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'I felt disgusted and ashamed,' sex cult trial witness says

Portrait of Keith Raniere that hung in the

Portrait of Keith Raniere that hung in the NXIVM facility that was entered into evidence at trial. Credit: U.S. attorney's office

A British woman who became a “slave” in a group tied to the alleged Albany-based sex cult NXIVM gave jurors a grim, graphic description of  being forced to have sex with leader Keith Raniere, as testimony resumed Wednesday in Raniere’s Brooklyn federal court racketeering and sex trafficking trial.

“Sylvie,” a one-time equestrian and 13-year member of NXIVM whose last name was kept secret in court to preserve her privacy, told jurors that after months of sending nude pictures to Raniere on orders of her female master, she was told to meet him at a house and “ask him to take my picture.”

He ushered her to an upstairs room that had a “big bed with white dirty sheets,” she said, and when she mustered the courage to ask the question — “like I was having some weird out-of-body experience” — he told her to strip and  lie on the bed. She and Raniere then had a sexual encounter.

“I remember feeling like it was going on for a really long time,” she said. “…. I made sounds to make it stop, but I felt like it went on for a really long time.”

When he was done, she said, Raniere — who had served as her philosophical guru for years — took her picture, told her she was “brave” and “special,” and said he was now her “grandmaster.” But she said it “was a whole different realm of darkness.”

“I felt disgusted and ashamed,” she said. “I felt like it wasn’t even me that was experiencing this.”

Raniere, 58, is charged with racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor and conspiracy, for allegedly promoting NXIVM as a self-help group but using it instead to exploit, control and coerce women. His lawyers contend that members participated willingly, and have developed regrets only in retrospect.

Prosecutors have claimed at least one woman Raniere had sex with was a minor, a 15-year-old Mexican girl. They put in evidence on Wednesday a videotape of a lecture prepared by Raniere and delivered by a top NXIVM leader to Sylvie and other women, that appeared to justify sex with girls as young as 12.

"Is the person a child, or is the person adult like?” NXIVM leader Nancy Saltzman asked. “ … Does the 12-year-old understand the choice she’s making? That determines whether it’s abuse.”

In testimony that began on Tuesday, Sylvie said Raniere and Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman, who pleaded guilty last month, controlled her life for years, micromanaging her efforts to cope with anorexia and supervising her training as a rider and later as a runner.

When she was ordered to “seduce” Raniere, she said, she had recently married another NXIVM member — partly to help get a visa — but had been told she couldn’t have sex with her husband and had to betray a marriage agreement to not have sex with anyone else.

“Everything was just lies, and secrets, and darkness,” she said. “It was just a horrible time.”

Members of the master-slave group had to give up “collateral” — nude pictures or embarrassing confessions — that could be held over them to force compliance, and Sylvie said that although “no one held me there,” NXIVM also convinced adherents they needed Raniere’s philosophies to escape childhood indoctrination and find fulfilling lives.

“I think I’m still trying to recover my brain from the experience,” she told jurors. “ … It led me to feel there’s something wrong with me, I just can’t be a good person …. It’s very difficult to get over.”

And part of the teaching tore away at her identity as a woman, Sylvie said, as Raniere and his female acolytes taught that women “cry victim” and complain about “abuse” to “get off the hook,” she said, and “want to be seen as victims when they’re the victimizers.”

“It felt like everything about being a woman was not good,” Sylvie testified. “That the problem was being a woman, and I had to snap that out of me.” She became willing, she said, to do whatever she was told to “fix myself.”

“I felt like I couldn’t trust myself in telling right from wrong,” she said.

The trial resumes Thursday.

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