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What Happened at Sarah Lawrence and Why You Keep Reading About "Sex Cults"

Each story inevitably brings up the same questions: Who is susceptible to cult recruitment? Why do people stay? What's the appeal of a cult leader?

Illustration by: Christian Arnder

You've probably read more about the disturbing prevalence of cults than you've ever wanted to, as 2019 featured more headlines about "cults"—especially "sex cults"—than any other previous year (according to analysts who break down what news most often ruins your mornings).

Last January, Lifetime exposed R. Kelly's alleged "sex cult" comprised of underage girls in his mansion. CW actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty for running Keith Raniere's "sex-cult" in Albany after former members alleged that his "self-improvement organization for women," NXIVM, blackmailed young women to be Raniere's personal "slaves." But another disturbing story has shined a spotlight on cult-like activities in the murky regions of upstate New York, this time at Sarah Lawrence College. Each story inevitably brings up the same questions: Who is susceptible to cult recruitment? Why do people stay? What is the appeal of a cult leader?

Lawrence Ray, the father of a student at Sarah Lawrence, was recently charged by federal law enforcement for extortion, forced prostitution, and forced labor. Last year, New York Magazine first exposed the con-man's manipulation of undergraduates at Sarah Lawrence, an insular liberal arts school. In 2010, Lawrence Ray moved into his daughter's on-campus dorm after being released from prison for insurance fraud. He swiftly manipulated students into believing he was a former CIA operative and an ex-Marine who had developed a "core program of personal transformation." Preying on the teenagers' insecurities and quests for self-discovery, he maintained psychological control over his daughter and her classmates through bizarre versions of pseudo-therapy, leading to the teens' financial, sexual, and emotional exploitation.

popdust sarah lawrence sex cult Lawrence Ray New York Post

R. Kelly, NXIVM's founder Keith Raniere, and Ray each accrued power through four basic cult tactics. Janja Lalich, a professor of sociology at California State University in Chico, told The Cut, "I think if there's any common denominator, it's idealism." She elaborated, "People end up being in what I call a bounded reality. They're in a different world from you and I. They're in this very closed world, this other reality where that kind of evil became normalized. So the way that their own self-confidence and sense of morality was broken down over time is what allowed this to take place."

To begin with, it's a myth that cult recruits are necessarily mentally ill or weak-willed. Psychologists have long pointed out that most people can be susceptible to cult influence if they find themselves under certain types of duress. Research shows that financial stress, a lack of social support from friends or family, and emotional vulnerability stemming from prior abuse, a death in the family, or living away from home for the first time makes one a "prime target" for cult recruitment. When Ezra Marcus and James D. Walsh profiled Larry Ray, they described the students he indoctrinated into his ideology as "in some ways typical Sarah Lawrence students: an artistic, bookish group of introverts with good grades. ('We're different, so are you,' goes one of the school's slogans.) They were also sensitive and, in ways common to 19-year-olds, searching for guidance."

Ray immediately "planted himself in the common area, cooking steak dinners and ordering expensive delivery for [his daughter] and her seven housemates." One of the housemates later reflected, "He did all of our cleaning and definitely took on the dad role in the house in a big way." It was typical behavior for a cult leader. An individual's first encounter with a cult typically entails a form of "love-bombing," which is a concerted effort by cult members to flatter, support, and validate a target. Cult awareness expert Ronald N. Loomis describes this practice on college campuses as "a recruiter approaching the student and doing everything [they] can to make the student feel special and unique. They're quickly trying to convey the message that I am your new best friend. And they will fake mutual interests in order to give the impression that they share many things in common."

popdust sex cult keith raniere Keith Raniere in a NXIVM meetingArtVoice

Emotional and physical isolation only enhance that sense of trust and reliance. Both NXIVM and Larry Ray enjoyed strongholds in upstate New York: provincial areas where small-town ethos made social isolation easy. Marcus and Walsh noted, "Located just above the city limits of New York, Sarah Lawrence looks as if it had been plucked from a New England town and plopped 15 miles north of Times Square. It can feel whimsically sheltered, even more so than most liberal-arts colleges." Geographical isolation, be it a sheltered student dorm or the confines of R. Kelly's Georgia mansion, facilitate social alienation from friends and family, causing recruits to grow more dependent on a cult leader.

