A team member stood to announce Sandoval’s arrival, and in he came, a slender white guy in his mid-40s, accompanied by his pretty, smiling wife Brianna, who was about 10 years younger. His lecture combined concepts from Western psychology with Eastern religion (he reminded us several times that he had lived for 10 years in a Zen Buddhist monastery), and emphasized self-awareness—pretty standard stuff for a sex-positive community, with a New Age-y twist. We were also allowed to ask Sandoval questions, and get coached in front of the class on whatever we felt was holding us back sexually and romantically—from body issues to assertiveness. It was a little embarrassing to discuss these things in a room full of strangers, but I mostly found it fun, and the people to be welcoming.
On the second day, Sandoval announced that we were going to do our first guided meditation exercise. The guy sitting next to me raised his hand, admitted he’d always struggled with meditation, and asked if Sandoval had any advice. Sandoval stared back at him. And stared. And stared. The jovial mood faded away, and an uncomfortable silence hung over the room. “You can’t even get present, can you?” he finally asked. Surprised, the guy stuttered and asked for clarification. Sandoval’s eyes locked on him. “I can just see it in you,” he finally said. “You can’t even be present for a moment. And so people will run from you.” Every eye turned to the man asking the question, all of us grateful not to be him. No one wanted to be humiliated like that and warned that we could be repelling romantic partners forever. And thus, our guided meditation began.
Confrontations like this arose repeatedly throughout the weekend. If something seemed questionable, we were told the problem was within ourselves, and the way to grow would be to accept this humbly and turn ourselves over to Sandoval’s expertise. “You’re resisting,” became a common catchphrase, a sort of backhanded accusation I grew accustomed to hearing when someone was being difficult or contrary. An eagerness to please set in among the newbies. No one wanted to be the object of scrutiny, especially when the subject matter was so delicate.
Meanwhile, some of us were experiencing breakthroughs. One woman identified a pattern of manipulation she didn’t realize she had been engaging in with her partners. I realized my obsession with my ex stemmed from disappointment in myself for feeling I had failed, rather than an earnest love for him.
It was a pretty typical Wednesday evening for me: I was huddled with a dozen or so men and women in a brightly lit Los Angeles bungalow for our weekly Divination of Love and Existence meeting. Our guru himself, Sandoval, stood at the front of the room next to his wife, Brianna, who lay on her slightly arched back, a soft pink bathrobe splayed open to reveal her naked torso. She moaned softly, reaching the beginning stages of what would erupt into a 15-minute climax. Sandoval’s eyes moved from her body to his students, as he explained matter-of-factly what he was doing. (“I’m moving my index finger just around her clit. Now I’m moving slightly faster.”) We watched, captivated—though some of us had witnessed this dozens of times—until the session ended. It was time for a quick snack break, and then we got our chance to pair up and try it out ourselves. “Your labia were so bright!” I overheard a woman complimenting Brianna, a paper plate of carrot sticks in her hand. “They were just so full, and so pink!” I saw Brianna grin with a mixture of modesty and pride, and thank her admirer. Is this weird? I asked myself. Is it weird to compliment the color of another woman’s genitals?
I had first heard about Sandoval through a woman named Lindsay I met in a yoga class. She left me occasional, impassioned voicemails urging me to check out this “amazing” community designed to improve your love, sex, and spiritual life. I ignored her calls, because I felt mostly fine with my sex life, and it seemed like some sort of pyramid scheme—why else would someone be so invested in me joining?A few years passed, and I found myself suffering deeply after a breakup from hell. Devastated and desperate, I tearfully called Lindsay asking her to tell me again about that Sandoval guy.
I soon learned that Sandoval and his student-turned-wife Brianna offer to teach “singles and couples how to have exceptional romantic relationships” through a program in which students learn how to shed hang-ups and become good romantic partners. While learning various sexual techniques, students are also promised that they’ll be taught the secret to the coveted “15-minute extended full-body orgasm.” With Lindsay’s encouragement, I signed up for the $900 introductory Bliss Course, a weekend of three daylong workshops held at one of the students’ luxurious homes in the hills. The course began on Friday morning. There were about 25 of us seated in the living room, ranging in age from our late 20s to early 60s, with an even split of men and women—necessary for the hetero-centric program. Mostly dressed in business casual, we looked like we could have been a breakout group at a tech conference.
The last day of the Bliss Course included an exercise in Responsive Caressing: a technique in which one person runs their hand over another person’s (clothed) body, focusing on the sensation. It was a G-rated version of the program’s foundational sexual teaching: the CC (“conscious climax”) date. This fancy, slowed down, spiritually infused version of good old-fashioned finger banging was what would bring about the 15-minute full-body orgasm I’d eventually witness Brianna experiencing.
