I just finished watching “Orgasm Inc.: The Story of OneTaste” on Netflix, and uh… I have a lot of thoughts. Here, I run down the start-up darling’s rise from niche group event to elaborate (and expensive!) wellness gathering, and a bit about their downfall, sexual harassment claims, and the general “yikes” that ensued. Then I give a bit of a review of “Orgasm Inc.: The Story of OneTaste,” which is on Netflix. This is part wellness cult rant and part movie review.
What is OneTaste and What Do They Do?
I first remember reading about OneTaste at some point when I was in college, and while I don’t remember exactly what I thought about it, I can assume that I probably reacted positively.
I worked as a Peer Wellness Educator in college. I could often be found at the health center handing out condoms or in the basement of my sorority house trying to convince my friends that masturbation was normal and healthy. I did Vagina Monologues, and interned at an organization that provided social services for sex workers. If 19-year-old me learned about a start-up focused on helping women reach orgasm and helping them feel confident, I would have probably thought that was “pretty dope” (or whatever meant “cool” at that point in time.)
OneTaste was founded in San Francisco by Nicole Daedone, and involved everything from courses in “orgasmic meditation” or (OM) to group-living situations that housed upwards of 40 people termed “Urban Centers.”
Having lived in the Bay Area for a few years now, I find it (unfortunately?) normal for 10+ adults to live together in one house and have varying rules around how much clothing is required at any given time. Some of it is due to the astronomical rent, some of it is due to nostalgia for the region’s counter-culture movements. All that said, it’s pretty normal for a pseudo-hippie commune to have the name of a start-up plastered above their front door. And OneTaste seemed like no exception—it was expensive, filled with group sleeping arrangements, and varying levels of boundaries between those who lived there.
While I couldn’t find exactly how much things cost from their website, it seems like it was pretty expensive (in the thousands of dollars) and definitely out-there. Under the guise of “empowerment,” members would do what OneTaste called a “demo,” where they would partake in “orgasmic meditation.” Their version of orgasmic meditation (OM) consisted of a man touching a woman’s clitoris in front of an audience for 15+ minutes. The point, I think, was that women’s pleasure doesn’t get paid attention to enough, and that, by focusing exclusively on a woman’s pleasure, this was the remedy.
In reading about it and watching the movie, it’s pretty clear OneTaste embodied the formula of so many predatory and problematic wellness programs:
- They identify a real issue and back it up with facts. “30% of women aren’t having orgasms! Science hasn’t done enough to research the female orgasm! Isn’t this bad?!”
- They offer you a solution with a serious-sounding name. “We have this thing called Orgasmic Meditation. It will benefit your physical, emotional, and mental health!”
- You try it.
- If it doesn’t work, it’s because you are doing something incorrectly. “You’re not believing enough. You’re not surrendering fully to the process. You aren’t being open enough.”
- They get you to keep buying in. If it worked, then they can offer you something else that will help even more! If it didn’t work, you can try this other thing that might work better for you. They remind you that this is a real problem and that you’re justified to feel frustrated, but you have to keep trying!
Rinse and repeat.
People would join, eventually become employees, live there, and then rope other people into the courses and seminars. While not exactly a pyramid scheme, it was definitely more of a triangle than I would personally feel comfortable with.
OneTaste is still around (I won’t link it, but they’re paying for valuable Google ad space—it isn’t too hard to find), and it seems like they’re more or less still doing the same thing, only this time on a farm in Mendocino with FBI inquiries looming in the background.
Orgasm Inc.: The Story of OneTaste Netflix Review
(There is another movie released in 2009 called Orgasm Inc. that talks about the female Viagra. This is not the same movie.)
I love a Netflix documentary. Especially those of the “look at this colossal mistake that happened” variety. Even more so when the story they’re looking into involves VC firms investing in something vaguely health related without a great idea of what they’re contributing to. Call it schadenfreude, but I feel a little bit of joy watching people light their money on fire with weird start-ups.
The movie uses footage shot at OneTaste while they were still around, as well as interviews with people who were members or employees in varying capacities. It’s funny at times but more often cringey. I don’t cringe easily while discussing sensitive topics. But parts of this movie made me say “ew” out loud to myself at least a few times: from the insistence of seemingly everyone involved in OneTaste to use the words “pussy” and “cock” while discussing genitals, to calling male sexuality “letting out your beast.”
