Jan 28, 2024

Inside OneTaste: my stay at Nicole Daedone's 'orgasm commune'

OneTaste founder Nicole Daedone is accused of running an ‘orgasmic meditation cult’ involving abuse and forced labour — and faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty. Here’s what happened when she invited Megan Agnew into her California HQ

Megan Agnew
January 28 2024

One hundred and fifty miles north of San Francisco is a town called Philo, population 319. If you were driving through one Wednesday evening in December you might have spotted two British women, a photographer and a journalist, sitting in a car outside the minimart, trying to process what had just happened.

We had spent two days on the Land, a 160-acre “monastery” nearby, home to an organisation some have called an orgasm cult. They were two of the most unsettling, disorientating days of my life. Rachael, the photographer, and I were separated from the moment we arrived and escorted everywhere we went. People I met on the Land were glassy-eyed, blissed-out and grinning. Many talked about a “practice” that will save us, invented by their guru, Nicole Daedone — who, in June, was charged with running a conspiracy involving forced labour. She faces 20 years in a US prison if found guilty.

Daedone, 56, founded the sexual wellness company OneTaste in 2004 in San Francisco. She wrote instructions for “orgasmic meditation” (OM) — a woman lies back and has her clitoris stroked by a man wearing latex gloves for 15 minutes — trademarked the technique and sold courses for thousands of dollars. OM, she said, will one day be as mainstream as yoga.

The company quickly grew, making $9.4 million in 2016. Daedone received praise from Gwyneth Paltrow and Khloé Kardashian. By 2018, 35,000 people attended events in cities including London. Hundreds moved into “OM houses”, communes where they could OM twice in the morning and twice in the evening. Many gave up their jobs to sell courses.

According to federal prosecutors, however, it wasn’t a “wellness” company at all. Instead, they allege Daedone and her former head of sales, Rachel Cherwitz, 43, targeted vulnerable people by advertising that the company’s teachings could repair sexual trauma, “induced” members to take on debt to pay for OM courses, withheld wages and isolated them from the outside world while demanding “absolute commitment”. It alleges they used abusive employment practices, subjecting members to “economic, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse, surveillance, indoctrination and intimidation”. Members were “groomed” and pressed to have sex with other members and prospective investors, prosecutors allege.

OneTaste imploded in 2018 when Bloomberg published an investigation accusing the organisation of resembling a “prostitution ring”. “It was a religion,” one former employee told Bloomberg. “Orgasm was God and Nicole was like Jesus.”

OneTaste went quiet. It shut down all centres, courses and houses. A group of about 30 “senior practitioners”, including Daedone, retreated to the Land. Then came a BBC podcast, The Orgasm Cult; a Netflix documentary, Orgasm Inc; a Vice documentary and a Playboy investigation.

In June 2023 the FBI stormed the Land. Daedone and Cherwitz were arrested. The company has since spent about $15 million on legal fees: suing the BBC, suing Netflix, suing a former member, being sued by another former member for alleged sex trafficking and fighting the criminal trial.

There is no trial date yet. The company denies all allegations and on January 16 submitted a motion to dismiss the indictment, saying they “remain in the dark as to how the government alleges they might have violated the law”.

Now, for the first time, OneTaste has agreed to let a journalist through the gates of the Land and promised me an audience with Daedone, her first interview since the indictment. She wants to tell her side of the story — to demonstrate her innocence.

And so, one Tuesday morning in December, we drove through Philo, past the minimart and turned left.

Day one


“Hey,” says a man wearing wooden beaded bracelets as he gets out of an SUV. Rachael and I had just driven down a long track and found ourselves at a dead end. “I’m Bob,” he says, grinning. “You’re in the wrong place, I’ll show you in.” Rachael looks at me and says: “How did he know where we were?”

We follow Bob through some electric gates and over a bridge, the same route taken by the fleet of FBI vehicles last summer. We pass a vegetable patch, chickens, turkeys and a meadow that sits beneath ancient oak trees, alongside the rumbling Navarro River. We are in the Anderson Valley: Californian wine country.

