In 2011 an American author and businesswoman named Nicole Daedone gave a TEDx talk in San Francisco in which she spoke of her plans to build an empire on the female orgasm.
A tall, self-assured woman in her early 40s, dressed in a black silk trouser suit, auburn hair falling to her shoulders, Daedone did not, of course, put it quite like that.
In the course of the talk, which has since been watched more than two million times on YouTube, Daedone, who had recently published a book entitled Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm, and was standing in front of two glowing, vulva-shaped lights, described how in 1998 at a party she had met a man who practised what he called ‘contemplative sexuality’.
He invited her to lie down unclothed, shone torchlight on her vagina and proceeded to describe her ‘colours’ in some detail (‘Your outer labia are coral…’). He then stroked her clitoris ‘no firmer than you would stroke your eyelid’.
‘I had never been looked at or felt that kind of compassion in that area before,’ Daedone told her audience – nicely dressed people in their 30s and 40s, nodding thoughtfully and bathed in a self-congratulatory aura, as TEDx audiences are wont to be. ‘I just broke open, and the feeling was pure and clean.’
This story, which would come to be repeated, in Daedone’s words, ‘thousands of times’, was subject to variation. Sometimes the man would be a ‘Buddhist’, sometimes ‘a monk’, and at others, in her words, ‘a cute guy’ who delivered ‘the best pick-up line I’d ever heard’. But the result was always the same.
‘For the first time in my life,’ she said, ‘I felt like I had access to that hunger that was underneath all of my other hungers, which is a fundamental hunger to connect to another human being…
‘And then, I had a moment of thinking, I want to know how to live here in this place and, in my philanthropic way, I want everyone else to know how to live here.’
‘Female orgasm,’ she continued, ‘is vital, for every single woman on the planet.’ A ‘truth’ apparently ‘so undeniable that I had to bring it to the world’.
And bring it to the world she did. In 2004 Daedone founded a group called OneTaste, disseminating (it is hard to go far in this tale without stumbling inadvertently across a double entendre) the practice of what she called orgasmic meditation, or OM.
At its peak, OneTaste was reported to be making $12 million a year; it had centres in nine cities, including New York, San Francisco and London, and was endorsed by no less a personage than the high priestess of the vagina, Gwyneth Paltrow.
But the organisation has now shut down following accusations by former members of the group, with the FBI reportedly investigating allegations of sex-trafficking, prostitution and violation of labour laws.
Those of a delicate disposition may choose to turn away at this point. For this is a story of idealism and desire, of Californian sex communes and three-hour orgasms, of the search for Eden and the worms in the apple of power and money.
It is also very, very bizarre.
Three-hour orgasms (not including cigarette breaks)
Daedone grew up in the northern Californian town of Los Gatos with her mother, a single parent. At 16, she had sex for the first time, got pregnant and had an abortion. She studied semantics at San Francisco State University and, with a friend, opened an art gallery in the city. She was 27 when she learned that her estranged father was dying of cancer in prison after being convicted of molesting two young girls. Daedone has said he had never harmed her as a child, but with his death, ‘Everything in my reality just collapsed.’
She turned her attention to spiritual matters, studying the Kabbalah and Buddhism. By her account she was planning to become a nun at a Zen Buddhist centre in San Francisco (‘Now,’ she would joke later, ‘they just call me “the nun that gets some”’). Then she met the man at the party.
Since the 1950s, San Francisco had been a Petri dish for alternative thinking, countercultures and free-love communes, steeped in libertarian ideas that would continue to flourish in the tech community of Silicon Valley.
In 1998, Daedone joined a group called The Welcomed Consensus – according to its Facebook page, ‘Researchers/instructors of Deliberate Orgasm (specializing in female orgasm), friendship, sensuality & living pleasurably since 1992.’
The group was largely modelled on another ‘intentional community’ in northern California called Lafayette Morehouse, which had been founded in the ’60s by a man named Victor Baranco – described in a 1971 Rolling Stone investigation as a former used-car salesman and ‘peddler of phoney jewellery’. It later styled itself as the More University, offering accredited PhDs in ‘sensuality and lifestyles’.
Particular attention was paid to the part the clitoris plays in the female orgasm. Baranco devised a technique called ‘deliberate orgasm’, or ‘do-ing’, in which a woman would undress from the waist down and a man would stroke her clitoris. In exchange, the strokee would give the stroker a token or a small gift. It was reported that in 1976 a commune member named Diana claimed that she was able to sustain a continuous orgasm for three hours, ‘not including cigarette breaks’.
