When I was 41, I joined a sex cult in San Francisco.
Conversations about cults always seem to arrive at the same question: “How could those people not just walk away?”
I understand the bewilderment, but don’t share it. I have actually lived the answer. During my time with the cult, they became everything to me: community, family, job, and a life purpose.
Before joining, I was living in a small town near San Francisco and going through my third divorce. I was also out of work and finishing a graduate degree. As school and marriage ended, money also ran out, and hoped-for jobs failed to appear. I felt I had played by the rules of life, done what was asked of me, and all it had gotten me was sad, broke, and alone.
In short, I was a prime candidate to join an ideologically-intense, high-demand group (a.k.a. a cult).
For my entire adult life, I had been a serial monogamist, moving from one intense relationship to the next. I’d racked up three wives and two live-in girlfriends. Each new relationship was a savior and felt like the answer. Until it wasn’t.
As life got worse, I started looking for answers.
My search led to the website of a group that promised to demystify sex and relationships. I decided to dip my toe in by attending a blues dance class at their “center,” where I met a bunch of friendly people who seemed genuinely happy. The women were vibrant, and the men had the confidence I sorely lacked.
I returned the next week for an evening of “communication games” where about 20 people sat in a circle and went through a series of exercises. We were encouraged to be very honest—saying both the good things and the bad things we were thinking—to admit our desires, fears, faults, and judgements. By the end of the event, I felt more connected to the people there than I had to anyone in a very long time.
I became a regular at the center. I felt useful, desired, and accepted. There were hands-on workshops where we learned how to sexually touch a woman with awareness, time spent simply hanging out, and a work crew I joined as a carpenter to help build out new parts of the center.
The group was quickly becoming my new romantic obsession.
About three months after my first encounter, I sat down with the leader — a smart, charismatic, and beautiful woman a few years younger than me — and asked if I could move in. I wanted to spend more time with the group and get out of the roommate situation I found myself in after leaving my wife. A few days later, another woman told me my case had been discussed, and I was in, but I’d need to share a bed with one of the women who already lived there.
My new bunkmate was an attractive and intense PhD. I didn’t know her well, but we’d both approved of the pairing. My new home was a warehouse that had been converted into a large bedroom with space for about forty. The first night there, I had sex with my bedmate while other roommates went about their business. A few even stopped to watch, perched on the bed across from ours.
The next few weeks, I felt supremely alive, loved, accepted, and present—things previously missing from my life. To live this close with so many people made me feel like I was exploring a new — or perhaps very old — way of being human.
This group believes the female orgasm is a foundational energy to all life. Being a “turned on” woman with a “strong orgasm” is the highest compliment that can be paid in the organization, and “killing” a woman’s orgasm is the highest crime. Men in the group were expected to serve this energy, and were well-rewarded with attention and approval, often in the form of sex.
I entered the group feeling like a failure with women, and I loved being given a new set of rules to follow that actually seemed to work.
Slowly, I started to realize life in the community was more than a fun and novel experience for many of my roommates. For them, it was life, tribe, and purpose. They spoke about the leader in reverent tones, frequently quoting her as an authority on everything from sex, to meditation, to food, to yoga. They were dedicated, on a mission, and had a unique way of describing almost every aspect of life. I would soon become just as dedicated.
Many in the community had outside jobs, but everyone was expected to help sell and run the workshops we held each weekend. Quite a few members spent all their time and energy in the group, and there was a pull for everyone to be “in” as well. Few, if any, were paid for their work, and, since we were all expected to pay rent and living expenses, being “in” meant living off debt or savings. Almost everyone had financial troubles.
A cult is defined not by strange beliefs or practices, but by the use of social influence to control the people in the group. My initial experience of the group was benign, and even valuable and enjoyable. But a few weeks after moving in things started to get dark. By this time I was attached and unable to really see what was happening. One experience especially marked my transition from casual participant to full member.
