What you may not know is that getting to this point was a long and painful process, in large part because Raniere obtained “consent” from his victims. But, Raniere targeted women who had some status and connections. Smallville actress Allison Mack was his chief slave, responsible for the recruitment and management of many others. And, India Oxenberg, daughter of former Dynasty star and Yugoslavian princess Catherine Oxenberg, was among his victims. In other words, at least some of his victims were loved and supported by people with money, a degree of power, and a public platform.
Still, the journey to shutting Raniere down included a string of heartbreaking defeats. Oxenberg has written an excellent book about her struggle to liberate her daughter—branded and restricted to a 500-calorie-per-day diet—from Raniere’s clutches.
Imagine what would have happened if Raniere’s victims had been powerless, and lacking in the kind of support network many NXIVM slaves had.
But wait. We don’t have to.
Because as I write this post, about 30 young women have come forward to make very similar allegations against Wil Francis, formerly of the band Aiden, and also known as William Control. The photos some have shared are enough to make this mother of young women vomit, and their stories and text conversations with Francis are heartbreaking. But, in one way, Francis was smarter—or, perhaps, just less ambitious—than Raniere. His victims don’t have powerful parents or hefty television series salaries. They don’t even have credibility, because they appear to have been carefully selected for their weaknesses—mainly, mental illness and drug addiction.
They’ve banded together. They’ve been to the police. And, although law enforcement knows that Francis and his attorney submitted at least one piece of fabricated evidence to them, the response boils down to, “But you consented.”
Never mind that some of these women say they were involuntarily drugged before they “consented.” Never mind that they were fragile to begin with and systematically groomed, some over a period of years, beginning when they were teens. Never mind that you can’t actually consent to grievous bodily harm.
Nothing we can do. You consented.
Nothing they can do, either, when Francis releases selective texts and videos (often shot without consent) of these young women.
Fans rally around him. His next victims wait in the wings.
How common is this kind of systematic abuse? I don’t know. I know this: this one happened. I know it because although Francis talks about how this was all voluntary, although he claims to be wounded and not understand why all these crazy women are jumping on this bandwagon, I first heard the story of one of his victims years ago, long before NXIVM, long before #MeToo, long before I fully realized how not exactly rare this kind of thing is.
But I’m not writing this tonight because of Keith Raniere’s recent conviction, and I’m not writing it tonight because Wil Francis recently released an expose video of a young woman I’d watched fight tooth and nail for her recovery for years after her encounter with him.
I’m writing it tonight because Ryan Kopf, another man whose profession (as a con organizer and promoter) gives him a touch of charisma and access to a wide range of young women, has been accused of sexual assault by at least 8 women. I know one of them, too—a woman in an entirely different social circle than the other, of a different age, living in a different state. And today, Kopf publicly released recordings of her, just as Wil Francis has been doing to his victims.
I don’t have a neatly packaged solution to offer. The world is messy and unpredictable. It can be hard to know who to believe. But, I will offer a few things I think we should all keep in mind:
1. The most successful predators choose their victims carefully, and the way they treat the strong, healthy people in their lives may be entirely different from the way they treat those they’ve identified as vulnerable (read: the fact that someone has treated you well in no way guarantees that he hasn’t treated someone else horribly)
2. Don’t ignore red flags, no matter how appealing the “opportunity.” Remove yourself from the situation as soon as it starts to feel a little weird. By the time you’re sure it’s not safe, it may be too late to escape.
3. Reserve judgment. I’m not going to go all the way to “Believe women!” Women can lie just like men can lie and children can lie. But, consider the harm. Far too many victims have been publicly attacked by hundreds or thousands of strangers. Even if you doubt her story, there is no reason to risk inflicting deeper, more lasting damage on someone whose world has already become a dangerous place.
4. If you’re concerned about a friend, your daughter, or even a stranger at a concert who seems like she may be in a dangerous situation, ask. Offer help. The worst that can happen if you ask (a rude response, someone thinking you’re intrusive) is a hell of a lot less worse than the worst that can happen if you’re right and say nothing.
5. Consent requires that the person giving it has the mental capacity and freedom to choose. Consent granted under the influence of drugs (especially drugs administered without consent), as the result of blackmail, to avoid physical harm, or because the victim’s mental state has been eroded through sustained abuse and manipulation is not consent. Law enforcement and prosecutors, of course, know this—but those cases are messy and difficult to prove, so it’s easier to say, “There’s nothing we can do.” Hold them accountable.
I still feel like I’m tapering off, like there should be something more solid to offer. If I think of it, I’ll be back. If YOU think of it, please add it in the comments. In the meantime, don’t look away. This is ugly and none of us wants to see it, but bright light is our only real defense.