'The focus was sex, how to have a great sex life'
Former students of Baranco set up their own practices and groups, among them The Welcomed Consensus. ‘They taught a philosophy of communal living, relationships and communication,’ says Ken Blackman, who lived at the commune for nine years and would later join Nicole Daedone at OneTaste, ‘but the focus was sex, how to have a great sex life, and that’s where clitoral stroking came in. The idea that both of us are going to put our attention on the woman’s body, that it can be a complete experience, and there’s nothing that she owes me in return – these were highly innovative ideas.’
Nicole Daedone lived at The Welcomed Consensus for some two years. She also spent time at Morehouse, allegedly suggesting to Baranco that she should be his successor. But the proposal came to nothing.
Morehouse and The Welcomed Consensus, Blackman says, regarded themselves as ‘the elite connoisseurs of exquisite gourmet sex. They had no desire to be mainstream.’ But Daedone had bigger ideas. ‘She wanted to reach hundreds of thousands – millions – of people,’ recalls Blackman.
To this end, she packaged the technique that she called orgasmic meditation. A woman lies on what Daedone called ‘a nest’ of pillows, and ‘butterflies’ her legs (again, Daedone’s term), draping one leg over the knee of a man, who is fully clothed, seated beside her. He sets a timer. Wearing latex gloves smeared with lubricant, he would then stroke ‘the upper left quadrant’ of the clitoris. While Diana had scaled the Himalayan peak of the three-hour orgasm, Daedone set the clock at a more modest 15 minutes.
In 2004, along with a business partner, she set up OneTaste Urban Retreat, in a loft building in a grungy part of San Francisco favoured by internet start-ups, promoting OM as ‘a way to make orgasm, connection and sensuality sustainable’. The community quickly grew to number around 50 men and women, most in their late 20s and early 30s, OM-ing two or three times a day with various ‘research’ partners, showering communally and negotiating whose turn it was to do the washing-up.
More ‘OM houses’ followed, offering tuition in OM-ing for groups often numbering up to 50 people, the women lying on their backs in nests and being stroked anything but furiously, to a rising chorus of moans and sighs.
Prospective OM-ers were offered a menu of services and events. An introductory workshop cost $195; a week-long ‘urban monk’ programme, $2,000; or you could train to become a certified coach for $16,000. There were how-to DVDs, ‘One Stroke’ lubricant and OM pillow sets to build nests.
Men stroked women, and sometimes women stroked women; nobody stroked men. But everybody paid.
Ken Blackman, who became OneTaste’s ‘lead instructor’, the Stravinsky of stroking, described in a Facebook post how a man would enjoy OM-ing, ‘not vicariously, for the pleasure he’s giving her, and not for the side benefits (many though they be). He actually starts to feel something in his body from being in direct physical contact with a woman in orgasm that… feels good.’
OM was the universal panacea for the adventurous and the repressed, the sexually liberated and the sexually insecure, the needy, the lonely and the damaged.
A hit in Hollywood
Young, and not so young, women – their bank balances bowing under the weight of Pilates classes, acid facials and juicing whatever fruit from the Amazon happened to be fashionable that week – came seeking the answer to what Daedone had spelled out in her TEDx talk as ‘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 that I can’t touch.’
Blackman, in an earlier life a software engineer, says OM-ing ‘resonated particularly deeply with techies. Silicon Valley was a really great place to market because we could talk in terms of having a new operating system for human connection.’
Along with OM-ing came therapy-style exercises and group encounters, dressed in bromides about personal growth. ‘Have you ever considered it might be your responsibility as a woman to sit in your power?’ Daedone can be seen asking one new inductee – mystifyingly – in a promotional video.
Sessions would include the exercise of ‘obnosing’, or noticing the obvious, which involved looking at someone and listing their physical characteristics – the colour of their eyes, the flush in their cheeks – before shifting attention to ‘obnosing’ female genitalia.
In the 1970s and 1980s, ‘tantric sex’ had been a buzz phrase – an esoteric spiritual practice that had been co-opted, misinterpreted and packaged as a shortcut to sexual bliss, the stuff of a hundred Cosmopolitan coverlines. Daedone described OM as ‘beyond tantra: sexuality in the post new age’. But the intimation that OM was a quasi-spiritual practice was unmistakable. The very name OM was the same as the sacred syllable in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists, Daedone claimed (incorrectly), ‘use orgasm as a metaphor for enlightenment, because it’s the only time the filters are removed’. Media took the hint: ‘Work your way into nirvana with orgasmic meditation,’ read one magazine headline.
