are small religions and religions big cults is surely familiar by now; but cults can also be seen as small, relatively primitive states. NXIVM’s embryonic empire was eventually nipped in the bud, and its King of Kings is now serving an 120-year prison sentence. While it was going, though, this fairly unremarkable example of a modern cult showed us, once again, the kind of dynamics that, thousands of years ago, led to the first great empires; and that, unless we are careful, will re-emerge time and time again, if not in Susa or Xianyang, then in Albany, New York.
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