The Female-First Playground of Orgasmic Meditation

An excerpt from Sarah Barmak’s ‘Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality.’

We are very happy to present the following excerpt from Sarah Barmak’s Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, a new book that offers a provocative look at why our culture’s male-focused approach to female sexuality isn’t getting us off. Using a blend of reportage, interview and first-person reflection, journalist Sarah Barmak explores the cutting-edge science and grassroots cultural trends that are getting us closer to truth of women’s sexuality, including the subject of this excerpt: the OneTaste movement.

Yeah, that’s vulva embroidery. It was made by Shannon Gerard.

Women are profound and mysterious — and obscene. —author Jane Bowles, letter to her husband, Paul

In a geodesic dome, its hexagon-shaped gaps festooned with translucent red-and-yellow cloth, about two hundred dusty, sunburnt people sit cross-legged on the bare earth. The dome could be found on official maps as roughly at the intersection ‘2:30 and Biggie Size,’ near one of the outer edges of the circular, temporary metropolis called Black Rock City, where all-day psytrance raves, anti-government surveillance education seminars and a spiritual temple larger than the average church all jockey for space with middle-aged couples’ RVs and ripped tents. Rows of dust-covered bicycles stand locked at the dome’s entrance, each decorated with a tangled rainbow nest of lights, plastic flowers, fun fur and electroluminescent wire, which will make them glow in the night. For now, it’s a scorching day. Thumping house music makes its way to us softly across the sun-baked salt flats, as giant art cars with mobile sound systems make their distant, circular parades.

I’m seated inside in the dust, surrounded by thick, curvy women with burlesque, black-and-white striped Beetlejuice stockings, skinny young men with heads shaved but for a few beaded dreads dangling from the tops of their skulls, white-bearded, shirtless old men with sunburnt, leathery necks and the odd guy in basic jeans and a tank top, looking out of place. A woman behind me scrapes her fork in a metal container of quinoa and kale.

A young man and woman at the front of the dome introduce themselves as Keenan and Rachel (names changed upon request — she has a conservative day job) from OneTaste, the San Francisco organization dedicated to teaching the unusual, wildly popular clit-stroking art of orgasmic meditation. It claims to have attracted tens of thousands to online classes and centers in thirty cities around the world, and it’s spawned stories in the New York Times and Cosmopolitan. Everyone knows why Keenan and Rachel are here: they’re about to present a live demonstration of a woman in orgasm — here on this Thursday in August 2013 at Burning Man, an anarchic arts and music festival in the Nevada desert that draws 70,000 revellers and dreamers each year. In the middle of Black Rock City (the ephemeral town that ‘Burners’ consider themselves citizens of during the week it’s fully built, complete with street grid and bylaws), Keenan and Rachel are going to try to capture the attention of a party famous for its nudity, hard drugs and wide range of sexual kinks.

Rachel sports a miniature top hat perched on her dark hair and a corset, her chest and head held high, surveying the masses. It can be safely said that she is strutting.

‘I had this whole plan,’ she begins. ‘I was going to be a schoolteacher and I was going to be a lesbian.’

There are laughs, cheers.

‘That was the plan! ’Cause I didn’t really want to be intimate with men. I had unfortunate experiences with men in my late teens and early twenties. I was gonna be a lesbian. I wouldn’t have to think about sex or relating to people or going after my desires.’ Lesbians don’t think about any of that, apparently.

She continues: ‘The idea of it was great. But in actuality, I was bored. I was tired and wired. I ate too much, drank too much, dieted too much. I was miserable and couldn’t figure out why. I found OneTaste. What I found was a quality of attention I couldn’t find anywhere else. We go to happy hour and we talk about the weather and we talk about sports, but we never get to really connect! What I found at OneTaste were people who are connecting in a way I don’t really see in the world. And they got there by doing this practice that I thought was really fucking weird. What, you guys are stroking each other’s genitals all the time? No way! But I gave it a try. Once I did, I was pretty amazed with what I found, which was a well of energy and connection I haven’t seen anywhere else!’

The description of this demo in the Burning Man guide promised a woman in orgasm — right here, very soon. One of the innovations of OM, however, is its redefinition of the term. As mentioned earlier, because so many women find it difficult or impossible to come, especially with the ultra-light and subtle finger stroke that is OM’s trademark practice, Nicole Daedone, the guru-ish leader of OneTaste, has declared that every moment of pleasure a woman feels should be deemed ‘orgasmic.’ What we would typically call the ‘climax’ should be nothing special — just a point of interest on the journey. Devotees say it’s a mental shift that effectively alleviates the pressure to ‘get there,’ and the feeling of failure when it doesn’t happen. It refocuses the mind on the pleasure that’s actually there as opposed to what they think should be there. Like meditation, it helps women and their partners (who also tend to feel pressure to bestow an orgasm) stay in the moment, rather than fixated on some elusive future goal.

‘Like meditation, it looks simple on the outside.’ Keenan, a slender man in his twenties, takes his turn to speak. ‘Today, we’re going to give you some of the nuts and bolts so you can walk out of here and be ready to attend an OM session. She has the right to say yes or no to an OM, I have the right to say yes or no to an OM, like we’re asking for a cup of tea. Afterwards, there’s going to be no “owesies.” I’m not stroking her clit to get her to have sex with me, or to get her to buy me dinner. I’m stroking her clit because I want to. I’m getting pleasure from it. Any questions?’

There is a call for them to speak louder.

‘What we’re doing at OM is we’re taking some of the social conditioning out of sex,’ calls Rachel, loudly. ‘So you know how sometimes a guy will take you out to dinner, and afterwards you’ll get back to his house and think, “Oh god, now I have to do this thing.”’

There is laughter in the audience.