Daedone preferred to talk about ‘sensation’ and ‘connection’, rather than sex. At Morehouse and The Welcomed Consensus, sex had been the raison d’être. But the way Daedone talked about OM, it seemed it was hardly to do with sex at all, but a practice that existed in another, altogether less messy and less emotionally complicated realm of ‘wellness’.
‘This idea that OM isn’t sex served a purpose,’ says Blackman, who would leave OneTaste in 2014 to set up his own practice as a relationship coach. ‘It was saying that two people who would never say yes to having sex together could potentially have an OM.
‘The other thing was having this almost ritualised series of steps, which made it feel safe for any two people to do this. You set up the nest, you set a timer, say a few words of a specific kind and then announce that you’re going to put your finger down.
‘Early on, we had strict safeguards in place so that both people understood this was going to be a complete experience and if you want to continue with something beyond that you end the OM, you get dressed, you leave the room – there’s no sneaking in anything else.’
Daedone’s 2011 TEDx talk was an unalloyed sales pitch. ‘I say just try it,’ she said, her voice carefully calibrated to convey just the right mixture of enthusiasm, earnestness and the promise of deliverance. ‘I mean really, the worst thing you have to lose is just 15 minutes of your life. The best thing you have to lose is that sense of hopelessness that you will ever’ – deep breath – ‘be reached, deep, inside.’
Khloé Kardashian was said to ‘swear by’ OM, but its most celebrated champion was Gwyneth Paltrow. Paltrow’s website Goop, famous for selling jade vaginal eggs and the ‘This Smells Like My Vagina’ candle – a ‘funny, gorgeous, sexy, and beautifully unexpected scent’, with ‘geranium, citrusy bergamot, and cedar absolutes juxtaposed with damask rose and ambrette seed’ – ran interviews with Daedone. She talked of how, just as there had been a move from processed to whole foods, from mere fitness to yoga, OM had ‘shifted sex out of the dark, under the covers, from the shameful and often consumptive places where it used to be, and into the light’.
Daedone was at the heart of everything – a charismatic figure who could seemingly light up people’s lives with the simple gift of her attention. Some within OneTaste described her as ‘a God figure’.
'The object is to get the man to stop focussing on his own pleasure'
In 2016, she came to London to give a talk at OneTaste’s British operation. The author Isabel Losada, who was working on her own book about sexuality, Sensation, had read Daedone’s Slow Sex and been ‘blown away’ by it, so arranged a meeting. Daedone, she says, was ‘like a wonderful red setter leaping out of a car. I admired her enormously. She’s elegant, warm, clever and very attentive.’
At the first introductory event Losada attended with her partner, Daedone and the female leader of the London group demonstrated the technique. Over the following six months, Losada would attend a number of OneTaste events in London and San Francisco.
‘I know this sounds strange to many men,’ she says. ‘But you need to bear in mind that lots of women, for whatever reason, haven’t experienced much sexual pleasure in their relationships. What this technique does, because it’s non-penetrative, it’s not intimidating for women and reintroduces them to the fact that they can experience pleasure through their body. The object is to get the man to stop focussing on his own pleasure and to really tune in with a woman’s body. And for me personally and many other women I know it was very helpful.’
The suggestion that OneTaste was a cult had been bruited almost since it began, with posts appearing on cult-busting sites alleging it was a money-making operation posing as a therapeutic practice. In 2009, a feature in The New York Times, ‘The pleasure principle’, talked to former member Elana Auerbach, who described Daedone’s powerful influence on its members, and how they came to ‘exude Nicoleness’. The article quoted Auerbach and her husband Bill Press as saying they had left OneTaste to pursue a life that was ‘heart-focused rather than genital-focused’.
The couple responded in a letter to the paper, stating they had actually left because, ‘We found the environment manipulative, unhealthy and disempowering,’ adding, ‘We in no way endorse the programs OneTaste offers or encourage anyone to join.’
Daedone was sensitive to the cult accusations. At one point she moved out of the OM house to live with her sometime boyfriend, Reese Jones, a Silicon Valley investor who bankrolled OneTaste in its early years, complaining that ‘everybody treated me like a guru. I’d wake up and people would come sit on my bed.’
When Isabel Losada asked her directly if OneTaste was a cult, Losada says Daedone ‘just laughed’.
A damning investigation
But some people at the heart of the operation could see her missionary zeal transforming into something more extreme. Another early member, who wished to remain anonymous, described her to me as ‘power-drunk’ and a ‘narcissist’, who appeared to want primarily to be ‘adored and have lifelong disciples’.
The cult trappings became ever more pronounced. In 2015, Daedone organised a series of events called Magic School, naming a handful of the inner circle as ‘priests and priestesses of orgasm’.
