“You can't see Hendrix anymore because he's dead, so you gotta go see Nicole stroke pussy!”
It was a summer evening inside San Francisco’s Regency Center and Eli Block, tall and toned, was trying to round up spectators for what was being billed as the largest live demonstration, ever, of “a woman in orgasm.” Block used to be an Apple Genius Bar troubleshooter. Now he works for OneTaste, a company devoted to a practice called "orgasmic meditation," or OM, as an orgasm coach. He wore a navy-blue t-shirt that read "Powered by Orgasm."
OneTaste has been operating at the distinctively West Coastal junction of the carnal, the spiritual, and the theoretical for nine years now, expanding from a San Francisco commune to a multi-city business. Its work has been validated by South by Southwest—the annual marketer’s paradise in Austin, Texas, that helped popularize Twitter and Foursquare—and TEDx SF, one of the idea conference's independently organized confabs. It also appeared in the Tim Ferriss bestseller The 4-Hour Body. “The 15-minute orgasm”? That’s OneTaste.
This was the first night of OMXperience, a three-day August conference meant to "kick off the industry of orgasm," with speakers including Naomi Wolf, New York Times bestselling author Dr. Sara Gottfried, and Robbie Richman, the former "culture strategist" at Zappos. Roughly 1,400 people had paid between $200 and $400 to attend.
The conference-goers had just wrapped up an "Art of Intimacy" workshop, and Block was herding them downstairs to the gilded Beaux Arts ballroom. Nearly half a century ago, and however many social revolutions ago, this was the Avalon Ballroom, home of two live Grateful Dead albums—and, legend had it, a jam session where Hendrix himself had joined the Dead.
Now, onstage was Bryn Freedman, the producer behind A&E's "Intervention" and the evening's M.C., picking up the Hendrix theme. There must have been a memo to give the analogy a hard sell. Freedman promised the crowd they were about to encounter "truly truly one of the gifted people who is changing the planet—plus she is also the Jimi Hendrix of stroking, so hang on for that!"
In strode a coquettish and tan Nicole Daedone, the 46-year-old self-styled guru behind OneTaste. Straight honey-blonde hair fell in a sleek frame around her face; a smartly tailored gray dress hugged her silhouette, making her look like a lankier Ellen Barkin. “BDSM-y,” I pecked out on my iPhone, trying to describe the thick, metallic straps of her high heels.
In the June, 2011 speech for TEDx SF that has since been viewed more than half a million times, Daedone lamented what she calls the Western woman’s mantra: “I work too hard, I eat too much, I diet too much, I drink too much, I shop too much, I give too much. And still there's this sense of hunger I can't touch.” In that old YouTube video, Daedone wore an ill-fitting black blazer and frumpy purple blouse, her hair in brown waves. Now she stood transformed, slender, triumphant. Her cheeks were supple and glowing. Her lipstick was chocolate-box red.
The cure for that untouched female hunger, Daedone teaches, is a brief ritual, performed with a partner. The woman removes the clothing from her lower half, and only from that half. The partner—the stroker, typically a man—remains fully dressed. The lights stay on. Over the course of 15 minutes, timed, the partner rubs the upper left quadrant of the woman's clitoris, and she surrenders to involuntary sensation.
The desired outcome is therapeutic, rather than sexual—not a spikey, sneeze-like commonplace climax, but something more sensuous, purportedly activating the limbic depths of the brain and releasing a flood of oxytocin, stimulating bonding between participants. OneTaste originally presented it as a spiritual practice like yoga or meditation, but lately, as Daedone's fame has grown, it's taught as a technological innovation—a body-hack to happiness. At the end of The 4 Hour Body’s orgasm chapter, the efficiency impresario Ferriss declares: "This should be required education for every man on the planet.”
To Daedone, the applications go even further. OneTaste's orgasm-industry vision extends to certifying businesses as OM-based: a Bikram yoga studio, even a coffee shop, sure, but also banks and legal offices. “And potentially OM on the airplane!” The audience, in its blissful optimism, rushed the stage afterward to sign up.
Everyone is interested in doing fun things with their bodies. But the impulse to systematize, replicate, package, sell, and build an ideology around it is uniquely Silicon Valley. Part of what drives app makers and investors is the urge to bend the world to their desires—turn a thing on its side to see if it works better that way. In the personal realm, that translates to a libertine sense of entitlement and the pursuit of total optimization. OM seems ideally designed to meet those goals.
Many of OneTaste’s employees and devotees work in the startup sector. Reese Jones, Daedone’s sometime boyfriend, is also a venture capitalist and serial inventor credited with the first sound-recording software. During a presentation at the conference, Jones would compare the "OM container"—which refers both to the pillow-and-blanket covered "nest" one is supposed to construct and to the time limits and emotional boundaries of the practice—to the Internet communications protocol TCP/IP.
This past April, during the interactive portion of South by Southwest, Daedone delivered a talk titled "Female Orgasm: The Regenerative Human Technology" to a packed room. She relayed an endorsement from foundational futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose Singularity University counts Reese Jones as a board member. “The next thing we knew we were invited into all of these tech circles and, whoa, man, the testing there was rigorous and crazy," she said. "But finally we got the blessing of Ray Kurzweil that we are officially a technology, and they said it's based on scientific knowledge about physiology and psychology and it goes far beyond insight or a piece of advice.”
