Nxivm Group Shot

Inside NXIVM, The ‘Female Empowerment’ Group That Was Actually A Sex Cult

Published May 5, 2020
Updated May 8, 2020
Published May 5, 2020
Updated May 8, 2020

Between 1998 and 2018, Keith Raniere ran the NXIVM sex cult as his own personal flytrap for vulnerable young women.

“Do you think the person who is being branded should be completely nude and sort of held to the table like a sort of, almost, like a sacrifice?”

This is only one of many horrific questions that NXIVM sex cult founder Keith Raniere posed to his top lieutenants. Among the upper brass were Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman, Battlestar Galactica‘s Nicki Clyne, and Smallville actress Allison Mack.

It was Mack with whom he’d developed the most trusting relationship of all. Raniere — who was recently found guilty of sex trafficking, the sexual exploitation of a child, forced labor conspiracy, and multiple counts of racketeering — routinely communicated his disturbing ideas with passivity.

“Legs spread straight, like feet being held to the side of the table, hands probably above the head, being held, almost like tied down,” he explained, in reference to literally branding new members of the cult.

Keith Raniere Being Interviewed

YouTubeRaniere discovered at a young age that knowing somebody’s deepest secrets gave one an advantage.

In the beginning, NXIVM was reportedly a pyramid scheme posing as a marketing company. The organization proffered anyone willing to reinvent themselves into successful businesspeople a chance of professional development and nuanced honing of skills.

It rather quickly devolved into Raniere’s personal flytrap, which he’d lure vulnerable young women into before brainwashing them. On the other hand, that seemed to be the plan all along.

Who Is Keith Raniere?

Keith Raniere founded NXIVM in Albany, New York in 1998. The company claimed that it specialized in personal growth seminars. Members were promised that they could use their new development skills to maximize their own businesses and profit margins.

But before long, NXIVM ran on brainwashing and blackmailing women more than anything else.

Before Keith Raniere reinvented himself as “Vanguard” for his indoctrinated devotees, the NXIVM cult leader was born on Aug. 26, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents separated when he was very young, and his mother was reportedly an alcoholic.

Raniere apparently displayed disturbing behavior from an early age.

Allison Mack Smiling

YouTubeSmallville star Allison Mack was a celebrity member of NXIVM.

He was just about 10 years old and enrolled in a Waldorf school when he learned a lesson in power dynamics that he’d later refine and employ at NXIVM. A classmate recalled sharing some “compromising” information about her sister with Raniere — which he immediately exploited.

“You know, it’s like I have this little bottle of poison I can hold over your head,” he told her. “I just don’t think your parents or your sister would be very happy if I told them.”

She claimed Raniere “would call me sometimes and say, ‘Little bottles, little bottles'” as a firm reminder that he was in control of the situation.

It was later reported that Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation, which contains a fair amount of mind games, was a huge inspiration for NXIVM’s inner workings. Raniere read the book at age 12, after which his manipulative tendencies apparently only grew stronger.

A VICE News segment with former member and whistleblower Frank Parlato.

His former partner Barbara Bouchey later recounted a story that Raniere’s father told her that dates back to when Raniere was 13:

“Dozens of young girls were calling the house and [Raniere’s mother] was overhearing his conversations with them where he was telling every single woman, every single girl the same thing: ‘I love you. You’re the special one. You’re the important one in my life and I love you.'”

His conflation of love and pain became more apparent long before he founded NXIVM in 1998.

As early as 1984, Raniere manipulated a 15-year-old girl named Gina Melita into a sexual relationship when he was 24. He often took her to video game arcades, where he seemed to enjoy one Atari shooter called the “Vanguard.” That would later become his nickname in his sex cult.

Allison Mack and Keith Raniere in conversation.

Raniere then began attempting to start multi-level marketing companies. His business Consumer’s Buyline Inc. (CBI) shut down in 1993 after being investigated by 23 states. It was later called an “illegal pyramid scheme.”

But his legal troubles obviously didn’t deter him from his disturbing visions. Just a few years later, he started NXIVM.

The Horrors And Crimes Of NXIVM

“She should say, ‘Please brand me. It would be an honor’ — or something like that — ‘an honor I want to wear for the rest of my life.'”

Raniere told Mack — who was not only his disciple but also his lover and essentially his slave — that the last part of that mantra was vital. After all, he wouldn’t want to be seen as a coercive figure.

“They should probably say that before they’re held down, so it doesn’t seem like they were being coerced,” he told her.

Keith Raniere Initials And Nxivm Brand

Wikimedia CommonsNXIVM initiates were taught that “pain is how we know how much we love” before they were branded.

Raniere ran NXIVM with precision, and Mack was well aware of his methods. She’d already been branded herself, and was at his beck and call, obeying his every command. Her master would later instruct her what to tell the new members before they were branded with Raniere’s initials:

“Pain is how we know how much we love. We know the depth of our love through pain. When they feel the pain, they think of that love.”

