Why Does Sex Play Such a Large Role for Fringe Sects?

By Kimberly Winston
Abilene Reporter-News
June 12, 2008

What is it with sects and sex?

The Texas probe into alleged child abuse at a polygamous compound started with an anonymous phone call about underage girls having sex with adult men. Reports circulated of rumpled bed linens inside the sect's glistening temple.

Its imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs, reportedly has dozens of wives and would grant and deny wives to his male followers depending on their perceived worthiness. Without multiple wives, he taught, they could never achieve salvation.

Yet 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.

Warren Jeffs looks across the courtroom during his preliminary hearing in St. George, Utah. Jeffs heads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has a compound in Eldorado. The sect has been suspected of practicing polygamy.
Photo by Douglas C. Pizac

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?

"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 (make them angry)," said veteran religion writer Don Latin, who's 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.

Yet while groups like Jeffs' may garner headlines, they're neither new nor unusual. American history has seen the rise — and often the decline — of NRMs, many with unusual sexual attitudes:

• In the late 1700s, the Shakers established a celibate community in upstate New York. They eventually died out due to lack of new members.

• The Oneida Community, a utopian commune established in the 1840s in upstate New York, held that sex with someone "spiritually higher" advanced one's spirituality.

• Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, proclaimed polygamy a divinely revealed concept, and it remained so until the mainstream Mormon church disavowed it in 1890. That initiated the rift that would lead to the founding of the FLDS church.

• David Berg, the charismatic founder of The Family, reinterpreted Jesus' teachings on love as sanctifying multiple sexual partners, including underage girls and boys. The group renounced sex with minors in 1986.

Wessinger also links "millennial" NRMs — those that focus on a coming end of the world, like the FLDS sect — with unusual sexual attitudes. Such groups, she says, often enact relationships they believe will exist in the afterlife.


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