“In fact," she said, "I would go even further to say orgasm can do for physical connection what the internet has done for us in terms of virtual connection.”
"Partner" does not connote a prior relationship. It's not unusual to get stroked by someone you've only just met.
About that connection: In the realm of OM, "partner" does not connote a prior relationship. It's not unusual, at OneTaste events, to get stroked by someone you've only just met. Over the course of the conference, nearly every guy who asked me to OM—the collegiate startup cofounder, the burly acupuncturist, the weaselly 20-something from Austin, the dashing cognitive scientist, the white-haired yogi—would suggest it within 60 seconds of our first meeting. A couple of times, the request arrived before they even gave me their names.
In this regard, the Jimi Hendrix reference was only the opening act. Whatever virtuosity Daedone was preparing to demonstrate on stage, the weekend’s main attraction was going to be the regularly scheduled Group OM sessions, with 350 "nests" set up in the Regency's basement. If she was Hendrix, half the people in the room wanted to be guitarists themselves. The other half of us were there to be guitars.
I first heard about OneTaste in March, at a breakfast meeting with a venture capitalist who had newly moved to New York from San Francisco. She hadn't felt compelled to try it herself, but she had a friend who worked at OneTaste, who would OM if she was nervous before a big meeting. They had lingo for the men who'd perfected the craft: "Master stroker—that's what it's called!"
Genital stimulation in a professional context seemed transgressive, even for hippie-hedonist San Francisco. Her friend, Joanna Van Vleck—who is now OneTaste's president—met me in June when she was in New York. "We don't OM, like, right in the office," Van Vleck explained. But she said, "If we have employee problems, we're like, let's OM together. Yeah, if two people have a discrepancy, we say: OM together!"
OneTaste’s headquarters is located in an airy, two-story building at 47 Moss Street with polished concrete floors and rays of sunlight refracted through a garage-door like facade. This is where the company hosts therapy sessions and OMing classes. But its spiritual center is a nearby clay-colored, three-story residence at 1080 Folsom Street, down the street from Sightglass Coffee, the epitome of retro-futurist craftsmanship and a mandatory scene for magazine profiles of Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey, whose mobile payments company, Square, is headquartered nearby.
Not all of the 55 people who live at 1080 work for OneTaste. Some would-be residents sign up for the waiting list in search of a plum location and affordable rent. But at 7:30 every weekday, the building hosts a group session, closed to the general public. Many employees maintain multiple "research partners" simultaneously. "You come in with certain boundaries," OneTaste's business development manager, Marcus Ratnathicam, told me during the conference. Ratnathicam, a half-Swedish, half-Sri Lankan former software-company business development manager, has been a resident of 1080 for three and a half years. "And because it gets so multi-dimensional, it starts to crack open," he said. "Friends are lovers are friends."
In 2012, OneTaste opened centers in London, Los Angeles, Austin, Las Vegas, San Diego, Boulder, and Philadelphia, and re-established its New York City presence with a residence in Harlem. The company’s goal is to open in 20 cities by the end of 2014. Daedone, meanwhile, has been accruing the trappings of a daytime personality, building a lifestyle brand along the way. Her 2011 book, Slow Sex, was put out by the Hachette imprint that publishes Gwyneth Paltrow and Gordon Ramsay. OneTaste offers sessions ranging from Coaching certification ($15,000) to six-month Mastery Programs ($7,500) to a one-day Play Class ($195) and evening TurnOn events ($10), as well as t-shirts, organic lube, and OM warmers for your legs in the winter. After the conference, a newsletter went out welcoming acolytes to a private social network called the OM Hub, a formalized version of their once-secret Facebook group, accessible with an OM badge ($49/year.)
Van Vleck, who launched a menswear e-commerce company that was acquired by the cofounder of Bonobos, told me that she had been working as head of marketing for OneTaste for months before she agreed to try OM. "I was like, uhh, this is so gross," she said. "We can sell this online, but ugh... I was ultimately scared. It's vulnerable. Sometimes I still lay down to OM and I'm like, 'What the fuck is this?' If there weren't such incredible benefits, I would not lay down and have a man stroke my genitals or stroke my clitoris. I just wouldn't."
Her smile was infectious and her complexion dewy. Every time she talked about stroking, she would stick out the index finger of her left hand, straight as a ruler. She curled the tip of her other index finger and rubbed it back and forth, along a centimeter's worth of the ruler, like a DJ scratching the world's tiniest record.
OMing, she said, was fuel. "We call it 'tired and wired,'" she said. "Most women are 'tired and wired,' and OM is the exact opposite of that. It's like eating breakfast. That's what we eventually hope: Instead of a latte, women will have an OM. Because that's what regulates your body. An orgasm for breakfast, you know?"
I was on my second iced coffee and third interview of the day, eyeing my iPhone in the middle of the table in fear of whatever news I might be missing online. I felt like she was talking about me.