At the top of a hill is a collection of chalets where the remaining OM group live, swapping between dorms and shared houses, with just a few belongings between them. No one can tell me exactly how you qualify to live here. The 26 people who do are on what is called the “retreat programme” and work for the company as lawyers, publishers, videographers, marketers, OM teachers, gardeners or at the non-profit outreach programme feeding the homeless. Some live here part-time, for others it is their permanent home. They pay $1,700 a month in rent, which covers food, board and “practice”: yoga and spiritual guidance from Daedone, who lives in her own house, set apart — and four sessions of orgasmic meditation a day.

Most appear to be wealthy. One man used to work at Apple, another was an executive at the international gym franchise CrossFit. There are millionaire entrepreneurs, the daughter of the inventor of the Polly Pocket toy, former lawyers from “magic circle” firms and a Hollywood actress. Members of the public can also book to stay for days, weeks or months, from about £500 a night.

We arrive at a converted barn. The upstairs is for OM sessions, downstairs is where the company broadcasts hours and hours of its teaching. This morning in front of an audience of about 20 — residents on the Land — stands Vanessa Lengies, 38, an actress who appeared in the US comedy drama Glee. “Without further ado,” Lengies says, livestreaming onto YouTube, Instagram and Zoom. “I give you Nicole Daedone!” And there she is, walking onto the stage in a fitted orange cocktail dress, her hair tonged and shiny, lips glossed and pillowy. The audience is beaming. She is the reason they are all here — and the reason I am too.

This is her weekly “sutra session” in which she delivers a sermon inspired by The Eros Sutras, the scriptures she wrote that lay out the OM principles, a “blueprint” for how to live a life of intimacy, connection and eroticism. Soulmaker Press, the group’s in-house publisher, has produced ten books to date. They are all written by her.

Daedone is a practised speaker, leaving long, pregnant pauses that everyone waits for her to fill. “I broke open into that silence,” she says. “Suddenly it was, like, this is what it’s supposed to feel like. This is what I feel like in my own body on my own terms.” The room laughs and nods as she continues in this vein. It’s time for questions. Hands shoot up. One woman says the talk made her cry. I watch it again later on YouTube. I still don’t understand a word she said.


We eat tacos and black beans at three long tables in a dining hall. There is a seating plan and bottles of San Pellegrino. Residents take it in turns to do chores — cooking, laying the table, doing the washing-up.

Daedone arrives. She seems reserved though confident, her stance solid, her shoulders square, coy, a little removed. People approach her and she looks them deep in the eyes, touching their hands gently and not looking anywhere else. She gives me a shy wave as she sits down and I’m told by her publicist I’ll interview her tomorrow.

Daedone was born in Los Gatos, California, into a bohemian political household and brought up largely by her single mother. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in gender communications and semantics in 1994. San Francisco at the time was an orgy of dotcom cash. In a much-repeated story where details vary, she claims she met a man (in some tellings a Buddhist monk) at a party who persuaded her to try an “ancient sexuality practice” known as “deliberate orgasm”. “Something happened,” she said. “The big traffic jam in my head stopped.”

She took classes with Victor Baranco, an entrepreneur from Oakland, California, who practised public “clitoral stroking” and founded the northern Californian commune Lafayette Morehouse, labelled by journalists as a sex cult — though the group insists all “research” has been carried out between consenting adults. In 1998 she joined a splinter group in the Bay Area, the Welcomed Consensus, that also promoted “deliberate” orgasm. There she met Robert Kandell, a Silicon Valley financier.

Kandell and Daedone decided to give orgasms the start-up treatment, to take the practice mainstream — and so founded OneTaste. For the method to be trademarked and marketable, it needed to be formulaic: the woman asks a man if he wants to OM. He does not have to be her sexual or romantic partner. She lies down, unclothed from the waist down, her legs butterflied. The man is fully clothed, wearing latex gloves. His right index finger strokes the top left quadrant of her clitoris. Both people’s attention must be focused wholly on the “stroke”. It lasts exactly 15 minutes. The founders insisted, as they still do, that this wasn’t sex but an everyday spiritual “practice” such as yoga.