‘Or he’ll go down on you, and then he’ll be waiting expectantly, and you’ll think, “Oh, now I have to suck his cock.”’

More laughter.

‘What? You guys know what I’m talking about! Come on, ladies. How many ladies here have sucked a cock they didn’t want to suck?’

There is loud laughter.

Too many!’ yells someone near me.

‘Raise your hand! Almost every lady’s hand should go up. We’ve all done it! Maybe some dudes, too! We all do sexual things we feel we have to. One of the tenets of OM is desire. You only have an OM if you desire to have an OM. If you’re stroking, you’re stroking the clit for your own pleasure. So, gentlemen, you’re stroking for your own pleasure, because it feels good to your finger, not because you want to get something from her. In the same way, the woman is sitting down for the OM because she wants to get stroked, not because she wants to appease him or do something for him. Because of that, you’re not going to moan to show him he’s doing it right. You’re not going to flail your hips. You’ll basically lie there, and if a moan comes up, awesome, and if it doesn’t, awesome. It doesn’t matter.’

This fun activity sure sounds like it has a lot of upfront rules. Where’s the spontaneity if you have to do everything but sign a contract first? As critics say of nudist colonies, laying it all out there, as it were, ruins the mystery that helps make sex, well, sexy. But the young firebrands before us have a counterargument. Sex is already weighed down with centuries of illogical unspoken rules, expectations and trade-offs, mostly dumped onto females. So much so that a lot of women end up saying, Sorry, this isn’t worth the trouble. They’re sold spontaneity and ecstasy, then hear, Oh, by the way, you must play hard to get, don’t be too eager, dress sexy but not slutty, act like you’re enjoying it or you’ll hurt his feelings and don’t be the first one to text afterward. Have fun!

So what if someone invented new rules that women can feel good about — rules that are, at least, transparent? And what if the first rule was Don’t do sex if you don’t want to? In the space of total permission to say no, would a yes emerge?

Vibrant, female-dominated sexual subcultures are growing in response to the persistent sexual myths that still harm women’s health. While drug companies spend millions in the search for a pill or hormone that will zap women’s brains into summoning more desire for the sex they’re currently having, some women are stoking their desire by seeking out new and improved sex. Inspired by the feminist awakenings and clitoral manifestos of the 1970s, fed by the massive yoga and natural health boom and the hippified music-festival circuit, women across North America, Europe and beyond are trying unconventional practices, sex-positive gatherings and holistic experimental therapies. Many of the same young women protesting against Wall Street and tweeting about rape culture and marching in SlutWalks are also engaging in radical, less visible acts of pleasure: filming female and LGBTQ-friendly porn, going to masturbation workshops and getting herbal yoni steams and massages. Some women looking for casual sex are skipping the dick-pic minefield that is Tinder in favor of the safer, female-first playground of orgasmic meditation or building their own dating apps like Bumble, where female users have more control.

Once I discovered a little of this, the rest of it unravelled like a secret girls-only network: every person I spoke to told me about some book I must read or some tantrika I should interview. This isn’t Fifty Shades — these are practices explicitly touted as good for women rather than just interesting to them, often carrying the claim of being healing rather than just X-rated. (By the way, even that BDSM bestseller has its own feminist rewrite, How Not to Fall, by none other than sexologist and educator Emily Nagoski under her nom de porn Emily Foster. Her ‘sex-positive, science-driven’ novel, due out in 2016, will correct Fifty Shades’s damaging myths about female desire while keeping the erotic heat high.)

Sex survey data have only begun to hint at how women’s approach to sex might be changing, but research suggests the group now most likely to be pushing the boundaries of sexual orientation and exploration is young women. Britain’s 2013 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles — one of the most comprehensive studies measuring how sexual behavior and attitudes have changed over time, with 15,152 participants of all ages in its most recent iteration — showed the total number of sexual partners reported by women over their lifetime has gone up since 2000, the last time the survey was done, as has the number of women who have had a female partner, and the number who have had sexual experiences with other women (11.5 percent). Meanwhile, men’s total number of female sexual partners has stayed flat in the same period, as have the numbers of men who have had same-sex experiences (8 percent). Participants reporting having had vaginal sex in the past four weeks actually decreased over the past decade. And age substantially affected women’s responses. The number of women identifying as bisexual was highest in the sixteen to twenty-four age group — 2.5 percent compared to 1.4 percent of women of all ages — though that’s far lower than the proportion of young women having woman-on-woman sex: over 18 percent of women thirty-five and younger say they’ve had experiences with the same sex, and about 8 percent have had same-sex experiences with genital contact. The answer to the question What do women want? is changing fast.

‘The proportion of women reporting sexual experience with same-sex partners now exceeds that of men, at least at younger ages, when the proportion describing themselves as bisexual is highest,’ said the study (which unfortunately didn’t appear to track transgender participants). This may also reflect a greater openness among women in discussing sex with researchers.

These shifts are beginning to emerge in the mainstream conversation, whether it’s Amy Schumer’s raunchy talk about her clit or or a mega-hit song by an ostensibly ‘straight’ performer like Katy Perry about kissing girls and liking it. Like all good entertainers, they sense these statements will land because they’re already lurking in the zeitgeist. In spring 2016, orgasmic meditation was featured in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop newsletter. Sex that is initiated and driven by women is getting more visible; could it be long before Oprah is hyping clit-stroking?

This is the wild frontier of women’s sexuality. Not all of it is for everyone, that’s for sure; some practices are New Age–reverent, while some is decidedly, hilariously irreverent. It is vibrant and strange, riotous and messy, and as varied as women themselves. It turns out our culture’s idea of average female sexuality is hiding a hell of a lot of nonconformity and experimentation. A lot of play.

Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality is publishing from Coach House Books on July 5, 2016.