It was supposed to be a sexy Saturday night. I texted a few friends to let them know I'd be in San Francisco, lined my eyes in black, and dressed in tight maroon jeans and black boots, a lace strap on my tank top buried under winter layers. (I knew the lace was there; that's what mattered.) Before leaving the house, I overfilled the cat's bowl, just in case I didn't make it home that night. As I drove over the Bay Bridge, I thought about the last time I'd had sex. It'd been awhile. As a lifelong serial monogamist, most of my sexual experiences had occurred in committed relationships with courtships that would make Jane Austen proud. To quote the Liz Phair song "Fuck and Run," I want all that stupid old shit/like letters and sodas. But shouldn't I be able to have sex without the promise of romance? Maybe OneTaste could change my perspective (ideally that night, so I could go out and get laid).
A few months ago, one of my more sexually liberated friends told me about OneTaste, a San Francisco-based organization that has turned the female orgasm into a form of worship and meditation. Here's how it works: A woman undresses from the waist down and her male partner gently strokes her clitoris with his finger for fifteen minutes. OneTaste, which was the subject of a lengthy 2007 SF Weekly cover story, calls it "OM," short for "orgasmic meditation," and advocates that having "an awake and alive pussy" will increase a woman's physical and mental health. OneTaste founder Nicole Daedone compares the practice to yoga.
Daedone, who declined to be interviewed for this story, opened the San Francisco art gallery 111 Minna in 1995, which she ran for one year, then started OneTaste in 2001. Since opening its first location on Folsom Street, OneTaste has grown to include nine outlets in the United States and four in Europe. According to its website, women can come to OneTaste with a partner or in search of one, and most start with a weekly class that introduces the concept with a question-and-answer session about sexuality. Learning to OM takes place in a one-day workshop that costs $199, and six-month master classes go up to $6,500. My friend never ended up paying to OM (and I had no intention of trying it myself), but she said the intro classes could be "transformational" on their own, a rare chance to discuss sex with strangers and learn about yourself.
And so, on a Saturday night, I found myself at OneTaste's headquarters, a multi-storied glass and concrete building on Moss Street in San Francisco's SoMa district, to take a women-only workshop called "Relationship by Design." The lobby was sparse and tidy, with metal shelves displaying a few copies of Daedone's book, Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm, next to glass jars of OneTaste's proprietary lubricant. I looked around for the pillows and mats I'd seen in OneTaste's instructional video — "the nest" for OM-ing — but there was no trace of such activity.
A woman took my $15 and directed me to a large room containing a long table covered with magazines and assorted craft supplies, and a smaller table with hot water, tea, and trays of snacks. Maya, a OneTaste staff member, quickly greeted me with a taut, wide smile and asked me how I had heard about the class. I told her a friend had referred me.
The table was empty when I sat down, but it slowly filled up with the kind of women I grew up seeing in suburban shopping malls: glossy-haired, made-up women wearing pressed clothes and carrying designer handbags. At any given point in the evening, I'd catch one of these women staring into her cell phone with narrow eyes and an anxious crease on her lips. There were a few exceptions, like the frizzy, gray-haired hippie woman wearing clogs that sat down next to me and immediately demanded that we all put on name tags, which Maya distributed.
When about a dozen of us were seated, we started with the first of many sharing-in-a-circle moments — to state our names and what brought us there. About five women were first-timers. Then Maya explained what we'd be doing in the class — creating written instructions for meeting our sexual needs — an idea she had after some recently lackluster sexual encounters. "A desire manual," she called it, or as another woman said, "something to lay on the altar of sex." We were shown how to construct our manuals using various supplies on the table, given prompts like "Five things I want, but I can't ask for," and asked to create our sexual résumés.
To inspire our writing, a OneTaste staffer read aloud a sex manifesto written by Daedone: "Would it be okay if your gravestone read: 'She was an exceptionally mediocre woman?' Your epitaph will begin: 'She redefined what it meant to be a good woman.' It will say: 'She scaled mountains, in hiking boots and in heels.'" The manifesto finished with the question, "What are you waiting for?" to which the group collectively responded with a low and throaty hmm.
As I worked on my manual, cutting out an image of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love from an old BUST magazine, I asked the women about OM-ing. Maya compared it to "eating chocolate very slowly." A doe-eyed, long-haired woman in her twenties said OM-ing had helped her come into her sexuality. The gray-haired woman said she had been going to OneTaste for two years, and just signed up for the level-seven workshop, an advanced course in OM. The twentysomething said she was on level five, and still searching for what she wanted from sex and love. Terms like "manifest" and "gratitude" filled the conversation.
Later, when I told the gray-haired woman that I planned to attend one of the weekly intro classes, perhaps on Monday in Berkeley, she said she would be there and also at the San Francisco class on Wednesday. "If you're level seven, why are you still attending the intro classes?" I asked. She smiled. "It's usually a one-to-one, male-to-female ratio, if you can imagine, in the Bay Area," she said, adding, "and the men are all there to learn about the female orgasm. It's a great place to meet new sexual partners." I looked up from the red and white origami paper in my hands (the cover of my "desire manual") and noticed a pile of personal notebooks opened in front of the gray-haired woman. Inside the notebooks were lists describing her ideal mate and ideal relationship: "Likes to laugh," "affectionate," "makes time for me." Even though she had OM'd a thousand times, she was also clearly searching for Liz Phair's letters and sodas.
OneTaste didn't exactly put me in the mood I'd hoped for: I texted my friends that I was going back to Oakland to hang out with my cat and watch Netflix. When I got home, I hid my desire manual between two books on my bookshelf, and picked up a collection of letters that had been exchanged between the poets and ill-fated lovers Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. Their story didn't end well — Celan threw himself in the Seine and drowned, after which Bachmann took up correspondence with Celan's wife — but the letters reveal a relationship that was perhaps worth the suffering. Who am I to say a deep connection with another human being can't be forged in a fifteen-minute orgasm? I myself am sticking with poetry.