The first OneTaste members moved into a warehouse in San Francisco, sheets hanging between each bed. Daedone was at its centre. “Everybody treated me like a guru,” she said. “I’d wake up and people would come sit on my bed.”

Persephone (not her real name) joined the group in 2003, having recently quit her job and marriage. “I was mesmerised by Nicole when I first met her,” she tells me on the phone from the US. “But she’s a master manipulator. She can read a person and know exactly how to play them.”

She became addicted to the “continuous buzz” of orgasms and soon moved into a commune. “People were high all the time, not from drugs but from being stroked,” she says. “It was used as a way to control people,” she believes.

Members weren’t told to cut off ties with family, Persephone says, but “family members can’t relate to you. They’re, like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ The longer you were there, the harder it was to think yourself out,” she adds. “Nicole talks about all these grandiose things, about how they’re changing consciousness, so you think, ‘Maybe I’m really doing something important here.’ ”

Persephone says she eventually “woke up”, feeling she was being “used”. She left the community. “This is what Nicole does,” she says. “She makes you think you want to live there, that it’s your choice. But it’s not — it’s grooming.” Daedone said in response to the allegations of manipulation, “that is the antithesis of everything I believe in and worked for”.

In 2014 Daedone bought out Kandell and became sole shareholder of OneTaste. The company spread across 39 cities globally. Every morning employees had a “sync up” — an online meeting where each city would compare sales of OM courses. Targets were met only 36 per cent of the time.

Back at lunch on the Land I am placed opposite Rachel Caine, a 34-year-old with dark hair in tight natural curls. She worked at the law firm Clifford Chance in Sydney until 2016, when she attended an OM workshop. She signed up for the coaching programme and every month flew 14 hours to San Francisco. She quit her law job and moved into an OM house. Now she is one of the company’s lawyers. “Everything that’s changing the world is seen as being weird at first,” she tells me.

Next to me is Anjuli Ayer, 42, who went even further. She bought the company from Daedone in 2017, less than a year after attending her first OM, and is now the CEO. Ayer, who has a short pixie crop and wears military boots and a parka, says OM-ing rid her of the symptoms of an autoimmune disease. “So I started taking courses and did as many as I could,” she says. “Then Nicole just happened to be looking not to be the owner of the company any more, because she’s a visionary and she was never really meant to run a big business It was awesome,” continues Ayer, grinning. “Awesome!”

Daedone sold OneTaste for $12 million to Ayer, her brother, Austin Ayer, 39 — who seems only to serve people food — and Amanda Dunham, 34, who chops apples. All three are OM practitioners and all three invested “family money”. They also bought the Land for $4 million and two properties in New York.

Within months of the acquisition the allegations began. Former employees told Bloomberg they were encouraged to use sex to “hook” customers; that they were made to take out huge loans to pay for courses to ascend, spiritually. Other media investigations termed OneTaste a “destructive sex cult”. In a claim fully denied by the company, the BBC podcast alleged that the group arranged for men to have sex with one member in order to somehow “clear” her history of childhood sexual abuse. It is alleged they told her her tears were “just the orgasm coming out”.

“OneTaste was not a ‘destructive sex cult’ or any sort of ‘cult’ as the term is commonly understood,” the claimants submitted in their legal case against the BBC. “It was a collaborative organisation that promoted wellbeing and practices of self-care and empowerment for modern women with decision-maker power decentralised among the senior leaders.”

It continued that all residency in OM houses was voluntary, with “informed consent” and “safe words” at the centre of the instructions, with no one “exploited or manipulated” into having sex with anyone else. No one “sought to cut off” staff or practitioners from friends or family.

Among the chaos the OneTaste company was disbanded and reassembled as various companies and non-profits. The Institute of OM Foundation runs the online learning platform. Daedone is, on paper, divorced from it entirely. The word “OneTaste” is, almost everywhere, gone.

