Maverick Life

PERFECT SENSE

Betony Vernon: In pursuit of greater sensual pleasure and sexual wellness for all

Composite design by Maverick Life. Images: Left: Betony Vernon, photo by Paul Higuera. Middle: O' Ring cuff, photo by Yasmin Gross. Right: Betony Vernon wearing the Love Lock Collier, photo by Ali Mahdavi.

Erotic jewellery designer, sex guide author, and self-described sexual anthropologist Betony Vernon, reflects on three decades of fighting the ‘pleasure taboo’.

The Boudoir Box stands at 69 centimeters tall and 33 centimeters wide, covered in black leather. Its front panels swing open to the sides, transforming it into three vertical panels; a triptych. On the left panel is a tasselled “leather whip necklace” with a sterling silver handle; on the right, a champagne coloured ostrich feather, also with a sterling silver handle. And on the middle panel, is a display of 19 “jewel-tools”, as their creator calls them. Among them are sterling silver nipple clamps, petting rings, “dilettos”, to name a few. 

Designed by industrial designer, metalsmith, sexologist, and self-described sexual anthropologist, Betony Vernon, in 2000, the box and its contents, which straddle the worlds of art, jewellery, design, and erotica, stayed hidden from the public for its first 17 years of existence. It was designed “to transport and display Betony Vernon’s Paradise Found Fine Erotic jewelry and Jewel-Tool collections,” to her private collectors. 

In May 2017, it was unveiled to the public for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris as part of Medusa, which the museum describes as “an exhibition taking a contemporary and unprecedented look at jewellery, unveiling a number of taboos.”

Boudoir Box. Image: Raul Higuera
Boudoir Box. Image: Katrin Backes

It was exactly a month before the opening of Medusa that, by chance, I found myself in Eden, Vernon’s private showroom and residence in Paris’ Marais neighbourhood. My partner, an artist, was exhibiting work in the city. A mutual acquaintance who was working with Vernon at the time, had invited him to meet Vernon for a candid chat about her upcoming exhibition. Unwittingly, I tagged along. 

We sat in the downstairs pale pink basement of Eden, named Heaven, where Vernon had created a space that was not only home to her Boudoir Box and her jewel tools, but a sensual oasis in the middle of the city where she could conduct her salons and workshops with her clients. Besides her private collectors, “the people that saw the Boudoir Box were people who attended my salons when I was teaching in London at the turn of the century, including the author of 50 Shades of Grey. I was an inspiration for many, and part of my art is giving permission,” says Vernon.

Above us on Heaven’s dome-shaped ceiling, were w rings bolted to the cement. Here she hangs her Theta rig, on which clients can be suspended. According to Vernon, who is also a certified medical hypnotist, “the aim is to induce the Theta Brainwave Frequency state and its benefits via the horizontal suspension of my subjects. This is achieved by using leather straps that are attached to the rings. As the state of abandonment advances, the subject’s brain begins to emit the Theta Brainwave Frequency, which is also registered during trance, hypnosis, deep meditation, and even orgasm.” It is in this deeply relaxed state that Vernon works with her clients. Later in September 2017, the Theta rig, like the Boudoir Box, would also have its public reveal at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris.

Eden underground. Image: Raul Higuera
Eden greenroom. Image: Raul Higuera

Born and raised in Virginia, in the US, Vernon bought a one-way ticket to Florence, Italy, at the age of 20, back in 1990, shortly after receiving a bachelor’s degree in art history and metalsmithing. There, a position teaching goldsmithing awaited her. She also worked with various Florentine masters on refining her craft. By 1992, she designed and launched her Sado-chic jewellery collection, inspired by the Story of O, the controversial and oft-banned erotic novel published in 1954. Little did she know then, how that collection would shape the trajectory of her life and practice.

“I understand that I have put myself on a very complicated and complex and rocky trail; but I will continue to stand by my brothers and my sisters around the world to ensure that our pleasure is not taken away from us,” says Vernon as we catch up in October 2021 via Zoom. 

She has recently returned to her apartment in Paris, after spending a few days in Rome, promoting the ninth edition of her bestselling 2013 sex guide, The Boudoir Bible, which was translated into Italian and launched in the country under the title, Eros. As she describes it, “The Boudoir Bible fills those niches missing from other sex guides nicely, with full, elaborated chapters on rope bondage, restraints of sound and sight, erotic flagellation, and the stimulation of new erogenous zones, among innumerable other offerings.”