One weekend the leader held a resident-only workshop. One at a time, we each stood in front of the room while our peers — friends, lovers, and co-workers — pointed out our strengths and shortcomings. Some went quickly, but others took an hour or more. All finished with a vote.
If you were voted out, you were required to find an “in” person to sponsor you in order to stay. During my time in front of the room, I secured an “in” vote by declaring I would quit my job and work full-time for the organization.
The rules of the organization would often shift radically. One day the leader might declare we should all forgo sex, and a few days later would tell us to have more—all for our spiritual health. There was also near-constant change in relationships. The leader would break and remake couples, often ordering people to pair with someone not to their liking. She told us this was a spiritual practice to deepen surrender, but it functioned as reward or punishment.
Exclusive coupling was discouraged, and falling in love was equated with selling out our spiritual purpose. Jealousy was commonplace. At one point, the leader ordered two senior women, who were in competition over the same man, to share his bed for a month. They hated each other and were in tears on a daily basis.
I participated in the craziness, too. I helped seduce a woman, who was beautiful and smart, into the group and partnered with her. Our infatuated pairing meant we were “falling asleep” spiritually. During a coaching session with the leader, my girlfriend was assigned an exercise to help her overcome her attachment: to watch me have sex with someone else. At the time, I thought it exciting and good for both of us; I now see it as cruel and manipulative.
Life in the group offered spectacle, stimulation, and a never-ending stream of new experiences. We worked hard and slept little. Every spare minute was spent with the group, and a feeling of near panic would overtake me whenever I was away from the center for too long.
There were moments of deep pleasure and connection and others of fear and sadness. We were a manic-depressive organization. Panic, jealousy, anger, and chaos were cultural norms, punctuated by transcendent and beautiful moments. We were junkies hooked on drama, fun, a sense of purpose, and each other.
After two years in I managed to pull myself away. I’d like to say I realized what was going on and got out through personal strength. The truth is I was lucky—we had a bedbug infestation and my girlfriend wanted to leave during a leadership shakeup. I thought I’d leave for a little while but after a few weeks my head started to clear and I realized I didn’t want to go back ever. It would take a couple more years for me to realize the gravity of what I’d been through. But the first months out were focused entirely on getting my life back together.
I’ve decided to speak publicly about my experience because I’d like to help people be less vulnerable to these groups which are thriving in many forms. I’m dedicated to helping build good organizations and this starts with awareness. Also when people leave these groups they are often broken and confused. I’d like to help them and create better lives after they leave.
There are many groups like this out there, and they are increasingly sophisticated. They all have leaders and power structures, but the real power is in the co-created vicious cycles that make people both victims and enforcers.
Cult members are most often concerned with keeping themselves in the group, which means it can be remarkably easy to leave once you get past your internal walls. I found this impossible while living with the group but simpler once I spent a few weeks on the outside.
One of the most challenging aspects of my cult recovery has been processing and integrating the mixture of good and bad experiences. I learned many useful things while in the cult about sexuality, leadership, and especially my relationships with women. It was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
Unraveling the good and the bad has been perhaps the most difficult part.
The process of rebuilding my personal and professional stability was slow and painful. I’d gone in depressed and poor, and left broke and suicidal. When I moved out, I found it hard to find a job and felt emotionally and psychologically unstable. I felt ill-equipped to deal with my circumstances but after hitting bottom one evening and nearly killing myself I found a small amount of hope. I was fortunate to have friends, family, and a good deal of luck that helped me build on that hope and create a new life for myself.
Living in a sex cult was one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever gone through. I learned firsthand about the fragility of my identity. I saw and did things as a part of this group that remain profoundly disturbing memories. I was hurt and hurt others—I shamed, seduced, and manipulated, even as the same tactics were used on me.
Over the past few years, I have found meaningful work and a great community of friends. I have also built a wonderfully supportive relationship with a remarkable woman. This is a first for me.
Ironically, I credit the life I have now, in part, to the trauma of being in the cult.
It’s not a path I recommend — for anyone. But I’m grateful for the change in perspective I found through the experience, and the life I’ve been able to create after.