When Nicole Daedone founded her San Francisco-based “sexual wellness” commune in 2004, its focus on “orgasmic meditation” and the intricacies of female pleasure promised to revolutionize ideas about intimacy and personal freedom for both women and men.
Instead, it became a cult-like organization with branches in cities across the country, where members lived in warehouse-like accommodations, gave up their independence and were coerced into engaging in sex acts with current and prospective clients, investors and employees, according to federal prosecutors.
On Tuesday, Daedone surrendered in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, where she was arraigned on charges of forced labor conspiracy.mThe San Diego resident pleaded not guilty and was released on a $1 million bond, court records show.
Daedone and her OneTaste lieutenant, former head of sales Rachel Cherwitz, are both accused of subjecting members to “economic, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse, surveillance, indoctrination, and intimidation,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Cherwitz was released on a $300,000 bond.
Update: Nicole Daedone pleaded not guilty, is out on $1 million bond, with three sureties: her mother, mother’s boyfriend, and longtime OneTaste associate Marcus Ratnathicam. Part of her bond includes a California residential property owned by Ratnathicamhttps://t.co/yAg6DihEOx
— Ellen Huet (@ellenhuet) June 13, 2023
Daedone and Cherwitz, of Mendocino County, sought to exercise complete control of members’ lives under the guise of helping them to find personal empowerment and wellness, said Breon Peace, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. They drove their members into debt and directed them to perform sexual acts, while withholding wages.
“The defendants advertised their company as being able to help individuals recover from past trauma,” said Michael J. Driscoll, the FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York field office. “In reality, they allegedly targeted their victims in order to manipulate them not only into debt but to limit their independence and create a reliance on OneTaste for basic needs.”
Daedone strongly denied the allegations against her in a statement issued through her attorney, Julie Gatto.
“Nicole Daedone is a ceiling-shattering feminist entrepreneur who built and grew a company like no other, supporting and embracing female sexuality, female worth and female empowerment,” Gatto said in a statement shared with this news organization. “The idea that this woman at this company engaged in forced labor is as far from the truth and reality as one can comprehend. She pleaded not guilty today, she’s not guilty.”
As alleged in court documents, OneTaste branded itself as a sexuality-focused wellness education company founded by Daedone in 2004. From 2004 to 2018, it generated millions of dollars in revenue by providing courses, coaching and events related to so-called wellness practices, the release said. It opened branches in New York City, Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, London and other cities, where some of its members lived in communal housing, participated in courses and experimented sexually.
OneTaste and Daedone were the subject of a 2022 Netflix documentary, “Orgasm Inc” and a 2018 investigation by Bloomberg, both of which had members describe their inculcation into Daedone’s orbit, which they described as a “cult of personality,” Decider reported.
A 2009 New York Times story looked at the dozens of women and men living in the original OneTaste retreat center on Folsom Street in San Francisco’s SoMa district. There, they prepared meals together, practiced yoga and mindfulness meditation and led workshops in communication for outside groups as large as 60.
But the “heart” of the group’s activity – described as its “morning practice” – involved women lying naked from the waist down in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddled over them and “stroked them” in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation, or “OM” for short, the New York Times said. The couples, who may or may not be romantically involved, called one another “research partners.”
Although men were not touched by the women and did not climax, they said they experienced “a sense of energy and satiation,” the New York Times said. Both the women and men insisted that the practice was really about the human connection and “the hydration” of the self — not sex.
The OM practice exploded in popularity following the New York Times profile, with reports saying that the company at one point raked in $12 million a year for its courses and coaching and received endorsements from Khloe Kardashian and promotion on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Podcast. The FBI launched an investigation in 2018 when ex-customers reported that they were left in debt after paying for expensive classes, and former employees said they were told to engage in sexual relations with potential clients to close sales, the New York Times reported.
Federal prosecutors said Daedone and Cherwitz intentionally targeted people who had suffered prior trauma and claimed that their courses could help them recover from sexual trauma and dysfunction. If members could not afford OneTaste classes – which ranged from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars each – Daedone and Cherwitz encouraged them to take on debt to pay for them, prosecutors said. They also employed tactics to make members dependent on them for shelter, food and other basic necessities, in order to limit their “independence and control.”
The New York Times story described Daedone as a polarizing personality. Admirers venerated her as a sex diva, while some former members said she had “cult-like powers over her followers.” Former members also said she dictated who should pair off with whom romantically.
“There was always a pushing of peoples’ boundaries,” a one-time resident told the New York Times. “We all knew it was a hardcore place, and we came to play hard.”
Daedone, who studied semantics at San Francisco State University and ran an art gallery before discovering Buddhism, told the New York Times she never tried to cultivate an all-powerful and cult-like image. She said she was trying to help people break free of a culture that has conditioned women to be closed about their sexuality and men to be disconnected from their feelings. “There’s this whole area of resistance and shame,” Daedone said.
In 2009, the people drawn to OneTaste were an “eclectic” group, the New York Times said. Most were young “questers,” seeking to fill an “inner void” or people in life transitions or hoping to revive a marriage. One man was a recently divorced, middle-aged Silicon Valley engineer who told the New York Times that the morning practice — focusing his attention on stimulating one spot on a woman’s body — improved his concentration at work.
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