Gender Attributes That Affect Women's Attraction

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 14, Number 1, 1997, pages 22-39

Gender Attributes That Affect Women’s Attraction to and Involvement in Cults

Shelly Rosen, C.S.W.

New York City


The author describes women who join cults as intelligent, active, and seeking to make an impact. These women are looking for an environment where they can experience themselves as powerful but not competitive, be part of a community where they can get recognition and mentorship, and feel somewhat safe from the gender inequities that characterize the culture at large. In reality, most cultic groups are characterized by attributes that are diametrically opposed to those they emanate and espouse. Thus, women in such groups become anxious and depressed but have difficulty leaving because the manipulative techniques of the leaders mirror the gender power differentials to which women are accustomed.

During the past 14 years I have seen countless women in my clinical practice who are current or former members of destructive cults. These women impressed me as strong, ambitious, and intelligent. Whenever colleagues, friends, or relatives discover that I work with former cult members and families of cult members, invariably these friends tell me a story about a capable, independent woman friend of theirs who has shocked everyone by getting involved in a cultic group.

Why are so many competent, sturdy women getting involved in cultic groups today? My hypothesis is threefold. First, that most people, and, in particular, women, have difficulty knowing that what cultic groups advertise and emanate is deceptive, and that difficulty “knowing” is unrelated to intelligence or psychological strength. Second, what cults claim to do and appear to be fits like a glove with the wants and desires of women today. Third, the techniques used by cult leaders to keep people involved mirror the power relationship between men and women in our culture, which makes it difficult for women to question or to put self-protection before that relationship.[1]

“Semiotic Incompetence” and Cult Advertising

In his book, The Ambiguity of Change, psychoanalyst Edgar Levenson (1983) promotes the idea that psychological and interpersonal difficulties are not the result of powerful, conflictual, instinctive drives, but rather that people become symptomatic, get involved in dissatisfying relationships, and feel frightened and overwhelmed when they are confused about the rules of social discourse. He writes: AI am claiming that mystification is not a secondary dissociation or fragmentation covered by anxiety, but a failure in a primary vital skill. From this perspective, neurotic difficulties in living arise from semiotic incompetence rather than poorly integrated internal drives” (Levenson, 1983, p. 34).

Semiotic incompetence is the difficulty people have in discerning complicated social communications. I take Levenson’s use of the word incompetence to mean a lack of knowledge in a particular skill. He is not referring to a person’s intellect, general emotional stability, or general competence in dealing with the social world. This lack of skill, or incompetence, can be compared to the lack of skill someone could have in understanding a foreign language or grasping the rules of a particular sport; it does not indicate an overall inability to communicate or to participate in sports. For example, when a woman finds herself feeling bad and confused when a friend is teasing her, it may be because the teaser is being somewhat mean-spirited in the teasing even if he is smiling. The person being teased may be unaccustomed to this kind of veiled hostility, having had little prior experience with it. She may sense that “something isn’t funny” and feel melancholy and confused. Similarly, when someone says “Let’s have lunch” to an acquaintance, the acquaintance may feel uneasy and disappointed when the initiator is not able to commit to a date.

In both of these cases, the recipient is “incompetent” to discern the particular communication within its social context. In the first example, the teaser is expressing hostility in the guise of being playful, and the person being teased is not skilled in understanding all the nuances of teasing communication. In the second example, the speaker is expressing a friendly phrase, somewhat common among business associates and professional colleagues, and is not offering a specific invitation; but the eager-to-meet friend is not familiar with this Abusiness person’s” parting phrase and so feels let down. If the receptive person in either of these examples were able to discern what was being subtly communicated, she would not feel anxious, confused, melancholy, and uneasy. Instead, in the first example, the teased person might feel angry or annoyed that the teaser was being hostile, but she would not feel the uneasiness we label neurotic or problematic. In the second example, the acquaintance might simply say, “Sure, I’ll call you to make a date”--without any intention of doing so, and be spared the discomfort of interpersonal confusion.

All of us have varying degrees of semiotic incompetence in different areas depending on our family histories, education, and exposure to different social contexts. The following example will highlight this phenomenon in a more intimate (and consequential) context.

