Women and Cults-A Lawyers Perspective
Cultic Studies Journal, 1995, Volume 12, Number 2, pages 187-194
Women and Cults: A Lawyer’s Perspective
Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq.
Often the problems facing women in or recovering from a cult involvement are gender specific, yet they are not likely to be recognized as such. Societal expectations cause women to have particular vulnerabilities to cult recruitment, to be more susceptible to abuse within the cult, and to experience certain difficulties in recovery from the cult experience. Those working with cult victims need to develop a greater sensitivity to these issues when addressing women’s needs for preventive education, legal counsel, family support, and other forms of victim assistance.
When I first became involved with the cult problem some years ago, people were oriented toward distinguishing the cult leaders, who were viewed as somewhat mystical charismatic figures, from the victims, who were lumped together without any differentiation. There was a generalized belief about the stereotypical cult member: he or she was thought to be a collegeaged, idealistic, troubled person who was seeking, looking for answers. It came as a great surprise to people when they learned that cults recruited the elderly, and that cults were recruiting among minorities and in high schools. Specific characteristics, such as sex, were also being ignored. No one considered whether or not there was a gender differentiation in a person’s vulnerability to cults and cult recruitment, and, particularly, whether women were more susceptible to recruitment. Recent research, however, has consistently produced samples that are 60% to 70% female (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994).
In our work with former cult members, we have found that victims’ complaints cluster in a certain manner. Many people describe their experience of having been involved in a cult as “spiritual rape.” A professor of philosophy at a college in New York described her experience as the “theft of her identity and persona” (Rosenthal, 1995). Others have spoken specifically about physical problems, emotional problems, and lingering problems concerning selfesteem and selfimage.
Society certainly has not come as far as it might in perceiving and responding to those harms that are gender specific. Instead, we are still at an earlier stage, in which we regard people who have suffered these injuries as somehow being the cause of them: we believe that cult members became “victims” because of their own gullibility, susceptibility, and lack of selfwill. Society’s perspective on cults, victims’ rights, and education is analogous to its perceptions about rape and rape victims a generation ago.
I regard the problems associated with cults as essentially abuse of a power relationship. If you look at it in that manner, without regard to religion or the content of the specific doctrine, you will find that abuse of power is a common element in all kinds of cult situations--whether the group be a political cult, a lifestyle cult, a selfimprovement cult, or a religiouslyoriented group. Therefore, it is necessary to recognize the relevance of differences among cult recruits. It appears to me that women are especially susceptible, and especially victimized, and need a special, differentiated protection. Now what does this mean?
I couldn’t possibly cover all the aspects of this thesis. I will, however, propose some provocative issues, and leave them, to some extent, unresolved, because we cannot fully resolve them at this time. I’d like to make an initial, opening inquiry, to address something that has never been raised before from this perspective. I am asking you to share in the construction of this inquiry, and to help move toward resolution of some of these questions and issues.
First, I believe 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, selfimage, 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, cleancut Christian men. She had no concept of selfprotection 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 bodyimage concerns via Eastern meditation techniques or a guru’s inspiration, but the message that is sold is essentially one of shape, health, and appearanceCa pitch that is specifically directed toward and appealing to women.
Several groups tailor their appeal to idealism. They reach out for the healthy, nurturing spirit, and promise to involve recruits in noble projects, such as the elimination of world hunger. The ideal of reaching out, of a helping idealism, is more responsive to a woman’s needs and approach than to a man’s. Diet, likewise, is offered as a part of some groups’ regimen, a regimen that also often includes manipulation of guilt and enhancement of dependency.
The second aspect of women’s specific vulnerability to cults is found within the groups themselves. First, women are utilized as recruiters. Here we see cults using sexual and social manipulation as a recruitment device. For years the Children of God sent out female recruiters to do what they described as “flirty fishing”--actually, simply sexual prostitution. Women within the group were used as sexual objects, exploited for their potential to attract new members.
Apart from the use and abuse of women as recruiters, there is also the issue of the general treatment of women within the group. What happens to them that is different from what happens to male members? First, the groups generally (with some exceptions) insist on a greater degree of submission for the female members. Women are fitted into a role that is more reflective of their status a generation or two ago than in the contemporary scene. I found this to be the case in a group in New Jersey. A group of about 10 or 12 women, all of whom were among the highest academic graduates of the Seven Sisters schools, were required to spend their lives doing housekeeping chores and playing no other role in the world, despite their education. The desire to use any of their acquired skills was not permitted. The leader’s psychological manipulations had caused them to regress to a childlike, dependent, and submissive role. When I asked them why and how they accepted that kind of regression, their answer was that it was so much more comfortable, so much less threatening to accept that role, to simply give up all of their individuality, than to challenge their leader. In this particular situation, not only had the women been manipulated into giving up asserting themselves, but also they had given up their names and identities, and had been induced to become interchangeable people without any particular identity of any kind.
Within certain cultic groups we find that the leader exercises sexual domination and control over the members. Often in such groups, each female member is purportedly afforded a “special” relationship with the leader, and of course that “special” relationship is one that must be held confidential, kept secret from every other member of the group--that is, until the women find that they all have had the same “special” relationship with the leader. This involves, again, a tragic elimination of the individual personality and a genderspecific abuse of sexual power.
