What’s so wrong with pursuing pleasure? According to author, jewelry designer, and sexual anthropologist Betony Vernon, absolutely nothing. For more than 25 years, the Virginia-bred, Paris-based Vernon has dedicated herself to lifting the taboos surrounding our deepest sexual desires. Through her multifaceted empire, Vernon, a fiery-haired femme fatale whose mere presence can make any man or woman’s knees buckle, encourages her clients and students to embrace their sexuality—and thus, themselves. But such an unorthodox and often misunderstood path does not come without its challenges.
In the early ’90s, while teaching metalsmithing in Florence, Vernon introduced a line of luxury accessories that aimed to please both visually and physically. Her exquisite wares attracted stores like Liberty and Barneys, however, when they realized that a sculptural ring could double as a personal stimulator, for instance, the big names got cold feet. “People would categorize me and my work, saying, ‘We didn’t know you were into S&M, that you were kinky. These new designs are perverted,’” recalled Vernon while reclining on a couch in her plush Paris salon, Eden, which serves as her Marais headquarters. “I was like, Wow, wait a second. No, I’m not a pervert and your vision of sex is very small. Being categorized is one of the problems I have encountered over and over again for the past 25 years. Categories create pleasure-inhibiting limits and my goal became to broaden sexual horizons by diffusing sexual information and to dismantle the pleasure taboo therein. Our sensual possibilities are infinite. There are so many ways to make love to each other, why should we limit our possibilities to genitally orientated sex alone?”
Since then, Vernon has gone on to write an international best-selling book, The Boudoir Bible—The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today, which, published in 2013 by Rizzoli, is an initiation to what she describes as sexual ritual and the tools and techniques of “full-body stimulation.” It’s also a memoir, of sorts, detailing her introduction to different kinds of loving. She conducts intensive therapeutic sessions, aimed at healing emotional trauma, and hosts sexual well-being salons around the world that foster frank discussions about sex. Her jewelry line, which comprises rings adorned with feather ticklers, chokers outfitted with woven metal floggers, belts that double as restraints, and beyond, is carried by the likes of Colette and Dover Street Market.
What’s more is that Vernon’s work has been featured in a host of exhibitions around the globe. Most recently, she was tapped to participate in the Musèe d’Art Moderne’s Medusa: Bijoux et Tabous, a show that, on view now through November 5, looks at jewelry’s complex cultural connotations. It’s here that, for the very first time, she’s unveiled to the public her Boudoir Box, a hand-crafted, leather-clad chest filled with ornaments and instruments intended to titillate in every way imaginable. “I designed the Boudoir Box because, by 1998, I had yet to find any viable retail outlets for my erotic designs,” Vernon said. “[The box] became my boutique. I would pack all the jewelry into it and travel to see my private clients. But traveling with the box has become more and more complicated.” No kidding—imagine toting a leather tabernacle filled with erotic, precious metal accoutrements through airport security today. “Getting through customs is very much part of the art!”
Presenting the Boudoir Box for public consumption is simply the next step in Vernon’s quest to normalize sexuality, a pursuit she discusses at length in the below interview. Here, she sits down with Fashion Unfiltered to talk feminism, fetish in fashion, intimacy in the Internet age, and yes, even Fifty Shades of Grey, which, as we all know by now, isn’t an ideal representation of BDSM. As an added bonus, Vernon calls out some of her most prized creations—and explains how to use them—in the above slideshow. Abandon your inhibitions, click through, and enjoy.
Katharine K. Zarrella: Sexual well-being isn’t the most obvious line of work. Why were you drawn to this realm?
Betony Vernon: Our sexuality is fundamental to our overall happiness and well-being. It is a powerful force that needs to be embraced, not repressed. Over the past 2,000 years, and up until recently, our society pushed our sexuality into the dark and pleasure was shrouded in sin and shame. Sexual liberty comes and goes in waves, and I think we’re in a moment where we have to be very careful because the wave could come crashing down.
I found my path organically—it wasn’t a conscious decision. When I started designing erotic jewelry in 1992, I was very young, sexually liberated, and living in Florence. Gradually, I started to design more and more objects for enhanced pleasure, some of them as a response to the sex industry—for example, I started to make my sterling silver and gold ben-wa balls in the ’90s because what I was finding on the market was not body-safe. If I wasn’t responding to the deficiencies of the sex market, I was inventing new ways to provide sensations. In Paris in 1998, I had a full-blown vision, and the path I am on today was made very clear to me. It was almost a mystical experience, as crazy as this may seem.
KKZ: Did you ever feel afraid as a young woman embarking on this very un-beaten path?
BV: Well, I realized early on that the territory was, how can I say…touchy. I didn’t have a role model to follow. I was out there on my own, bringing sex and sensuality to fine jewelry. I wanted to please more than just the eye by adding the power to provide new and different sensations to the more obvious intrinsic value of jewelry. I was not afraid, but I was very naive to think that fear was not part of many people’s sexual perception. When I was working with clients like Barneys and Liberty, the buyers didn’t like that I was doing things geared toward the senses and enhanced sexual pleasure. They made that very clear to me, so I worked on the erotic collections in the shadows throughout the ’90s. Their negative judgments sparked an ah-ha moment and made me realize that I was really onto something interesting. After September 11th, I decided to stop designing anything for the sole purpose of aesthetics, stepped out of the shadows, and fully focused my creative attentions on my erotic designs. By October 2001, I had lost all of my high-end clients in the fashion industry, but I felt empowered by this, not afraid. I simply felt like I could not lay passive in regards to what was happening in this crazy world. I was convinced that I could help generate a positive shift by focusing on bringing a sense of value to our sexuality. I asked myself, What is the value of sexual pleasure in our lives? Why do we treat it so cheaply? My mission was gradually coming to fruition, and I started to teach sexual well-being salons around the world.
KKZ: Why is it so important to have frank, positive discussions about sex?
BV: Sexual well-being is central to the overall well-being of humanity. I feel that we are in a time in which we have to recognize, protect, and fight for our sexual freedom and rights. I’m very concerned about the conservative wave that is mounting in America and globally. The recent pulling of funds from Planned Parenthood, an institution that has saved lives, that has given support to women when they cannot find support elsewhere, came as a shock—it set off an alarm. A lot of doctors are not pro-sex, much less pro-pleasure, and let’s not talk about the school systems which are still not teaching sex- and pleasure-positive courses. If we can’t count on our governments and the education system, we have to count on each other, and having frank, sex-positive conversations is a way to teach and learn.
KKZ: I’m always very surprised that, in this day and age, so many people are uncomfortable discussing their sexuality, especially when it comes to things like BDSM that might be considered taboo. What’s the roadblock?
BV: I believe that fear and ignorance are the greatest roadblocks. They are the fruit of ignorance and they go hand in hand, no matter what the subject may be. The BDSM vocabulary was blown to the surface by the fashion industry, but it was not accompanied by the diffusion of readily available information about sex and the safety and pleasure-enhancing use of erotic instruments. Without knowledge and understanding, we cannot hurdle pleasure inhibiting taboos, including those taboos connected to the pleasures of full-body stimulation and BDSM play. Since the turn of the century, the fashion system has been projecting a very dominant female image, and the accoutrements of the sexually dominant woman—crops, whips, cuffs, ropes, blindfolds, and the like—were treated as mere accessories by fashion designers. For the first time in history, what was once considered the domain of the sick and perverted was making it onto catwalks and into fashion editorials and advertising campaigns. It was thanks to this paradoxical phenomenon that I felt a growing need to initiate people to the use of these powerful sexual tools. If lovers are not initiated to the safe practice of full-body stimulation with erotic instruments, the danger of finding themselves in less-than-sexy situations is real. Crops and whips are undeniably beautiful accessories, but if these accessories are put to use, you want to be whipped, cuffed, or blindfolded erotically, with love and with skill by the right person at the right time. Contrary to popular belief, sexual skills are not innate. Initiation is the best way to dismantle sexual taboo and to avoid accidents, too.
KKZ: So many people meet online now, through Tinder or Grindr or Hinge or the like. How do you think our sex lives have changed as a result of this rather impersonal way of meeting our partners?
BV: I think you have to be really smart about how you’re using [dating apps]. Over the past couple of years, I’ve met some people who met their match and others who found themselves feeling addicted. Dating applications treat sexual relationships like a game. Sex should be fun, but it is not a game. It’s very real.
One of the things I’ve discovered through my work is that women [who use dating apps] find themselves treated, more often than not, as sexual objects, and the final outcome of their online dating experiences can be summed up in two unfortunate words: fast sex. Fast sex is like fast food—it does not nourish anyone and doesn’t even get female pleasure jumpstarted. It is naive to think that we can separate sex, spirit, and body. Sex is a language. If you and I were to make love right now, for example, we would get to know each other in ways that could never happen if we didn’t have sex with each other. Sex is an incredible form of communication, and it reveals a lot about a person. As far as I am concerned, a lover who does not consider my pleasure is not going to meet any of my basic relationship needs either.
Whether we’re having genitally oriented phallocentric sex or practicing BDSM, or what I describe as full-body stimulation in order to avoid the limitations of categories, we must trust each other if we are to experience truly deep levels of pleasure, and we simply cannot trust a stranger. If we treat the entire body as a sexual whole, the time we spend making love to each other is naturally extended, and this is key to experiencing the greater dimensions of pleasure that our bodies are actually designed for. Fast sex doesn’t promote the flow of the body’s natural love drugs that make us feel so good. I’m pro modern dating apps and anything that brings people together, but we need to be intelligent when hooking up with strangers. Respect your body and have fun with it, but try to slow things down and treat your sexual intimacy as something sacred. This will help to make the difference between sexual frustration and deep sexual satisfaction, no matter how you meet your lovers.
KKZ: Can you speak about your therapy work, and how it helps empower not just women but men as well in their sexual and everyday lives?
BV: The healing aspect of my work is something that developed organically over time, and my fine erotic jewelry was actually the bridge to this aspect of my work. There are two facets to my therapy work. On one side, I work with couples who love each other very much but who are seeking ways to rekindle the desire that brought them together. On the other side, I deal with individuals who are victims of sexual abuse, be it emotional and/or physical. In the ’90s, I was naive. I thought everybody wanted to have a creative sex life like I did and take as much pleasure as possible. And why wouldn’t they? But then I found myself faced with the sad fact that approximately two in four women and two in five men were sexually abused as children. This is a frighteningly huge number, and the damage that sexual abuse wreaks can be devastating. The only way to put a stop to abuse is to start treating sex as something healthy and important to our overall well-being. You cannot have a great sex life if you don’t work through the enormous blocks that abuse, be it physical or emotional, generates. Sex, sin, and the related shame unfortunately still wreak havoc on our intimacy. With the advent of the birth control pill and women’s lib, the idea that sex serves the purpose of procreation has slipped away, but we have yet to fully dismantle the pleasure taboo. We must take sexual education seriously and adopt a healthy, more open-minded approach to the importance of sex in our lives. I am personally waiting for men to have their own sexual revolution. We’ve burned our bras, we’ve screamed in the streets, we’ve protested, and here we are, doing it again. History keeps on repeating itself. It’s so boring. When people say that the future is female, I don’t agree. I think the future is feminine, and we have to encourage the men in our lives to rise up and embrace these so-called feminine qualities that make people, no matter their gender, so wonderful: empathy, love, tolerance, patience, caring, helping each other, and sharing.
KKZ: What do you think about all the feminist messages on the runway, like Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt?
BV: Male or female, we should all be feminists because it is a quality that doesn’t have anything to do with gender. The true definition of a feminist is a person who believes in equality between the sexes, be it political, economic, or social, all of my best male friends are feminists. I don’t object to feminist messages being promoted by the fashion industry, considering the enormous influence of fashion in our society today.
KKZ: What do you think of Fifty Shades of Grey?
BV: I think that Fifty Shades of Grey helped to open up the important conversation of different kinds of loving. At the same time, I feel like it was a missed opportunity to shed light on the incredible dynamics between lovers who enjoy BDSM practices. E.L. James perpetuated many of the misconceptions that surround BDSM relationships. Beyond that, Grey is not a good top. I would be terrified in his hands. If I say no, I mean no!
KKZ: Today’s young women are growing up in a time that’s both liberated and repressed. What advice do you have for this generation of girls?
BV: I don’t think we can address girls alone. We are all on this journey towards equality together. Girls, boys, and everyone in between, don’t judge yourself or others. Know your body, own your body, and treat your sexuality as something sacred. It is the core of your overall well-being.