Above all, control is what keeps individuals trapped within a cycle of manipulation and exploitation. Most commonly, recruits are terrorized and "punished" for perceived slights against the leader (Ray is said to have sexually tortured at least one male student and forced others to have sex with him), and then they are ultimately "forgiven" and lavished with affection. Social psychologist Alexandra Stein explains, "When we are frightened, we don't simply run away from the fear, but run to a safe haven, 'to someone…'—and that someone is usually a person to whom we feel attached. But when the supposed safe haven is also the source of the fear, then running to that person is a failing strategy, causing the frightened person to freeze, trapped between approach and avoidance."

popdust sex cult r kelly mansion R. Kelly's mansion11Alive

NXIVM leaders and Ray also kept followers under their control through threats of blackmail. They both used pseudo-therapy sessions to manipulate followers into confessing their most private secrets, whether in the form of illicit photographs or stories of childhood trauma. Ray would alternate between accusing individuals of "sabotaging" his teachings in order to demand financial compensation and preying on traumatic memories to form toxic sexual relationships with young students.

Ray continued to live with two of his followers even after they graduated from Sarah Lawrence, with three others regularly visiting their shared apartment in Upper Manhattan. "Larry was a chameleon," says one long-time acquaintance of Ray. "He could be a good ol' boy or a patriot, or he'd pull out a pipe and fake glasses and he'd be an intellectual. He would juggle ten different people at the same time, telling each of them one piece of a story he wanted them to know and convincing them that he wanted them to be part of his master plan."

Ray's former friend and ex-NYC Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik describe the con-man as a "psychotic con man who has victimized every friend he's ever had." He adds, "It's been close to 20 years since I last heard from him, yet his reign of terror continues." Indeed, Ray has a long history of paranoia that includes claims that Kerik and Rudy Giuliani are conspiring against him. "It's clear they want to kill us," Ray told The Cut, "They're arrogant, they're violent, they're terrible people."

Until this week's arrest and charging of Ray, the only legal action taken against him had been his landlord's eviction of him in 2014; he counter-sued and won. While Ray, his daughter, and a few former followers have denied the allegations against him, a number of students have since survived suicide attempts and sought counseling for ex-cult members. At least one former student was in hiding from Ray.

While unsettling headlines about "sex cults" inevitably shock and appall, exposing the inner workings of cults hopefully serves as calls to action. NXIVM's Keith Raniere was found guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking. R. Kelly has been charged with 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse and faces three separate trials. While Ray's lawyer contests the claims in The Cut's article, Ray, now 60 years old, admits to knowingly accepting a young woman's earnings from prostitution; in fact, he was reportedly "pleased" with her "efforts to pay him back" for an alleged debt. Prosecutors say that The Cut's findings spurred them to investigate and ultimately charge Ray with threats and coercion, extortion, forced labor, sex trafficking, and money laundering. This Wednesday, he pleaded not guilty.


There's not really a lot of confusion about why Leonardo DiCaprio keeps ending up with beautiful younger women.

Famous, wealthy man-children have been leveraging their status and power to pursue young women since wealth and fame became concepts. It's almost more uncommon for a man in that position to date someone age appropriate. In the past, however, it was easy to imagine that many of the young women DiCaprio was seen with might have been nursing girlhood crushes connected to his heartthrob status as the young male lead in Titanic (1997).

Famous scene of Kate Winslet being the same age as DiCaprio's current girlfriend


The problem with that theory as it relates to Camila Morrone is that she was born in 1997, six months before Titanic (1997) premiered. So unless she was a particularly advanced infant, it's unlikely that she was aware of DiCaprio's breakout role. Perhaps, then, she saw his 2004 performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator and was left indelibly marked by the sense that DiCaprio was a man who could date young aspiring actresses well into middle age—and clearly Leo is just so method that he was unable to drop that part of the character.

Whatever her early impressions of him, now that she is nearly half his age, she feels confident that she has matured enough to be with a man so stunted that he wants to keep dating beautiful women who were children for most of his career. She even feels that their relationship is worth defending. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Morrone, 22, responded to critics of the 23-year age gap between herself and DiCaprio, saying, "There's so many relationships in Hollywood—and in the history of the world—where people have large age gaps… I just think anyone should be able to date who they want to date."

camila morrone hot

Of course she's right. You don't have to look far back "in the history of the world" to find royals marrying off their daughters before they'd even reached puberty. And Hollywood continues to be rife with mismatched couples—like Dennis Quaid and Laura Savoie—that are reminiscent of old Hollywood drama like Charlie Chaplin's marriage to Oona O'Neill, when he was 53 and she was only 18. Or how about Elvis Presley, at 25, marrying a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, or 27-year-old R. Kelly secretly marrying 15-year-old Aaliyah

aaliyah age ain't nothing

There's a saying that goes, "Everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power." There's an extent to which the power relationships and vulnerability inherent in sex and love can be gratifying and exciting for both parties, but there's a tremendous potential for those dynamics to get out of hand. If left unchecked, it's easy for a power imbalance to blur the lines of consent, and a big age gap often results in a big power imbalance. But should these concerns really apply to Camila Morrone?

