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Within minutes of meeting Nicole Halpern, an instructor at the One Taste Urban Retreat Center in SoMa, I was naked and bent over with my ass in her face. In fact, in her naked yoga class there was nothing but penises and vaginas, dangling breasts and balls as far as the eye could see.
I'd come to the center to do research on what I'd heard was a sex cult, and by the looks of things the rumors weren't far off. In fact, as I'd entered the center on my way to class, I got the feeling my story was writing itself. I would talk about how the receptionists at the front desk had to stop groping one another in order to greet me, how the women looked younger than the men, and how all the signs of new age spirituality earth tones, organic food, Birkenstocks seemed a cover for what I sensed was actually a coven of perverts.
One Taste helps people attain deeper connection through sexual experimentation. The most hardcore members have given up their normal lives to frolic in nonmonogamous bliss at the retreat center, which, along with yoga studios, also houses a café, a lounge, and a system of co-ed dorms where members work long nights testing taboos. The idea is that if you free your sex, the rest will follow. To this end, the center also offers public classes in touching, genital stroking, and even prostate massage. Weird shit, right?
So as I relaxed into my second downward dog, I smiled, assuming I'd found the perfect subjects for my antiValentine's Day story, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on all of the weirdos in this city who believe sex is something more than a basic human need. It would be investigative journalism at its finest: "I Joined a Sex Cult," by Justin Juul.
But it didn't work out that way. It was the last thing I expected, but this naked yoga stuff was making me happy. The shock of public nudity was forcing me to let down my guard and experience the moment for what it was: exciting and naughty. I wanted more.
I decided making fun of these people would be too easy and dishonest. It seemed that a little sexploration really might benefit the soul. So instead of rushing home afterward to write a sarcastic piece about sex freaks, I swallowed my cynicism and asked Halpern if I could come back sometime.
"If you really want to see what we're all about, you'll take the Man Course," she said. And with that, my fate was sealed.
My research later that night revealed that the Man Course would involve 10 "extremely orgasmic" women who'd spend an entire day fielding questions and revealing their secrets to a small group of men. It was boot camp for jilted lovers, designed to help downtrodden men build confidence and score more chicks.
It all sounded great for 40-year-old virgins, but what could I, a young journalist with a girlfriend at home, expect to gain? I wasn't sure, and neither was my girlfriend. "Sounds like some Venus versus Mars bullshit," she said. "Men and women are more similar than different. It sounds like a way for sleazy men to hang out with young girls to me."
I was afraid she might be right, but I decided to go for it anyway. After all, I hadn't expected the yoga class to be anything but funny. Maybe I could learn something in the Man Course. After all, although our relationship is great, I can't say I understand my girlfriend any better now than I did when I tricked her into liking me three years ago.
So two weeks later I was back at the center.
The dudes in the lobby on the morning of class were visibly nervous. They weren't as ugly as I had imagined, but they all reeked of desperation, their trembling hands running through their hair, their eyes darting. I felt a surge of superiority wash through me as I watched these poor souls drink coffee and wait for instructions. One Taste might be able to teach them something, but I was sure I was way too cool to learn anything here.
Orientation began with an introduction exercise. A man asked each of us to say our name and tell the group a problem we have with women. The first person wondered why he could never please women even though he spent so much time doing things they claimed to want, like buying dinner and opening doors. The next wondered why women seem to want to be taken care of but often become ornery when you treat them like children.
As I listened, my confidence began to evaporate. I didn't know the answers to any of these questions either, and new ones were popping up. Why does my girlfriend give me that weird look when I talk about articles I read in Vice magazine? Why does she always say she feels like she doesn't know me? This group confessional was making me worry about my relationship. It also bonded me to these other men, all utterly confused and ready to figure shit out.
And then the women arrived.
The energy in the room grew tense as the women, ranging from 22 to 55 years old, filed in with Halpern at their helm. One by one the girls took off their jackets, adjusted their skirts, and joined our circle, engaging as many men as possible in suggestive eye contact. The room was dead silent until Halpern clapped her hands and said, "Welcome to the Man Course!"
The next hour involved more introductions. The women stated their names and gave a brief description of their personal games coyness, deliberately confusing eye play, and false flirtatiousness were among the most popular and the men were asked to explore their own shortcomings. "Hi," a student named John said. "I feel like I'm trapped in a nice-guy shell and that women think I'm boring."
"Well," Halpern said. "Today we're gonna get dirty. We're gonna get you out of that box and get really messy. Can you handle that? Are you ready to get messy?"
John said he was ready. "Then let's see you do something messy right now," Halpern said. John grinned and got up, pumped his pelvis in the air, and said, "Yeah, baby, let's get mess-say!" The girls giggled.
The other men and I went through a similar deal. We confessed to a particular problem and were then asked to directly address it. The shy guys were asked to speak more, the mean guys were asked to be nice, and I was asked to drop my cool-guy act. In exchange the women promised to stop playing their games. No bitchy auras, pouty mouths, or condescending giggling from the women, and no false bravado, competitiveness, or calculated detachment from the guys. We were just a bunch of humans now, willing participants in a sexually charged science lab. It was both scary and liberating.
We spent the rest of the afternoon doing one-on-one vulnerability exercises, such as making judgments based on appearance, pointing out flaws, and even asking a girl on a date, risking rejection. The most intense exercise, though, was one in which the women shared their fantasies.
The girl I was paired with, a blue-eyed fresh-out-of-college type, had a mouth like a sailor and the mind of a teenage boy. "I want to go out with a stranger and then leave early to lick his balls," the girl said. "I want to suck his cock and stick my tongue in his asshole." Like all of the other exercises, this one suggested that although women may seem very different from men, they're really just as horny and perverted and as confused, embarrassed, and shy about it as we are.
The rest of the day was similarly enlightening. There were touch exercises that included dancing and massage, more talking exercises, and even a mock date. All of the exercises worked to dissolve our ingrained ways of being, so the men in the class could see the women for what they actually are: people.
I left feeling happy and horny, ready to tell my girlfriend about all of the cool stuff I'd learned namely, that she and the girls at the center weren't all that different. It seemed the girls of One Taste actually shared my girlfriend's outlook. Although it was billed as a man-centric healing session, the Man Course felt more like therapy for humans, its primary message being that we are all fundamentally the same. And it did surprise me, just as the yoga experience had. It forced me out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. It was an entire day of emotional nakedness, which, I learned, can be as just as exciting and therapeutic as physical nakedness.
The women of One Taste taught me a few important lessons. One was that my girlfriend is pretty damn smart. Men and women really do have a lot more in common than it seems. Second was that I could probably stand to open up a little more, to focus less on being cool and more on being myself. And finally, even though they may seem a little New Agey, the people at One Taste are very brave and extremely well-intentioned.
The next time I set out to ridicule an unsuspecting group of swingers, I'll make sure they deserve it first.