“Pam”[2] came to see me 10 years ago regarding problems in her marriage. Her first husband died young, and Pam raised two sons alone while developing her own demanding business. She was not eager to remarry unless she met someone who could ease her burden, and most of the men she dated were less successful than she was. Finally she met “Dan,” an elegantly dressed businessman who wined and dined her. Dan was the first man to come along who said repeatedly that he wanted to “take care of her.” Unlike other men, he was relentless in his pursuit of Pam, entreating her to marry him. She finally agreed to marry him and to finance his new business venture which “would make them so rich she would never have to work again.”

When she came to see me, Pam was having panic attacks and did not understand why. She was feeling distant from her husband and guilty about her uneasiness and withdrawal. Within weeks of beginning therapy, she discovered that the new business was never started, her husband was broke, and he was still legally married to his first wife.

Did Pam marry this man because unconsciously she wanted to destroy all the security she had attained? Was she a weak and vulnerable person? Were her panic attacks a result of internal conflicts regarding marriage and her sexuality? I believe, quite simply, that Pam was unfamiliar with the nuances of the behavior of charm boys and psychopaths. Although she was strong and successful, she was raised by honest, hardworking parents who were straightforward in all their business dealings. Pam’s parents’ words matched their deeds. My client was, as Levenson would put it, semiotically incompetent to tease out the subtle cues--for example, Dan’s not making eye contact when she asked him certain questions, his secrecy around his first marriage--that would have helped Pam understand just what was going on with Dan.

The story of Pam and Dan is illustrative of the type of semiotic incompetence typical of people who get involved with cultic groups. They have difficulty reading the cues indicating that they are being deceived and manipulated. This lack of skill in discerning lying and manipulation is prevalent in our culture. We teach our children to be trustworthy, trusting, and optimistic as a way of maintaining a positive and cooperative stance in the world. For the most part, this kind of education leads to collaborative, successful outcomes. But those of us who value honesty, straightforwardness, and fairness have a kind of narcissism that can get us into trouble--that is, many of us believe that others think just like us. Without training in how to discern deception, many of us, like Pam, will believe the words of con artists and manipulators.

Both men and women in our culture are thus susceptible to the manipulation of cult recruiters and cult leaders. Once they are involved in cultic groups, people begin to have reactions similar to Pam’s. They become anxious, depressed, confused, dissociated. They feel that something is not “right,” but they are unable to clarify for themselves what the problem is. They continue to feel distressed--or, in psychiatric terminology, they are “symptomatic.” In the following sections I will elucidate compelling cultural factors that draw women to cults, how gender binds make it particularly difficult for women to see when they are being manipulated, and how these gender binds contribute to women having difficulty leaving destructive cults.

What Women Consciously Want and What Cults Advertise

Because of the rapid changes in our culture, modern women are in powerful, conflictual role binds. Women want to be successful in their own right, while still valuing relationship and nurturance. They want to be given guidance about how to manage in a rapidly changing world, while still maintaining their independence. They want to have romantic relationships with relative freedom from the pain of gender inequities. How do you succeed in a competitive economy and maintain a feminine identity? Where can you get guidance on how to live in a society so different from the one your mother grew up in? How can you cope with maturing into womanhood in a culture with ubiquitous gender inequities?

What cults advertise as their missions and what they seem to embody are congruent with these conflicting wishes. They are communities that appear to include values of cooperation and nurturance while expressing power and success, and they appear to offer “the answers” about how to cope in today’s world.

Power and Relationship

In many cases, women are led to believe that they can join a powerful community without the threat of social rejection or loss of femininity. Here’s one example:

“Julia” was recruited into a small Hebrew-Christian group led by a charismatic woman who successfully recruited people out of a large reform synagogue. Julia was interested in the group because it offered more intimacy than the services she had been attending. “Elizabeth,” the leader, also proclaimed grand goals for the group and its impact on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Julia was particularly drawn to the group’s supposed democratic style. Elizabeth said they would all work together to change the world, that it would be a joint project.