The notion of a therapeutic female orgasm has its roots in the pelvic massage, a cure for hysteria recommended by Hippocrates and a catalyst for empowerment prescribed by Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. But its current iteration originated in the '60s at Lafayette Morehouse, a self-described "intentional community" in San Francisco's East Bay suburbs espousing a philosophy of "responsible hedonism." There Victor Baranco, a Svengali-like former appliance salesman whom Rolling Stone once called "the Colonel Sanders of the commune scene," upgraded the practice for the Sexual Revolution. Residents called it a “deliberate orgasm” or “DOing.”
Baranco, who died in 2002, was featured alongside Charles Manson in Mindfuckers, a book published by Rolling Stone's Straight Arrow imprint in 1972 about the rise of acid fascism and the darkness that “lurks beyond the Aquarian Age.” He was infamous for pioneering three-hour public demonstrations of his disciples in orgasm, where “students sometimes passed out, fell out of chairs, and pictures fell off walls.”
The Rick A. Ross Institute, an online forum about cult education, has devoted pages of commentary connecting Daedone's work to Baranco's. Similar accusations arose in Yelp forums after the New York Times profiled Daedone in 2009 and even in the YouTube comments on Daedone’s TEDx talk. Both OneTaste and Lafayette Morehouse told me that Daedone only took three classes with Baranco, clarifying that she actually worked more closely with Ray Vetterlein, one of Baranco’s disciples—“who had studied some with Vic but had gone on to develop his own variation and approach,” as a OneTaste spokesperson put it. A post by OneTaste's cofounder Robert Kandell from 2006 tells a different story, saying Daedone had "spent the last seven years devoting her energy to the work of Dr. Victor Baranco."
The crowds that show up for OneTaste’s introductory “TurnOn” events or How To seminars are not briefed on the free-love origins of OM. On stage at TEDxSF, South by Southwest, and even at OMXperience, Daedone prefers to tell a more cocktail-friendly anecdote about how she, a former Buddhist nun-in-training, once met a guy at a Buddhism party who introduced her to the practice.
Mechanically, it works like so: The stroker prepares for the session by massaging the subject's legs with "grounding pressure," while the stroker's gaze is focused on her clitoris, or at least the general area. After that is the "noticing" phase, in which the stroker is supposed to narrate what's being seen, using "non-value" terms, as though a woman can listen to her vagina being described aloud without feeling judged. Then the stroker gets into position, placing his right thumb at the edge of her introitus (the opening of her vagina) and the tip of his left index finger on her clit at the 8 o’clock spot. The subject is encouraged to give "adjustments," detailing if she wants the stroker to move a little to the left or to apply less pressure. Don't apologize, just ask, after which the stroker is supposed to say "Thank you." At minute 13, start winding down, so as not to be left loopy for the rest of the day. (You can watch a session, filmed for Deepak Chopra's YouTube channel, below.)
Why do men sign up for an exercise that tells them to keep it in their pants? After some confusion about the upside, OneTaste addressed the question directly last year. “What’s In It for the Men?” a 13-minute free video produced by the company, features five guys praising the “revolutionary” benefits of OMing: increased confidence and intimacy in the bedroom, better communication with their (now more turned-on) girlfriends, and less pressure to perform. Left unsaid is that immersion in the OneTaste community also offers proximity to lots of sexually liberated women.
The regimented process and talk of brain chemicals don't quite change the fact that OneTaste’s “killer feature” is clitoral stimulation. People look at you differently when you tell them you’re going to an orgasmic meditation conference. It’s rarely a pleasant look. The side-eye narrows further at the phrase “master stroker”: Are you going to do it? You’re gonna have to do it.
I thought I might be able to get away with watching from the sidelines. Once I got to the conference, though, it was clear that the only way to witness the Group OM was to participate. That meant sitting through a training session to get a bracelet—one of those colored ones they give out at concerts with a sticky white tab at the end. Green indicated the person had been OMing before the conference. Red meant you were a noob.
If you can, go with green. Trust.
I still hadn't known what to expect when I walked into the Regency on Friday afternoon. A tweaky, happy energy bounced around the walls, the kind of anticipation that goes with knowing that half the people in the room are liable to take their pants off. All around me, people stopped to engage in close, meaningful embraces. I tightened the straps of my backpack, which I'd brought foolishly thinking I’d have a chance to crack open my laptop, and gave the hugging masses a wide berth.
The day before the trip, a colleague offered a warning prediction over Gchat: “its going to be all old people. sorry. i can just tell.” As we scarfed down lunch from the food trucks outside—$12, payable by Square—a soft-spoken blonde from Berkeley who is majoring in “consciousness and transformation” told me the first question her friend asked was whether the people there were attractive.
And sure, there was the Steve Wozniak doppelgänger in a knitted Pokemon hat, and a 70-year-old nurse with a walker. Good-looking people abounded, however. Well-dressed people, even. There was a stylish young couple, carting a newborn in a baby carrier, who showed up each day looking runway-ready (say Heatherette for her, Burberry for him). Fresh-faced One Taste employees, wearing soft t-shirts that said “Powered by Orgasm” or “Penetrate,” helped tip the pulchritudinous balance.
