OneTaste: the orgasm cult that promised pleasure but left a legacy of pain

Sunday December 6 2020 The Sunday Times

Orgasmic meditation is as full-on as it sounds. The practice — deep breath please — involves the woman, naked from the waist down, being propped on a “nest” of pillows. The man, typically clothed, puts on a rubber glove, lubricates and strokes the “upper left quadrant” of the woman’s clitoris for a precise 15 minutes.

OM, or “ohming” as its adherents call it, is a technique propagated by OneTaste, a sexual wellness company founded in 2004 in San Francisco. Groups of strangers paid big money for group workshops. Devoted members would spend hours at it.

With its “powered by orgasm” motto, OneTaste pootled along unnoticed until 2009, when it was featured in The New York Times. Glossy magazine coverage followed, as did a Ted talk and, inevitably, Gwyneth Paltrow’s endorsement. At its height, OneTaste operated in nine cities, including London and New York, had 150 people working for it, and made millions.

Now, the company is the subject of FBI inquires over allegations of prostitution, sex trafficking and violations of labour law. Its messianic leader, Nicole Daedone, has gone to ground, and all operations appear to be frozen. OneTaste has said that allegations of “abusive practices are completely false”.

The company’s extraordinary downfall is charted in a new 10-part BBC podcast, The Orgasm Cult. “Come with me as we go deep,” purrs its host, Nastaran Tavakoli-Far.

Daedone was a charismatic art gallerist before co-founding OneTaste. She claims she saw the light at a party when a Buddhist monk persuaded her to try OM on the spot. The practice supposedly has origins in Buddhist ritual.

Open-minded couples attended her workshops, though being in a couple wasn’t a requirement. To men, it was sold as a way to better understand women. Of course, some men joined to have more sex with more women. Members were regularly encouraged to have sex, including penetrative sex, with other members. The courses also attracted unsatisfied and vulnerable women, including those who had suffered sexual trauma. “You’ve been dismissed by doctors, they’re not taking you seriously, and you find this practice that is centred on female pleasure and the female experience,” explains Tavakoli-Far, 35, over a Zoom call. “I’m not surprised that a lot of women were finding this quite a radical and exciting idea.”

Predictably, the courses were expensive: beginner classes cost about $150, the coaching programme was$12,000, and annual membership $60,000. In 2017, OneTaste raked in $12m.

The allure of greater spiritual enlightenment, a close-knit community and magnetic Daedone, plus the misguided belief that OneTaste could change the world, meant that some members quickly started working for the organisation.

Michal, who joined the company, had signed up to try to achieve orgasm. She describes how OneTaste encouraged her to target a wealthy man so he would pay for her additional courses. It was “not exactly prostitution, but not completely different”, she reveals in the podcast.

Tavakoli-Far, formerly a business and technology reporter at the BBC, says: “Sometimes there were no strings attached but sometimes there were. There was this feeling that ‘now I have to start sleeping with him.’”

Some people got sucked in fast: within weeks they had signed up for the coaching programme, quit their jobs to work for OneTaste, and moved into a shared “OM house”.

The routine was brutal. Members shared beds and had communal showers, woke early for OM practice then worked all day, typically being paid on a commission basis for bringing in new members, before evening events where they would be expected to snare more customers.

“I was expected to practise [OM] four times a day,” Michal says. “Whether I had my period or not, whether I was sick or not, the choice of ‘do you want to have somebody touch you sexually right now’ was not something that was available to me.” If members dared to chase the pay owed to them, or attended outside family events, they were shamed for not being dedicated enough.

Michal sank $20,000 into debt and, during a $36,000-per-person retreat called the Nicole Daedone Intensive, she married a fellow member. After escaping OneTaste after almost a year of living and breathing the organisation, the marriage collapsed and post-traumatic stress disorder hit. “I was very, very scarred and very afraid,” she tells Tavakoli-Far.

The wheels came off in 2018 when Bloomberg published a damning exposé of OneTaste. Daedone vanished from the public eye soon afterwards. “The last we heard, she’s somewhere in Europe with one of the members of the executive team,” says Tavakoli-Far. It is unclear what stage the FBI is at with its inquiries. She has reportedly been spotted in London, Bali, Thailand and America in the past few years.

It’s also unclear how much money she made, and, more crucially, whether she intended for all of this to happen, or whether it got horribly out of hand.

“Someone who’s self-doubting but is also open-minded, compassionate, willing to learn and have their assumptions changed: we think of these as really positive qualities,” Tavakoli-Far says. “But you can see how an abusive person, organisation or scenario can really exploit that.”

Listen to The Orgasm Cult on the BBC Sounds app