The trial of Keith Raniere—leader of Albany's alleged sex cult, Nxivm—began this week in Brooklyn federal court, bringing a former member of the purported self-improvement group to the witness stand. One woman who previously existed inside Raniere's orbit testified about blackmail material used as "collateral" to keep recruits ensnared in Nxivm's web; coerced sex; and Raniere's justification of sex between adults and minors.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the court heard from Sylvie, a woman whom Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman (who pleaded guilty in late April) allegedly brought into the Nxivm fold, according to the NY Times. Sylvie joined a Nxivm satellite group called Jness, which taught its members to eschew the idea of victimhood and embrace the idea that women themselves are victimizers skilled at duping others. As a result, Sylvie said, "I started to hate the fact that I was a woman."
She also said she became subjugated to a "master," Monica Duran, who allegedly obligated her to run errands, wear a "dog collar" necklace in tribute to their arrangement, to follow a stringent diet, and to provide an incriminating letter that cemented Sylvie's commitment to Nxivm. In it, Sylvie told her parents she'd been performing sex work, according to the Times. The lie assured her loyalty, and Sylvie rose up the Nxivm ranks. She joined the secret sorority, DOS—an acronym for the Latin phrase "Dominus Obsequious Sororium," which roughly translates to "lord over the obedient female companions"—over which Raniere allegedly served as "Vanguard."
Soon after Sylvie's induction into DOS, she told the court, Duran set her first assignment: Seduce Raniere. "That was a command from my master and that was my role as a slave," Sylvie recalled, according to the Times. The way Sylvie saw it, she said, she had no choice: She struck up an explicit text exchange with Raniere, whom she reportedly met for the first time when he dragged recruits out of bed in the earliest hours of the morning to watch him play volleyball.
In her first text, Sylvie said she complimented Raniere's "hot" glasses; he reportedly responded, "You're going to have to do better than that."
Texting quickly escalated to sending nudes—a lot of nudes, which Sylvie's father eventually found in a cloud storage folder. When she asked Raniere if they could stop sexting, Duran ordered her to go see him for an in-person photo session, during which she would have to "go along with whatever else happened" after Raniere took the picture, BuzzFeed reports. According to Sylvie, Raniere made her lay down on a dirty mattress while he performed oral sex on her. When it was all over, he took a picture of her vagina, telling her she was "brave," "special," and "part of the inner circle," BuzzFeed reports.
For Sylvie, submitting to whatever the higher-ups asked of her seemed like a necessity if she didn't want her loved ones to see the ever-escalating pile of "collateral"—which eventually included multiple damning letters to her husband and her parents—Duran extracted from her. What's more, Sylvie said she was slated to receive a DOS brand featuring Raniere's initials, but that explosive media reports on the group's (alleged) shadowy activities postponed her "ceremony."
Ultimately, the branding never happened: Raniere subsequently fled to Mexico, where law enforcement officers arrested him in March 2018. Sylvie returned to her home country, England, where she has been trying to "recover her brain," according to BuzzFeed.
"Everything was just lies and deceit and darkness," Sylvie reportedly said at trial.
On Wednesday, jurors viewed an unsettling video in which Nxivm co-founder Nancy Salzman, who has also pleaded guilty to racketeering, read an alarming "sermon" Raniere prepared for Jness to explain why sex with minors was actually an acceptable activity.
"In some parts of the world, the age of consent is 17," he wrote, according to the NY Post. "In other parts of the world, the age of consent is 12."
In March, prosecutors added child pornography to Raniere's long docket—which includes charges of the sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and various forms of fraud—for the sexual relationships he allegedly had with two underage girls, one of whom may have been 15 years old at the time. Raniere has been accused of taking sensitive photographs of these women in compromising positions, and to support their child abuse case, prosecutors have also sought testimony from a woman who says Raniere repeatedly raped her starting when she was 12 or 13.
Raniere's sermon reportedly advised that, with respect to potential underage partners, people could answer the question of propriety for themselves: "Is the person a child, or is the person adult-like?"
According to the Post, that particular video came as part of a lesson on "abuse as a human construct," and the ways in which women use lies about mistreatment as a "rip-cord" to get what they want. Asked about the teaching in court, Sylvie reportedly said that even though she found the idea that a child could consent to sex at age 12 shocking, she accepted it at the time: "Now it doesn't make sense, but we'd always just agree."