Article Thumbnail

The Downfall of OneTaste, Silicon Valley’s Favorite Orgasm Cult

Orgasmic meditation was born from a con man’s 1970s sex commune. It ended as a techie summit for pricey clitoral curiosity — that is, before the FBI got involved

Seated inside a large hall in Sonoma, California, a packed crowd of people watched as a 22-year-old woman named Diana reclined on a gynecological exam table with her dress pulled up, spreading her legs to accept the hand of a middle-aged man, eager for him to bring her to an orgasmic climax. They’d been at it for three hours, and yet, she still couldn’t stop cumming

At certain points, the man, Victor Baranco, asked her to recite nursery rhymes. It was to show that, in Diana’s words, “you can talk while you’re cumming and that your memory is good and that you don’t lose consciousness of what you’re doing. You can add and subtract, and do things with your mind.” 

The public demonstration wasn’t meant to be erotic, per se; it was intended to be educational. The lessons were about focusing on female pleasure. As Diana later recalled, “He would do me a certain amount, and he would back off. He was really good at that. He told the audience what he was doing, and they really got it.”

Better yet, they could learn how to bring such pleasure themselves as Baranco was selling classes. “When that demonstration was over, people RAN to every available space on the property so that they could get off too — get the women off!” Diana claimed.

That “coming show,” which took place way back in 1976, was billed as the first public demonstration of a woman orgasming. It served its ulterior purpose well: Word quickly spread, and Baranco’s classes became a lucrative business. 

Baranco, a mercurial figure, was central to the first iteration of Bay Area sex cults in the 1960s and 1970s. He ran a series of communes called More House, or alternately, Morehouse communes. He was a master marketer and con man extraordinaire, reinventing himself as a love guru just in time for the Free Love generation. But to Baranco, a clitoris was mostly a button for profit. This led to foreseeable outcomes — namely, sexual abuse and allegations of prostitution, which toppled the movement by the early 1980s. 

Cultural memories, however, are short. Which is how Nicole Daedone, a former student of Baranco’s, was able to reboot and rebrand his playbook as “Orgasmic Meditation” workshops in 2004, using the exact same shtick, and no one batted an eye. (Imagine a quasi-spiritual practice based on rubbing a clitoris — that’s OMing.) 

When Daedone first sprung onto the scene, she presented herself as a sex-positive life guru and wellness expert. She joyously reported to anyone who would listen that she’d discovered a cure for our times — slow sex and better orgasms. Armed with all the charm and smarm of the worst kind of TED Talk, Daedone mainly recommended that men and women needed to learn how to focus on a woman’s pleasure. Her corporation was called OneTaste, and it hawked OM classes that cost five figures. 

In 2009, the New York Times discovered Daedone, which resulted in a cover story for its Style section. The article read a lot like a PR-pitch-turned-news story — only hornier. It informed its readers how the OneTaste Urban Retreat Center in San Francisco was home to “38 men and women — their average age the late 20s,” and noted that the sex commune was located in “a shabby-chic loft building in the South of Market District,” which was where the commune’s members “prepare meals together, practice yoga and mindfulness meditation and lead workshops in communication for outside groups as large as 60.”

“At 7 a.m. each day, as the rest of America is eating Cheerios or trying to face gridlock without hyperventilating, about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation,” the Grey Lady reported. “The couples, who may or may not be romantically involved, call one another ‘research partners.’”

While the Times article did mention that OneTaste’s inspiration came from Baranco, it also elided the more pertinent details of his story. Known as the “Col. Sanders of Cults,” Baranco was a 6-foot-2, half-Black, half-Jewish, former collector for the mob who decided one day that he’d solved the meaning of life, which was basically that everything should be governed by pleasure. As such, starting in 1968, as the Haight-Ashbury burnouts began to accumulate in San Francisco, he collected the young acid casualties into communes. For $200 a month, the hippie burnouts and soulful seekers could live in a decrepit Victorian house, where they fixed meals together, practiced self-awareness and were encouraged to explore each other in the hopes of powerful sexual awakenings. 

But Baranco not only had teen girls and young twentysomethings giving him hand jobs in the name of spiritual healing and self-realization, he also convinced his commune members to dedicate their labor to building him a fortune by fixing up Victorian homes, which he would then sell. A 1972 Rolling Stone article on Baranco detailed how his sex cult motivated its prospective new members, known as “evaluates.” “Frannie was what the Institute calls an ‘evaluate,’ the lowest of the low on the More House corporate ladder,” it reported. “As Ken Brown, the new President of the Institute put it: ‘When people move in as evaluates, we push them, treat them like victims. Say you’re working in the kitchen hard all day, doing your best, and you get to the point where you don’t think you can do any more. That’s when we tell them to drive to San Jose to get us a taco, and to top it off, we don’t give them money for gas. We prove to people that they can do more than they thought they could, so they can feel like heroes.’”

They also openly called it what it was — a grift. “‘The Institute is a good scam,’ said Brown proudly, his eyes smiling,” per Rolling Stone. “His tongue was as loose as his attitude. ‘We call ourselves hustlers, and other people marks. Victor hustles their asses and their souls. He takes their dough to feed himself. But he sees to it that they win, too.”

In fact, the oft-used term “win-win” was originally coined by Baranco. He ran his sex commune as a corporation and never tried to hide that fact. If anything, he convinced his followers into thinking a sex-fueled corporation was a good thing, a lesson Daedone took to heart.

