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Think you know everything about DOS, the sex cult in NXIVM? Delve into how HBO's 'The Vow' blows it wide open.

How did the NXIVM sex cult actually work? Everything to know

If you followed the NXIVM case, you had the cliff notes version of what DOS was. DOS was the part of NXIVM that blew it wide open. The sex trafficking pyramid scheme where women were branded, blackmailed, and even imprisoned led to NXIVM’s fall from grace and the arrest & conviction of its inner circle. 

If you want more details, HBO’s The Vow dropped more disturbing details about how DOS worked. Diving into how members were recruited and what life was like for DOS slaves, The Vow leads viewers into a more disturbing glimpse into DOS. 

What was DOS

NXIVM was an umbrella for a bunch of different groups. The Vow shows that there were groups for education, men’s support, and even childcare. They all had one thing in common: promoting the main principles & techniques of NXIVM’s ESP programs, which centered around making members more mindful and “bringing joy” into their lives. 

DOS began as a group of women seeking to empower themselves. While they may have begun with good intentions, they quickly devolved into a “high control group” that simulated master-slave relationships to facilitate discipline. The problem? These “simulations” were real and involved blackmail, extortion, and sex trafficking

The Vow doesn’t specify how or why it devolved. The New York Times detailed & The Vow hinted that DOS could have been Allison Mack’s idea, even though Keith Raniere was at its head. Raniere told filmmaker & former NXIVM member Mark Vicente that the group started with his blessing. 

The brainwashing that made DOS work

The ESP techniques in NXIVM were developed by Nancy Salzman to, on the surface, empower its members to lead more fulfilling lives. Sarah Edmonson expresses the idea of being “at cause,” a technique taught by NXIVM where members learned that their emotions determined their reality. By controlling their emotions, they could determine the entire world. 

The concept sounds a lot like the New Age/psychological idea of “radical responsibility,” where an individual takes charge of everything in their life, even if they aren’t at fault. While it seems like radical responsibility is a great tool to make NXIVM members more responsible, it could be abused to make them comply with sex abuse. 

If everything’s your responsibility, it opens the floodgates for being gaslit. In The Vow, a phone conversation between Sarah Edmonson and her “master” Lauren Salzman reveals how easy it was for masters to build on NXIVM’s teachings to gaslight their members. Salzman says since Edmonson joined DOS, she “chose” to be branded, even though Edmonson wasn’t old about the branding until hours before it happened. 

“High Control”

Before Sarah Edmonson was invited into DOS, she and her fellow member at the time Mark Vicente heard about a “high control” group within NXIVM. Vicente expressed concerns to Keith Raniere that some of the women in NXIVM looked like “zombies,” like they were losing weight rapidly. 

By definition, a “high control” group is a relationship between a leader & their followers where the leader has a lot of control over their lives. These “controls” can include calories restrictions as Mark Vicente & his wife Bonnie Piesse observed with Allison Mack. Later, Mack confided in Piesse that Raniere was monitoring what she ate. 


Mack also told Piesse that she made a “sacred vow” to Keith Raniere, symbolized by a belly chain she wore under her clothes. This vow would be the precursor to DOS. Journalist & former NXIVM member Frank Parlato revealed on his blog that chains were the first thing “slaves” received upon giving collateral. Then they’d be branded. 

When Edmonson was recruited into DOS, she had to check in with her “master” Lauren Salzman three to four times a day. She had to ask when she could go to sleep and ask if her “master” needed anything. While other “slaves” did housework & errands for Salzman, Edmonson was pushed to recruit more women. 

More collateral than we thought

When first hearing about DOS, you’d expect only one piece of collateral was required of “slaves” before they were branded. This was far from the case. Sarah Edmonson recalls having to give new “collateral” every month, then every week in The Vow. 

First, Sarah Edmonson had to record herself lying about her husband. She alleged he abused her & her son when it wasn’t the case. Then, her “master,” Lauren Salzman asked for more collateral as she worked her way up. 

Salzman also demanded that her “slaves” recruit more slaves of their own. Edmonson was pressured to recruit women to DOS out of the Vancouver office. The pressure was so bad that she left the need to warn her successors after she quit about DOS, even though she doubted they’d believe her. 

How the branding worked

Sarah Edmonson described the night she was branded in The Vow. She was taken to a hotel room with the rest of Laura Salzman’s “slaves.” Edmonson was blindfolded and told to strip naked. When she was told to take her blindfold off, she found herself in a room with other naked women from NXIVM, some that Edmonson knew for a while. 

Then, the women were driven to a secret location. When they arrived, Edmonson deduced it was Allison Mack’s house. Then, one by one, the women were branded with a branding pen. Edmonson looked on with her fellow DOS members as each member was branded. When it was her turn, she considered calling her husband to come get her. 

What the brand meant

Edmonson & other DOS members were told that their brand represented the four elements, with the sky on top, a mountain, and a river. Upon closer inspection, Sarah Edmonson was horrified to discover that they looked like Allison Mack’s initials. When they were turned to the side, they also looked like Keith Raniere’s. 

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