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Per the International School for Temple Arts (ISTA)’s website: “ISTA is part of a global transformational movement where human consciousness is being opened to its source as love and harmoniously integrating with other sentient kingdoms and dimensions.” This movement functions not as an organization but as an organism led by a faculty consisting of facilitators, assistants, and apprentices.

Their vision may be “to create a world where humans have a peaceful, delightful, shameless, fearless and loving relationship with their own bodies, sexuality, emotions, hearts, minds and spirit.” But while this ideal can be present among those connected to this global organism, reporting from New Zealand and Israeli newspapers uncovered a dark truth about select leaders connected to this “sacred sexual community.”  

According to Radio New Zealand (RNZ), some former students and teachers claim they suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at courses run by ISTA.

Before participating in any course, ISTA participants are required to sign a covenant, which includes the statement: “I agree to take full responsibility for the nature of my experience.”

This covenant does not take into account the influence an ISTA facilitator can wield over their students, especially those new to the sex-positive community. This imbalance of power can lead to an atmosphere of confusion, obedience, and manipulation along with the lack of trauma-informed care.

In particular, facilitators were allowed to have sexual contact with students as long as students made the first move and the facilitator sought permission from the other ISTA leaders. Along those lines, females as young as 20 reported sexual exploitation by much older male leaders including sexual assault and rape

As per the RNZ article, following a story posted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz chronicling abuses within the ISTA community, Israel’s lead facilitator Ohad Pele Ezrahi, a former orthodox rabbi referenced in this article, is not currently teaching, reportedly having taken time for “reflection.” 

This article also notes that former supplements magnate and ISTA founder Baba Dez Nichols, who was featured in the award-winning 2010 documentary Sex Magic, stood down from teaching and governance in 2019 amid allegations of sexual impropriety. However, he is still listed on ISTA’s Wisdom Circle of advisors. 

Will ISTA’s new protocols enact change?

In response to questions by RNZ, Bruce Lyon,  founder of the Highden Temple in Manawatū, said that under a new protocol they adopted in November 2021, temple training teachers did not engage sexually with participants. An open letter from the Highden Temple, where all ISTA trainings in New Zealand have been held since 2017, states they changed significantly with the adoption of a new teaching team (including international guest teachers) and a greater focus on care and support both during the training and afterwards. This includes professional development trainings to support a deeper understanding of the impact of trauma and somatic awareness.

An announcement on the ISTA website addresses community concerns, which includes introducing a mediation process. Given the lack of a centralized organizational structure, the changes outlined in this open letter and on the ISTA website are not necessarily followed by all other ISTA facilitators. Hence, those interested in exploring their sexuality would be advised to do due diligence in selecting a sexual guide.

RNZ reports that some survivors, activists and conscious sexuality professionals formed a group recently called Safer Sex-Positive Spiritual Communities. They are collecting accounts of harm from people around the world, which they intend to collate and present to ISTA and make public via a website to advocate for change.

Their courses cost between $3,000 to $4,000 dollars though apparently under 25-year-olds and “assistants” get discounted rates. ISTA’s Guidestar profile lists their expenses in 2019 as $42,117 with a revenue of $562,385, while their Charity Navigator profile for the same year lists them as “unrated.”. An IRS determination letter stamped July 1, 2019 granted ISTA tax-exempt status as a a 501(3) (c) organization c/o ISTA faculty and organizer Richard Priddis, who is also listed on their IRS 990 forms filed in 2018 and 2019 as principal officer. No copies of their 990 returns are listed on the IRS’ website for subsequent tax years.

Moving forward, online forums such as the Cult Education Institute and Reddit’s Cult Discussion Forum point to both positive and negative experiences by ISTA participants, though the comments raise enough questions to warrant further investigation into ISTA’s practices.

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As a freelance writer with dual MDiv/MSW degree from Yale Divinity School and Columbia University, I focus on the rise of secular spirituality, religious satire, spiritual health & wellness, faith...