There are an estimated 403,000 people living in modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). Sex trafficking exists throughout the country. Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. The situations that sex trafficking victims face vary, many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces them into prostitution. Others are lured with false promises of a job, and some are forced to sell sex by members of their own families. Victims of sex trafficking include both foreign nationals and US citizens, with women making up the majority of those trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. In 2015, the most reported venues/industries for sex trafficking included commercial-front brothels, hotel/motel-based trafficking, online advertisements with unknown locations, residential brothels, and street-based sex trafficking.
Courtney* was a member NXIVM, a well-known American cult that engaged in sex trafficking, forced labour, and racketeering run by founder Keith Raniere. She tells about her experience of the ESP programme, being branded and forced to have sex with Raniere.
The people who have left committed an ethical breach. I am one of them. But I left in my head long before I physically left. It was always in the early morning—the fear invariably happened in the morning and made me want to run. For me I learned that most of the ESP curriculum has no connection with anything in the real world. The whole aim of ESP is to control the range of thought. In the end, ESP makes wrong thinking impossible. Every concept ever needed, can be learned through Rational Inquiry.
The aim of ESP is not to prevent men and women from disintegrations. Its purpose is to remove pleasure. How did I know how much of it was lies? The average Espian is better off now than she had been before she took her first intensive? That’s what you are taught. The past is erased, the erasure forgotten, the lie becomes truth. For Espians the past not only changed but changed continuously. What most afflicted me was the sense of nightmare that I never clearly understood. The immediate advantage of exploring meaning from the past was obvious, but the motive was mysterious and it frightened me. I wondered whether I was completely disintegrated. Perhaps I was a lunatic and a minority of one. I might be alone in holding my belief that there was something wrong with ESP and Vanguard.
I would look at the others and I knew. I was alone. I was the suppressive. But the thought of being a suppressive did not greatly trouble me. The horror was that I might also be wrong. For Vanguard could cure me of my disintegrations.
But how did I know that Vanguard and Prefect were right and I was wrong? If my past and my reaction to it existed only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable–as Vanguard said, what then?
Freedom is the freedom to say that Vanguard makes the rules and can change reality.
Yet life outside NXIVM bore no resemblance not only to the lies that Vanguard told but even to the ideals of the mission. But there was hope. It lay in the curriculum. I had to cling to that. When I put it in words it sounded reasonable: when I looked at other Espians in the intensives it became an act of faith.
Within twenty years, Vanguard had created this enormous body of teachings and thousands of followers whose lives were changed for the better. But when I reflected, I had a huge and simple question: ‘Was my life better before NXIVM than now?’ For me it was unanswerable.
I remember useless things, a quarrel with my coach, a credit card charge for an intensive that was rejected, the expression on Prefect’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning, when after a cold shower I went out in the cold to run when I did not want to run.
But all the relevant facts were outside the range of my vision. I was a slave.
I was like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones. And when memory failed, the exploration of meaning was the record of my past and what happened. The claim of NXIVM to have improved the conditions of my life was accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.
It did not matter if he killed my conscience. I lied for him a hundred times. To have my conscience killed was what I expected. Vanguard was the keeper of my conscience.
There was exploration of meaning: the bowing and handshakes; the dieting, the wakening at night, the ending of the menstrual cycle and for me the loss of clots of hair. Why did I endure it?
When once I succumbed to exploration of meaning, it was certain that by a given date I would be integrated. Why then did that horror, which altered nothing, terrorize me in the morning?”
I thought with a kind of astonishment of the biological uselessness of pain and fear, the treachery of the human body which freezes exactly the moment when effort is needed. It struck me when I was branded I was not fighting an external enemy but against my own body.
I came out naked and vulnerable and saw what was about to happen. My heart leapt. A dozen times Dr. DR had branded women. It filled me with a hope that it would not hurt. Who knew, perhaps this would purify me of all that was rotten under the surface.
As for the sex I was required to have with Vanguard I have mixed emotions. At times I felt if I could have infected him with herpes or syphilis, I would have done so.
Before I joined NXIVM, I thought, a woman looked at a man’s body and saw that it was desirable, and that was the end of the story. But now I could not have pure love or even pure lust. No emotion was pure, Vanguard taught, because everything was mixed up with fear and for me self-hatred. Our sex was a battle, the climax a victory for him. By degrees his talking drove all speculations out of my mind. It was as though it were a kind of liquid stuff that poured all over me and got mixed up with the teachings that filtered through my mind. I stopped thinking and merely felt.
Sometimes when I had sex with Vanguard I felt happy afterward and didn’t give a damn for anything. He did not want me to feel like that. He wanted me to be bursting with energy all the time. All this jogging and the meetings and the goals and values and more meetings and cheering each other and going on the stripe path was simply to fill in the time when sex was not going to happen.
If I was happy inside myself, why should I get excited about having a boyfriend and getting married or having a child? Vanguard had sex with me once a week or once a month. Whenever he wanted. I had to obey and wait. Thirty minutes of touching and all the rest of the time just meetings and work.
There was a direct intimate connection, he said, between my chastity [except with him] and the vitality of the mission. For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which ESP needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force? The sex impulse was dangerous to Vanguard and he had turned it to account.
I asked him why he had sex with many women who later left him.
It would have made no difference, he said.
Then are you sorry you did it?
He said, I prefer a positive to a negative. In this game that we’re playing, we can win. Some kinds of failure are better than other kinds, that’s all.
Narrative source Youth Underground, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing human trafficking through youth education, awareness-raising and advocacy.
The original narrative can be found here