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Monetizing the Orgasm

Nicole Daedone turns a clitoris-exalting self-help movement into a cash cow.

“I look forward to the day when every woman in the world practices oral sex for her pleasure.”

 

In her company’s industrial loft headquarters above formerly seedly mid-Market Street, Nicole Daedone, the founder and chief executive officer of OneTaste, faces 100 rapt acolyes. They've flown in from as far away as London and Germany for a September workshop on “the taboo,” the fifth session of a six-weekedn Mastery Intensive series. Each attendee has ponied up $3,800 to learn about the physical and spiritual benefits of female orgasms and how to live in a general state of “TurnOn.” The term, with its evocations of horny backseat encounters and Norah Joes ballads, has been trademarked by the company as its own life philosophy.

Tonight Daedone is seated on a stage, a white lily in a vase by her side, coming across less like a spiritual guru than a primetime TV personality. She's holding forth on how the ultimate taboo is “true vulnerability.” Her peroxide-blond bob is cut at sharp angles that she rearranges restlessly. A row of the company's staffers sit against the back wall, a few wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the company's slogan" “Powered by Orgasm™.” There's the PR flack, Justine Dawson, perhaps best known to the OneTaste universe as the test subject who had mic’d orgasm in front of 1,400 spectators at the Regency Ballroom in August of last year while Daedone, the apron tied over her minidress lending what Gawker unkindly called a “Dr. Frankenstein vibe,” demonstrated the company’s signature practice upon her. Two seats down from her is Joanna Van Vleck, a woman with whom I feel rather intimately acquainted already, having viewed her starring role in an instructional video on OneTaste’s website in which she gives a man a long, unhurried blow job.

When Daedone finishes her lecture, a microphone is passed among the workshop attendees—a racially diverse group, straight and gay, ranging in age from their late 20s to their 60s and equally divided between men and women. The participants dive into their deepest feelings. One graying schoolteacher complains, “I really don’t care if my students learn a fucking thing. I just want to connect with them.” (Daedone: “You’re at the point where you need to get real or die.... When you do the truth, life gets behind you.”) Another woman confesses that she wants to quit her nursing job and become a full-time sex worker. (Daedone exhales audibly into her Madonna-like microphone headset: “Who you are, versus who you should be.”) A young woman in the audience sobs, “I’m just feeling disgusting! I feel disgusted with myself!” Daedone talks her back from the brink, then expertly breaks the tension with a joke and moves on to the next question. She’s like a sexualized version of Oprah, manning an incredibly expensive advice stand.

Before the night wraps up, the attendees are invited to share their feelings in what feels like a made-for-SNL parody of a West Coast retreat.

“Self acceptance.” “Willingness.” “Centering with love.”

Satisfied, Daedone responds, “Mmmmm, nice.” Everyone claps.

What does any of this have to do with female orgasms? Not much, it would seem. But Daedone is banking on the commercial viability of the idea that orgasms can be a portal to a richer life—and so far, that bet is paying off nicely.

 

OneTaste preaches—and sells—“orgasmic meditation,” OM for short, as the tool with which women can access their repressed reserves of sensuality and capacity for intimacy. (For the uninitiated, OM involves stroking the 11 o’clock position of the clitoris for 15 minutes, come what may.) It’s sensation for sensation’s sake, with the goal of removing the baggage of social expectation and shame around female sexuality. OM is touted as an antidote to what Daedone defined in a talk at a TEDx conference as the Western woman’s psyche: “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.”

While interested parties can grasp the fundamental concept of OMing by watching the YouTube videos or reading Daedone’s book, Slow Sex, the company’s business model is largely based on offering pricey workshops in locales from Paris to London to Santa Monica, from “How to OM” to “The Ignited Man”—many of which include women participants de-pantsing at some point for stroking by their “research partners.”

As the “taboo” event demonstrates, the workshops often veer into the territory of group psycho-spiritual therapy, with Daedone playing the role of supreme and all-knowing guru. “She’s one of the most fascinating human beings I’ve ever encountered,” says a former staffer who lived at OneTaste's commune in the early days. “I always wonder if she knows the effect she has on people and does it deliberately. If she says that [blue] wall is really green, there’s something that has everyone in the room believing that the wall is really green.”

OneTaste is a particularly San Francisco creation, both in its fringe, New Agey roots and in its glossy, capitalist trajectory. A Los Gatos native, Daedone was a linguistics PhD student at San Francisco State in the late ’90s, en route to becoming a Buddhist nun, when a man at a party introduced her to the OM technique. Of course, clitoral stimulation is really nothing new: Daedone’s genius was in packaging it with an empowering, if gauzy, philosophy and turning it into an industry. “I like business, and I’m good at it,” she tells me in a lounge area after her talk, still radiating charisma from her star turn onstage. “And I have the capacity to make sure the business we want to do is done with the heart I want to do it with.”

OneTaste started 10 years ago as a commune of sexual experimentation on Folsom Street, guided by Daedone’s studies in Buddhism, Kabbalah, and yoga and her experiences with Victor Baranco at Lafayette Morehouse, another sex commune that regularly demos orgasms. The live-in community of OneTaste shut down earlier this year (the space is now—inevitably—a techie dorm), and the company relocated to mid-Market. The move to the city’s rapidly gentrifying main street is the perfect metaphor for Daedone’s current business bid: persuading the mainstream to venture in.