Buddhist teachings hold that the future Buddha will be called Maitreya. Daedone told the group that Maitreya would not be a person, it would be the OneTaste community, who would ‘heal the world’ through orgasm.
By 2017, OneTaste had become a flourishing business. The company had some 150 staff members, including salespeople, promoting a variety of different courses, including retreats and coaching programmes costing up to $60,000 a year. The ‘Nicole Daedone Intensive’, offering personal tuition in stroking by Daedone herself, cost up to $36,000.
But that year, Daedone stepped down as CEO of OneTaste, ostensibly to work on a book, selling her stake in the company to three OneTaste members. The following year, Bloomberg Businessweek published an investigation in which former members described how sales staff, working on commission, sometimes seven days a week, would spend hours texting and calling people who had attended one OneTaste events, pressuring them to sign up for the next, more expensive class.
Potential customers, it was alleged, were referred to as ‘marks’ – the grifter’s term for targets. The sales staff were ‘lions’ or ‘fluffers’ – a porn-industry term.
‘You fluff someone to get them energetically and emotionally hard,’ one former salesperson told Bloomberg. ‘You were the dangled bait, like, “You can have more of this if you buy this $10,000 course.”’
Potential customers were told that money was just ‘an emotional obstacle’ and urged to take out multiple credit cards to pay for courses. Some talked of racking up debt of up to $150,000.
The Bloomberg investigation also revealed that in 2015 OneTaste had paid a $325,000 out-of-court settlement to a former staff member who said that she had been ordered to sleep with prospective male customers and suffered sexual assault and harassment, as well as other labour violations, while on the job.
OneTaste replied that the settlement was confidential, but that it had never required any employee to engage in a sexual act. The company said that it no longer organised group OMs or leased communal homes in its own name. Once an ‘edgy lifestyle community’, it was now ‘a legitimate business’.
New allegations of abusive practices
A BBC Radio 4 podcast, The Orgasm Cult, launched in November last year, brought further allegations of sales staff being coerced into having sex with wealthy men to entice them to take courses, including one allegation of a young woman being forced into having sex with multiple partners. A woman in ‘full power’, it was allegedly said, should be able to have sex with anyone, ‘because the orgasm is so strong that it alchemises everything’. OM-ing and sleeping with strangers could even ‘heal’ childhood trauma – ‘blowing your lines clean’.
‘Nicole was training us to see the world the way that she does,’ one former staff member told Nastaran Tavakoli-Far, the presenter of the podcast. ‘In her eyes, there’s no difference between pleasure and pain; there’s no such thing as good and no such thing as evil. It’s all just orgasm. It’s all just God. She truly does not believe that she’s done any harm, because she does not see harm.’
Responding to the BBC programme, a lawyer for OneTaste said: ‘All allegations of abusive practices are completely false. OneTaste is an organisation that helped individuals to increase health, happiness and connection through methods combining mindfulness and sexuality.’
In October 2018, a few months after the Bloomberg exposé was published, OneTaste announced it was closing all its US offices and had stopped offering in-person courses and retreats, saying instead it would be focusing on online education to reach a wider audience.
But the OneTaste website no longer exists. In its place there is now a new organisation, called The Institute of OM, set up by former OneTaste members, which describes itself as ‘an education company dedicated to helping people increase health, happiness and connection through Orgasmic Meditation (OM)’.
The website includes links to Daedone’s TEDx talk and her book Slow Sex; endorsements from satisfied customers – ‘OM cured me of suicidal depression’; and a primer on OM-ing theory, practice and etiquette (‘Once the strokee is in the nest, stroker mindfully enters nest by stepping over and across strokee with their left foot and sits down next to the strokee…’).
Anjuli Ayer, formerly one of the owners of OneTaste, was listed on The Institute of OM’s website as the organisation’s CEO. Joanna Van Vleck, who was formerly the CEO at OneTaste and who once described it as ‘the Whole Foods of sexuality’, is listed on her LinkedIn profile as its ‘director of reach’. The Telegraph attempted to reach Van Vleck and Ayer, but the Institute of OM did not respond to numerous email requests.
And Nicole Daedone? The woman who wanted to turn on the world through touch is also out of reach. Shortly after the Bloomberg revelations, Daedone disappeared. For a while, she was said to be living in Bali and then Thailand. She was last heard of living in Italy with a former OneTaste instructor.
But her cult of the orgasm continues to thrive. ‘Learn to OM for free,’ reads an offer on the IOM website. ‘Get started in your own home with our official guide to orgasmic meditation.’