There was more racial and ethnic diversity than your typical tech conference, and a wider income range. Gender-wise, it seemed split down the middle, avoiding any prospective imbalance between undersexed woman and willing male fingers.
Coffee—the one freebie guaranteed at every conference—was nowhere to be found. The small beverage stations were tea only. Yet everyone seemed energized. Between panels, OneTaste staffers blasted Top 40 tunes—Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” was on heavy rotation—and encouraged the crowd to dance, and they got up and danced, like really threw themselves into it.
At the training session, Saturday morning, I sat in the front row to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Seated next to me was a cognitive scientist who does research for a major retailer, dressed in all-white like a cricket player on his day off. The retail scientist, who also leads a biohacking meetup in the Bay Area, told me that he learned about OneTaste after he heard a talk by Dr. Sara Gottfried, another oxytocin enthusiast who was also speaking at the conference. He said the practice sounded like the “ultimate hormone hack.”
I expected a PowerPoint of the female anatomy with a laser pointer beamed at the clit, or at least one of those weirdo . But the session offered little anatomical specificity. The hosts were fully clothed: Justine Dawson, a petite blonde Canadian who used to be a social worker, and Ken Blackman, a former software engineer for Apple, with the air of a competent accountant. The presentation focused on the steps in the process, and on the etiquette. Among us students was Naomi Wolf—author of Vagina: A New Biography, due out in paperback this holiday season—in the same tight blue dress she would wear during her evening presentation. I tried to suppress a laugh as Wolf scooted up to the side of the stage and squatted down to take pictures. Maybe she too was hoping for some cheat sheet.
Laid bare at the training, OM started to sound retrograde, quaint even. I saw a few lesbian couples, and a number of women mentioned their “crush” on Daedone. But here was a heteronormative practice that didn’t mention pornography, fetishes, interior fantasy life, or any kind of kink—besides the no-pants group hangout. The most far-out aspect was the unapologetic emphasis on female pleasure.
The day before, we'd begun with the intimacy workshop. Audience members were instructed to find a partner and ask each other a series of questions: Who are you? Tell me a secret. What do you want? The queries get repeated, relentlessly, in a way that strips off whatever varnish of professionalism or privacy you were trying to maintain. After every response, the asker simply says “Thank you," then resumes the onslaught. For each set of questions, you were paired up with a stranger nearby.
For one exercise, I partnered with a computer security manager at a Fortune 500 company who said he liked to watch his wife get fucked and uses ropes. I did not doubt him. My next sharing buddy was a sweet, soft-spoken engineer from Alameda, who looked like an Amish Paul Bunyan. He made soulful eye contact as we asked each other Who ARE you? Who are YOU? over and over until we were close to tears. In short bursts, we shared how other people perceived us versus how we wanted to be seen. Those long, meaningful hugs started to seem less dopey.
“How many of you were truthful?” Block asked. I raised my hand, but, truthfully, I'd held back. As disarming as the workshop had been, I was here to report, not because I believed.
Now here was Justine Dawson, my orientation host, in a slinky periwinkle dress, slipping out of her underwear and climbing atop a massage table in the ballroom. She spread her legs about four-fifths as wide as they might go on one of those abductor/adductor machines at the gym. Daedone came back out wearing a black apron over her own gray dress, creating a Dr. Frankenstein vibe.
I had been given a seat in the second row, next to a certified hypnotherapist named Clyde, who runs an academy in Los Angeles for ex-offenders. The only other reporters were from Playboy and Haaretz; OM has apparently gotten some traction with Orthodox Jews both in New York and Israel. "Sex is like drugs," Clyde volunteered, while we waited. "It sells itself. Now, what makes your drugs better than the other drug?"
Clyde's biceps were immense. He said he had been through the Landmark Forum—another "personal development" company, with its own cultish undertones—and said Landmark and OneTaste were similar in "finding language that releases the inhibitions you have." I rifled through my backpack, found a Klonopin, and swallowed it to keep myself from bolting out of the room.
But the organizers were canny and tried to ease the alienness. The female speakers were all in cocktail attire. ("My style guide is smart, savvy, and sexy. I didn't want anyone wearing any spirit garb," Daedone said backstage after OMX had finished—the only time I was permitted to interview her.)
Bristol Baughan, a filmmaker and TED fellow, did a skit about how she'd freaked out when hired to film a short video about OM for Time: "She starts opening her pale (pause) white (pause) legs, like, THE WIDEST they can go...And the lights, they're on. Mercilessly on. And he is DESCRIBING IT. Her parts. Out loud." Laughter and cheers from the crowd. "'Pink brownish oval'....Now he's putting his finger in something. Oh, it's lube. Oh, it's ORGANIC lube. Of course. Fucking San Francisco." Cheers, applause.
The narration moved to Baughan's own experience of getting stroked. Her voice dropped to a whisper: “Have I lost my fucking mind? If I do this, will I end up a sex addict and homeless on the street? And if I do this, I'm pretty sure it doesn't exist, but I'm gonna go to hell.” For any skeptics in the audience, there were their own prudish fears, coming out of Baughan's mouth, right onstage. Listen to how Victorian you sound. Everything happening is perfectly OK. This is normal.