That depends. Obviously, there's a big difference between a 14-year-old and a 22-year-old, but what may not be as obvious to someone whose brain is still developing is that there is also a huge difference between a 22-year-old and a 45-year-old. In the eyes of the law, they are both adults. They can sleep together, get married—hell, she's even old enough that they can go drinking together! Though if they ever rent a car together, he should probably be the driver, because insurance rates go through the roof for people whose brains are not done maturing

The point is, someone who has been 22, who remembers what it was like to be 22—23 years ago—should know that a 22-year-old is still learning a lot of the basics about life. By and large, they are impressionable, naïve, and pretty easy for an older person—especially a wealthy and respected celebrity—to manipulate.

camila morrone The Los Angeles Times

Camila Morrone may be an exception to that. She may be wise beyond her years, and the connection that she and DiCaprio have together may be that rare kind of soul-bond that is so profound and unquestionable that age really does become irrelevant. Certainly, if that's what she feels is going on, then she has every right to invest in that belief and see how it plays out—even if it ends up being one of those twenty-something mistakes that she learns from. Alternatively, if it's just exciting to spend some time with someone as famous and interesting as Leo, and she's not taking it too seriously, all the better.

Either way, we shouldn't let our morbid curiosity about a mismatched couple undermine her autonomy. No one can tell her what love and romance should look like in her life, and any suggestion that she's in it for Leo's Hollywood connections looks pretty absurd when you consider that her stepfather is Al Pacino. Camila is just fine—great even…but we're all going to keep commenting about Leo as long as he keeps seeking out women who are so much younger—and potentially very vulnerable to that power imbalance. You get one, maybe two age-defying soul-bonds per lifetime, Leo! At this point, dating women who are in that sweet spot of technically-legal-but-with-a-brain-that-is-still-developing is just your thing, and it is not a good look. Maybe stick with climate change instead.

mickey and the bear poster

In the interview, Morrone also expressed her desire to be recognized for more than her connection to Leo, saying of her new film, Mickey and the Bear, "I think more and more now that people are seeing the film, I'm slowly getting an identity outside of that… which is frustrating, because I feel like there should always be an identity besides who you're dating." With any luck, the positive reviews are a sign that she will soon have made a name for herself, and will not be thought of as "Leo's girlfriend" for much longer.

And with a bit more luck, maybe Leo will commit to a relationship long enough for a girlfriend to enter her thirties.


Is R. Kelly On the Run in NYC?

Previously, Kelly eluded justice through six-figure payoffs and threats, according to the Chicago Sun Times, so it's not hard to imagine that something similar could be at work.

Violent abuser R. Kelly may currently be on the loose.

The pop star was moved on Thursday from federal prison in Chicago to New York. He was supposed to touch down at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey on Friday morning, but his whereabouts are currently uncertain, according to his attorney, Douglas Anton. As of 11:00 PM Thursday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons website still listed him as being in the Chicago prison.

Kelly is scheduled to appear in court today, Friday, August 2nd, but his attorney has delivered a letter to judges Anne Donnelly and Steven Tiscione, telling them that he might have to delay the trial until he can find his client.

"I have spent the hours that followed his landing on the phone with the (Bureau of Prisons) at both New York MCC and Brooklyn MDC trying to locate my client, but no one would provide that information to me, even recognizing I am his attorney," Anton told Daily Mail.

Misinformation about the case is rampant, however, and other attorneys in Chicago have requested that Kelly be granted home incarceration. Previously, Kelly eluded justice through six-figure payoffs and threats, according to the Chicago Sun Times, so it's not hard to imagine that something similar could be at work. (It's not like our boys in blue are particularly famous for their moral codes).

Kelly has been accused of sexual assault against innumerable underage girls, and so the idea that he might be prowling the streets is disconcerting, to say the least. Is he pulling a Ted Bundy? Will this turn into a full-fledged manhunt? As of this publication, Kelly's whereabouts remain unclear.

At the site where the trial is supposed to take place, fans began lining up outside hours before. If Kelly is found, according to TMZ, he plans on pleading not guilty. If convicted, he could face up to 200 years behind bars.