Ever since Raniere and Nancy Salzman co-founded NXIVM in 1998, they claimed to offer “Executive Success Programs” or ESP.

Nxivm Sign At Albany Headquarters

Amy Luke/Getty ImagesOutside NXIVM headquarters in Albany, an “Executive Success Programs” sign welcomed potential victims.

Members were instructed to call Raniere “Vanguard,” while Salzman was to be called “Prefect.” On the surface, the reason was supposedly that Raniere led a philosophical movement and that Salzman was his original student.

Unfortunately, the two higher-ups didn’t practice what they preached.

The NXIVM Brand: From Beliefs To Practices

NXIVM’s “Mission Statement” featured 12 points that members were instructed to recite in order to “purge” themselves “of all parasite and envy-based habits” and “ethically control as much of the money, wealth, and resources of the world as possible.”

These classes took as long as 12 hours to complete. One known price for one of these modules was listed at $7,500.

In one class, members were taught how to take advantage of a significant other’s sudden death. Another class allegedly focused on Dracula.

Inside The Nxivm Executive Success Programs Office

Amy Luke/Getty ImagesA peek inside the cult’s Albany offices, a few weeks after Raniere and his senior members were arrested and charged.

Meanwhile, the Scientology-esque sit-downs called “Explorations of Meaning” had senior NXIVM members question lower-tier members about their memories while uncovering fears and any underlying health issues.

When women left the group, they were labeled as “suppressives” and “socialists” and “enemies of the company.”

Perhaps most distressing, aside from the branding of women, were the related organizations that NXIVM consorted with, some of which Raniere allegedly created. DOS, or “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” for example, essentially translates to “Master over Slave Women.”

As rumors spread of Raniere’s bizarre group and the macabre activities it involved, he worked hard to course-correct the cult’s image. In 2009, he even met with the Dalai Lama — who traveled to Albany and presented Raniere with a white scarf on stage.

Dalai Lama

Wikimedia CommonsIt was later revealed that an NXVIM member had sex with Tenzin Dhonden — the supposedly celibate gatekeeper of the Dalai Lama.

But unfortunately for Raniere, the schemes, manipulations, and violent crimes would all be exposed in 2018.

A Cult Exposed: NXIVM On Trial

“He claimed to be a leader, but he was a conman,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar told the jury at Raniere’s trial. “He claimed to be a mentor, but he just exploited it…NXIVM was a crime organization and Keith Raniere was a crime boss.”

This was proven in court to be exemplified no better than by Raniere’s branding of new sex slaves as their initiation ritual. They also had to give up “collateral” in the form of videos showing themselves masturbating, which would allow Raniere to blackmail them if he thought it was needed.

An ABC News interview with former NXIVM member Sarah Edmonson.

New members were instructed to text their masters photos of their unshaven vulvas, and to ensure that their faces were in the frame. Extreme low-calorie diets were enforced, while any sexual activity that didn’t involve Raniere was prohibited.

Raniere’s trial revealed that he was about to construct a “dungeon” full of BDSM toys at his DOS headquarters that would apparently include cages, paddles, and “puppy plugs… perfect for puppy play or naughty slaves.”

But the most disturbing ritual showcased in court was the branding. Former members recalled hearing their flesh sizzle as they screamed and cried. Some of them weren’t told these brands would include Raniere’s initials.

Keith Allen Raniere Mugshot

Wikimedia CommonsRaniere is scheduled to receive a mandatory sentence of at least 15 years starting in 2020.

Mack painted the group as a feminist one, aimed to make women stronger, when clearly the opposite was true. And yet NXIVM remained intact for nearly two decades.

It all came crashing down after former member and whistleblower Frank Parlato published a series of articles about the cult in 2017. After The New York Times and other publications began investigating the situation, members quickly began dropping out one by one.

Raniere felt authorities closing in, leading to his escape to Mexico.

He was arrested in Mexico in March 2018, with Mack, Salzman, her mother Nancy, bookkeeper Kathy Russell, and Bronfman following soon after. All of the associates pled guilty to avoid standing trial with Raniere — who was convicted of all charges after pleading not guilty.

Allison Mack Leaving Court

Jemal Countess/Getty ImagesAllison Mack leaves the U.S. Eastern District Court after a bail hearing regarding the sexual trafficking charges against her. May 4, 2018. Brooklyn, New York.

Most recently, Raniere’s attorneys asked for a retrial regarding his racketeering case as two witnesses allegedly lied under oath.

Regardless of this development, Raniere is set to be sentenced in 2020 — when he’ll receive at least 15 years as a mandatory minimum sentence, with a potential life sentence to follow.


After learning about the NXIVM sex cult, read the bizarre true story of Charles Manson’s death. Next, learn about Marcus Wesson and how he turned his family into an incestuous cult before killing nine of the children.

Marco Margaritoff
Marco Margaritoff is a Staff Writer at All That Is Interesting.