And now that another presenter had briefed us, like a vadge sommelier, on the "reverent, light sensation" from the clitoral ridge, versus the "rich, deep earthy sensation" down at the base—-it was showtime. Daedone told us about her vision of an "OM-based world," whose denizens would be "there to welcome those whose minds had been hijacked by the idea that appropriateness is somehow better than honest or the fallacy that it's ever better to pretend to be something than to actually be who you are."
Off with the underwear, on with the apron. “This is solely a celebration,” Daedone cautioned us. “In the beginning, you learn scales. I did scales for years, Ken did scales for years. This is the equivalent to a symphony, so you're not allowed to compare yourself, just enjoy. Good?” Good or not, she placed a dollop of lube and her hand and began.
God only knows what view the folks in the balcony had. “Hoah hoa hah oh oh uhuhu.”
“UHHHHH. Ohhohohohoh.” From my seat in the second row all I could see were Dawson’s trembling feet, but she was mic’d and her moans reverberated through the ballroom. God only knows what view the folks in the balcony had. “Hoah hoa hah oh oh uhuhu.”
“She's in,” said Daedone. The audience exhaled. “Right now she's in the optimum space. I can stroke firm or deep, she'll go with me."
“Uhuha ohohooooohohooooooaoaa,” Dawson replied.
Hendrix was really bending it now. Daedone's face contorted like a Kabuki mask and her hips bucked against the massage table as she strummed Dawson. At times, Daedone lowered her head toward her crotch, as if hearing some mystical hum. “It just sends electricity up your whole body,” Daedone said. It was hard to tell if she was getting off on the audience watching her perform, or whether the whole thing had looped all the way back around to a complete lack of self-consciousness.
Soon, the 15 minutes were up. “I'm gonna give her some introital strokes so she can sleep. It just pushes all the blood back, makes her body a comfortable place to be,” Daedone said, as calmly as if she were Ina Garten and Dawson a ball of dough. “Haaaaaaaaaa,” said Dawson.
“I think you can all feel it out there that she just landed. It's my favorite part, where I can feel the heartbeat in my thumb.” The audience burst into applause.
Then it was time for "sharing frames," where onlookers describe a sensation they felt during a particular moment in the OM. Men and women lined up at the microphone, letting out their inner New Age poets as Daedone murmured approval:
"I think halfway through, I'm not sure, it felt like the front half of my body was being sunburnt. And there was a little soft arrow that stopped my breath."
"There was a moment I felt my body was a shell, it was hollow, and I felt this white substance filling up from my pussy, inflating up my chest like a Michelin . . . guy."
"There was a moment when it felt like my whole entire body was at a low, deep, expansive vibrating hum that just kept moving out."
Had they really felt any of those things? The most I felt was relief it was over. As I waited in line afterward to introduce myself to Daedone, I caught a glimpse of Dawson, so blissed out and languid-eyed, she looked ready to melt right off her chair.
The average time between first hearing about OM and actually trying it, Daedone would tell me later, is two years. For me, it was six months. The next day, I'd be taking my red wristband into the basement of the Regency, and it would be happening to me. Then it would happen three more times.
Orgasms are good for you. No one's arguing against that. The message of OMX, though, went considerably beyond it. On Saturday, we heard from Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a Stanford-trained psychiatrist who does orgasm research at the Rutgers neuroscience lab, and who is OneTaste's director of science and research. She took the stage in a form-fitting black dress, her nails done in hot pink—a James Bond casting director's vision of a neuroscientist—while Jeremiah crooned "Put it down on me, put it down me" over the speakers.
Partner-induced clitoral stimulation, Lakshmin said, has a rare ability to stimulate the limbic system—that level between the neocortex and the reptilian brain, which she said goes ignored by psychiatrists. The only things that can match it, for release of oxytocin, are childbirth or breastfeeding. She displayed her own MRI, made while she was being stroked by Ken Blackman. It showed areas of the brain firing in bright traffic light reds and yellows. “Even though we were in this totally sterile environment, we felt so connected,” she enthused about their unexpected intimacy at the lab.
Lakshmin didn’t come outright and say that Blackman was experiencing the same oxytocin overload, but OneTaste often implies that for strokers who stick with the practice, it feels just as intense, glossing over whether that means an erection, a climax, or just some psychedelic approximation.
The notable thing about the lab is that it's run by Dr. Barry Komisaruk, who dismissed OM as "New Age-y" and unscientific in a 2007 SF Weekly article about OneTaste. I wrote Komisaruk, to ask if his opinion had changed. He emailed back: "I now better understand and appreciate several main claims of OneTaste....I think to the extent that OM can increase those participating individuals' awareness of their bodily sensations, it can be a physiologically healthful practice. However, I do not know whether the strictly prescribed, highly structured OM stimulation protocols are the optimal means of achieving any specific healthful objectives, as I am not aware of controlled studies comparing alternative relevant orgasm procedures."