The Institute of OM has started hosting introductory sessions in hip event spaces in London, New York and Los Angeles. Alongside free content it is also selling memberships to the online platform — $149.99 a year or $695 for four sessions. In 2023 the Institute of OM’s revenue was $32,000. In 2022 it was $377. “We’re much more mission-based,” Ayer says. “None of us are here to make money.”


Ayer shows me into my cabin overlooking a river valley heavy with fog. She and Kevin Williams, 47, a former corporate lawyer in London and now the company’s general legal counsel, follow me inside — to my slight surprise. They sit down at my table.

They want to brief me before my meeting with Daedone tomorrow. What is her role, I ask, now she is not an owner, shareholder or CEO. “She’s the author of the sutras, she’s the inspiration for everything, she’s the source of all of the principles and the foundation of what we’re doing right now,” Ayer says. “She advises us as a visionary. We’re deeply inspired by every single book and every single thing she creates.”

“She’s a great finder,” Williams says, grinning. “She’ll be, like, check out Bob Thurman’s podcast [a Buddhist academic] and that was my favourite podcast of last year. I was, like, Bob Thurman is awesome!” Later I find Williams’s blog posts from when he first joined OneTaste in 2014. “I am getting a lot of ass,” he wrote. “People seem to enjoy being violated on a Friday night!”

What is this group, I ask. A religion, a cult, a company, a group of friends getting off? “We’re not a religion,” Ayer says. “We are a movement.” Williams picks up: “We are also plural. I’m one person but I have a job doing what I love for a company that I love and I live in a monastery where I get to practise, and I really do feel those separate but connected things. It’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ environment. And a lot of us choose a lot of depth in it.”

Ayer gives it another go: “This whole thing is a movement of a certain number of people core to it, who are furthering these principles.” So it’s a belief system, I say. “Yes, it’s a set of principles.” But it’s also something that’s scaled and monetised like a company, I say. “Uh-huh. Did we answer your question?”

Why is the word “cult” used so often, I ask. “I mean ” Ayer pauses. “To see it labelled something that people think is negative it’s just completely misunderstood. Then in another way I’m, like, OK, Apple is a cult. CrossFit is a cult. These other things get called cults because people love them and deeply benefit from them and then they get labelled something that’s seen as negative, when it’s really just people devoted to something that they believe in.” A spokesperson later told us, “OneTaste was not, is not, and never has been a cult.”

They slide across a pack of paper, seven pages of text, that they say I should read before I meet Daedone. “Nicole really took a lot of care writing this,” Ayer says, her voice quiet. “This is her vision.”


Ayer walks me back to the dining hall, where I see Rachael, the photographer, from afar. (After we leave the Land, Rachael tells me she kept getting picked up by people taking her to different locations to photograph — and was surprised to find them often driving her car.) Dinner is roast beef, chimichurri, potatoes and gem lettuce. Austin offers chocolate-chip cookies. “We’re pretty self-contained,” Ayer says. The week’s food arrives in huge deliveries, stored in a walk-in fridge-freezer.

The seating plan ensures Daedone is not near me. Opposite me is Joanna Van Vleck, 40. She grins with skin flushed — she has just OM-ed, her fourth orgasm of the day. A decade ago she sold her retail company for $350 million to the American department store Nordstrom and, hearing that orgasmic meditation was going to be huge, asked Daedone for a role as her head of marketing. “I didn’t OM for the first six months,” she says. “But the joke was on me, because it changed my life.”

Van Vleck then served as the company’s president for several years. It is alleged that during this time OneTaste used “predatory” tactics, telling people that they could reach a sort of spiritual enlightenment by purchasing more courses. Today she tells me that refunds were given whenever anyone asked.

“The most difficult part is feeling so misunderstood,” she says. “It’s, like, I’m trying to be an apple. And someone’s, like ” She pauses. “Oh, you’re an asparagus! And you’re, like, that’s not it at all.”

