Nov 15, 2022

OneTaste peddled sexual wellness via 15-minute orgasms. Then everything went wrong


OneTaste peddled sexual wellness via 15-minute orgasms. Then everything went wrong

As Netflix releases a documentary charting the downfall of an orgasmic meditation company likened to a cult, Olivia Petter examines the future of a somewhat tainted sector

November 14, 2022

Imagine you’re having an orgasm. Not just any orgasm, but one that could cure all of your problems. One that is earth-shattering, transcendental, and unlike anything you’ve ever known or felt. It is an experience that gives you a newfound purpose, community and identity. Oh, and it lasts for 15 minutes.

These were just some of the claims made by OneTaste, a now-defunct sexual wellness company famed for its workshops on “orgasmic meditation”, a trademarked practice involving a man stroking a woman’s clitoris for 15 minutes. Peddling progressive and feminist ideologies, the company quickly became much bigger than its headline offering, with workshops and offices spanning the US, while its messianic founder, Nicole Daedone, earned endorsements from Khloe Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow. Then everything went wrong.

A new Netflix documentary, Orgasm Inc, charts the downfall of OneTaste, detailing allegations of sex trafficking, prostitution and violations of labour law. In the film, employees speak about their experiences for the first time, with some claiming that the company ethos perpetuated incidents of sexual assault and exploited vulnerable people, while others compared the organisation to a cult. OneTaste has previously said that “any allegations of abusive practices are completely false”, while Daedone has more or less disappeared. However, the industry that OneTaste more or less pioneered continues to boom. In fact, it’s bigger than ever.

Estimated to be worth more than $19bn (£16.5bn), sexual wellness is arguably one of the fastest-growing sectors today. And yet no one can agree on what this vague term actually means. The World Health Organisation has no official definition but defines sexual health as “a state of physical, mental and social wellbeing in reference to sexuality”. Google “sexual wellness”, though, and you’ll get results on anything from buying a new vibrator to, er, having a vagina facial.

“Sexual wellness has become somewhat synonymous with self-care these days,” says Gigi Engle, certified sex educator at 3Fun and author of All The F***ing Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love and Life. At its core, the concept is a noble one. “It’s about embracing and investing in your pleasure without shame,” adds Engle. “It’s a big step away from the purity culture, shame-based views of sexuality we’ve had in the past and is about being able to express the need for pleasure and sexuality as a means to maintain a healthy and balanced life overall.”

Inevitably, with such an umbrella term, the industry has sometimes been characterised by woo-woo. Consider the vaginal egg, a product Paltrow once sold for $66 (£50) on her wellness website, Goop, claiming that inserting one daily could provide women with a “spiritual detox” and remove negative energy. In 2018, Goop agreed to pay a settlement of $145,000 (£112,514) for making unscientific claims about the health benefits of the eggs.

Then there are the sexual practices these companies are peddling. Remember vaginal steaming? Again, this was something previously endorsed by Goop; it involves sitting over a boiling bowl of hot water infused with herbs to “cleanse” and “freshen” the vagina. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 2019, the treatment was widely criticised after a 62-year-old woman sustained second-degree burns while attempting it.

Today’s leading sexual wellness brands tend to focus on creating new sex toys and sexual aids, such as lubricants, serums and oils. As Engle points out, many of them can be helpful and bring about positive change in someone’s sex life. But consider how these products are marketed – there’s a lot of pink packaging – and how they use the language of hyperbole. These products will heal you, we’re told. Make you feel fully alive. Nourished. Satiated. Transformed. Watch one of Daedone’s Ted Talks and it all starts to become eerily familiar.

Over recent years, the wellness industry as a whole has faced a backlash. Back in 2016, the #cleaneating movement was linked to sparking eating disorders, like orthorexia, and major proponents of the movement were vilified (bestselling authors and clean eating pioneers, The Hemsley sisters, went their separate ways following the fallout), or revealed as frauds (Belle Gibson lied about having cancer to promote her wellness blog). Consequently, it’s generally considered wise to approach the contemporary wellness industry with a degree of scepticism. But if the OneTaste scandal has taught us anything, it’s that nowhere is this more vital than with regards to sexual wellness.

When you break it down, OneTaste was founded on the same exact principles today’s sexual wellness brands perpetuate – healing, pleasure, liberation – and whether it’s packaged up in a pink flowery box or a $300 workshop, the end goal is always the same: orgasm. It’s a powerful one, too, when you consider the so-called orgasm gap – just 65 per cent of straight women usually or always orgasm during sex compared to 95 per cent of straight men – and the fact that roughly 10 per cent of women have never had an orgasm.

The idea is predicated on people not being sexually self-sufficient and needing products or courses to help them. But applying a supply and demand model to something as intimate as sexuality is risky business. The stakes are higher, and as we’ve seen with OneTaste, so is the propensity for damage. Many of the people drawn to OneTaste were survivors of sexual assault, or people who had experienced some sort of sexual trauma. Either that, or they had come from a background where sex and sexuality wasn’t explored openly, and so were more susceptible to Daedone’s teaching.

“Most people don’t have adequate education around sex and sexuality – so when someone makes it accessible for you, it can become very powerful,” says Dr Steven Hassan, renowned expert on cults and author of Combating Cult Mind Control. “Orgasms are ecstatic experiences that flood our brains with chemicals that make us feel good. But what happens when you’re in a sexual experience is your critical thinking goes offline, so you’re vulnerable.”

OneTaste is an example of what happens when that vulnerability is exploited to the extreme. There’s no disputing that we all need to be sexually well, so to speak, but whether or not we need this to be commercialised is something different altogether. “I think sexual wellness is a meaningless term,” says Dr Jen Gunter, gynaecologist and author of The Vagina Bible. “It has no clear definition and seems to have been purely created to sell products, coaching, and to establish the harmful narrative that a woman should always be hot and horny, meaning if that isn’t you, we have things to sell you.”

Of course, that’s not to say people shouldn’t enjoy the sex toys and sexual aids that are on offer today. “But don’t call it ‘sexual wellness’,” says Gunter. “That’s just called exploring sex. I would encourage people to not use an umbrella term like sexual wellness and instead think what it is they would like to try to change or learn about and then find real experts in the field. Sex is hard to talk about for a lot of people, and that is sad. But lots of people selling wellness in this space seem to be exploiting that gap.”

In fact, some would argue that it’s questionable to monetise sexual wellness in the first place. If you’re going to invest in helping people to have better, healthier sex lives, surely that money is best spent on sex education. “The sexual wellness industry is worth billions of dollars and, as such, there is a big consumer and capitalist drive behind the companies making pleasure products,” says Engle. “There are so many brands out there making wonderful, healthy products – but they’re often overshadowed by bigger companies who can make cheaper products that aren’t as good. Between the low-quality products and the lack of sex education, it puts the consumer at a big disadvantage.”

“From the perspective of a sexual health and sex education specialist, I do not think pleasure should not be branded or sold,” says Anne Philpott. “It needs to be recognised as something globally we all have the capacity for – rich or poor.”

That’s not going to stop this industry from growing. “Sexual wellness” taps into so many zeitgeist trends: empowerment, feminism, self-love and being assertive about our desires. But caution should be applied, by both companies and consumers. As Huet puts it at the end of Orgasm Inc, OneTaste offered people “love, connection, belonging”, things that most of us surely want, but in an industry that's vague at best and exploitative at worst, “things can become dangerous”.

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