Lakshmin told us that before she joined OneTaste, when she worked as a psychiatrist, "I would just write lots of medications. I was kind of a drug dealer." Her practice was in Palo Alto, "so there were just tons of women who had everything. They were fancy, they had husbands, they were rich, they had fancy houses. They would come in and say, ‘Yeah, I'm really depressed,' or 'I'm really anxious,' you know, 'I'm not happy.' We would put them on medication and the medication would work for a little bit and they'd come back and be like, 'It's not really working.'"
The OM experience is nothing if not attentive. In the initial orientation, Dawson and Blackman had explained the importance of "safeporting," where the stroker tells the woman exactly what he is about to do before he does it: I'm going to give you some grounding pressure now. Safeporting, Dawson said, accesses "what we call the vigilance center of the mind, which is quite a bit larger in a woman's mind than in a man's brain."
The structure and restrictions, Daedone said in a Saturday Q&A, are part of what makes OM a formal practice. A finger instead of a tongue; the thumb placed on the outside, providing a "symbolic connection" to intercourse while making it difficult for the stroker to feel involuntary contractions, forcing him to pay attention. "The form itself is usually time-tested," Daedone said, "and it's time-tested to open unimaginable doorways that you wouldn't open were you not to follow the precision of the practice. Like, why in the hell do you walk into a zendo with your left foot? Who knows? It's just weird. But you know what? You do it and you discover, something new opens."
The Group OM sessions—there were eight of them on the schedule—were held in the venue's lower level, "perfect for corporate receptions, banquets, product launches, and tabletop trade shows," according to the Regency's website. Before each one, the rotunda was crowded with people looking for their intended partners, or trying to find one.
Friday night, after the demo, Van Vleck had introduced me to a startup cofounder, preppy and chestnut-haired, who said he'd learned about OneTaste at a tech event. He looked like he'd stepped out of an admissions catalog. He asked if I wanted to OM, and I'd said yes. But he was almost too good-looking. This was too wackadoo; I wanted someone wackadoo to do it with. I was relieved when our schedules didn't match.
If you’re loitering downstairs for the GroupOM and don’t have a partner come stroking time, you have the do the reverse walk of shame back upstairs. Once I watched a spiky-haired older woman haplessly pleading with a jittery-looking guy, who read as gay to me, to tell her whether he wanted to OM. “All I need is a yes or no,” she beseeched, half-slouching in front of him.
“It’s not your responsibility to take care of her,” a One Taste employee in a t-shirt said, throwing up a hand to separate the two.
Shortly before one of the Saturday sessions was about to start, I met Ryan the acupuncturist. He was tall and blonde, with hipsterish glasses, and built like a defensive tackle. He wore a green wristband. Short story shorter: I made like Molly Bloom.
“Ladies please find your nest. Gentleman walk up to the stage, please wash your hands and find your supplies,” a OneTaste employee informed the line snaking down from the rotunda.
Ryan went to sanitize his hands and to pick up a pair of latex gloves and tasteful glass container of coconut lube ($14.95), free with conference ticket. I entered the doorway. There were hundreds of “nests,” made with the Signature OM Kit ($184.97)—blue yoga mats, covered with slate-gray blankets and scattered with plum pillows—side by side. Some OMers had chosen to personalize with a colorful scarf or blanket.
The giant room was divided into two parts. I was assigned a spot in very last row of the smaller part, which, I hoped, would minimize the number of people who would see me doing this thing. Oh, Lord, I’m actually doing this thing. Holy fucking shit, I need to shut down all the Wifi in my hometown because I am about to do this unspeakable thing.
Normally I don’t even change clothes in the Crunch locker room, but I figured the faster I took my pants off, the quicker I could stop making accidental eye contact with other people’s eyes and vaginas. All around me were number of unexpected couplings: a man who looked like Kevin Garnett with an older white woman with dimpled thighs; another older white woman and a fellow red bracelet she had to instruct, heavily, through the process.
Maybe it was the fact that I was the squarest person in the basement or the fact that I’d been through hours (months?) of preamble for half a sitcom’s worth of potential weirdness, but lying down on the mat felt about as revealing as when you go to those cheapo massage places and get stuck only a flimsy curtain away from the next guy. The grounding pressure helped.
Everyone was told to begin at the same time. OneTaste instructors walked around the nests offering adjustments like it was a yoga class. I tried to ignore the cacophony of women—caterwauling and moaning and generally making the kind of animal sounds that would never pass a porn producer’s edit—to focus on my own experience.
And? Was it a gateway to the OM-based lifestyle? In the right hands, it’s a helluva good time.
“Some people are stiff as a board,” Ryan said. “Your orgasm really opened up.” I thought about telling him that I hadn't really climaxed, but I realized that was besides the point: the oxytocin had kicked in. When it came time to offer “frames,” suddenly there I was, whispering to Ryan, sounding just as shroom-y as every other motherfucker on the mic.
Afterward, I wandered around the Regency from panel to panel, delightfully faded, with an occasional tingling sensation in the back of my legs. Is this what Trudy and Sting feel like all the time? I still wasn’t sure if OMing was something I could actually get into. I just knew I wanted to try it again.