Before she’d started OneTaste, Daedone had tried her hand at a few earlier hustles, traveling in proto-cult spaces like Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and co-founding an art gallery. By 2004, though, Daedone started selling something far more lucrative — sexual empowerment to women. Her major financial partner was Reese Jones, a tech-bro-cum-internet-millionaire. The Times originally listed him as her boyfriend. And as local blog SFGate reported in 2011, he’d housed her OneTaste Urban Retreat Center in one of his mansions: “Daedone, who has been in the orgasm business for more than a decade, recently relocated her South of Market street digs on Folsom Street to the posh three-story manse, which belongs to her boyfriend, Reese Jones, a venture capitalist who bought the home for $2.8 million in 2005.”

The problem was, after the Times story first introduced OneTaste and OM to the mainstream, many women and men came forward to recount the abuse they’d witnessed or suffered from Daedone’s brainchild. For example, a woman named Mindy wrote on Yelp, a bastion of negative OneTaste reviews, “Following the first OM, I woke up two days later and was so ungrounded I found myself unable to work. I proceeded to become more and more ungrounded as the week drew on. My symptoms progressed to full-blown PTSD. The context here is that I am a pre-verbal incest survivor. I have sought therapy for 10 years regarding this and felt ready to take my healing to this next place.”

“During the OM training, there was no mention of the nature of the journey that OMing can often open for women with childhood sexual histories,” she continued. “I assumed there would be a journey, but to offer no forewarning or no roadmap when one is totally available is, in my judgement, wholly irresponsible.”

Another woman shared her experiences with semi-prostitution under the auspices of OneTaste commune life: “Most people who show up here are lonely, vulnerable or insecure. And they usually fall into one of two categories: proprietors and whores. The first group are usually lonely older men with a decent amount of money. The latter are usually young women (occasionally attractive young men) who are encouraged to sleep with the former, and of course, both parties sign up for the aforementioned programs. Men often leave feeling financially taken advantage of and women used for their bodies. Heck, I know there are people who did have sex for money to pay for their coaching program. And I know when I think of who I became during the time I was there, I feel sad.”

Yet, in 2013, OneTaste received a second wave of breathless, toothless press coverage. By then, it seemed like every media outlet felt compelled to send a reporter to go check out OMing for themselves and then publish a highly-repetitive gonzo story of what it was like.

The East Bay Express was early to the beat. It published a story on Orgasmic Meditation the day before Valentine’s Day in 2013. With energetic prose, the writer shared her experience, but overall, she came away from the OM seminar a little saddened and eager to return to Netflix and her cat. In April, on the NYU blog, a college reporter gave a quick breakdown of New York’s OneTaste sex commune, motivated by the fact Daedone was speaking at the campus. By June, Cosmo covered the erotic promise of OMing and Daedone’s “slow-sex revolution” — in the most Cosmo way possible, of course (“We spoke with three male OM experts to find out why they do it, how they started and what’s it like to dedicate your life to sweet, sweet putana”).

In October, Gawker famously gave the world its unvarnished assessment of the OneTaste experience in the aptly-titled piece “My Life with the Thrill-Clit Cult,” in which writer Nitasha Tiku recounted how Daedone boasted to the audience of a three-day conference that OMing was now a technorati-approved pursuit. “She relayed an endorsement from foundational futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose Singularity University counts Reese Jones as a board member,” she wrote. “‘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.’”

In under a decade, Daedone had reached rarified air. She was now Silicon Valley-approved, throwing the media into yet another tizzy. The Atlantic covered OneTaste as “The Pro-Orgasm Movement,” Refinery29 offered its readers “The Strange Truth About Orgasmic Meditation” and Salon and Elle promised (respectively), “‘Behold the Glory of the P*ssy!’: My Orgasmic Meditation Awakening” and “Orgasmic Meditation Finally Made Sex Fun for Me.”

Somehow, though, the accounts from OneTaste’s ever-growing number of victims still never made it into these pieces. Until, that is, June 2018. That’s when Bloomberg did an expose entitled “The Dark Side of the Orgasmic Meditation Company.” After interviewing 16 former members and commune staff, reporter Ellen Huet pieced together an image of what was really going on inside OneTaste: “Many of the former staffers and community members say OneTaste resembled a kind of prostitution ring — one that exploited trauma victims and others searching for healing. In some members’ experiences, the company used flirtation and sex to lure emotionally vulnerable targets. It taught employees to work for free or cheap to show devotion. And managers frequently ordered staffers to have sex or OM with each other or with customers.”

Five months later, in November 2018, the FBI launched a criminal investigation into Daedone and OneTaste. At the time, it was estimated that 10,000 people were regularly taking OneTaste classes. Today, obviously, it’s a much different story. OneTaste’s web presence has been deactivated, and all of the former web addresses are listed as available for purchase. Similarly, over on YouTube, OneTaste hasn’t uploaded a new video in the last two years. 

Charges still haven’t been filed, but the investigation remains active. As expected, Daedone has laid low. Meanwhile, her former tech millionaire boyfriend, Jones, has since distanced himself from her, attempting to erase all previous connections between the two of them (despite the fact that stray tweets and photos continue to appear online). 

What’s next is anybody’s guess. But this much is certain: It’s imperative that OneTaste isn’t lost to the dustbin of history. After all, the world forgot about Victor Baranco. Which is how we got a Nicole Daedone. There was nothing new about the rest of it.