When you think of the word ‘cult’, the first words that will usually pop into your mind relate to brainwashing, murder, dark rituals, and delusions of grandeur. We are fascinated by the existence of cults, by the mystery of what happens inside them, and why people join them.
Before we get into the role gender plays within cults, let’s go back to the basics. What is a cult?
Nowadays, it seems as though the word ‘cult’ can apply to basically anything: Peloton, Goop, the Andrew Tate community, and various multi-level marketing schemes (the random, “hey girl! I have a GREAT business opportunity for you” message from a person you haven’t spoken to in years) all seem to fall under that umbrella. There is no objective definition. Most members of cults seek community, belonging, spirituality, or an alternative to traditional religions. In the case of the People’s Temple, it was also a place for BIPOC minorities to find community outside of white supremacy. Increasingly, instead of gathering in person, many of these communities can now be found online.
A quick search on google for famous cult leaders comes up with almost exclusively men leaders… do cults just reproduce gendered dynamics already at play in a patriarchal society? Researchers find that not only do men occupy leading roles within cults but also that women often experience a unique layer of (sexual) exploitation within cultic systems.
Typically, an older man presides at the top, often perceived as omnipotent. Below him are a collection of women who seem to have slightly more authority than other members (whilst still being subjugated to their husbands) and who are often tasked with upholding the ‘law’. At the bottom lies everyone else. This is evidently displayed in prominent cults such as Rajneeshpuram, People’s Temple, Bikram’s yoga cult, as well as in the structure of the Manson Family. Do you see the pattern I hinted at earlier? This is also the structure of most major corporations, mainstream churches, and the patriarchy in general. There is a gender divide between men who hold the decision-making power and women who serve them. This power imbalance often leads to gender-based and sexual violence against women.
Indeed, research and the testimonies of survivors has shown that women experience an added level of exploitation within cults. Women’s sexual lives, their bodies, and their ability to control their own reproductive choices are often taken away from them. For instance, in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), it is now well known that underage girls were married off to older men who already had multiple wives. The strict dress code of long-sleeved prairie dresses in 3 colours, the 5 hairstyles that they are allowed to wear, being told when to have children, and the slogan ‘keep sweet, pray, and obey’, basically stripped women of any agency.
Cult leaders also often use their influence to pressure and coerce women into engaging in sexual acts, claiming that these were ordained by a ‘higher power’. Because of the close spiritual relationship between a man cult leader and his followers, and how leaders present themselves as all-powerful, women find themselves sexually exploited, fearing rejection and exclusion from their community if they do not do as he pleases. In other cases, women are encouraged to be ‘sexually free’ and later made to feel guilty or selfish when deciding not to take part in sexual acts. A decision that often leads to punishments. The bottom line is that cult leaders often use their higher status and so-called ‘spiritual connection’ to abuse their power and exert emotional, physical, psychological, and sexual control over their followers. Going back to my earlier comparison, these dynamics mirror some patterns present in patriarchal societies, where some men holding power will use it to police women’s sexuality.
So we know that men usually play a leading role in most cults, but who are the members? If you look at some of history’s most notorious cults, you will find a lopsided quantity of women members. Why do women seek alternative sites of spirituality and community? If you consider multi-level marketing organisations on the cultic spectrum, then women are more likely to be involved because these groups purposefully target unemployed, lonely wives and mothers, luring them with the promise of sisterhood and becoming a ‘momtrepreneur’. The Pew Research Centre also suggests that women around the world tend to be somewhat more religious than men. Sociologists point out that these organisations generally place a lot of emphasis on the private spheres of life and issues that tend to be understood as more feminine.
Everyone wants to feel like they belong to a group, that they have a community who shares their values and outlook on life, and that their voices are important. This is the most common reason people join cultic systems. No one joins a cult because they want to be exploited, but unfortunately, that is often the outcome. Women will most likely find themselves in more precarious situations than men in cults.
From an outside perspective, it seems like an obvious trap. But usually, you don’t even realise you’re in a cult until you feel the need to leave.