(One other thing- everyone shown in the movie is straight. I have no clue if this was a production decision or a reflection of OneTaste’s clientele. But it does seem very weird for a sexual wellness start up in San Francisco to be that straight. Feel like that should have been a red flag from the get-go.)
There is an ongoing discussion of abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault as part of the movie, and the descriptions of sexual acts are certainly quite vivid. As people got roped into the
wellness cult business, there were pretty serious allegations that women were expected to participate in sexual acts as a condition of their employment. The FBI was apparently investigating this, but I’m not sure if it’s gone anywhere.
In one scene, the directors have clipped together all the times Nicole refers to spirituality and ritual. Another scene has Nicole, doing an orgasmic mediation demo in front of her investors (???) with a snake and incense.
I’ve written before about how this is an issue in the wellness industry more broadly: white women co-opting Asian spirituality and culture for their own benefit, without acknowledging the cultures and individuals that have brought this information to them in the first place. This flavor of orientalism is only echoed in looking into the company more deeply: while Nicole says she got the orgasmic meditation technique from a monk, she’s intentionally vague about who it came from. Maybe it’s because she wants to protect his identity, but more likely than not, it’s because she knew that it’s easier to sell things when you give it a veil of ancient mysticism.
While not addressed directly in the movie, it’s definitely painted with an aura of skepticism about the origins of OM and its association with Buddhist or Hindu tradition. (As one woman explains in the documentary, even the name OneTaste is derived from a Buddhist saying).
This is perhaps my biggest critique about the movie—it could have been a larger commentary on how this kind of thing happens all the time and is almost a central tenet of wellness cults. Instead, it was still kind of made to seem like a weird collision of circumstances that resulted in something improbable. And I didn’t get that.
I wonder if this was a production choice, made intentionally as to not inflame people who might otherwise be more involved in this genre of faux-feminist wellness rhetoric. After all, the movie was produced by Lena Dunham, who isn’t exactly noted for her good takes on sexuality. (You know you messed up when Lena Dunham is the executive producer of a movie about the downfall of your white, wealthy, girl-boss, sexual-assualt-normalizing start-up. Yikes.)
Overall, it was a good watch for weeknight boredom, but it wasn’t ground breaking journalism. Very little was done to investigate the ongoing allegations and concerns of abuse from within the organization, and it seems like they’re still running their wellness cult from Mendocino County, charging thousands of dollars for sessions and retreats.
The future and women’s sexual wellness
One of my biggest “ugh” moments from watching this movie was realizing how important women’s sexual wellness is, and how little OneTaste did to actually impact it. Instead, they created a wellness cult, pyramid-ish scheme, and potentially a hotbed for misogyny and abuse.
Sexual wellness is a great idea for a start-up if it actually does something to help people out, and doesn’t just propagate negative stereotypes about sexuality. People should know how to each other in a way that makes them feel good.
OneTaste’s current marketing mentions that they are actually working with researchers to show how OM has positive effects on the body through an organization called “The Institute of OM Foundation”. No doubt, this is needed research. There’s a decided lack of research into human sexuality, and especially into the female sexual response.
Their research is actually legitimate and peer-reviewed, and published in high-status journals. OM can increase feelings of physical closeness, and can result in positive affect without necessarily increasing the typical markers of arousal. It’s just particularly frustrating because in order for this research to be funded in the first place, it had to start with the growth of a wellness cult.
Around the same time that I probably first heard about OneTaste, I bought access to a similar (but much more science based) online platform called OMGYes. They’re also filling the much-needed niche of research into the female sexual response. (This is an affiliate link– I really believe in what they are doing!)
The principle is similar: many women have a lot of shame and stress around sex, and this harms their ability to reach orgasm and find pleasure in relationships. OMGYes provides educational content for everyone who is interested in learning more about orgasm from a research-based perspective. (The content is NSFW, but it’s not porn.) The difference is that it was developed from legitimate research from Indiana University, and wasn’t borne out of whatever was happening at OneTaste.
And this is only one aspect of a much larger problem. The underresearched areas of health and wellness are far too often the diseases or challenges that impact women. But in order to get the research we need, we either have to market something harmful and force research to occur after the fact, or to make money to fund the research from business models with plenty of dubious qualities.