There are no children allowed here. From my conversations with people, their children are either grown up or they don’t have children at all. Many of these people seem to have dated or been engaged to each other. I ask about the members who have said they became estranged from their families. Ayer, sitting next to me, tells me that it is “part of the practice” to stay “connected and work through” any issues. “All of us have had different experiences,” she says. “My family has been incredibly supportive… Shall we take you back?”

We walk in the dark. Where’s my photographer Rachael’s cabin, I ask. “She’s near you,” is all they say.

I shut the door behind me — there is no lock and no blinds on the windows. One kitchen cupboard is empty except for a box of latex gloves. The mugs have been cleared, the fruit platter taken away.

Day two


My alarm goes off at 5.30am. Ayer comes to collect me, driving us 45 seconds to the converted barn. Upstairs in the loft there are seven yoga mats, laid out next to one another in two rows on the floor. It’s warm, a cave in the wooden eaves. I sit on a chair, observing only, worried I’m going to get the giggles. I’m tense, full of caution.

The OM session begins at 6.15am on the dot. Seven women are lying down on pillows — including the actress, Lengies, and the women I spoke to at dinner. The men sit alongside them, latex gloves on — Eli, who used to work at Apple; Bob, the manager of the Land, who showed us in; and Hesham, the company videographer. Daedone is absent. She doesn’t practise with the group any more, only privately with her one OM “partner” in New York.

Sitting at the front, the senior practitioner Aubrey Fuller instructs the men on how to amend their “strokes”, whether to go faster, slower, shorter, longer. Eli keeps looking me in the eye, which is unsettling. It’s quieter than I thought, more like being in a yoga class than at a sex party — toes scrunched up, heavy breathing, women asking for “adjustments” from their partner. It is a strikingly intimate act: men looking straight into a woman’s genitals, stroking them. So it unnerves me that everyone here insists that it’s not a sexual experience at all — that you can do it with anyone at any time. The alarm goes off after 15 minutes. I can’t tell if they reached climax or not.

I’m driven back to my chalet through the drizzle. Someone has left three umbrellas for me, leaning against the door.

Afternoon: the interview

After a lunch of spiced chicken and bean salad, Ayer walks me to the converted barn where there are two chairs and two side tables, a cheese platter on each. “It’s not bad, huh?” Daedone says as she walks in. The room is emptied of helpers; just her publicist, Ian, and lawyer, Julia, remain. She’s tall and wears a big knitted cardigan over a silk dress. She crosses her arms into her lap and looks up through her eyelashes, seeming to pull herself away out of shyness — it is a noticeable shift from when she was last in this room, preaching her sutras.

Daedone splits her time between here and Harlem, New York, she tells me, and her “friends” pay for her living costs since her assets were frozen by the government in June 2023. Marcus Ratnathicam, a member who lives part-time on the Land, secured her bail by putting up his $2 million property in California as collateral.

“I love it here,” she continues. “When we first stepped foot on [the Land], I had a vision. I always have these visions and they sound crazy, and then over a period of time they happen.”

Why was it so important to have the Land? “So, I have this idea.” There is a seven-second pause. “We’re going to have to figure it out, as a world, in a way that’s sustainable. If the whole idea is to get out of suffering and hit a state of flourishing, then you have to take a different approach.”

I must look lost. “When we talk, everything is going to be up here,” she puts one hand level with her eyes, “but then it has really deep roots.”

Throughout the two-hour interview, Daedone chases herself through thoughts, moving on without quite finishing the last one. She compares herself to the Buddha and Elon Musk. She describes her role in the group as “the older person who inspires” and her teachings as central to the community. “That’s why I was so determined to write the sutras,” she says. “I’d like to see this alive in 500 years and I’m gonna die at some point. It has to be written [down] for that to happen.”

The group, she says, is “about as far from religion as you can get”. “Religions have prescriptions. There’s a dogma and belief system.” But aren’t the sutras dogma? “Have you read them? Nobody has to read the sutras. But if you do read the sutras… read them, if you would, because the way they’re laid out is how to use the practice as a scientific method for personal inquiry.”

