This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
A man who prosecutors said sent WhatsApp messages requesting a “fuck toy slave” be groomed for his pleasure does not have a “misogynist view” of women, according to his lawyer.
Keith Raniere, the founder of the self-help company NXIVM, was charged with sex trafficking and racketeering in 2018 after he created a women’s group that prosecutors allege collected naked photos and other damaging “collateral” as a means to ensure total obedience and submission.
In closing arguments at the end of the seven-week trial, a lawyer representing Raniere argued his client was no sexist. “I don't think there's anything, in this case, to suggest Keith has a misogynist view of women,” his attorney Marc Agnifilo told a jury in Brooklyn federal court Tuesday.
The comment came after weeks of testimony from former NXIVM insiders who said Raniere frequently made humiliating jokes about women’s bodies, demanded the women around him undertake extreme diets, and punished women for not making Raniere their top priority. Witnesses testified Raniere’s self-help classes taught that women were naturally less responsible than men and that a secret society within NXIVM, that branded members with Raniere’s initials, offered a way for women to overcome their gender’s shortcomings and build character.
Raniere has pleaded not guilty to all criminal charges.
“The moment a woman walks among humans and is identified as a woman, she is disabled from interfacing with responsibility,” Raniere said in a one-hour video added to evidence Friday. Parts of the lecture were read by NXIVM founder Nancy Salzman at a women’s group meeting before Raniere’s arrest. “Men see women as not able to deal with responsibility. That is true. And the reason why is because men keep them away from it. Which was necessary in the jungle.”
Though he claimed not to see misogyny in Raniere’s teachings or actions, Agnifilo has actually accused prosecutors of playing to a “sexist agenda.” Following Raniere’s arrest in spring 2018, Agnifilo said men in fraternities brand themselves, and that women should be able to brand themselves, too.
“I think the government's position has elements of sexism in it,” Agnifilo told CBC in an interview last year. “Women want to be in a secret group and want to be branded and all of a sudden we're very quick to say, ‘Oh, poor dears. They must be victims because no right-thinking, free-willed woman would ever want that for herself.’ And I think that's sexist and I think the government is playing to a sexist agenda. You know, men do these things, we call them Marines. Women do these things, we call them victims.”
On Tuesday, US federal prosecutor Mark Lesko suggested Agnifilo and his client might not have a strong grasp on the concept of misogyny, and pointed to some sexist tropes in Agnifilo’s own remarks.
Agnifilo said Raniere had unique relationships with all of the women who testified at his trial, describing Lauren Salzman's testimony as tantamount to her breaking up with Raniere in front of the jury. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I think that was her way of saying we’re done—my life commitment is over.”
Lesko wasn't having it. “This isn’t high school ladies and gentlemen, this is serious business,” he said. “What Lauren did was not breaking up—it was testifying under oath.”
Agnifilo suggested prosecutors overstated Raniere’s control over women, pointing to testimony about the NXIVM founder hiding in bathrooms and getting jealous over penis size. “He’s not mighty, he’s not great, he’s not God-like,” Agnifilo said. “He sat there and created curriculum.”
Agnifilo said a witness identified in court as Daniela may have been untruthful, and that she was “playing the game” when she told healthcare workers at an abortion clinic that she was only visiting the United States. She testified she had actually been living in the US undocumented since she was 16 years old and had been impregnated by Raniere in her early 20s.
The prosecution countered that the game-playing comment echoed Raniere’s absurd justifications for confining Daniela in a bedroom for 705 days. Daniela testified she was kept in a room for nearly two years as punishment for showing romantic interest in another man, and that “game playing” was one of the reasons Lauren Salzman and Raniere gave for extending her time in the room.
“That’s blaming the victim—that’s what he’s doing,” Lesko said Tuesday.
Agnifilo said a witness identified as Nicole had a “casual intimate relationship” with Raniere, a point Nicole pushed back on under cross-examination. Smallville actress Allison Mack first invited Nicole to the secret society within NXIVM in 2016 as a way to help with her acting career and push on her fears and depression, the witness testified. To join the group, Nicole submitted sexual photos and videos and a letter falsely accusing her father of molesting her as a child, which prosecutors say was then used as leverage to ensure Nicole’s participation in sexual encounters with Raniere.
When Agnifilo asked about this “intimate relationship” earlier this month, Nicole responded with an “if you can call it that.” When Agnifilo asked what Nicole would call it, she said “I don’t know, I don’t think there’s an actual name for it.”
Nicole testified that Raniere blindfolded her, stripped her naked, and tied her to a table in May 2016. She said that Raniere then began asking her questions about her sexual history while a third unidentified person began performing oral sex on her. “I was like holy shit, there's somebody else in the room,” Nicole testified. Prosecutors alleged the scene was also recorded on video for Raniere’s sexual satisfaction.
Agnifilo nevertheless attempted to characterize the secret society as “strong medicine” that may have actually helped Nicole with her depression and thoughts of suicide.
“That’s no medicine, that’s a sex crime. That’s what that is,” Lesko responded. “What he’s really saying is Nicole wanted it, that it was good for her."
Jury deliberations are set to begin Wednesday.
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