The Boudoir Bible cover. Image: Courtesy of Betony Vernon

2022 will also mark three decades since she launched the Sado-chic collection and embarked on a journey that has seen her celebrated in some corners and ostracized in others. Over the past three decades, she has collaborated with several brands including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Missoni, Gianfranco Ferré, Swarowski, Pampaloni, Karl Lagerfeld, Alexander Wang and the Italian fashion house, Valentino; and she was also the design director for the Italian interior design house, Fornasetti, from 1995 to 2012. 

For the 2021 launch of Eros, she collaborated with Valentino. “During the COVID lockdown, I did some creative writing for them. And then when we got out of lockdown, they were like, ‘Hey, let’s do some other things,’ says Vernon. “I have a beautiful friendship with Pierpaolo and with the Maison Valentino team. They’re amazing… so forward-thinking; it’s been a fantastic journey,” she explains.

However, the luxury fashion world hasn’t always been welcoming. Back in 1992, when she launched her Sado-chic collection, she couldn’t find stores to stock her luxury erotic collection. “It was really strange to me; I thought to myself: why is that sex related objects are not made from beautiful materials? Why does is our sexuality not honored? Or considered sacred?  We’re using these objects on our bodies, we’re making love with them and making love; having sex with someone, is the most intimate thing that you can possibly do in the whole wide world,” she explains.

White Marble Double Sphere Massage Rings by Betony Vernon. Image: Rafaël Dubus

She sold through Italian fashion retailer, Louisa Via Roma: “They carried the [Sado-chic] collection and they loved it,” Vernon explains. “Luisa was my first and only client in the early 90s, and they sold the collection immediately.”

As she developed the pieces in her collection, she incorporated more functional jewellery pieces. A sterling silver choker comes with a chain attached to a ring that allows partners to share, and “connect more deeply to each other”.  A tasselled necklace pendant doubles as a whip. The bulbous spheres atop a metal ring also serve as tools for a sensual massage.

Emboldened by success with Louisa Via Roma, she presented her designs to to her client Barney’s, in 1996: “The woman from Barney’s was completely freaked out. She was like, ‘I can’t sell these kinds of things in Barneys New York,’ and I was like, ‘well, it’s just a bracelet, you don’t have to share it,’ but she was disturbed.  I had slipped the Sado chic ring onto her finger, but it was still connected to the bracelet and the chain. And she said, ‘take it off of me! I’m not interested in this collection.’ I decided, oh my God, I’ve hit a nerve, and I better stay underground.”

Three Sphere Ring, designed in 1998. Image: courtesy of Betony Vernon
Essence Ring, designed in 1995. Image: courtesy of Betony Vernon

She carried on with her non-erotic work, presenting her other pieces to private clients, and eventually creating the Boudoir Box which she travelled around the world with to present to them.

Then came the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers. At the time, Vernon had come to view sexual wellness as integral to overall well-being of the individual, the community, and therefore society at large. The attacks became the catalyst for her to once again step into the light and take her message on the road. Says Vernon: “I thought, ‘you know what, I can’t really design and produce any more product in this world unless they’re going to promote a sexual enlightenment and sensual enhancement.’”

Up until that point, she was still doing other design work for the fashion industry. “I dropped everything! At the time, the erotic collection was about 70 pieces; and I went to Paris for sales with the boudoir box because it was the only way for me to show my pieces. I had to go to my clients, there were no stores, no galleries, nobody wanted to touch me. They all put their own small ideas of sexuality onto me, which had nothing to do with my broad vision.”

So she presented her work, specifically called the Paradise Found Fine Erotic Jewellery Collection during fashion week in Paris, now some six years since the Barney’s incident. Still, the reception to her jewel tools was still not quite as positive as she had hoped. “I lost all of my clients from the fashion [industry]. They were like, ‘What are you doing?’”

That same year, a new “luxury lingerie and erotica” store which positions itself as “The Home of Female Pleasure”, opened in London’s Covent Garden. “Coco de Mer was really the first luxury erotica sales point, that wasn’t ‘in the wrong side of town,’ that wasn’t dangerous. It was geared towards women and men who believe that our sex is also sacred, and that we should adorn our bodies with beautiful things and make love with each other with things that are safe for the body,” says Vernon.

Steadily, the cultural landscape was also shifting. One such key moment was designer Tom Ford’s 2003 fall/winter collection, which featured bondage-inspired dresses. That same year, the designer presented a campaign shot by Mario Testino and styled by French fashion editor Carine Roitfeld, featuring a model with the Gucci logo shaved into her pubic hair, launching a wave of controversy, complaints, and calls to ban the campaign.

“Fashion drives things. There were certain happening around the theme of sexuality at the turn of the century, Tom Ford was using whips in his advertising campaigns, for example, and it was suddenly happening everywhere, you could see symbols of ‘another kind of loving’  popping up,” explains Vernon. 