And so I did, an hour later with the cognitive scientist. Then the next day with the yogi, whom I’d swiftly dismissed the first time he asked, then lastly with Ryan again. During one session, a woman wailed through the entire 15 minutes. Happy sobs, or cathartic ones, I think. At registration, everyone had been given a red card to hold up if they ever felt uncomfortable. I never saw anyone use it.
After the 15 minutes were up, the cognitive scientist told me the group OM topped that time he'd asked a cabbie in Tahoe to drive him somewhere weird and ended up at the Bunny Ranch while Marilyn Manson was visiting. I just nodded. The yogi told me his “Indian spiritual name” and bemoaned the fact that the world has “separated the clean chakras from the dirty chakras.” I took a deep breath and nodded again.
Speaker after speaker, through the weekend, traced a path from despair to enlightenment, guided by the power of orgasm. The energetic and self-assured Van Vleck talked about how she had formed an elaborate plan to commit suicide before discovering OneTaste. Dr. Lakshmin recounted a failed marriage to husband who'd looked like J. Crew male model, and her subsequent self-discovery. Her Meetup.com profile now lists her as a member of the Radical Feminist Activists group, as well as the New York/New Jersey Polyamory Meetup Group and the New York Pick Up Artists group.
At one point on Saturday afternoon, though, the immersive optimistic mood took an unwelcome turn. The speaker was Robbie Richman, the former Zappos culture strategist. Tony Robbins is among his other clients, so I expected light-hearted platitudes. The organizers played "Blurred Lines" for his intro, and he sang along, rigidly rolling his head: "Maybe I'm out of my miiiiiiiind."
He had discovered OneTaste, he said, at one of its TurnOn events, which mimic the emotional ups and downs of OM the way the introductory "Who ARE You?" drills had. "I've done so much personal development work," Richman said, "and rarely have I had that feeling of shaking and fear."
"She said, 'I think you're a predator masking around as a New Age nice guy,'" he said. The audience cheered.
He followed up by phoning one of the OneTaste coaches. "She came up with this one line that just zapped me," he said. "She said, 'I think you're a predator masking around as a New Age nice guy.'" The audience cheered, as if they had heard the phrase before.
The coach told him, he said, "We gotta get your beast out. We gotta get the beast out, and in order to do that we gotta turn up the heat, we gotta heat up the system to get that beast out...There wasn't a hesitation, I didn't even know what they were gonna charge. I just said, whatever she's gonna say, I'm gonna say yes."
He'd been in therapy for anxiety for years, he said. "Nobody ever said to me: Maybe you're Just. Turned. On." Applause.
But then he recounted his OneTaste experience, which began with his arriving at 1080 Folsom and turning over his clothes, cell phone, and keys. "Of course this is all by permission, this isn't forced," he said. They sent him "to the edge" of his comfort zone, he said, sending him out to the Tenderloin to talk to homeless people. Then came the "beast exercise": "It wasn't sex. It wasn't sexual. It was, we went to a room, and I had this desire to just like rip her limbs off, and it was interesting because I felt it all, and she felt it all, just screaming. But the interesting thing was, I was barely touching her."
The approval had drained out of the room. You could hear the folding chairs creak. Sadism, it appears, was too off-brand for OMers. After all his self-discovery, Richman's stiff smile still looked like a mask that was about the crack. At the end of the conference, the white-haired yogi would tell me that when he witnessed these transformation stories, he could see both people at once: the one the speaker wanted to become, and the one they were.
Richman concluded with a grand pronouncement: "It was this feeling of religion... And as a person who studies culture like me, that's one of the highest echelons, because religion involves the full body, the full spirit experience...And it's got its articles of faith, the principles of OM, that blow my mind. Principles that apply to life, not just orgasmic meditation. And this lifestyle I was starting to see, it resembles a monastery... Except rather than deprivation, it's to acceptance. It's to desire. It's to pleasure. It's to freedom. It's to connection."
It made me appreciate how charming and skillfull Daedone is. Because coming out of Richman’s mouth, it sounded insane.
Daedone was unavailable for interviews till the very end of the conference, after they'd handed out glow bracelets and insisted that everyone "agree to come down pleasurably." I asked her how she felt about cult accusations that followed her online.
She stammered a bit, then opted for frankness: "If I were a person out there, and I heard about a group of people who were living together and were doing this practice where they were stroking genitals, I would probably think the same thing. Because I wouldn't have any context to understand. Because there IS no context for connection in our culture. There's no context for any kind of female pleasure. There's no kind of context for sexuality within a rigorous practice.
"These things, as far as I know, have never been explored skillfully. Any time it's been explored, it's been sort of on the fringe. And that's one of the reasons why I absolutely wanted to bring it into the mainstream...because that stuff hurts, it's terrible, really terrible, because it's the OPPOSITE of what I want to do...One of the reasons why I wanted to bring it into the mainstream was so that there were checks and balances. Really, the model is Wikipedia, where everyone gets access and everyone puts their part in."