Daedone was an only child, a natural leader who says she didn’t want to be followed. At 27, she received a call from her father, from whom she was estranged, and found out he was dying of cancer in prison — he had been convicted of molesting girls. All of it, Daedone says, was news to her. “I thought, OK, I have this pain, how can I use it to bring benefit [to others]? I’ve been on that path since.”

Daedone trained in Zen Buddhism and nearly became a nun. She also worked for six months as a stripper and escort — “I wanted to know things I didn’t understand” — before combining the two fields of research to make OneTaste.

There is “nothing” similar to sex about OM-ing, she claims. “I said it yesterday, sex is the instrumentation and OM is the silence. It’s an attention-training practice.” Isn’t it dangerous, I suggest, to pretend that something that is physically the same as sex, isn’t sex? “How would that be dangerous?” Because people underestimate its potential to cause harm. “In most sexual activities I’m familiar with, it does not have a rigorous protocol. [OM-ing] is taking sexual energies and repurposing them for consciousness or attention. It’s hard to decouple, I know.”

Daedone stands by her innocence. She describes her predicament as being “cancelled”. She denies the allegations of forceful sales tactics, saying it is “batshit” that women were encouraged to look sexy in order to sell courses to rich men. Is she interested in money? “I dated rich men in my life, so if I wanted to be rich I would have just got married.”

She also distances herself from what allegedly happened in the OM houses. She claims the houses were set up by “licensed OM practitioners” and were not the company’s responsibility. “I know what I saw. But I don’t know what I didn’t see,” she says. “A group of meditators who decide that they want to live together? I don’t know that Buddhism is responsible for what happens in that house.” She continues: “I think people go nuts when a clitoris is involved.”

We need to talk about the c-word, I say. Cult. How does she feel about it being used? “Oh, I love it!” Then she laughs. “I’m joking! I mean,” she sighs dramatically, “I don’t know if you can feel who I am over here,” she softens her voice, “just a human. But if not I’ll explain. This is my life’s work. I’ll take my last breath during this. And then to have it reduce It was devastating. It was terrible. We could not have been more out in the open in the world, as a business.”

Daedone believes that one day everyone will realise the persecution of OneTaste was all some huge mistake. “I’m in the deep-seated belief that OM will be seen as a very powerful modality. And that will come clear. A lot will come clear.” It sounds as if she sees herself as the martyr. “Well, we hope that’s not the case — that I am sacrificed. We’ll see. I believe that the truth prevails.”

She pauses. “There wasn’t a lot of profile in this,” she says with a smile. “I thought this was a profile about my work? That was what I heard.” By which I think she means she wanted to talk about the content of the sutras, her belief systems, Daedone as a theologian rather than the charges that will put her in the dock of a federal court.


It’s getting dark. For the first time I’m allowed to walk by myself back to my chalet. I text Rachael and she comes to pick me up. As we’re reversing, a guy I don’t recognise turns up in a truck. “I’ll show you out!” he says. He leads us down the single track and through the gate, which shuts behind us, seeing us on to the main road.

We pull over at the minimart in Philo and walk in. The door clangs. Its customers are in old, beaten-up jeans, plaid coats and caps. I ask people in there if they know the people on the Land. “We don’t see them,” says one woman. “No contact with them. Nothing.”

The further away we drive, the more it feels like a different world, a place where I was given everything, where I had to give up all control, where people arrived and disappeared, giving me answers I never really understood about why they were there and what it all meant. It felt like a monastery run like a start-up, a religion with sales targets, a mix of money, ecstasy, intimacy, community and — according to the FBI’s case — coercion and crime.

But the gates are open and there are no locks on the doors, so why do people stay, I ask Persephone, the former member. “Because it’s a cult,” she says. “They’ve been brainwashed. It unmoors you from your own instinct. And so people get lost. Really, really lost.”

For Megan Agnew’s audio diary of her stay, listen to the Stories of Our Times podcast on Monday


No comments: