The Orgasmic Human Institute
Some backstory on, and analysis of, the fictional sex cult in my novel
I’m back from the depths of my bout with COVID, and the emotional hangover it left in its wake. Thank you for your patience.
This week I’d like to talk about The Orgasmic Human Institute (OHI), the personal growth cult in my novel, an institution that could only have arisen in San Francisco at the turn of the century.
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During the time I was having these formative experiences that would later inspire the novel, I was madly in love with that wild city by the Bay, and fascinated by the collision of old and new San Francisco. Here is how one chapter in my novel opens:
San Francisco, a city of struggling artists, misfits, kinky pornographers, travelin’ kids, crackheads, aging hippies, swingers, cacophonists, Burners, orgasmic meditators, Danielle Steele, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Jack London. But this was not Wyatt’s San Francisco; to Wyatt and the people he called friends, the city was Levis, Anchor Steam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Giants, the 49ers, Dirty Harry, Ocean Beach, Marina Girls, techies, venture capitalists, and great burritos. And yoga. Lots of yoga. Yoga like an infestation. Yoga like a peaceful alien invasion of fit people in tight clothes drinking smoothies. There were more yogis than dogs and homeless now.
As I have intimated in prior posts here, my endless curiosity led me into some juicy nooks and crannies of San Francisco in the aughts. One of those was OneTaste, an “urban retreat center” in the SoMa district that taught “Orgasmic Meditation” (“OMing”). I had a girlfriend around that time who was co-creator of another personal development organization called AuthenticSF. And she was always talking about doing a workshop at OneTaste. The only thing I knew about OneTaste at the time was that they offered naked yoga classes. It was very turn-of-the-century San Francisco. I was already into yoga at the time, but had no interest in having to see everything during class.
OneTaste was founded by Nicole Daedone, who popularized the OMing technique at the heart of OneTaste, after learning it from a Buddhist monk. I am just going to tell you what it was, as described to me by women who had done it at the time: Women gather in a circle on the floor, naked from the waist down, legs spread. They are paired with men who are fully clothed. The men don a latex glove to stimulate the left side of the clitoris with their index finger for fifteen minutes (possibly with lubrication). The women are to treat this as a meditation, allowing whatever arises to arise. I was told there’s also a bucket and a towel near each station. This is what I was told.
I never tried Orgasmic Meditation at OneTaste. But, after my AuthenticSF girlfriend and I broke up, I decided my sex life might benefit from doing some OneTaste workshops. So I did their “Foundations” workshop and whatever the one after that was called. Two weekends. Always clothed. These workshops were a real mishmash of New Age concepts and personal growth concepts from different traditions with group exercises (like “radical honesty”) and something called “the hot seat,” where volunteers were sort of peppered with penetrating questions by the audience. The facilitators had that very knowing air you find in cults, where it seems unjustified by the quality of their presence and their state of consciousness. I didn’t get much out of the experience except (a) the realization that there is a lot of money to be made doing unlicensed group therapy and (b) loads of material for a later story. And a new male friend who was another amused outsider.
There were people who lived at OneTaste full-time in a communal area full of beds with no privacy. One resident told me that women were expected to have sex whenever anyone wanted. I heard some of them were prostitutes. It was hard to separate rumor from fact. What I did notice was that the organization was made up of a lot of impressionable young women and older men who just hung around in the shadows and kept to themselves.
OMing was even featured on Oprah one time, although I think it might have been web-only Oprah content. As I understand it, OneTaste went bankrupt a few years back and have now apparently been reborn as a slick online coaching company that still teaches OMing.
Did my sex life improve after OneTaste? I don’t cult and tell.
My Fascination with Cults
Looking back over the OHI founding docs I created as background for my novel, I realize how much fun I would have starting a cult. I have always been fascinated by attempts by large groups to create different forms of utopia, especially because human beings are so inherently flawed and we don’t really have a positive, successful example of a utopia from human history, at least not recent history. In fact, I remember telling my writing coach Jessica Blank back in 2018, during an intense rewrite period, that that was one motivation for wanting to write about polyamory: it’s such an idealistic system that assumes the best in people, but also seems to create as much suffering as it does happiness.
I did a lot of research into cults for my novel, reading books like Cults In Our Midst, and Going Clear (about Scientology). I became a big fan of Mariana Caplan, who has written a number of books about navigating the guru phenomenon, and cultivating discernment on the spiritual path.
My curiosity in cults has not waned. I have recently been devouring podcasts like Worldwide: The Unchosen Church, about the Worldwide Church of God doomsday cult, and Revelations, about The Fellowship of Friends doomsday cult based partly on the work of Gurdjieff. I just watched The Deep End on Hulu about Teal Swan, another cult leader. And I’m currently enthralled by The Anarchists on HBO, a docuseries about a group of self described anarchists who relocate to Acapulco, Mexico to create a new way of life. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t go well.)
I think what drives my fascination with cults is a deep desire to find or create a community that helps people reach their full potential. I want these counterculture organizations to succeed, although sadly it seems that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, to paraphrase one very charismatic leader of a personal growth organization.
I have been searching for years for a spiritual community that has integrity. I thought I found one five years ago but that journey ultimately ended in disappointment. You can hear all about that experience on this episode of my podcast. More recently, I have been talking with different teacher friends about starting some kind of intentional community constellated around a physical space of some kind. I will continue setting that intention. Let me know if you want to join my cult.
It seems like the cult phenomenon has been accelerating in recent decades because, in my opinion, humanity is hurtling toward what some are calling the Consciousness (or Wisdom) Revolution. I will be exploring this topic in depth in my next podcast episode.
The Orgasmic Human Institute
Authentic love is as abundant and undiscriminating as the sun; it knows no selectivity. Love is not special; love is our reality. Exclusive love is egoic love, which is not love at all. — OHI Manual 4, p. 33.
As you can probably guess by now, OHI was based loosely on OneTaste and things I had read in my voluminous research into the history of sexual liberation in 20th Century America, especially John Williamson’s Malibu “love community” from the early 1970s.
OHI is an integral part of my novel: Myranda, Wyatt’s love interest, works there. And her mentor Princess Nikki was one of the founders, along with her primary partner Klaus Splendor, the Grand Archdruid of OHI. (We will meet the characters in an upcoming post.)
When Wyatt first arrives at the OHI retreat center [for his jealousy release ritual later in the novel], he encounters young women dressed in loose, comfortable clothes, natural looking; middle-aged men in beards and long hair, wearing a lot of chunky rings and necklaces. The space is mostly quiet, strange South American percussive music playing softly from somewhere, the sound of female orgasm echoing from a distant hall. It smells of sage, Palo Santo, sex and weed.
OHI was intended to capture the almost unavoidable group-think, spiritual bypassy nature of large spiritual communities. And how such organizations can be more of a reaction to traditional institutions instead of a wholly new way, importing all the unhealthy, patriarchal mindsets from the default world, the way that most revolutions do. They tend not to go far enough in revolutionizing structures and the way people think, which is admittedly difficult to do.
OHI had two locations: An urban retreat center in San Francisco and a wilderness retreat center in Big Sur. Like Williamson was, OHI is heavily influenced by the controversial Austrian psychiatrist Willhelm Reich, former clinical assistant to Freud, “the man who invented free love” (possibly the original spark in the sexual revolution of the 1960s), and the inventor of the Orgone Energy Accumulator. (Reich coined the term “sexual revolution” in the 1930s because he believed that a true political revolution was only possible with the overthrow of sexual repression.)
From my manuscript:
OHI had an orgone accumulator, an actual phone-booth-sized box that the Beats were into. Myranda to Wyatt: “The orgone accumulator? It’s hard to explain. You’d have to learn a lot more about orgasm first. It’s totally experiential. Have you ever heard of a guy named Wilhelm Reich? He posited a universal life force he called ‘orgone’ and his students created the box as a way of collecting and concentrating this energy. It helps you detox physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It was huge with people like William S. Burroughs and J.D. Salinger, not to mention members of Devo.”
We can see why Wyatt was into Myranda. It’s all so strange and exciting to him.
Reich’s orgone accumulator was lined with metal and insulated with steel wool. He considered it a magical device for improving one’s “orgastic potency,” and one’s general and mental health. To be clear, as far as I know, OneTaste did not have an accumulator. But this impulse toward over-reliance on hardware technology to to achieve elevated states was a perfect encapsulation of how San Francisco subculture intersected with both the influx of the tech industry there and 20th century ideas about technology and materialism more generally, not to mention the ways that the sexual liberation history of San Francisco spilled over into the rapidly evolving venture capital San Francisco of the turn of the century.
Here, once again, I am toying with ideas related to the subtle body, sexual energy, and our infinite potential, skirting around the edges of what I would later learn is kundalini.
OHI plays a pivotal role later in the story too, as the setting for Wyatt’s jealousy release ritual, another element inspired by John Williamson. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is an actual Williamson ritual where people seeking to become swingers or polyamorous witness their partner having sex with another person, typically with a barrier between them so the experience is purely auditory. I think it’s one of the stronger scenes in my manuscript.
I had a lot of fun creating this fictional cult. They had slogans like, “The Pussy Knows” and “Reclaiming the Divine Feminine one clitoris at a time.” And “We are the priests and priestesses of orgasm.”
Reviewing my OHI materials, I see how it’s yet another complicated facet of my novel where I’m clearly driven by genuine interest in timeless spiritual beliefs about love and human potential but simultaneously lampooning the absurdity of the manifestation of these organizations in reality, as I experienced with OneTaste.
Excerpts from the OHI Manual and an OHI workshop scene
Let’s examine some excerpts from the OHI facilitator manual, and fragments of an OHI workshop scene summary I wrote. And I want to say, despite any satirical tone here, I fully support organizations that seek to empower women and better us as humans. My aim here is only to call attention to the pitfalls and faults that I have often encountered in my travels, and to have a little fun with it.
I spent months—maybe a year, or more—creating and crafting and refining the OHI backstory and the OHI workshop and ritual scenes in the first draft of the novel. But I was never completely happy with them.
Most of this was written around 2015 so it is fascinating to look back at how attuned I was, even then, to the positive potential of an organization like OHI. So much of this was genuine and not satirical. And it demonstrates an understanding of the link between sexual and spiritual energy that I do not recall having back then. I must have absorbed it from marinating in the zeitgeist of San Francisco for so long.
From the OHI facilitator manual:
The Orgasmic Human Institute (OHI) empowers individuals to reclaim their sexuality, which is the conduit to the soul, the atman, the ground of all being. By tapping into your orgiastic potency, you can become not only a better lover and partner but a better, more potent, loving, contributing human being. OHI promotes radical personal growth, radical romance, and social revolution through a new approach to awareness, love and ontological transcendence. By applying our techniques, we will help you become a connoisseur of the energetic and authentic inner worlds within each of our souls.
Reading this now I see an earnest desire in myself for exactly this kind of endeavor, for an organization that could actually offer these benefits. But there is also a vein of satire in the tendency for everything coming out of the San Francisco subculture to be “radical.”
We are post-feminist and mythopoetic, embracing a genderless inclusiveness that recognizing the feminine and the masculine in all genders. Our goal is the expansion of consciousness for each member, and the entire planet. OHI also incorporates elements of neo-paganism and earth-based spirituality, although we don’t always say that publicly.
Here, I’m weaving together generic cult-style mission statements with the general San Francisco ethos of the time.
The technique that OHI developed, analogous to OMing with OneTaste, was orgamadhi, a term I didn’t love. It’s a portmanteau of orgasm and samadhi, the state of unity that yogis aspire to. But it doesn’t have the same ring that Woody Allen’s orgasmatron has.
At one point Princess Nikki says:
We see the core philosophy of OHI—orgamadhi, radical authenticity, and expansive relating—as essential decolonizing forces, a huge fuck you to heteronormativity, and the uptight sphincter morality of the whole patriarchal marital-industrial complex.
The basic framework of OHI:
1. Mindfulness - Simply decide to be fulfilled in the moment. Open to all possibilities. Embrace uncertainty; thrive in it! - there is no way to be fulfilled at some moment in the future; fulfillment only happens now!
2. Self knowledge, authenticity (“how can you love anyone else if you don’t know yourself?”)
3. Orgamadhi—(non-local) erotic intelligence
4. Love abundance: “Expansive relating for true connection” [polyamory, essentially] — compersion, release of jealousy, release of possessiveness, rejecting the very idea of possession or exclusivity.
Contrast the Classic (Vicious) Love Cycle
1. Sexual attraction - animalistic, instinctual, subconscious
2. Romantic infatuation
3. Attachment and possession
With these principles I was simultaneously channeling what I had heard at parties and workshops around San Francisco with an intuitive impulse deep inside toward actually believing these things myself. In fact, as I would later learn, you could trace each of these principles — like self knowledge — to ancient yogic texts like Patanjalis’ Yoga Sutras or Tantrik texts from ancient Kashmir.
Compersion is a concept from polyamory where one derives happiness from seeing your partner with another person. It’s the opposite of jealousy. Even here I’m reminded of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.33, where he teaches that one key to happiness and evolution is feeling happy for people who are happy.
Of course, there were also more cynical guidelines in the confidential OHI manual:
Internal Strategy: Target wealthy tech guys and young, beautiful women who are sexually curious. Having a steady flow of young women is crucial.
As you can probably guess, I’m also setting Wyatt up to be disappointed when members of the OHI community do not walk their own talk.
An OHI Workshop Sketch
This is a sketch I created for my story document of the OHI workshop Wyatt attends. A story document is a writing tool I learned from Jessica Blank where, instead of writing just an outline or an entire rough draft, you write a few paragraphs for every scene to see if the story hangs together well.
Wyatt has agreed to attend an introductory weekend workshop at the Orgasmic Human Institute, without Myranda. He figured he might at least learn something about sex, or himself, or Myranda. Ideally all of the above. Myranda had jokingly said it would involve, “unbridled, deviant sexual practices, satanic rituals, and messianic episodes. Seriously though, it’ll just be some exercises where you just talk, and they might demo their mindful orgasm techniques.” Like when he met Myranda, he found himself drawn toward it despite the screaming protestations of his rational mind.
OHI’s urban retreat center is in SOMA, in a part of San Francisco that hasn’t yet been completely gentrified by tech, in a blocky, three-story building that they built in San Francisco in the 1960s during a misguided attempt at modernizing the city and leaving its Victorian charm in the past. He was pretty sure he’d seen prostitutes hanging around on this block at night those nights he’d been out late with his colleagues at Tempest or Terroir.
It’s a special weekend because the founders are leading the workshop: Klaus Splendor and Princess Nikki (who are each other’s primaries).
Nikki: “The clitoris is a gateway, a woman’s conduit to kundalini, to cosmic consciousness.” “A woman has what is called a ‘center of consciousness,’ which is in the clit, in her phallic center.”
“Why is the world such a mess right now?” Klaus asks. “Because we’re sexually frustrated, and we don’t know how to love authentically.” Wyatt thinks he recognizes Klaus. Yeah, he’s a client at the firm. Small world.
“This experience is the experience of stroking other people, at different levels, in different ways,” says Nikki. “Orgasm is the most profound regenerative technology available to us. It’s an endless energy resource.”
“OHI empowers individuals to reclaim their sexuality, which is the conduit to the soul, the atman, the ground of all being. By tapping into your orgiastic potency, you can become not only a better lover and partner but a better, more potent, loving, fulfilled human being. OHI promotes radical self-reliance, radical honesty, radical personal growth, radical romance, and radical social revolution through a new approach to awareness, love, and transcendence. By applying our techniques, we will help you become a connoisseur of the energetic and authentic inner worlds within each of our souls.”
Wyatt is very judgmental and resistant, despite the fact that some of what Nikki and Klaus are saying makes sense to some deeper part of him. He expects to learn their trademark orgamadhi technique, but is also terrified of exploring sex in such a public way. He hates feeling vulnerable, and he is painfully self-conscious about his body.
Klaus, with his bushy beard and long, brown hair, really bugs Wyatt. He’s so cheesy California confident, like a spiritual bro. Obviously just in it for all the sex. It’s all just a bunch of prepackaged spiritual mumbo-jumbo.
Wyatt looks around the room, trying to decide which women he would sleep with if given the chance. They all seemed a little too homely, feminist, or slutty for Wyatt’s taste.
Nikki discusses the unspoken contracts in relationships and how OHI teaches people to make them explicit. They aren’t necessarily advocating polyamory but it is a popular lifestyle choice for many members, and the founders. She provides examples of some clauses a couple may use.