Years after leaving the cult, Julia rose to the top of a large corporation. Despite the fact that she was a top manager of hundreds of employees, she still signed her name to letters and memos without printing her title underneath her name. She ran meetings in an ultrademocratic fashion and struggled over making final decisions and claiming them as her own. She was in constant fear that she would appear too “bossy” or as a “power-hungry bitch.” She actually liked being in charge, but was frightened of others’ reactions to her taking that role. Julia still dreamed of a group situation where she might feel and identify with the power of the group without standing out too much. She had originally entered the cult with the conscious hope that the group would satisfy her need for making an impact without feeling like a tyrant.

Almost all the female former cult members I have seen in my practice reported that they had originally regarded their cult as a way to gain power and influence while maintaining deeply held values of caring for others. All of them had options to go into traditional male jobs or professions, but they wanted to make an impact in a noncompetitive community. Mattina Horner (1972) used Thematic Aptitude Tests (TAT) to investigate women’s attitudes concerning success and competition. She found that “women appeared to have a problem with competitive achievement, and that problem seemed to emanate from a perceived conflict between femininity and success” (pp.157B175).

Cultic groups do not admit to internal competition; at the same time, they clearly announce that their group is the one and only, most powerful, most realized, only one to be saved, to change the world, and so on. For contemporary women, this idealized view looks like a wonderful environment in which they can feel powerful while avoiding day-to-day experiences of competition.


For countless generations, human cultures either have been static in form and practice or have changed very slowly over time. Families and family groups valued elders as wise leaders who had wisdom to pass on. A child, an adolescent, or an adult could always turn to a text of laws and rules or to an older relative for answers to or insight about a particular problem. During the last few hundred years, however, cultural and industrial changes have been rapidly accelerating, and adults no longer feel that there are people in their community to whom they can turn to help them cope with problems unique to their generation. Women in particular have been faced with dramatic changes in their roles. But today, most people tend to think of elders and their knowledge as obsolete, silly, useless.

That humans evolved in clans allows us to postulate that there is a ubiquitous need for mentorship as one matures. Even if this is not so, it does appear that many people today are craving mentorship in various forms. The popularity of self-improvement programs, psychotherapy, self-help books, all varieties of cults, and New Age magical practices is a testament to this apparent overarching human need and concomitant search for guidance from people and texts.

“Leila” began working as a masseuse in a New Age health organization run by a physician. The doctor portrayed the business as a communal effort to live well, to teach others to live well, for everyone involved to reach their highest personal goals. Under the leader’s tutelage, Leila became vegetarian, and exercised and meditated daily. Leila later reflected that these new habits would have been wonderful to learn if then she had been able to lead a free life. However, Leila was pressed to do hours of cooking, cleaning, and recruiting for the group, so that instead of leaving the group to lead a full life with better habits, she became a full-time slave, embroiled in permanent inequity with the leader.

Leila had dreams of becoming a physical therapist. The leader consistently proclaimed that if the members followed the tenets of the group, then “all good things would come to them.” Leila was unsure about how to reach her career goals, but believed in her guru. She chanted and meditated and followed his instructions with the hope that “it would come to her.” Although the leader had proclaimed that under his guidance each member would reach his or her full potential, the “guidance” was disabling. Instead of being taught practical skills and wisdom, group members were involved in a process of submission that kept them in a position of permanent inequity with the leader. Years later in psychotherapy, Leila came to understand that she was in need of some concrete guidance about the steps she needed to take to apply to a graduate program in physical therapy.

In Jean Baker Miller’s (1976) short, seminal work on gender inequities, Toward a New Psychology of Women, she discusses the differences between temporary inequity and permanent inequity:

The “superior” party presumably has more of some ability or valuable quality, which she\he is supposed to impart to the “lesser” person. While these abilities vary with the particular relationship, they include emotional maturity, experience in the world, physical skills, a body of knowledge, or the techniques for acquiring certain kinds of knowledge. The superior person is supposed to engage with the lesser in such a way as to bring the lesser member up to full parity; that is, the child is to be helped to become the adult. Such is the overall task of this relationship. The lesser, the child, is to be given to, by the person who presumably has more to give. Although the lesser party often also gives much to the superior, the relationships are based in service to the lesser party. That is their raison d’être. (p. 4)

Former cult members often report that they were attracted to their group because they saw the group and its leader(s) as teacher(s) who could help them transform their lives. At the time they joined, they were not cognizant of the possibility of the inequity being permanent.