The weekend ended, as they always do, with a cocktail party attended by members of Sandoval’s Bliss Course alumni community, and the friends they’ve been strongly encouraged to invite who might be interested in taking the course themselves. I poured myself a plastic red cup of booze and wandered around the room, weaving through groups of people gushing about their breakthroughs and intentions to continue with Sandoval. I started feeling like I had missed something important, and found myself wondering what would happen if I continued in the program. Several thousand dollars would get me Love Lessons, a weekly group phone call with Sandoval, or a weekly three-hour group class at his L.A. home. For $15,000, and after paying for additional training in the meantime, I could someday experience the seven-day Passion Expansion Program, which culminates with you and your partner (or a community volunteer) manually stimulating one another to a 15-minute orgasm, under Sandoval and Brianna’s supervision.
I signed up for the weekly group classes (at the discounted price of about $7,000 for one year), not because I felt so smitten with Sandoval’s work, but more because I felt like, amidst the fawning, transformed devotees, I had missed out on something that I desperately wanted to understand. I didn’t want to be the one who just couldn’t get present, the one who couldn’t stop resisting.
Every session would begin with the room in perfect silence, before a respected long-term member announced the arrival of Sandoval, who would emerge from behind his bedroom door with a slick smile, like a televangelist appearing from backstage to approach a pulpit. The encouragement for unquestioned faith in Sandoval increased with each session. Disagreeing wasn’t an option, and questioning was barely tolerated—when people did too much of either, Sandoval would often push them to tears, in the fashion of the reluctant meditator I had met during the Bliss Course. The few times I tried to ask for advice myself, I was disappointed with his vague non-answers. “That’s just your inner critic, Catherine,” he’d say. I would sit down and thank him politely, uninterested in inviting the sort of criticism I’d see him dish out to my classmates. “Isn’t he just amazing?” someone would invariably ask me later.
To some, he was. One evening, my classmate Joe, a crestfallen man in his early 50s, expressed concern that the calluses on his fingers, the result of being an avid rock climber, made it impossible for him to enjoy Responsive Caressing. Sandoval listened patiently to the complaint, nodding. From his seat, he instructed Joe to raise his hands toward the front of the room, and feel the “energy” of Sandoval’s fingertips returning the gesture from several yards away. The class watched with bated breath as the two men stared into each other’s eyes. Thirty seconds passed. “I can feel it!” cried Joe, a grin spreading across his face. He dropped his hands and let out a sigh of relief. Around the room, my classmates beamed in witness of the miracle.
But after six months, the life-affirming transformation I had been hoping for hadn’t hit me. I never felt comfortable participating in CC dates with my classmates (opting instead to do Responsive Caressing exercises with other female students), was hesitant to ask questions and risk public humiliation, and was baffled by the constant pressure—and other people’s willingness—to both recruit new people and volunteer large amounts of time on top of the absurd tuition I had paid. Furthermore, it became clear that this wasn’t a program that prided itself on graduating students—some people I met had been attending, paying, and volunteering for a decade, in addition to desperately recruiting their friends and romantic partners.
One member named Daphne, who was involved in the group for six months—during which time she also “dated” Sandoval and Brianna (it was a regular occurrence for certain hand-picked women in the group to become sexually involved with the leaders)—insists the program transformed her sex life, but she now takes issue with a lot of its business practices. “There’s just a lot of social pressure to volunteer and recruit friends and family and to continue in this never ending program,” she says. Every time an introductory cocktail party was held, we all had to turn in the names of people we were planning to invite, and would spend hours of our (paid) class time acting out ways that we would encourage, convince, or coerce other people in our lives to come join and pay.
Another member named Ashley joined Sandoval’s community when she was 21, and had just moved to Los Angeles from a small town. She stayed involved in the community for close to a year, and recalls her one and only time volunteering for the Bliss Course, an experience that turned her off from Sandoval for good. “A really important moment for me was when Sandoval threw trash on the floor and told people to pick it up,” she says. “He was establishing power.”