Wyatt perks up at the mention of “contracts.”
Nikki: “When we are in a relationship based on what we can get rather than what we can give, it’s special, not authentic. Special relationships are the American model. We come together as two wounded, unhealed people who hope to get our needs met. You cannot connect from a place of wounding.”
Wyatt hears this. It lands. He thinks about Gwen [his ex], and Myranda.
“The advanced workshops are clothing-optional,” Nikki announces. People seem excited by this. Wyatt is curious but also feels like that would be too far. He's just not the kind of guy who goes to naked sex workshops, is he? He would at least need to go to the gym more first.
Klaus and Nikki play a video demonstrating their trademark orgamadhi technique, what they describe as an ancient, esoteric practice from tantrik yoga. In the video, Klaus is manipulating Nikki’s clitoris, which is partially obscured by Klaus. The video scrambles Wyatt’s brain. He simultaneously wants to run and get a closer look, at least of Nikki’s nether region. She’s hot.
They move on to an exercise called “Hot Seat.” Wyatt gets picked. “Everyone’s attention on Wyatt!”
Wyatt’s on the “hot seat.” Klaus asks him what his deepest desire is. Wyatt feels really exposed and tries to pass. Then, “I don’t know.” Then, saying what he thinks they want him to say: “To experience authentic, mindful love. To crack wide open in my heart chakra.” All he really wants, he thinks to himself, is to be married and to stop feeling so anxious all the time. His heart starts to beat more strongly in his chest and the room suddenly goes all fish-eyed, the other participants hovering on the periphery of his vision like curious ghosts. He worries that his agoraphobia is resurfacing. His tinnitus acts up again and a ringing fills his ears. Klaus helps him lie down, tells him to take some deep breaths. He passes out.
He wakes up in a small room on a message table. Nikki is there holding his head. Nikki soothes him, disarms him, calms him.
“Did I say anything embarrassing after I lost consciousness?” Wyatt asks.
Nikki smiles compassionately. “No, you just seemed really relaxed all of a sudden.” She’s holding his hand. She seems to have a faint golden glow around her. It feels as if a calm energy is flowing from her hand to his and up his arm. He must be really out of it.
She asks him how he found them. When he mentions Myranda he notices a flicker of disgust register on Nikki’s face before she smiles and says she knows her. Wyatt starts to talk but Nikki places her hand on his heart and his mind goes blank. He lets himself enjoy her touch for a moment. Finally, he says, “I should go,” and gets up.
Nikki tells him: “We seek to create true individuals with genital character, fully in contact with their bodies, themselves, their desires, and their total environment. If you work with us, you will live with maximal orgastic potency. By learning to surrender fully to the flow of energy in orgasm you become free of anxiety and are able to step into your power.”
Wyatt doesn’t know what to say. As Wyatt walks toward the back door, Nikki whispers, “Be careful with Myranda.” She hands him her card. “Text me if you want,” she says, putting her hand on his shoulder.
The other challenge I had in the approach I took to writing my novel at the time, is that I would generate all these great ideas for dialog and then develop an attachment to them. I would then attempt to construct scenes that were designed to include them all instead of flowing organically and naturally. I think this came from my approach to writing and publishing non-fiction, especially in legal academia, where the approach is to gather your research and then weave it together with connecting prose. That works great for non-fiction but doesn’t work at all for fiction. I needed to trust more and allow the idea and research to compost within me and then just write organically.
Reviewing my OHI materials, I see how it’s yet another complicated facet of my novel where I’m clearly driven by genuine interest in timeless spiritual beliefs about love and sex and human potential but simultaneously lampooning the absurdity of the manifestation of these organizations in reality, as I experienced with OneTaste.
This process of revisiting my manuscript and research materials continues to be illuminating but also emotionally draining. Having to feel the disappointment of an abandoned creative project yet again is hard. But perhaps it’s a form of tapasya for me, in which I engage in a discipline to generate the subtle heat of spiritual purification.
By the way, in reading the highly compelling, official Joseph Campbell biography, I learned that he was a failed and frustrated fiction writer, having penned perhaps dozens of short stories and a novel or two, none of which were ever published. This encouraged me somewhat. Fiction is hard.
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