WASHINGTON (RNS) — What is it with sects and sex?
The recent probe into alleged child abuse at a polygamous compound in West Texas started with an anonymous phone call about underage girls having sex with adult men.
The imprisoned Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints 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 never could achieve salvation.
But Jeffs isn't the first sect figure to come under legal scrutiny for sexual practices outsiders might consider un-usual, immoral or even abhorrent. In-deed, many new religious movements are distinguished not on-ly by unconventional beliefs, but also by the sexual proclivities of their male leaders.
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 these religious movements hold over their followers?
“Every group has its own dynamics and diversity,” said Catherine Wessinger of Loyala University in New Orleans, an expert in new religious movements.
“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 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.
Husbands in these fringe religious movements feel honored rather than angry when their wives are selected by the sect's leader for sexual favors, said veteran religion writer Don Lattin, who's written several books on cults, including Jesus Freaks, about an evangelical sect known as The Family.
“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,” Lattin said.
In the case of Jeffs' FLDS church, his one-man power to arrange 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 new religious movements, 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 movements — 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.
That's what prompted members of Heaven's Gate, a millennial sect that committed mass suicide in San Diego in 1997, to practice celibacy and male castration. They be-lieved there would be no sexual activity or relationships in their longed-for afterlife.
“I think it is absolutely connected because in a millennial movement, there is a belief that there is going to be an imminent transition to a collective salvation in which relationships will be completely transformed,” Wessinger said. “They are anticipating the way they think relationships will be after their collective salvation.”
Many spiritual experiences involve the body — Pentecostals speaking in tongues, fire-walking Hindus and Buddhists or even the bleeding wounds — stigmata — attributed to some Catholic mystics and saints. It isn't such a leap, then, for new religious movements to marry the sexual with the spiritual.
“Intense religious experiences often involve the body,” Lattin said. “It is a spiritual ecstasy that can be like a sexual ecstasy. You have that physical experience of body which is very real and very integral to religious experience.”
Sarah Pike, a religious studies professor at California State University, Chico, says there may be something distinctly American about new religious movements and sex.
“I think it has something to do with the fact that from the very beginning, Americans have had this sense that they are in the process of creating a new society and new governance,” Pike said. “It seems there is a willingness to experiment.”