A culture of misogyny, fear and ultimate control reigned supreme at NXIVM, according to witness testimony at the Keith Raniere trial from a former member who testified to being a sex “slave” within DOS, a secret, all-female organization within NXIVM.
Dressed in loose-fitting black pants and a sweater, with her light-blond hair piled high atop her head, the witness — identified only as Sylvie — recounted her time in NXIVM as well as DOS, during which she said she was ordered by her “master” to send explicit nude photos to Raniere and have sex with him.
In a self-assured, clipped British accent that occasionally wavered with emotion, Sylvie — who said she had signed an immunity agreement with the prosecution in exchange for her testimony — described being introduced to NXIVM when she was 18 via Clare Bronfman, the billionaire heiress who served as a high-ranking member of the group.
Bronfman, a former competitive horseback rider, hired Sylvie, a then-teenage equestrian, to work at her farm near NXIVM headquarters in upstate New York. Sylvie took her first NXIVM course in 2005, and her first impression of Raniere was that he was “very touchy-feely.” He was “kissing a lot of women on the lips,” she said. “There were a lot of women there. To be honest…that stood out to me.”
For years, Sylvie progressed throughout the organization, taking courses and later agreeing to become coached by Raniere when she decided to start training as a competitive runner. At one point, she was exercising nearly six hours a day, logging 10-12 miles on the treadmill as well as biking and swimming, despite the fact that she had a history of anorexia, and that people in NXIVM had at one point been tasked to help her gain weight and recover from her body issues. The regimen took its toll on her body, to the degree that she developed an abscess on her “bum,” in her words, which later became a fistula that required surgery.
After Sylvie consulted with a doctor who recommended she take a hiatus from exercising, Sylvie asked Raniere and Bronfman for permission to adopt a less rigorous routine. In an email that was read at trial, Bronfman said she had consulted with Raniere, who suggested she continue exercising “so long as it does not hurt.”
“Doesn’t hurt lol? It’s been hurting for weeks,” Sylvie responded in the email. Nonetheless, she continued her rigorous routine and sending daily check-ins to Bronfman and Raniere.
Sylvie also testified that there were signs that Raniere harbored misogynistic views that made her uncomfortable. The group taught that “men were very excessive about sex, whereas women were very materialistic and self-obsessed,” she said. This view meant that men were encouraged to have sex with multiple partners, while women were encouraged to be monogamous; women’s actions within the group were also highly scrutinized, with members criticizing each other for adopting what they viewed as stereotypically female behavior.
At one point, Sylvie testified, she was encouraged to take a NXIVM course taught by the Society of Protectors, NXIVM’s all-male organization, which she found “extremely stressful and scary.” The course allegedly focused on “humiliating the women” who were taking it, at one point forcing a female student to dress as a princess to cure her “princess-y” attitude, and having other female students pretend they were cows at a county fair competition showing off their udders, “because [the teachers] said they were showing their boobs too much,” Sylvie claimed.
In 2015, Sylvie developed a relationship with another NXIVM member and asked Bronfman and Raniere whether they thought it was a good idea for them to get married, in part as a way for her to obtain a visa. The two approved of the plan, but, she testified, Raniere suggested that Sylvie and her husband avoid having sex for two years as a way to keep it platonic, terms to which the two complied.
Later that year, Sylvie was approached by Monica Duran, a fellow NXIVM member who said she wanted to invite her to join a secret organization that was unrelated to NXIVM, “but if I wanted to hear what it was, I’d have to give some collateral,” Sylvie said. The statement drew ironic chuckles from the crowd, who had already been informed from the prosecution’s opening statements what exactly that “collateral” entailed.
“I think I just felt shame…and still do honestly, about this whole thing,” witness testified, verging on tears. “Everything was just lies and secrets and darkness.”
To join the secret “master/slave” program, Sylvie submitted a signed, stamped letter to her parents detailing a fictional life as a “prostitute,” as well as nude photos that Duran assured her would be placed in a safe. She said she was told to wear a necklace that Duran said had an unbreakable clasp, which Duran referred to as a “dog collar.” Prosecutors have also alleged that members of DOS were forced to be branded with Raniere’s initials, as well as those of “masters” within the group.
Sylvie’s admission into DOS also required her to fulfill “assignments,” the first of which was to seduce Raniere. The first time she heard about it, “I laughed in shock,” said Sylvie, who was not attracted to Raniere and was already married. Nonetheless, she complied, sending him a WhatsApp message telling him he looked “hot” in his glasses. His response was, “You’re gonna have to do better than that,” Sylvie testified.
Raniere and Sylvie continued exchanging messages on WhatsApp, with Raniere encouraging Sylvie to send nude photos. He allegedly supplied her with suggested poses and prompted her to be more “vulnerable” and to “go lower,” until the images were “literally just photos of my vagina,” Sylvie testified. At one point, she inadvertently sent an image to her father, who sent her a message on Facebook saying he had found her “medical pictures” and that she would have to get a new iCloud account. “It was an extremely weird, stressful time,” Sylvie said, at that point choking back tears.
After exchanging messages for some time, Raniere told Sylvie that the next time they interacted, it would have to be “in person.” Sylvie was told by Duran to meet Raniere at a house in a neighborhood where many NXIVM members rented houses. Duran told her, Sylvie testified, that she “needed to ask him to take my picture and to go along with whatever he said at the meeting.”
When she met him at the house, Raniere allegedly told Sylvie to undress and lie back on a “big white bed with dirty sheets” before allegedly performing oral sex on her and instructing her to pose for a photo with her legs open. Although Sylvie said she did not want to have sexual contact with Raniere, she complied, because “I understood that was the command of my master and that was what I was supposed to do as her slave,” she said.
Due to increased media attention on DOS in 2017, including a New York Times report that published photos of former DOS members’ brands, Sylvie was never subject to branding during her time in DOS. She said, however, that there were plans for her to undergo the practice, and that she was also told by her master to recruit more slaves in the organization and collect “collateral” from them, including nude photos. She was also told to dissuade a fellow slave from leaving the group on the grounds that she did not want to adhere to her master’s instructions to restrict herself to 800 calories per day, testifying that Raniere had alluded to releasing her collateral and that “she may need to be the first one to fall.”
Throughout her testimony, Sylvie, who left the group in 2017 and revealed that she had signed an immunity letter in order to testify, kept referring to Raniere’s misogynistic and controlling views as permanently warping her worldview, to the degree that she said she “started to hate the fact that I was a woman” and found it “very challenging” to overcome her thoughts of shame and inadequacy.
Her time in NXIVM and DOS, she said, taught her to “be ashamed of who I was as a person.” “I think I just felt shame…and still do honestly, about this whole thing,” she said towards the end of her testimony, verging on tears.
“Everything was just lies and secrets and darkness.”