By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
The students had already taken off their clothes and slipped into robes when they lined up in two rows facing each other. They stood close in the softly lit room, with seven women on one side and seven men just across from them.
The men would soon practice stroking the women. But first, they had some warm-up exercises to do.
A sultry-voiced, earthy brunette named Shara Ogin introduced the group to the practice of "obnosing," or noticing the obvious, which involves looking at someone and listing off their physical characteristics. A steady hum filled the quiet, yogalike studio as each man gazed at the woman facing him and rattled off his observations. The freckles on a cheek. The shape of an eyebrow. The way a band of color stretched around a woman's pupils.
The exercise helped them practice for later, when the class would shift its focus to obnosing female genitalia.
Then, when it came time for the stroking exercise to begin, each woman stretched out an arm and the man across from her took it and cradled it gently in his own. The sleeves of their robes, whether silky or fuzzy, pink or baby blue, were pushed back to expose the soft bare skin on the inner side of the forearm. The stroke is a key aspect of the practice known as "orgasmic meditation" (or OM), which is designed to help people tap into sensual energy through stimulation of the clitoris. The practice is at the heart of One Taste Urban Retreat Center in SOMA, a shared-living community where the stroking class is being taught.
Orgasmic meditation is devoted to female orgasm after all, the women are typically the ones being stroked. But the idea is that the "strokers" (who are often men, but may be women, too) are also fulfilled through what community members call "pleasure by proxy," as well as by enjoying the sensations in their bodies as they stroke. There are courses in how to satisfy a woman with hands-on instruction designed to show what she wants, and how to give it to her. One class, for example, is titled "Ten Women Want You to Know: How to Handle a Woman's Pussy."
But for now, it was arms only.
"The men are going to stroke it as you would the clit during an OM," Ogin instructed.
"Like you would a cat!" added Nicole Daedone, who was leading the class.
With forefingers busy stroking, Ogin worked the room, inspecting everyone's technique although at One Taste they say sensuality is about 80 percent learning to navigate resistance and only 20 percent technique. She urged the men to shut their eyes and feel how much pleasure they could extract from the arm-stroking exercise. Did they want to change the speed? Change the pressure? How much sensation could they feel?
Next, the women were encouraged to share. One felt an opening in her throat. Another felt a quivering. "I feel a warmth in my pussy," yet another woman said.
They don't say "vagina" here. They prefer "pussy" and "cock" because, in the parlance of the people running the place, those words are more "chargey," or full of energy.
This little exercise was just a flavor of what was to come in the nearly 10-hour, $195 introductory workshop at One Taste. Over the next few hours, those attending would watch an orgasmic meditation demonstration and, if they wished, pair up for more hands-on exercises. During the lunch break, they could eat anything they wanted so long as it was fed to them by someone else. The day-long course would literally climax with multiple climaxes at least for the women.
And no, they weren't faking it.
At One Taste Urban Retreat Center, orgasm is life. One Taste is home to more than 50 "turned on" people who describe themselves as "messengers of orgasm." Community members cook, eat, do yoga, and sleep together. They live together in several buildings in the same neighborhood, with as many as 24 people staying in one of the large bedrooms.
Most pair up as "research partners" to explore sensuality with one another. That can mean simply sharing a bed, making out, having intercourse, or some level of intimacy in between. Research partnerships can last for as short as a week or for more than a year. While some at One Taste are monogamous, many are not. And just because a pair of residents may have broken up as research partners doesn't preclude them from occasionally snuggling and making out on one of the center's comfy vintage couches.
They call this a research community rather than a commune, although communal living is part of the deal. It's not the first sensuality-focused community, but there are a couple of things that set One Taste apart.
For one thing, while it clearly has a pleasure principle, One Taste also emphasizes discipline one reason that its denizens created what they call an "urban monk" sensual immersion program. The community typically comes together to practice orgasmic meditation three times each weekday, at 7 a.m. (that's the big one where just about everybody goes), 2 p.m., and about 6:45 p.m. The afternoon and evening OMs tend to be a bit smaller, due to work and other obligations. The schedule differs slightly on weekends, with a 7:45 a.m. OM session to allow community members to sleep in.
Then there's the fact that this is a sensuality community focused on building connections to others through stroking the clitoris.
The female-centric nature of One Taste makes sense since it was founded by a woman: 39-year-old Nicole Daedone. She's striking, a dynamic presence whose speech is punctuated by pregnant pauses and plenty of hand gestures. Her chestnut hair normally hangs in perfect waves, and she always seems to have the right amount of makeup on her olive skin.
She gets quoted a lot by others at One Taste. A community member may say, "Nicole says, "Avoidance is buying pain on credit cards with interest'" or "Nicole says, "We should be an open source for sensuality.'"
Daedone, who was born in Los Gatos, wasn't planning on becoming a sensuality guru. She'd been on a doctoral track with an emphasis in semantics at San Francisco State University and was helping run 111 Minna Street Gallery when, at 27, she got a telephone call that her father had only hours to live. She rushed to the hospital, where he died within two days. "Everything cracked in me," she said, her voice shaking.
She prayed to God to take her, too, or reveal her purpose in life. Around that time she met an unusual older woman at a rave who kept telling her to call if she ever needed anything. Daedone showed up at her door, told her what had happened to her dad, and for the next three years studied with the woman at what she calls as "mystery school of theosophical studies," eventually gravitating toward Buddhism. She was celibate for more than a year during her studies.
When her teachers asked her how she wanted to bring what she'd learned back into the world, she debated heavily between Buddhism and the pursuit of more earthly pleasures. "I knew, though, that Buddhism would say no to sensuality," Daedone said. "But sensuality wouldn't say no to Buddhism."
Daedone's background in Buddhism may explain why the group's description of its OMing practice sounds so similar to other forms of meditation (except, of course, for the lube and clit stroking). Daedone and others at One Taste say the concept at the root of OM is that too many people get caught up in their rational mind (or what they call the cortex, as in cerebral cortex) with all its inhibitions and judgments. So OMing is designed to let the sensory system (or the "limbic system," the nerves and networks in the brain controlling emotions and drives) rise up, and in doing so help practitioners access different forms of consciousness. "Very much in the way in meditation you plug into the cosmic consciousness," Daedone said. "This is where both people plug into the one orgasm that's always there."
Some religious or meditation organizations consider their practices as ways to reach higher thinking, or even enlightenment, but at One Taste they're not so lofty. Community members prefer the term "integrated thinking," and consider their practice a goal-less one. There is no black belt in orgasm here.
Still, One Taste is a for-profit business, meaning they do have a goal to make money as they spread the message of orgasm. For example, the urban monk program for those who want to immerse themselves in sensuality costs $2,000 per week. One Taste is already expanding to other cities by teaching courses in Hawaii, New York, and Sacramento, and has additional requests to teach in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz. A One Taste in New York may be open by fall, and Daedone hopes to eventually open a center in every major city.
But is the rest of the country ready to OM?
Some people have discovered One Taste through friends. Others stop into the center on Folsom Street looking to buy a cup of coffee there's something about the boxy wooden building, with its hardwood floors and vintage couches that keeps convincing passersby it's a cafe. Others have stopped in for a yoga class or massage and ended up sticking around to explore the rest of what the center has to offer.
Beth Crittenden was one of those people. The tall, wholesome-looking freckle-faced woman first wandered into One Taste to get a massage in the fall of 2005, drawn by the center's mission of "making your body a pleasurable place to be." While managing special projects at the UCSF Medical Center, she'd had a string of serious relationships, the last nearly leading to marriage, but saw a troubling pattern with her boyfriends. Each seemed like the perfect fit at first, like she'd found her soul mate. She might even convince her friends that she'd found "The One." Then she'd start to see bad things and would find herself getting angry when the fantasy crumbled.
Crittenden has lived at One Taste for more than a year and is now with her fourth One Taste research partner the only community member she knew from before she moved in. She actually saw him after her first massage appointment that day, and he was with her at her first One Taste event, a Wednesday-night communication-game event known as IN Group.
She seems completely into the guy, whom she's been researching with since January. But they have an open research partnership. "We're not exclusive," Crittenden said. "He supports me in having my orgasm fully open, whatever that looks like."
Crittenden, 31, believes the center is helping her find her freedom, and thinks that orgasmic meditation is a "brilliant" way to serve both strokee and stroker. The sweet, soft-spoken Crittenden says that each of the three to five OM sessions she has in a day make her feel like she has "come back alive." She's done blues and swing dancing, and compares pairing up to have an OM with someone to dancing where you pick a different partner each night. "A person's strokes will be different," she said. "So you're not stuck relying on one person to deliver pleasure."
But is it awkward to approach someone to ask them if they want to pair up for one of the 15-minute sessions? Crittenden says she'll usually just ask, "Would you OM with me?"
Bob Gower is another resident at One Taste. The 41-year-old graphic designer says there's no place else he'd rather be living. He's done the marriage thing three times, actually but after his third divorce decided it was time to try something different. He was miserable following the breakup of his last marriage, heard about a sensuality-focused center named One Taste, and went to an event there with a friend. He fell in love with the place, started going to IN Groups every week, enrolled in classes, and quickly decided to move in.
Gower has worked at alternative weeklies and dot-coms, and completed a sustainable MBA program. But he now works full time as a marketing director for One Taste, and thinks the community's commitment to "stay connected no matter what" is the key to sustainable living.
"I have just the closest friendships that I've ever had, the deepest love for people that I've ever had," Gower said.
In some ways, Crittenden and Gower are the quintessential One Taste community members. Residents range in age from early 20s to 50 years old, but many of them are in their late 20s and early 30s without any children. Many are college-educated and professionals from a variety of fields, including health care workers, marketing types, entrepreneurs, yoga instructors, and, yes, a former journalist. The majority of community members are white and many are straight or bisexual, but two of the core members are African-American, lesbian-identified women. One of the residents had been homeless in the past, but most are like Crittenden they gave up an apartment, and maybe even a cat or two to move in and research sensuality full time. Now she just works at One Taste, serving as director of ConnectEd as well as teaching there and hosting the guest speaker interviews for the community's podcast, "A Taste of Sex."
As a woman, Crittenden is in the majority at One Taste. You might think with so many hot young women ready to get naked, men would be breaking down the doors to get in. Maybe it's the clit-focused nature of OMing that keeps them from overrunning the place. Whatever it is, Daedone and others aren't stressed out about the imbalance. They believe that if the women show up, men will follow. So they have no intention of instituting regular daily OM sessions only focused on stroking men.
Still, it's not as though men in the community can't get stroked. They can. It's just that One Taste types don't consider OMing to be a sex act it's a practice about connecting to energy so men are tapping into orgasm, too.
There are other perks for the guys. "I live in a community with a group of women who are turned-on women taking responsibility for their sex lives," Gower explains.
He adds that making out is nice, too.
Life in a sensuality community can get complicated. Like when a resident in one of the large communal bedrooms ends up sharing a room with a former research partner and hearing that person with a new partner, um, researching together. Yes, even in a "transformational" community, jealousy still happens.
One perfectly warm and sunny morning last month, Gower was leaving the center to head over to Brain Wash Cafe and Laundromat to talk with SF Weekly. He stopped near the One Taste kitchen to kiss Shara Ogin, who was his research partner until about two weeks before, then walked another 15 feet or so before locking lips again, this time with his new research partner Beth, or "Babs."
It seemed he was living out many males' fantasies until he mentioned a previous conversation from earlier that morning, when he told somebody, "There are three women angry at me today and it's only like 7 a.m.!"
Gower has had three research partners, and says he remains close to all of them, although, well, sometimes there's jealous tension among exes.
Ogin (who says two of her former research partners have "physically left the premises") said that she always gets attached to partners even though she tries to tell herself they're just friends. "My nervous system has been so entangled with them, and then when they're gone I feel like something's gone in my life," Ogin said. "And then I keep getting a reminder that there are so many other people in the community who are here for you."
Despite the support network, she admitted to jealousy or what they call "scarcity" especially recently, when a group of new women moved into the community. "All these bitches, man!" Ogin said with a smile, glancing around the cafe where an inordinate amount of attractive women were eating Indian food. "We have so many beautiful women in the community!"
She's had fears that other women will "get off better" during OM sessions, but tries to tell herself that nobody will win when she falls into seeing other women as the competition.
Jealousy and competitiveness come up a lot at One Taste, largely because they try to stay open and honest with each other to avoid pent-up anger or seething resentment, which has hurt other communal living situations. Ganas community in New York was shaken last summer, for example, when a female former commune member who claimed she was pressured to have sex by others there ambushed and shot one of its co-founders, Jeff Gross.
Ted McIlvenna, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, said women getting along with each other has been a challenge in other intentional communities. McIlvenna, 75, said he's never heard of another sensuality community founded by a woman, adding that many communal living situations centered on women have been about denying sexuality convents, for example or selling it like at brothels.
Marissa Bollong, a teacher at One Taste, is definitely not denying her sexuality. A beautifully curvaceous massage therapist with a perfect button nose, she admits to having had hangups around sensuality. That began to change after she attended a naked yoga class at One Taste about a year ago. "Right now I feel like I'm in this crossroad," the 27-year-old said. "I feel like I have a lot of desire, raw desire. I have this desire to have sex, raw sex, and it's burning and it's hot."
In a typical orgasmic meditation session, a woman (the strokee) lies down and the stroker (we'll describe the stroker as a man, but it may be a woman instead) will place his right hand under her buttocks and rest his right thumb at her introitus, or the vaginal hole. The stroker will then take lubricant One Taste recommends its all-natural One Stroke lube and place it on the forefinger and middle finger of his left hand. Then with a stroke (also known as a lube stroke) he applies it to her clitoris. He then puts his left forefinger on the upper left-hand quadrant of the strokee's clitoris which they believe is a spot where thousands of nerve endings are bundled. For the strokee, the upper left-hand quadrant is at about the 1:30 p.m. position on a clock.
Now, not everyone buys this whole upper-left hand quadrant theory. Barry Komisaruk, the senior author of The Science of Orgasm, who's also a psychology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said he hasn't seen scientific studies proving that one side of the clitoris is more responsive than the other. After researching the One Taste Web site, he said he wasn't sure what science would be relevant to their practice. "It was very New Agey," Komisaruk said.
One Taste is considering a science-of-orgasm class to explore the topic and may satisfy nay-sayers along the way. In the meantime, they're eager to press on with their research.
As the preliminary touching and stroking exercises were wrapping up at the recent introductory 10-hour course, a One Taste community member named Sam was waiting in the back of the room, a few jars of the center's One Stroke lubricant in his hand. Then, as OMing veteran Robert Kandell explained the hands-on details of Orgasmic Meditation, a woman named Jessica lay down on her back on a massage table, and spread her legs, butterfly position. Her bent knees rested on pillows.
A timer is set, and for the next 15 minutes, the stroking is on. Up, down. Up, down. Up, down. Up, down.
After putting on latex gloves, Sam began massaging Jessica's inner thighs and lower stomach. He went in for the lube stroke. "If you follow the inner lips, her clit will pop out," Sam said.
At this point, Kandell told the group that the best position to watch an OM demonstration is sitting with legs open, feet planted on the ground.
"Sam's stroke is small, very deliberate," said Daedone, who informed the group that Sam's thumb was a thumbnail deep in Jessica's introitus.
Jessica was already moaning, trembling, sighing, and shaking.
"I'm going to take her up," Sam said.
"Shorter, faster, lighter," Daedone told him.
The group was encouraged to share their own feelings and ask questions, too. One woman said there were chills across her back. "Contractions in my pussy," another said.
"Now he's bringing her down," Daedone said.
Jessica let out a long "Haaaaaa!" just as someone asked her how she felt. Her "Haaaa!" continued for a while before she told the group, "I feel like my pussy is sucking in air!"
There were more ups and downs along the way, complete with head-bobbing and sighs of pleasure. One woman called out that she felt a spaciousness in her head, but she was nearly drowned out by Jessica's "Haaahaaha!" "Ehhh!" and "Uhh!" At points, her hand was shaking so furiously it kept tapping against her chest.
"One more slow peak up!" Daedone said.
"Uh! Uh! Uh!" Jessica moaned. She let out one very long "Ahhhhhh!"
"Hold. And down," Daedone said. "Give her some heavy introital pressure."
As Sam followed with the towel stroke, a key final step to OMing, the practice veterans explained that it's very important to bring the strokee down in order to put her back in her body.
When Jessica did sit up to help answer questions, her lips, cheeks, and chest were flushed. She looked blissfully happy and at peace. Sam was sweating a lot. When someone asked how it felt for him, he said there was a moment where energy in his chest traveled past his "cock," down his legs, and grounded him. "I left like, "Yeah, I'm home,'" he said.
After the demonstration, students joined each other on the floor to eat their lunch, which was spread out on a giant picnic blanket on the floor. One man began eating a brownie off a woman's inner thigh he later reported that his relationship to brownies was forever changed by the experience. There was kissing. Several people ended up in a pile on the ground, pouring San Pellegrino sparkling water into their mouths and drinking it off each other's chests.
One woman had come to One Taste that day to learn how to be open, to stop pushing others away. Another said she'd come to surrender. A man said he wanted to learn how to feel his emotions. One guy had been looking for a class in personal finance but changed his mind when he spotted the class on "how to handle a woman's pussy."
Whatever brought them there that day, by lunchtime the robe-wearing group seemed to have grown ever closer, both reaching out and offering support to one another.
And it wouldn't be long before they would try OMing for themselves.
Finally the group filtered toward the back of the room. As the women lay down, the men prepared for the next round of obnosing exercises. Only these were different. "Look at her pussy, not her face," Ogin told them.
Eventually, after another partner rotation or two, the latex gloves went on. The lube and towels come out. Before long, a symphony of moaning, groaning, and sighing once again filled the air.
"Have you heard of the slow food movement? Alice Waters?" Daedone asked. "We want to be the slow sex movement."