Federal prosecutors allege the leader of an elusive US self-help group oversaw a “slave and master” system in his group called Nxivm, where female members were expected to have sex with him and were branded with his symbol.
Keith Raniere, the leader of the group, left the country last year after former members spoke to US media.
A number of women came forward for an investigation published in the New York Times newspaper in October, which led to the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn opening an investigation into the group.
Nxivm (pronounced nexium) describes itself as a “community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human.”
Based in Albany in upstate New York, the group was founded as Executive Success Programs in 1998 and says it has worked with more than 16,000 people.
Members of the group are reported to include wealthy heiresses, the son of a former Mexican president and Hollywood actresses.
An affidavit filed as part of the FBI’s criminal complaint says that Nxivm operated as a “pyramid” group where self-help workshops cost members thousands of dollars.
Federal investigators say that in recent years Mr Raniere, 57, set up a secret sorority within the group known as Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), meaning Master Over the Slave Women.
The complaint says that once recruited as “slaves”, women were allegedly expected to perform menial chores for “masters” and have sex with Mr Raniere, who was known as “The Vanguard”.
Investigators say Mr Raniere had a rotating group of 15 to 20 sexual partners, who were not allowed to discuss their relationship with him or have one with anyone else.
They allege that “slaves” in the group had to eat extremely low-calorie diets because of Mr Raniere’s preference for thin women.
According to the complaint, members of the group were branded with Mr Raniere’s initials using a cauterising pen, often on their pelvic areas, in ceremonies that were filmed by members.
To gain admission, women were required to give their recruiter — or “master,” — naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.