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"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."
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.”
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.”
(Mindfuckers: A Source Book on the Rise of Acid Fascism in America, Including Material on Charles Manson, Mel Lyman, Victor Baranco, and Their Followers by David Felton, Robin Green and David Dalton)
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.
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.
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.”
.... 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...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....
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.
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."
"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." (Quoted from below)
"She said he never behaved inappropriately to her; they had long been estranged."
Corboy: Denial is not just a river in Egypt. This is not Daedone's private predicatment; she was mentored by Victor Baranco, who looks like a daddy surrogate. And now She's evangelizing this in quite an ambitious manner, as though it is some sort of salvation. (My fingers snarled and I almost typed "salivation" - am not making this up)
“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.”
Earlier in the article, the reporter wrote:
"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 ... The most far-out aspect was the unapologetic emphasis on female pleasure"
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.
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.