When volunteering for a Bliss Course, team members are all paired to take scheduled CC date breaks throughout the weekend. One male ex-member describes it as a “benefit” to volunteering, while others found it uncomfortable. Ashley and Daphne say they opted to partner up during their volunteer weekend to avoid the pressure of CC dates, and that Sandoval was dismissive. “You don’t want to be the boring person at the party” was another phrase Sandoval liked to use when students expressed discomfort. Ashley also spoke about a concept Sandoval taught called “persuasive appeal,” which means that when attraction to a sex partner doesn’t exist on its own, you can teach yourself to become attracted. “I did that with this guy in the course,” she remembers. “He was a lot older, and I ended up doing it with him and feeling horrible afterward.” She says her experience in the community “kind of messed me up for a little while…I was just so vulnerable.”
And while Daphne found the volunteers’ semi-mandated CC dates uncomfortable, she now believes they play an important role. “When you support the Bliss Course, there’s a lot of sexual energy,” she explains. “I think the orgasm helps release that energy from your body.” After a weekend of volunteering through meditative exercises and absorbing the rising sexual energy with no outlet, Daphne says she experienced the first manic episode of her life, which landed her in a psychiatric hospital. “I was experiencing full-body orgasms constantly,” she explains, a sensation that went on for several weeks, during which she found eating and sleeping difficult. Concerned, her parents had her hospitalized. Daphne was released after a week, then forcibly readmitted. She says a complete recovery took several months.
Sara Crain, MA, MFT, a San Francisco–based marriage and family therapist who counts cult recovery among her specialties, says that these reactions are not unheard of in groups that engage in serious meditative practices, particularly with inexperienced beginners, and absent of a trained therapist’s supervision. “These groups that have hours and hours and hours of meditation, if someone has latent schizophrenia or sometimes bipolar [disorder], that can actually trigger them into an episode. It could be the first episode they’ve ever had. And suddenly, they’re psychotic,” she explains. “You don’t know how to handle that or assess it or diagnose it if you don’t have the training or the skills. I think that it’s very risky.”
Crain explains also that a group can be defined as a cult not by its tenets as much as by the methods by which it recruits and retains members, including more superficial features, like the creation of a specialized vocabulary that causes a sense of exclusivity for the followers. Even if the core teachings are beneficial (again, who wouldn’t want a 15-minute orgasm?), the processes of coercion and humiliation, and the resulting fear and sycophancy, can be harmful to followers.
Not all of the community members I spoke with see Sandoval and his community as a cult, however. Some would rather define it as a business with a few unsavory practices. Victor, who was in the program for nearly five years and left amicably, credits Sandoval with an overhaul of his sex and love life. “What it did for me sexually, it got me really able to consistently feel my body and dive in and be present with somebody,” he says. He found Sandoval’s aggressive tactics to be constructive rather than abusive. “Some people can deal with it and some people can’t.”
But the idea of being pushed, particularly in a course on sexuality, has different implications for women than men. Beyond Ashley’s criticism of persuasive appeal or the pressure to have CC dates with classmates, a former employee of the program reported that she pulled away from the group when Sandoval continually pressured her to have CC dates with him. A second ex-member reported that he was surprised the group had never been sued for sexual harassment, as long-term members and employees are expected to be available for CC dates with anyone of Sandoval’s choosing. Both later bombarded me with texts, emails, and phone calls, begging to retract their statements out of fear of legal retaliation, or lingering, albeit complicated, loyalty to the group.
Whether it’s the charisma of a man who’s in charge, the lure of a self-appointed sexual guru, or simply caving to coercion that convinces the women in Sandoval’s community to sleep with him, Daphne, herself an ex-lover of Sandoval, believes it’s “probably not the most ethical thing to sleep with your students where there is an underlying power dynamic.” Crain explains the psychology behind this alleged cult leader behavior. She says that except in extreme cases—Jim Jones, Charles Manson—the group starts out when someone has a good idea and an earnest intention to help people, and the path from a genuine, pure-hearted teacher to a controlling megalomaniac requires participation from both sides. She says that sometimes students need “to put someone on a pedestal, or unconsciously need to project perfection onto somebody else outside of themselves.” The “cult” leader then assumes a position of power that they were somewhat forced into, a place which ultimately leaves them lonely and susceptible themselves to bad decisions. “That’s when people end up doing stupid things like sleeping with students,” she says.
I left the group after six months. I found the constant pressure to recruit, the insinuations that I should work for free, and the sexism that I felt pervaded all aspects of the community to be eventually intolerable. While the course focused heavily on female pleasure, it was not only uncomfortably heterosexist, but it also gleefully celebrated tired gender stereotypes. “Women are inherently fun,” Sandoval lectured once, “but they need us to keep them sane.” Resistance stopped seeming like such a bad option after all.
(Note: This is a true story, but all names and certain details have been changed to protect sources’ privacy.)
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