What Women Unconsciously Desire and What Cults Emanate

In the preceding section I elucidated what women might be consciously thinking about when they are being seduced by a cultic group, and how groups deceptively advertise that they can fulfill those wants. I also believe that women have unconscious, that is, unarticulated, desires that cultic groups appear to be able to fulfill. Whereas women are often quite conscious and adept at describing their wish for power, altruism, and mentorship, they are less clear about equally compelling wishes for safety from gender inequality and for recognition.

Return to the Safety of Latency

Recent books (Gilligan, 1982; Pipher, 1994) reveal that girls are confident, outgoing, and perform well in school until they reach adolescence. During the latency period, roughly ages 7 to 11, girls are relatively happy, are un-self-conscious, and enjoy hobbies and sports. Reports show that girls’ math and science scores plummet in the junior high school years. Self-esteem ratings on psychological tests fall as well. When girls reach puberty and become more involved with coed groups, confusion, acting out, and chaos begin. Research during the past 15 years indicates that in mixed-gender groups, boys are attended to more by teachers, and girls acquiesce to talking about topics important to boys rather than to themselves.

Given that these social inequities begin early on, elementary education harbors some protection for girls. First, girls tend to socialize less with boys during the latency years than they do in adolescence, so there is simply less opportunity to experience the inequity. Second, the structure of early education is more concrete and less subjective than in later school years. There is only one answer to the questions, for example, of how a particular word is spelled, only one fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice answer to other questions. There is a greater focus on acquired, concrete knowledge and “getting it right,” and winning is not yet influenced by the nuances of social discourse or bravado, which can, for example, have an impact on the grade a student might receive on a debate or an essay. There is a certain kind of orderliness characteristic of both elementary education and latency-age behavior that affords girls a significant measure of emotional safety from gender inequities. Everyone is in a classroom, they have their own desk, they all go to lunch at the same time, and so on. There is certainly greater adult supervision than in later years when adolescents begin to be expected to, and act as if they wish to, manage more on their own. There is less opportunity for sex play, name calling, physical violence.

Women are not aware of the structure of cultic groups when they are recruited; however, at the first “meeting,” “bible study,”or “course,” they are immediately exposed to the group’s habits, routines, and culture. Given that our society’s social rules are shifting and confusing, and that gender biases affect every aspect of life, it makes sense that women would be comforted when they find that a group they have been drawn to is structured like early school. Group meetings are organized, members are task oriented, and there is always a leader or elder present in the role of judge (much like a teacher), to tell a member if she is Adoing it right.” If the last place girls do well and feel relatively safe is in elementary school, then it is a comfort to return to a disciplined, regimented environment.

“Cathy,” at 25, had spent 4 years in a bible study group when she came to see me for psychotherapy. She had grown up in a large, intact Catholic family. Cathy reported feeling that “everything was okay until the end of junior high school,” when in contrast to her outstanding academic success in grammar school, she began to get poor grades. Her parents were confused about her sudden academic turnabout and reacted by being punishing and critical. Cathy remembers being preoccupied with thoughts about boys in her class. She was confused about how to relate to them, and overwhelmed with her sexual feelings. She saw herself as unappealing and incompetent whenever she was in the presence of boys.

During her sophomore year of college, while at a mall near her home one day, Cathy met recruiters from a neo-Christian cult. She was immediately drawn to the group’s supposed community work with indigents. During the course of therapy, Cathy remembered the sense of peace and safety she had felt when she first entered the group. She was able to articulate to herself and to me that she had liked that the men and women lived relatively separate lives in the group. They were housed in different buildings, had separate bible study classes, and were not allowed to date. She had strong romantic feelings toward two of the men in the group, but had virtually no contact with them. Cathy said that this was one of the most productive times of her life. She spent her days recruiting on college campuses and counseling other women in their bible studies. She was able to work long hours without being distracted by her thoughts about men and romance. The group leader demanded that members have no romantic contact until marriage; and although there seemed to be no realistic way to meet a man and marry, Cathy believed the leader’s promise that in time all the good women in the group would be married. During her years in the cult, Cathy did not worry about her feelings of inadequacy with men. She felt safe, spent her days working communally with the other women, and lived for many years with the “knowledge” that if she followed the group’s structure she would someday marry.