Daedone has honed her pitch, which she repeats to me now. “My end vision is that OM is a vehicle through which we create an Internet of human connection. The step prior to that will be when you hear ‘yoga,’ ‘meditation,’ and ‘orgasm’ in the same sentence without whispering ‘orgasm.’” Everything about OneTaste—the breezy branding, the website reminiscent of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop lifestyle empire, the leg warmer and T-shirt swag, the co-opting of yuppie buzzwords like “slow sex,” the model-attractive staffers, Daedone’s increasingly urbane image—is aimed at taking the company to the next corporate level.

To a degree, it seems to be working. OneTaste is racking up endorsements that leave most Northern California New Agey movements in the dust: a national media pile-on, Daedone’s TEDx and SXSW talks, her appearance in Deepak Chopra’s polished YouTube reality show, the shout-out in Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek (a bible of the aspirational techie jet set). According to Daedone, Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has dubbed orgasmic meditation a “technology.” In a bid for scientific respectability, the company has assembled an advisory board of doctors and sex therapists. Professors from UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh are interested in taking EEG scans of OMers’ brains while they’re engaged in the practice, to see if it could be a treatment for stress or depression.

For a time, Daedone dated Silicon Valley venture capitalist Reese Jones, holding OneTaste meetings at his Russian Hill mansion. She says, though, that the company eschews outside investors—she prefers to hold on to her $4.2 million annual revenue and retain control of the company’s direction.

Earlier this year, Daedone decided that the “research and development phase” at the live-in community was finished. The next step is to “build out the industry of Orgasm.” (“Orgasm” is capitalized at OneTaste like a trademarked concept, or God.) Daedone keeps the overhead low: The company employs just 20 staffers at four centers—in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and London. Beyond that, graduates of OneTaste’s coaching program have opened nearly 20 centers from Austin to Copenhagen—an annual franchise license fee allows them the use of OneTaste’s branding, curriculum, and marketing. Daedone travels for OneTaste courses and meetings more than 200 days a year.

Still, OM has a long way to go before it becomes as culturally familiar as the downward dog: To date, only 10,000 people have learned to OM. “Finding a mass amount of people who are going to say ‘this is something I can accept’ is kind of far-fetched,” says one former routine OMer who asked that his name not be used. (On a TV program, he was named and identified as an employee of the city of San Francisco. His bosses were not overjoyed, and his wife took issue with the news that, in his single days, he used to stroke women’s genitals on his lunch breaks at OneTaste’s daily sessions.)

To get the word out to a larger audience, OneTaste has started giving away its core practices for free—in effect, open-sourcing its particular brand of clitoral stimulation. Free online videos teach the OM technique, as well as the arts of “slow pussy-sucking,” making out, and, of course, fellatio “for her pleasure”—that is, giving a man oral sex that is as good for the woman as the man. The fellatio video, featuring Joanna Van Vleck, ditches the standard porn-favored hand-on-subjugated-woman’s-head visual for something that feels more intimate and empowered: well-lit, unhurried, and woman-led. Van Vleck tells viewers in her voice-over narration that the mucus and tears running down her face are natural reactions: by-products that a woman shouldn’t have to hide just to look good. “I look forward to the day when every woman in the world practices oral sex for her pleasure,” she concludes loftily.

The more ambitious can download Daedone’s “seven-hour-plus lecture archive” or dial into a Sunday conference call to hear OMers share their experiences. The thinking? Invite people in, and they will want a deeper level of mastery—mastery that would be greatly enhanced by, say, a $195 OM intro course or the $8,100 full-week immersion retreat in Monterey.

 

According to Daedone, the One Taste demographic has broadened over the last decade, shifting away from what she calls “New Age course–taking people” to include more mainstream couples, people of color, and techies. Of course, her ascension to the lofty Queen of Clit throne hasn’t come without detractors. “I went to one of their two-hour introductory classes, and they had a woman kneeling in front of [Daedone], pouring water for her, and one guy asked a question, and she started screaming at him to shut up,” recalls one Bay Area sex coach. “He was just asking her a question, and she kept yelling, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ and then she told him he was asking her something about women that he didn’t understand.... I have a big ego too, but it doesn’t run my show.”

Given Daedone’s rising star and outsize pulpit, her critics—without exception—nixed the use of their real names in this piece. “I’m scared to death of her,” says another Bay Area sex therapist who has counseled former OneTasters. Then there are the Internet message boards, the Yelp reviews, and the people who whisper at parties that OneTaste is a cult, what with its charismatic leader, ritual practices, communal living, wacky terminology, and intimacy exercises in which attendees are asked, “What is your secret?” When I raise these concerns to Daedone, she responds, “That could be [said of] Apple. Really, what you’re asking is, ‘Is this harmful?’”

No matter what the whisperers and reporters say, it’s not stopping OneTaste’s turnstiles from clicking. The taboo workshop is done for the night, and the participants have gone home. Out in the loft space, staffers have already laid down a hundred yoga mats for next morning’s session and are filling dozens of little tubes with lube.

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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