Why does sex play such a large role for fringe religious sects?

Why does sex play such a large role for fringe religious sects?

[Jailed FLDS leader Warren] Jeffs isn’t the first sect figure to come under legal scrutiny for sexual practices that outsiders might consider unusual, immoral or even abhorrent. Indeed, many new religious movements — NRMs in scholar-speak — are distinguished not only by their unconventional beliefs but also by the sexual proclivities of their male leaders.

All of which raises the question: Why do people join or remain members of a group that practices unusual sexual behaviors? And what’s more, what kind of sexual power do the leaders of NRMs hold over their followers?

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“Every group has its own dynamics and diversity,” said Catherine Wessinger, an expert in NRMs at Loyola University in New Orleans. “A leader can use sexual activity to diminish ties between followers and direct their affections and emotions. But the thing to remember is that no one has that charisma unless the people behind him or her believe that he or she has it.”

Often, the leader’s followers believe that God or other divine beings communicate through the leader, something that can endow the leader’s sexual relations with a special holiness or sanctity, Wessinger said.

In the case of the Branch Davidians, sex with prophet David Koresh was seen as normal and desirable, even when it involved girls as young as 14. Similarly, in the Peoples Temple, whose members committed mass suicide in the Guyana jungle in 1978, sex with leader Jim Jones was sometimes a reward for both men and women, married and unmarried.

“You would think that if you stole someone’s wife that would (tick) them off,” said veteran religion writer Don Lattin, who has written several books on NRMs, including Jesus Freaks, about an evangelical sect known as the Family.

“But in these groups the opposite often happens. The husband goes along with it and is controlled by it because it is all linked with his eternal salvation. By sharing his wife he is getting closer to the central power — the guru or prophet.”

In the case of Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), his one-man power to arrange (or undo) marriages between young girls and older men lent a sanctity to their union, scholars say.

– Source: Kimberly Winston, Why does sex play such a large role for fringe religious sects?, Religion News Service, via KansasCity.com, June 27, 2008 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

The article continues by listing a number of ‘NRMs’ with “unusual sexual attitudes.” These include a community of celibate Shakers which naturally died out for lack of new members, and — at the other end of the scale — the Children of God (currently known as The Family), whose leader “reinterpreted Jesus’ teachings on love as sanctifying multiple sexual partners, including underage girls and boys.”

The remainder of the article basically shows that religion scholars do not the answer to the question stated in the headline. It closes thus:

Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, says he sees very little difference between the sexual activity in NRMs and other, more traditional religious groups.

“I think it happens in regular religious movements,” he said, citing the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Hare Krishna movement and the Catholic Church, among others. “You see the same situation — someone with authority and a lot of trust has the same weaknesses and desires as anyone else. These people are human. I think that is the bottom line.”

– Source: Kimberly Winston, Why does sex play such a large role for fringe religious sects?, Religion News Service, via KansasCity.com, June 27, 2008 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Cult Apologist

Incidentally, a number of cult experts and cult watchers consider Catherine Wessinger to be a cult apologist.

On the one hand, she encourages an objective, ethical approach to the study of ‘New Religious Movements’ – rejecting the controversial approaches of some scholars. On the other, her response to the Peoples Temple mass suicide was to blame former members, the media, anticult organizations, and congressman Leo Ryan (who was shot and killed by Jim Jones’ men).


The above article refers to ‘New Religious Movements’ (NRMs). The term was coined by religion scholars who thought the ‘cult’ — a legitimate term in the fields of sociology and theology — had taken on too many negative connotations. For this these folks tended to blame the media, former cult members, parents of cult victims, anti-cult organizations, and even politicians — but seldom, if ever, the cults themselves.

Jeffrey K. Hadden, who was a notorious cult defender, himself demonstrated why the the politically-correct ‘NRM’ hasn’t worked well:

The use of the concept “new religious movements” in public discourse is problematic for the simple reason that it has not gained currency. Speaking bluntly from personal experience, when I use the concept “new religious movements,” the large majority of people I encounter don’t know what I’m talking about. I am invariably queried as to what I mean. And, at some point in the course of my explanation, the inquirer unfailing responds, “oh, you mean you study cults!”

– Source: Conceptualizing “Cult” and “Sect”, The Religious Movements Page.

For a more lucid approach to cult terminology, see the Cult FAQ

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