This is a prime example of using latency-age cognition and defenses to cope with the more complex, frightening world of romantic intimacy. Cathy wanted to marry and have a family, but she was confused and frightened about how to accomplish this. She felt uncomfortable and insecure when she was with men. She relied on what worked last for her: follow the teacher’s instructions and you will succeed.

Identificatory Love

“Marcia” joined a mass therapy cult when she was 35. She came to see me 3 years later, soon after leaving the group. We discussed the many ways that the group experience had been destructive to her. She was now in a satisfying job and had a supportive group of friends. She repeatedly expressed frustration about the men (as well as powerful women, e.g., employers) in her life because they did not praise her. Although she was glad to be out of the group, she began to realize that she deeply missed the leader’s attention. She still saw him as a powerful man who had recognized her own value and power.

The self psychologists and infant researchers have taught us over the past two decades that children need to have their actions and attributes mirrored in order to experience them as their own. When a child takes her first steps, her parents’ exclamations of praise and mirroring “ohs” and “ahs” are what lead the child to feel a sense of ownership. Without mirroring feedback, people are unable to own, or know, their own characteristics.

In our culture, boys and men are highly recognized for their activity, agency, and impact in the world. On the other hand, girls in our culture are often valued as being adorable, sweet, and the objects of desire, not agents of desire. Because they have to separate from their primary love object, mother, boys tend to feel more needful and anxious about their relationships to females than to males. Thus, fathers tend to feel more comfortable identifying and acknowledging their sons and other boys. According to Jessica Benjamin (1988), in The Bonds of Love, girls are then left with the ungratified wish to be seen and recognized by their active, independent fathers. Girls and women become depressed and envious, and they look to possess men rather than to experience power and desire themselves. Benjamin writes:

We know that many girls are left with a lifelong admiration for individuals who get away with their sense of omnipotence intact; and they express their admiration in relationships of overt or unconscious submission. They grow to idealize the man who has what they can never possess-“power and desire.” (p. 109)

Historically, the way that many women have enacted this dynamic dilemma has been to find men they admire and to make efforts to gain status by association (marriage) and to feel recognized by serving men and receiving their praise. As contemporary, educated women have been influenced by the feminist movement, they have acquired ambivalent feelings about gaining strength through romantic union. My hypothesis is that because they are attracted to the appearance of the benevolent power of the leader, many woman are unconsciously drawn to cults. Women want to get close to and please the leaders of their group so that they (the women) can feel some of the strength the leader appears to have. This is something that cults directly advertise--for example, “If you join our group you will be one of the saved,” or “You will be part of the answer,’“ or “You will become fully realized.” In essence, the message is: You will be special if you join our group and you will have a powerful impact on the world; I (we) have the power to recognize you as such.

The Interpersonal Processes that Keeps Women in Cults

The following example will highlight the dynamics that are operant in keeping women bound to destructive cultic groups once they become members enmeshed in the processes and the logic of the leader.

“Cara” was invited to a group meeting by her psychotherapist whom she had been seeing for 8 weeks. This was Cara’s first time in therapy and she was unaware that this was not standard practice. The therapist, “Paul,” described the meeting as a gathering of very special people brought together to talk about social and political issues. Cara attended and was surprised to find that Paul was running the meeting and appeared to be the leader of this group. Paul was a charismatic speaker, and Cara was mesmerized by his talk. She saw that all the people in the audience wore radiant smiles and laughed at all of Paul’s jokes. Paul talked about how the group would influence social and political policy, and how the group was promoting equality for all. Cara was impressed with how cooperatively the group worked to set up and serve dinner for themselves and the newcomers.