Like the speakers she brought to the stage, Daedone has her own twisted road to enlightenment to share. When she was in her mid-20s, her father, who had always been a distant figure in her life, went to prison for molesting two girls. She said he never behaved inappropriately to her; they had long been estranged. At 27, she learned that he was dying of cancer and only had hours to live. That trauma propelled her to study at what she called a “mystery school of theosophical studies,” then graduating to Buddhism and celibacy before finding orgasmic meditation.
Her desire now is for OneTaste "to go into the belly of the beast and begin to heal this trauma about misused sexuality." I asked her if it tied back to her relationship with her father. "Mmmhmmm," she murmured and softly nodded her head. “Yeah, I think amends in the world. There's this beautiful idea in somebody white's book—the idea that your darkest spot is actually what becomes your purpose.”
The mainstream seemed, to many of the people I met at OMX, a bit out of reach. They also had something in their past that they were trying to work through, or some unnameable need. Jeremy, a skinny twentysomething from Austin, told me during one dinner break that after his first OneTaste experience, "this complete reckless behavior kicked in all of a sudden." He moved into the OneTaste house in Austin, with only $140 to his name, and decided he wanted to become a professional boxer or start his own gym. He weighed maybe a buck twenty. Others mentioned attending Tony Robbins seminars or Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts, which teaches women "the art of receiving pleasure."
"I just love the attention, and I think it helps you get better" another twentysomething kid told me, bugeyed and fidgety, on the sidewalk before the alcohol-free Saturday dance social. Did it feel like the company was a front encouraging some kind of sexual deviance? "There's plenty of sex among members of the community." But, he said, "it's a big deal around here not to use OM as foreplay. The OM itself is kept intact...If it's shady, it's as little shady as you're gonna get."
"Sometimes its amazing and sometimes it's brutal," a comedian who lives at 1080 Folsom and performed at the dance told me. "It's not for teenagers, you know what I mean? Its only probably the right place to play if you're an adult.”
The normalizing effect of being surrounded by these people in a hyper-sexualized environment had warped my boundaries. At night, I would take the Muni back to my Airbnb—located across the street from Twitter’s Mid-Market headquarters—and collapse almost immediately from mental exhaustion. Before I boarded the bus, I made sure to take off my lanyard, which featured the words “AGENT OF ORGASM” above a picture of my face.
The final comedown, after I exited the Regency for the last time, was brutal. It felt like Suicide Tuesdays after a drug binge, and I hadn't had anything but that lone Klonopin all weekend. In my Airbnb, I turned off all the lights, huddled under a blanket, ordered chicken soup on Seamless, and trolled Netflix for a romcom. In OneTaste’s teachings, "cracked open" is a state to aspire to, but outside the auspices of the conference, I just wanted to put myself back together.
I was torn between a heady sense of liberation and an unease about why their spiel had worked on me—for the weekend, at least. I had just finished The Love Letters of Nathaniel P. on the plane ride to San Francisco. The book chronicles aspiring writer Nathaniel P. as he reduces a series of smart and capable romantic interests to a quivering pile of need. There were moments at OMX where I thought those female characters could use some time in a nest. On the other hand, the thought of describing "the container" at some book party in Brooklyn made me jump up and yank the blinds closed to block out the last gasp of the afternoon sun.
Next morning, I headed over to Folsom Street. All weekend, I’d been hearing about the happy, glowing women walking out of the building there. For some people, it’s what led them to OneTaste. But when I got there, there was a young woman crying outside, as her friend comforted her. One of the OMers I ran into as soon as I walked inside was on his way to Harbin, the nudist hot springs a couple hours north.
The comedian had invited me to drop by 1080, but as soon as I arrived, I was micromanaged by OneTaste employees. Dawson and Ratnathicam flanked me on the couch. After a few minutes, Ryan, who had been volunteering at the conference, sat down at the far end. Awkward introductions were made before everyone figured that we had, ahem, met twice. I could barely look him in the eye. I talked to the coaches about the swirling anxieties as soon as I left the Regency. "That a big part of what we teach—how to come down well," Dawson said. "That's part of the reason we have a community."
I asked if any of the tech workers in SOMA were One Taste clients. “There are a lot of people who learned to OM that are not necessarily public about it," she said. "It might surprise you." Dawson responded to my questions politely. But even her face, now blank and guarded, looked different from the melting woman I saw after the demo.
Still there was something comforting about being around people who had been through the same strange trip. Who else is gonna listen to you share frames?
The day after I returned to New York from San Francisco, I drove upstate to a house in the Catskills that I had rented with some friends. The next evening at their urging, and after a couple cocktails, I did a demonstration of the OM position, using a fellow guest as a prop. The re-creation stopped at the grounding pressure phase.
In the country chic living room, with my prop’s legs still splayed open, I looked up at my friend and her boyfriend, both of whom live in San Francisco, snuggled together on the oversized couch and asked—fingers mentally crossed—if it seemed like something that maybe possibly might catch on?
“No," she said, immediately. "Absolutely not. It is definitively fringe.”
Ryan emailed me twice in the ensuing months to tell me he was visiting New York City and ask, very politely, if I wanted to OM. “Remember, Yes or No are both acceptable answers,” he wrote. I couldn't bring myself to email him back.
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[Image by Jim Cooke]