In many cultic groups we find a familial problem that involves abuse between generations. Children are abused by parents, and sexual abuse by leaders is prevalent. Incest is not unheard of, sometimes occurring as part of a ritual bonding relationship. Again in such groups the women are likely to suffer from particular problems that are more exacerbated than men’s experiences.
Third, we must consider issues that relate specifically to women in their emergence from groups. Sexual issues and sexual abuse have different implications and different aftereffects from some of the other experiences typically found in cults. If a man becomes involved in a group whose sexual mores are very liberal and unstructured, he might come out and say, AI slept with 12 women.” The woman who comes out of the same group and says AI slept with twelve men” will experience a tremendous difference in her social adjustment afterwards.
Consequently, we must draw a distinction between men’s and women’s experiences as they try to resume conventional roles in society. I know one woman who was involved in a New Age group that engaged extensively in liberal sexual practices. She is now in a top-level senior executive position. She lives in fear that somehow her employer will find out that she engaged in this cult activity, and that such knowledge will destroy her professional status. This is a peculiar kind of problem that women risk when they leave cults.
Women also disproportionately bear the onerous results of matrimonial and family arrangements that were made within the cult by the group’s leaders. These arrangements tend to fracture after one of the parties in the family leaves the cult. Within the cult, often women are assigned childbearing and child-rearing roles. This situation may produce no immediate problem of conflict so long as both marriage partners are in the cult, and no particular abusive behavior is involved. However, when a woman leaves the cult without her partner, she must contend with dissolving a marriage and looking after the welfare of her children. She now finds herself in a painfully divided situation in which the partner remaining in the cult wants to assert control over the children and characterizes the departing woman as untrustworthy, a devil, and deserving of humiliation. More painful still, often the group’s doctrine demands that the children be alienated from the departing spouse. These strains are left as residual problems for the woman to cope with alone, even as she struggles with her own psychological fragility.
One former member of a Bible-based group whom I have heard about relates how her life fell apart when the group decided that she could not continue to attend any fellowship meetings unless she became more submissive to her husband and to the group. According to group doctrine, she was simply not being obedient and respectful enough. She said, AI think the real reason was that I was going back to college and thinking for myself.” The group’s leader concluded that she was a possessed person, that she had homosexual tendencies because she had stopped shaving her armpits, that she was in league with the devil and, therefore, that she was an unfit mother. In the process of leaving the group, the woman became involved in a very ugly divorce and custody case with her husband, who had remained a member.
Often the cultic group asserts that the husband of the departing wife and children is no longer obligated to support them, since (in the cult’s view) they have become heretics, or devilpossessed beings. The woman is thus deprived of essential financial protection and is often left to fight a battle without resources, where the opponents are, in effect, not her husband, but the group and all its resources. For example, I know of one group which provides every spouse of a departing member with counsel at no cost. The group has argued uniformly, in hundreds of custody cases, that the departing spouse has sexually abused the children and therefore should not receive custody of the children. Such an accusation is a terrible burden for the exmember. Furthermore, courts have thus far refused to recognize that this argument reflects a uniform tactic and does not necessarily reflect individuals’ particular situation.
Exmembers face humiliation while going through the process of emergence and recovery from cults. Though society has begun to realize that it is not appropriate to blame the victim of a rape, a similar reevaluation has not occurred in the case of the cult victim. As a result women are reluctant to come forward as cult victims. They do not want to acknowledge their experience publicly because they fear they will be accused of being gullible, trusting, or foolish.
Also they fear the adverse publicity, because cults strike back. Cultic groups often have deep pockets, and if one accuses a cult leader of criminal or sexually abusive conduct, one can be threatened with a slander suit. The cult will not hesitate to finance such a lawsuit, since they see it as a means of keeping other members from defecting. Thus, exmembers may have to fight a powerful adversary without commensurate resources. There is really no protection for exmembers. If they want to go on with the rest of their lives, if they don’t want accusations about their alleged behavior flaunted in Macy’s window, they have a real problem. There is no assurance of confidentiality for the person trying to leave a cultic group. Often cults extract confessional material from members during their time in the group, and use this information against former members who try to assert their individual rights.
Finally, those coming out of the cults struggle to regain a positive selfimage, a capacity to trust again, and a productive role in society. Here again, it is more difficult for a woman to rehabilitate her selfimage. Whether abuse has taken place within a familial setting, with a trusted guru, or in the context of the group, rebuilding social and intimate relationships after abuse is more difficult for women because of the cultural constraints placed on them.
In conclusion, with respect to women and cults, the issues center around the problem of respect for the individual. The fact that women are vulnerable, that some of them are seekers, really reflects the situation of every individual. But we must recognize that women experience peculiar exacerbations of the issue which require special care and special consideration. Certainly it is a subject that has not received adequate examination or adequate concern. I would hope that this discussion would represent the beginning of speaking out. It’s a long road, but we’re beginning the examination of these important issues, and I’d like to enlist your concern, your cooperation, and your help to see how we can make an effective and appropriate response to them.
Chambers, W., Langone, M.D., Dole, A.A., & Grice, J.W. (1994). The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88B117.
Rosenthal, A. (1995). Conversions. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
This article was originally a presentation given by Herbert Rosedale on October 25, 1995, at a session focusing on “Violence Towards Women” at The New School for Social Research in New York City. This session was part of a New School series entitled “Women and the Law.”
Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq., is a senior partner in the New York City law firm of Parker Chapin Flattau & Klimpl. He is also President of AFF, and a longtime advocate on the legal front for the rights of cult victims.