Cara “pledged” to be a member of the group, and for the first few months she felt happy, productive, and part of the group. Gradually Cara noticed that there were group practices that seemed at odds with what she had been told were the group’s beliefs. She felt anxious and confused about what she saw, but was too frightened to raise her concerns. Finally Cara spoke up about her worries in an individual session with Paul. She told him that she was dismayed that she had observed him harshly criticizing group members for asking questions about the seemingly unfair way he assigned tasks to members. She said she was upset to hear that a friend in the group was told that she must go along with all her husband’s sexual requests. And Cara told Paul that recently her feelings had been hurt when Paul, who up until now had only praise for her work, was preoccupied with new recruits.

In a warm and comforting voice, Paul answered each of her concerns thoroughly. He explained to Cara that her feelings about each of these things were related to her “uptightness,” as they had discussed in therapy. He “reassured” her that all his actions were aimed at “helping” members to become more democratic, loving, and “realized.” Paul went on to remind Cara of her strict Dutch Reform background and her “snobby” relatives. He criticized her for having “severe problems with commitment.” Cara continued to feel uneasy about the group practices, but also felt stifled about asking more questions. She recalled Paul’s explanations, and interpreted her feelings as resistance to growth and difficulty escaping the attitudes of her family. Because Paul had spoken to her in kind, soothing tones, she felt unable to continue questioning him. She became increasingly depressed and anxious, but always put on a good smile for the new recruits at the evening meetings. She longed for all the things she had entered the group for and hoped that if she worked hard enough she would experience the benefits.

Cara was drawn into the cult because she believed the advertisement of the group and lacked the skills to perceive manipulation. She did not have the semiotic competence to recognize that, for example, so many beatific smiles and loving welcomes in an audience might indicate that something is amiss. As time passed, Cara became confused and overwhelmed by contradictions she could not understand. Like all cult members, she was distressed that she felt dissatisfied in a group that she thought was perfect. She blamed herself for feeling bad, and made an even deeper commitment to the group.

Cult members have to go through three stages in order to gain clarity and leave the group. First, they have to ask questions regarding what they feel upset and confused about. Second, they have to gain competence to read the cues that they are being deceived. Third, they have to believe that leaving the group is an option that will lead to a successful outcome and the experience of mastery. Moving through these stages is difficult for both men and women because cult leaders and elders are masters at manipulation. However, there are compelling factors that make it even more difficult for women than for men to inform themselves and take action to leave cults.


Women throughout the world are socialized to be giving, trusting, caretaking. When a woman raises questions about the status quo, she is seen as critical, making waves, and going against what is culturally defined as feminine. For example, if Pam, the woman mentioned in the beginning of this article, had questioned her husband’s honesty, she might have risked being thought of poorly by her husband, and she might have seen herself as a “bad” wife. Women who speak clearly and directly are often discounted and ignored, thus they are punished for doing so. A 1990 study showed that women in all walks of life who speak assertively are listened to less by male audiences than those who speak hesitantly and deferentially (Carli, 1990, pp. 941B951). The message to women is: to be a successful woman, you must hide what you know and refrain from questioning. This is unlike the training to be male, which includes encouragement to be a maverick and to embrace and express their grandiosity and entitlement (Kaschak, 1992, pp. 62B65).

The power differential in cults mirrors this difference between men and women. Cult leaders take liberties to ask members all about their lives and then make judgments about the personal information acquired. Meanwhile, cult members are discouraged from asking questions and are rewarded for not doing so. Leaders use group ideology to stifle questioning and enforce blind loyalty to the cult. Questioning-members of Hindu cults are told that they are listening too much to their mind, as if mind is a dirty word. Questioning-members of neo-Christian groups are told that they lack faith. Those in mass therapy groups are told they are not taking responsibility for creating their own confusion, and so on.

Reading the Cues of Manipulation

Women are not only trained to speak deferentially in our culture, but also are socialized to listen more keenly to what men say than to their own feminine voice. Studies by Deakins (cited in Tannen, 1990) demonstrated that in mixed-gender groups, women adopted the manner in which men speak. In addition, both men and women talked more about the topics men discussed in all-male groups than the topics women discussed in all-female groups. Therefore, women are more accustomed to adjusting to the linguistic style and content of the dominant group than are men.

