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Following is an interview with Cult Trip author Anke Richter about her ongoing investigation into sex cults.

How do you define a cult? 

A less controversial word for cults is “high-demand groups.” According to experts like Dr Janja Lalich who’ve studied them, they have an all-encompassing belief system. So in a tantric yoga cult like Agama, you have specific and outlandish views, for instance about medicine or sexual healing, that cannot be questioned. Or in Scientology, against psychiatry. Hence the groupthink and a lack of internal criticism. There’s usually a promise of life-changing personal transformation by a charismatic and often narcissistic leader. They see the outside world as evil or less evolved – us versus them. Love bombing, gaslighting, spiritual bypassing, secrecy about the program, a lot of volunteer work or high fees to climb the ranks and stay involved are also typical markers. What initially feels like a haven eventually becomes a prison.

It’s such a debatable term, though?

Only by cult apologists. I’m amazed that people who’ve never been harmed in cults or researched them think it’s up to their own and often incorrect definition – imagine how that would work for framing sexual assault, for instance? It would be unacceptable. I’ve recently heard from a former spin doctor for Harvey Weinstein who now does crisis PR for OneTaste (Orgasmic Meditation). He thinks an organization is only a cult if you can’t physically leave, which I’ve also been told by an alleged sexual abuser and lead teacher in ISTA (International School of Temple Arts). There are so many misconceptions out there – like the assumption that people in cults are weak, lost, and stupid. 

Why is that not true? 

We’re all susceptible to get hooked if something speaks to us at the right time. Cults usually have some good content in the mix, and they attract people with open hearts and minds: seekers for a better world who get exploited further down the track. Or they become fanatics and spiritual abusers themselves. 

How did you choose the cults that you profiled in your new book, “Cult Trip”? 

Centrepoint was a former “free love” and therapy cult from the Human Potential Movement in the 1980s in New Zealand, unmatched even on a global scale. They held drug sessions with families, and every third child there has most likely been sexually abused. I stumbled onto its aftermath by chance when I met a former teenager from Centrepoint at a conscious sexuality festival in Australia. Over the years, I became an accidental sex cult tourist and visited OneTaste in San Francisco, The New Tantra (TNT) in the Netherlands, Osho’s former ashram in India and Agama Yoga in Thailand. Gloriavale, a fundamentalist Christian enclave where women are treated as breeding machines, became another investigation of mine and is now in the courts for multiple human rights offenses, including slave labor. 

Author Anke Richter in front of AGMA Yoga, photo furnished courtesy of Anke Richter

What characteristics did they all have in common in terms of their approach to human sexuality? 

Many women, and their children, suffered sexual abuse there – a mainstay of cults. Both Hopeful Christian of Gloriavale and Bert Potter of Centrepoint were paedocriminals and went to jail. I only made the connection at the end of my ten-year research that the strictly monogamous Christian enclave that looks like Gilead from the Handmaid’s Tale is a sex cult as well. Sexuality plays a central role there, like it did at Centrepoint where the doctrine was promiscuity. These leaders defined what their people’s sex lives should look like, how it should be done, how often and with whom. The pressure to be sexually available, whether for the whole group or your husband in an arranged marriage, can be just as abusive as the punishment and shaming of someone’s libido. It especially messes with children in puberty. 

What did you observe in your reporting that makes ex-Christians particularly susceptible to sacred sexuality cults? 

I’m not a Christian, but I think it’s the promise of liberation from shame, fear and guilt around their desire and sexual identity. But while it can be great to undo the indoctrination of one’s upbringing in those cathartic trainings, participants might come under a new kind of undue influence there. Another reason is the sense of belonging in finding a community that offers the comfort of a church. The new “tribe” replaces the family which many former evangelicals who are now shunned also lost when they left the religion. 

Briefly describe what a “workshop high” is and how this dynamic can impact one’s ability to fully consent to the activities being presented. 

LGATs or “Large Group Awareness Trainings” have been demystified by academics like the late Margaret Singer. In a weeklong 24/7 training full of rituals, circle confessions and cathartic release, a cocktail of brain chemicals floods your system and clouds your thinking. Constantly “dropping the mind” while you’re loved up or turned on can result in overriding your inner “yes” or “no”, especially if past trauma is retriggered. And if you crave a desired outcome like the rest of the group and paid a lot of money for it, then you probably won’t speak up when something doesn’t feel right — especially if you don’t want to be labeled as “acting from your wounding” or “stuck in victim consciousness”. 

Why do you say in your book: “In a hierarchical high-control group, open relationships are completely at odds with consensual non-monogamy”? 

I’ve come across former Centrepoint members who endured years of pressure to sleep with as many group members as possible. Their boundaries were pushed and violated and their instincts overridden. There wasn’t much freedom in their “free love commune”, but plenty of manipulation. Sex became a commodity and a dogma. Consent can only be freely given between equals, not under pressure. Despite the sex gurus’ constant preaching of “loving”, their reign doesn’t represent polyamory, but sexual coercion.  

Explain the origins of the #SriToo movement and Tantra Not Trauma FB group. 

“SriToo” was coined by Canadian author Jeff Brown after the Agama drama which took place in the village Srithanu on Koh Phangan – the #MeToo movement had finally arrived in the yoga world and some of the worst predators, like Agama’s Swami, were being called out. Tantra Not Trauma is a large #MeToo platform for the conscious sexuality scene. It was started by a former teacher turned whistle-blower from TNT (The New Tantra), hence the same acronyms. 

As a reporter, how do you deal with what you described as a moral dilemma— when does someone’s truth that needs to be heard add to another person’s trauma and pain? 

I don’t have the perfect answer for that, but I believe in what the Germans call “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”: coming to terms with the past. That can only happen by looking at the ugly truth, not by shoving it under the carpet. It gets difficult though when a perpetrator has a family. Exposing his awful actions also means that his children suffer further from the stigma. My first attempt at writing a book about Centrepoint failed because it became too conflicting and impacted on my mental health. I was dealing with so much unresolved trauma and with people who panicked or threatened me legally. Others desperately wanted their stories told. 

How do you view those who are perpetuating the abuses? 

I want to see some of them arrested, like the Romanian founder of MISA who is on the run from Interpol. They still have schools worldwide, Tara Yoga in the UK and Natha Yoga in Scandinavia for instance. But I feel for idealistic people who get sucked into a group where they’re pushed to override their inner moral compass and do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise. The first step for their rehabilitation, and for the collective healing, can be an apology to the survivors and by getting involved in a process of reconciliation and accountability. The Centrepoint Restoration Project is a good example of that. 

Any recommended resources where folks can go for more information to learn how to find safe places to explore their sexuality?

It’s such a huge unregulated market, sadly. Many facilitators who have been outed as predators on social media or by gonzo reporter Be Scofield still run courses or even tantra festivals in the US. Intimacy coach Wilrieke Sophia has recommendations on their website, as well as the “Red Flags in Workshops” document. They’re part of SSSC, an initiative to change the course of ISTA– volunteer work that the organization should be doing to clean up its act. I hope all their combined efforts will make this field safer, more ethical, and more enjoyable. 

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As a freelance writer with dual MDiv/MSW degree from Yale Divinity School and Columbia University, I focus on the rise of secular spirituality, religious satire, spiritual health & wellness, faith...