Witness says she was forced into sex act with self-help guru

In this courtroom artist's sketch, Keith Raniere, second from right, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, attends his trial in Brooklyn federal court, Tuesday, May 7, 2019 in New York. Above him is a screen with an image of a branding, containing his initials KR. A federal prosecutor says the self-help guru used threats, "shame and humiliation" while grooming women for sex. She also described how some female followers were branded with Raniere's initials. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

A woman has told a jury she was forced to have sex with the leader of a secretive upstate New York self-help group

NEW YORK — A woman testified on Wednesday that she became a "slave" under the control of a self-help guru who counted her calories, preached that women too often play victim and, ultimately, used her for unwanted sex.

The 32-year-old witness — referred to by only her first name to protect her privacy — told a jury at the trial of Keith Raniere that a female "master" in a secret sorority serving Raniere ordered her to "seduce" him. When she was summoned to meet with him in private, she felt she had no choice but to to strip for a nude photo and let him perform oral sex on her "on a big bed with dirty white sheets," all behind her husband's back, she said.

Afterward, Raniere told her, "Right now, you're part of the inner circle." From then on, he added, he would be her "grand master."

Plans were made for the woman to be branded with Raniere's initials like other slaves, she said. But before that could happen, the group splintered amid an FBI investigation that resulted in Raniere's capture on a U.S. warrant in Mexico in 2018.

The account came on the second day of the federal sex-trafficking trial of Raniere, once the spiritual leader of a self-improvement organization based in upstate New York, called NXIVM, that's been compared to a cult. The 58-year-old defendant has denied charges that he used the group to control and exploit women, insisting his sexual encounters with followers were consensual.

Five of Raniere's co-defendants, including TV actress Allison Mack and wealthy heiress Clare Bronfman, have pleaded guilty. Mack, described in court papers as a "master" in the "master-slave" subgroup, could be called as a witness.

In two days of testimony, the first witness described herself as a lost soul from England who was introduced to NXIVM at age 18 by Bronfman, a fellow equestrian and deep-pocket benefactor of Rainere and his group.

She described hoping to overcome her fears in life by taking courses that earned her a position as a "coach" in NXIVM. Women who joined were expected to watch their weight and adhere to Raniere's slogans like, "There are no ultimate victims, therefore I will not chose to be a victim," she said.

In 2015, she was recruited for the secret society, agreeing to turn over nude photos and other embarrassing "collateral" that could be used against her if she disobeyed her masters, she said.

On cross-examination, the witness was confronted with private text chats — sprinkled with heart emoji — in which she told Raniere in the months leading up to his arrest how much she appreciated him. She also admitted she always was free to leave the NXIVM community if she got up the courage.

"Yeah, no one held me there," she said.

But the still-married witness added that what she said to Raniere "and what I felt were different." Her status as a slave meant she had to idolize Raniere and follow his commands, even if it meant submitting to having sex with him, she said.

"I think I felt shame and still do, honestly, about the whole thing," she said. "I felt everything was lies and secrets and darkness."

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