At the moment that Paul, in the earlier example, was describing to Cara his version of why she was distressed, Cara was focused on understanding and internalizing Paul’s narrative rather than listening to her own inner voice. Her confusion was indicating that “something is not right here,” but her impulse was to pay closer attention to what Paul was communicating.

Leaving the Cult

The interpersonal process that keeps people in cults is a cyclical one. Cult members feel anxious, depressed, dissociated, exhausted, and overwhelmed with confusion. They try to get help within the group and talk to either the leader, the elder, or another dedicated member. Like Cara, they may question practices that contradict group doctrine, or they may express doubts about continuing in the group. Invariably, the leader, elder, or other cult member will provide a narrative to describe (and reframe) the distress. These stories are often convoluted and blaming. In Cara’s case, Paul brought up what he had previously judged and labeled as Cara’s “uptightness,” which bore a resemblance to judgments Cara had made about her own family. Cara felt unsatisfied by the interpretations, but they were intellectually convincing.

Cult leaders are thus armed with three powerful manipulative tools to keep people from leaving cults. They can use narratives based on information gathered during ritualized confessions, they can invoke cult ideology to criticize questioning, and they can criticize a member’s ability to maintain commitments. The latter is particularly powerful in manipulating women who, unlike men, are raised to believe that their success is synonymous with maintaining relationships and affiliations. For example, it is estimated that 9 out of 10 women stay with an alcoholic spouse, while 9 out of 10 men do not (Kinney & Leaton, 1978).

When a woman’s relationship feels unsatisfying, she blames herself. “Women may wonder why they can’t control relationships so that they meet all their needs, so that they turn out well, so that they last. It feels like a personal failure when a relationship fails” (Kaschak, 1992, p. 181). Therefore, women will work as hard as they can to stay in relationships and make them last, even if this includes not attending to, or blaming themselves for, the pain.


In the long-standing and somewhat covert debate about the meaning of cult involvement, people tend to see cult affiliation in one of two ways. Cult members are seen either as “pathological,” “vulnerable,” “in need of a crutch,” or “going through a phase”--all terms that suggest weakness, or fragility. Or cults are seen as so all-powerful that anyone can be sucked up and brainwashed if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My own view, elucidated here, is that women today become involved in cultic groups because they are interested in the promise that these groups advertise, are drawn to elements of cultic life that appeal to wishes that might be unconscious, and lack skill in understanding the complexities of certain social communications. In essence, I believe that women who join cults do so because they are strong, hopeful, and saddled by cultural dilemmas. Because women, like most of us, are unable to tease out a particular set of complicated, manipulative communications, they are at risk of being seduced by cultic groups. For a woman to become more competent in discerning the deception and control, and then to leave a cult, puts her at odds with the dominant social values defining her as a successful woman.


  1. When referring to women and their relationships to men or the dominant culture, I am addressing women’s gender role not their sex per se nor their sexual preference. I define gender role as the category assigned to a person at birth based on his or her genitalia. Once given this category, a person is socialized to behave in particular ways in relation to members of the opposite sex and to the culture at large (including in relation to the self).

  2. All case studies are composites, and all names are pseudonyms.


Benjamin, J. (1988). The bonds of love: Psychoanalysis, feminism and the problem of domination. New York: Pantheon.

Carli, L. (1990). Gender, language and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(5), 941B951.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Horner, M. (1972). Toward an understanding of achievement-related conflicts in women. Journal of Social Issues, 28, 157B175.

Kaschak, E. (1992). Engendered lives: A new psychology of women’s experience. New York: Basic Books.

Kinney, J., & Leaton, G. (1978). Loosening the grip. St. Louis, MO: Mosley.

Levenson, E. (1983). The ambiguity of change: An inquiry into the nature of psychoanalytic reality. New York: Basic Books.

Miller, J.B. (1976). Toward a new psychology of women. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York: Ballantine Books.

Tannen, D. (1990). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. New York: Ballantine Books.


Shelly Rosen, C.S.W., is an interpersonal psychoanalyst and family therapist in New York City. She has worked with former cult members and their families since 1983.