By Brendan Pierson and Joseph Ax
NEW YORK, May 8 (Reuters) - A former member of an alleged New York sex cult testified on Wednesday that the secretive group's leader forced her into an unwanted sexual encounter and took nude photos of her after he announced that he was her "grand master."
The leader of the Nxivm group, Keith Raniere, 58, is charged with ordering numerous women to have sex with him, branding them with his initials and forcing them to adhere to a near-starvation diet.
Sylvie, a 32-year-old British woman who testified under her given name only, is the first alleged victim to appear as a witness at Raniere's trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.
"I felt shame," a tearful Sylvie said, telling jurors she did not want to engage in sexual acts with him but felt she had no choice.
"Now you're part of the inner circle," she recounted Raniere telling her after the encounter.
Raniere has pleaded not guilty to charges including sex trafficking and child pornography, and his lawyer has argued that he never forced any women to act against their will. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Sylvie told jurors how her involvement in Nxivm eventually led her to become a "slave" in a secret sorority within the group called DOS, which required her to recruit other women.
She now lives in England with her husband, also a former Nxivm member, and testified under an immunity agreement with prosecutors.
She painted a picture of an organization awash in misogyny. Nxivm's co-founder, Nancy Salzman, who has pleaded guilty, once instructed a women's class that "abuse" is a variable concept and that the age of consent is as young as 12 in some places, Sylvie testified.
"We were taught that women were self-absorbed, narcissistic," she said. "I feel like in some ways that was the worst part of it for me."
During cross-examination, defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo, showed Sylvie text messages she sent to Raniere that were full of affection, even after their sexual encounter. He also pressed her on whether she could have left Nxivm during her decade-plus as a member.
"Yeah, no one held me there," she conceded, though she also said it did not feel like staying was entirely her decision, either.
Nxivm, which started under another name in 1998 and is pronounced "Nexium," was based in Albany, New York, and operated numerous self-improvement centers across North and Central America.
Prosecutors say Raniere established DOS in 2015, setting up a pyramid-like structure of female slaves and masters with himself alone at the top. Participants were forced to provide potential blackmail material, or "collateral," such as explicit videos or damaging information.
Raniere is standing trial alone after five co-defendants, including Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman and former "Smallville" star Allison Mack, pleaded guilty to related crimes. (Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.