Encouraged by the shifting cultural landscape, she thought, “the world has caught up with me. Now it’s going to be easier, safer.”

The Boudoir Box closed. Image: Katrin Backes
The Boudoir Box closed. Image: Katrin Backes

By 2004, Vernon had agreed for the Boudoir Box to be shot by Helmut Newton for the New York Times. Sadly, he passed away before the shoot took place, and it would be another 13 years before it would be revealed to the world. Meanwhile, the fashion and art world came knocking. A key moment came in 2006, when she was photographed for Purple Magazine, suspended. “After the magazine came out, with me hanging from the ceiling, totally glammed out with lipstick and heels and glamour – but glamorous suspension – I got the phone calls. I got the phone calls from the director of Vogue, I got the phone calls from [photographer] Sam Taylor-Wood, who was doing a cover for the New York Times and she was like, ‘please can you do some cord work for me?’”

New York Times 2007 feature, with cord work by Vernon. Image via Facebook/Betony Vernon. Photographer: Sam Taylor-Wood. 

While Vernon is reluctant to call herself an artist, her bio suggests otherwise, showing an increasing list of gallery shows alongside a stream of press coverage over the years. Her pieces also come with a certificate of authenticity. No matter what medium she is using, she is adamant that her primary goal is to dismantle the “pleasure taboo,” and teach sensual and sexual wellness, as a path towards holistic wellness.

Betony Vernon and performer Romain Brau using the Theta Rig on exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. Image: Franck Murra

“I was so naive when I started in the 90s, I was working for the worlds greater pleasure. Then I discovered that no everyone lived their sexuality as freely as I did and that there was so much trauma, so much abuse, so much pain connected to the sexual persona. The way that we perceive our sexuality is also a reflection of the way that we perceive the world; and this is why the center of my attention became sexuality. I became a sexologist, and a clinical hypnotherapist with a focus on sexual wellness. It’s because I believe that in the moment that we can heal sexual trauma, we can live a more satisfying life in general.” 

Through her work, she says she has come to understand that sexual abuse is far more prevalent than we would like to admit, and possibly the norm rather than the exception. “And it does such deep damage. So much healing is required. If you break a soul by violating them sexually as children, they don’t have the capacity to say ‘this is right or wrong.’ They have no pre-frontal activity in their brains to be able to discern; adults command a child’s world. The horrors of sexual abuse radiates in every aspect of the abused life. I have seen it … destroy lives. So this means that  the contrary is also true….that  sexual wellness  radiates joy into every aspect of our lives, not our sex lives alone.” she elaborates.

Theta rig. Image: Franck Murra.
Theta rig. Image: Franck Murra.

Readers of her 335-page long Boudoir Bible will know that long before one gets to more instructional chapters with titles such as “Riding the Orgasmic Wave: Male Ejaculation Control”, “The Anthems of Anal Sex: From hygiene to Heavenly Pleasures”, and “X Marks the Sweet Spot: Erotic Flagellation”, Vernon dedicates about a third to educating her readers about the body, and understanding the many ways in which it can give and receive sensual pleasure, long before – and even without – penetration. 

She also emphasises the importance of communication between sexual partners, encouraging each to understand their bodies and communicate how they wish to be pleasured. In a world where porn and fast sex are ubiquitous, she also encourages the concept of the “Sexual Ceremony”, where rather than a quick exercise with orgasm as its goal, the sexual ceremony is considered sacred, lasting anything from three hours to a few days, where “the body, mind and soul are engaged as one.”

As her work continues, be it through her jewel-tools, her Parisian salon, her workshops, or private counselling sessions, she is also laying claim to her legacy. “I believe that my work has opened doors, and it has given permission. A big part of my work has been giving permission. I also brought luxury values and aesthetics to sex.”  

Even as her work now regularly receives positive attention, she remains wary of those she says “would take away our rights.” She points political movements around the world that limit women’s rights, the rights of sexual minorities, and people of colour; through to the censorship she has experienced on social media, where she says she is not allowed to promote her work, and is regularly shadow banned. Most recently, she says she has had to change the name of her Sado-chic collection to the O-Ring collection to avoid online censorship.

“I’m an educator, my work …my book is didactic. I’m doing nothing wrong. I break none of their rules…. The idea of sexual intelligence must be embraced; sex and love are an important part of your being. We shouldn’t be shadowing it, making it feel ‘dirty,’ making it feel ‘naughty,’ making it everything that it’s not. It is a sacred part of our lives. So that’s my goal, spreading sexual intelligence, and I think the only way to do this is to stand entirely in the light.” DM/ML

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