Founder, ex-executive of edgy sexual wellness company OneTaste charged with forced labor conspiracy

Jun 6, 2023, 2:40 PM | Updated: 3:08 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — Two former executives of a company known for offering “orgasmic meditation” sessions have been charged with using sex, psychological abuse and economic exploitation to coerce work from people while taking over their lives, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

The case follows years of scrutiny and a recent Netflix documentary on the business, known as OneTaste.

Ex-sales chief Rachel Cherwitz was arrested in northern California and was due in court there Wednesday, while founder and ex-CEO Nicole Daedone remained at large. Both were indicted on a forced labor conspiracy charge.

“Under the guise of empowerment and wellness, the defendants are alleged to have sought complete control over their employees’ lives, including by driving them into debt and directing them to perform sexual acts while also withholding wages,” said Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Breon Peace, whose office successfully prosecuted the leader and other figures in the cult-like group NXIVM.

Email messages seeking comment were sent to attorneys for Daedone and Cherwitz. OneTaste called the allegations “completely unjustified,” said its “orgasmic meditation” (or “OM”) work has been misunderstood, and blamed a “long-term, misogynistic, media-driven campaign to tear down a feminine empowerment project and the women who devoted their lives to it.”

“OneTaste, under its current ownership, has strived to improve, listen to criticism, adjust and evolve in ways that bring those myriad benefits to many more people, who are able to practice OM on their own time and on their own terms,” the Santa Rosa, California-based company said in a statement.

Echoing allegations that have been aired in years of articles, podcasts and more about the company, prosecutors say in court papers that Cherwitz and Daedone targeted vulnerable people by pitching OneTaste courses as a salve for sexual trauma.

Then, according to prosecutors, the two executives turned OneTaste members into dependents by having them live and work together, encouraging them to cut off contact with outsiders, hoarding deeply personal information and demanding complete commitment — even if it meant engaging in sexual conduct the members found repulsive.

Daedone and Cherwitz induced people to go into debt — even helping them open new credit cards — for courses and coaching that could run into tens of thousands of dollars, prosecutors say.

Founded around 2005 in San Francisco, OneTaste started as a quiet player on the edges of the city’s self-discovery and sexual experimentation scenes.

Several years later, major news outlets gave the public a glimpse of the company. It was described as a communal-living group focused on female orgasms as a means to sexual and psychic wellness and human connection — a philosophy practiced in group “orgasmic meditation” sessions in which men stimulated women.

Soon, Daedone had published a book and was speaking at such venues as South by Southwest and the TEDx talk series. The company set up branches in cities including London, Los Angeles and New York and got on celebrities’ radar. Khloe Kardashian included Daedone’s “Slow Sex” on a 2017 list of book picks. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop wellness empire featured Daedone on its podcast and in a panel discussion.

By 2018, OneTaste’s then-CEO Joanna Van Vleck boasted to Bloomberg Businessweek that OneTaste was “the Whole Foods of sexuality — the organic, good-for-you version,” declaring that “orgasm is part of wellness.” Van Vleck has not been charged in the case.

From early on, OneTaste engendered some questions about Daedone’s guru-like image within the group. Daedone herself told The New York Times in 2009 that “there’s a high potential for this to be a cult,” saying she was on guard to make sure it wasn’t. (The company says she sold her stake in 2017.)

The questions got louder in a 2018 investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek. It revealed, among other things, that OneTaste had paid $325,000 to settle a former sales representative’s claim of sexual assault, sexual harassment and labor violations, including being ordered to sleep with customers and managers.

OneTaste called the portrayal “outrageous.” The company said no employees were required to do anything sexual, it didn’t use sex or psychological manipulation as a marketing ploy, and it had tweaked policies to ensure customers didn’t feel shoehorned into debt. Cherwitz, meanwhile, resigned as sales chief during Bloomberg Businessweek’s reporting.

But further journalistic dives into OneTaste followed, including Netflix’s “Orgasm Inc” last fall.

The company’s website says its new owners have launched new digital components, including an app, as it continues its efforts “to bring rehumanization to the world.”

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Founder, ex-executive of edgy sexual wellness company OneTaste charged with forced labor conspiracy