The most famous sex cults in the world

Jo Thornely
·Contributor
·7-min read

Trigger Warning: This article discusses cult practises, sexual assault, and suicide.

Cults are fascinating and awful. Even though there are as many different types of cults as there are cult leaders, there’s a pool of common characteristics that most cults dip into to a certain degree — at least up to their waists.

And one of the most fascinating and awful of those characteristics is sex.

Women and children from the YFZ Ranch, the compound built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, are moved by bus to San Angelo, Texas, on Sunday, April 6, 2008. Authorities are investigating allegations of child abuse.  (Photo by Khampha Bouaphanh/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Women and children from the YFZ Ranch, the compound built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, are moved by bus to San Angelo, Texas, on Sunday, April 6, 2008. Authorities are investigating allegations of child abuse. Photo: Getty Images.

The vast majority of cults — and indeed religions in general — take a specific stand on sex. How much people should have, with whom, and under what circumstances are very frequently included in the rules that govern a cult’s members (and for that member, the cult members’ members).

Why? What is it about sexual activity that makes cult leaders (and again more broadly, religious leaders) want to control it?

There are a few reasons, but that’s the big, common one. Control. Across a large number of cults, you can identify two main themes as being the cult leaders’ favourite things: admiration and control. Three if you count bad haircuts, but those are the two main ones.

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Warren Jeffs wearing a blue prison jumpsuit and handcuffs (L) is led by two Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department SWAT officers into Las Vegas Justice Court for his extradition hearing at the Regional Justice Center August 31, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Warren Jeffs, the fugitive leader of a polygamist Mormon sect, is led by officers into Las Vegas Justice Court for his extradition hearing on August 31, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: Getty Images.

If you control the urges, you control the person. Cults might have rules about what followers can eat, how they can dress, and what they’re allowed to read or watch, and they will have rules about sex. Add to that the fact that a huge number of cults are run by men who feel like they’re entitled to things that society hasn’t provided them, and you get a bunch of narcissists who want hot young things chucking themselves willingly into their beds.

Each cult treats sex differently, but there are some common themes and definitely some super-upsetting examples.

Warren Jeffs and the FLDS

The Fundamental Church of Latter-Day Saints split from the mainstream Mormon church long before massive creep Warren Jeffs became its leader, primarily because they wanted to keep practising polygamy when the main church decided not to.

But once Jeffs became the leader and really decided to make being a bad human his hobby in the early 2000s, things got awful. He started by claiming he was the reincarnation of his father and was therefore entitled to marry his dead father’s wives. Jeffs, who had a bed custom-made for consummating marriages, ended up with 81 wives, twelve of whom were fifteen or younger when they were married.

In addition to this unmitigated horror fest, stories arose from the Utah group that dirtbag Warren decided that only he and whichever friends he decided were godly enough were allowed to have sex, so nominated ‘seed bearers’ would try to impregnate women of their choosing while their husbands watched. The only silver lining to this story is that Warren Jeffs is now in prison for life, convicted of the sexual assault of his child brides.

But you know what would have been even better than that? If nobody had been sexually assaulted in the name of God at all. That would have been much better.

David Berg (pictured in a documentary by Real Stories) founded the sex cult Children of God in the '60s. Photo: YouTube/Real Stories.
David Berg (pictured in a documentary by Real Stories) founded the sex cult Children of God in the '60s. Photo: YouTube/Real Stories.

David Berg and the Children of God

David Berg, who started the Children of God cult in the 1960s, had what he thought was a fantastic formula for attracting disillusioned people in their late teens.

He offered the Christian doctrines they were used to, with the added bonus of all the sex they could possibly want, and an army of gorgeous young women to recruit people with their vaginas. Female members would head out into the community as literal bait and have sex with potential new members in a practice known as ‘Flirty Fishing’.

In a newsletter to followers, Berg even referred to these women as ‘Hookers for Jesus’ in a way that he clearly thought was whimsical but is, obviously, absolutely gross. Berg’s obsession with sex became an ongoing problem, with women in the increasingly large group expected to have sex with any of the cult’s men who requested it, and an unacceptably blurry stance taken on such topics as the age of consent and teaching family members about sex by showing them.

David Berg convinced thousands of people that sex was Jesus’ number one priority, and that they should imagine themselves having sex with Christ. There’s a theme emerging here, and it’s an important one: do not have sex because someone tells you it’s what God wants.

Keith Raniere wearing a purple sweater and round glasses during an interview
Keith Raniere, the founder of NXIVM, is currently serving 120 years in prison. Photo: YouTube.

Keith Raniere and NXIVM

Cult leaders can get people to do any number of incredible things if they frame their requests as a test of loyalty.

In Keith Raniere’s case, as the public head of the NXIVM cult and the secret head of its all-women offshoot DOS, or ‘Dominus Obsequious Sororium’ (essentially ‘master over lady slaves’), this included a lot of things that most unappealing, self-obsessed nerds might not be able to get women to do.

To prove their loyalty to what they thought was an empowering self-help society, DOS members would send their ‘masters’ pictures of their genitals or be instructed to seduce Keith, who they thought was a genius. Keith is not a genius.

Keith is a small man with a moderate flair for multi-level-marketing scams. Keith is a convicted felon, serving 120 years in prison. If you have to photograph your own genitals as part of a self-help group, it is not yourself you’re helping.

a close up photo of a woman's hands pushing a trolley full of court documents related to the U.S. v. Keith Raniere case at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York a, May 7, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Staff and members of the prosecution team push carts full of court documents related to the U.S. v. Keith Raniere case in NYC on May 7, 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate

By this stage, it may be a relief to know that some cults won’t let people have sex at all.

Marshall Applewhite led a group of followers who were all interested in achieving an evolutionary level ‘above human’, which meant they strived to move past all urges and practices that made them seem like mere meat-monkeys, including sex.

To limit sexual urges, everyone wore baggy clothes and had bowl haircuts, the latter an effective passion-squisher whether you’re in a cult or not. Eight members even went and got themselves castrated which, except for the fact that the medical name for that procedure is a ‘gonadectomy’, is not always a cute thing to do.

a screenshot of Marshall Herff Applewhite speaking on videotape in 1997
Marshall Herff Applewhite, who founded the cult known as Heaven's Gate, speaks on videotape in 1997. Photo: Getty Images.

Heaven’s Gate members would also shed their sense of self by doing things like showering for exactly six minutes, eating pancakes that were all the same size, and all carrying the same amount of change in their pockets.

And before you start thinking that the lack of sexual crimes and the abundance of consistently-sized pancakes indicates a nice cult that could never do anything bad, remember that 39 identically-dressed Heaven’s Gate members all took their own lives in 1997 because they thought their souls would hitch a ride on a passing UFO.

Cults are fascinating. And awful.

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