The erotic jewelry designer on leading a sexual revolution
Betony Vernon wants to talk about sex. As an author, jewelry designer, artist and sexual anthropologist, Betony is devoting her life to “dismantling the pleasure taboo.” She uses eroticism as a platform for empowerment and enlightenment, as a “response” to the injurious pornographic lens it’s oft depicted through. In Betony’s mind our sexual freedom is as fundamental to humankind as are our civil rights, and she has been leading a sexual revolution for over a quarter century. After leaving her native Virginia in her teens, she built herself an artistic playground between Italy and France and never looked back. She introduced her “Sado-Chic” fine erotic jewelry line in 1992 – to much industry dismay – and has been shifting the conversation around sex ever since. In addition to her published The Boudoir Bible : The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today – a lyrical manifesto to sexual exploration and wellbeing – she hosts lectures, panels and private consultations to foster the dialogue even further. Betony is rewriting all the sexual codes, and with Eden – her luxurious Parisian boudoir-cum-educational salon – as she invites us to own our bodies and pleasure. She pushes the boundaries with her pioneering, pleasure-centric vision, guiding us with knowledge and understanding.
With her crimson locks, impeccably dressed curvature, and feline aura, every inch of Betony exudes seduction. She speaks with a purring undertone, and an accent you can’t place, somewhere between a French romance novel and your bluntest best friend. She tells it like it is, albeit eloquently, describing sex as an “orchestration of the senses” and “erotic meditation.” In Betony’s world, sex is a vehicle to understand and love yourself, and she’s trying to put you in the driver’s seat. Here, she discusses her provocative ethos, elevating erotica to an art form, and discovering the “journey to paradise.” Buckle up and enjoy the ride.
COOLS: You grew up in small-town Virginia, but quickly adopted Europe as home. How has that dichotomy between America’s conservative sexual attitude and European liberalism brought you where you are today?
Betony Vernon: I grew up in Tazewell, Virginia, and left when I was 15. I studied art history, philosophy, and religion. When I finished university, I had a position teaching metalsmithing in Florence. When I got to Florence, I immediately started to work with Luisa Via Roma. I had my own window. Luisa Via Roma was very cutting edge at the time and it was considered to be the very first concept store. I was very honored and lucky to have such a prestigious positioning and it led to the opening of many other top retailer windows around the world. From there I had Kashiyama in Japan buy my collections then Barney’s, and then it just started to roll out with the collection that I was designing at the time, which was labeled later as the Classic Collection. Sometimes I would call the objects in this collection “wearable temples.” I did the Classic Collection until 2001 alongside the erotic jewelry, which I was designing secretly for private clients only.
After September 11th, I decided I couldn’t do any kind of design that didn’t have a higher purpose: sexual well being and dismantling the pleasure taboo became my focus. Sexual satisfaction radiates into so many areas of our lives, you know? America does have a puritanical undercurrent that still is flowing today, unfortunately, and censorship is an enormous issue. I consider what I do as a response to what’s happening in the world around us, especially from a sexual point of view. But I get lumped in with everybody else. I guess that’s not really the right word, “lumped in.” But you get what I mean. People think that because your work has something to do with sexuality, that you are doing something illicit, that you are a sex-worker or doing porn and you are censored. I have problems with Facebook and Instagram. Robots and algorithms don’t look at content, they just limit my audience and don’t realize that my work is a response to the current sex industry, they just block. The blocking is unfortunate because social media is the fastest way to reach the world with an important message and drive a mission home today.
I didn’t have a religious upbringing, which has a lot to do with my sense of sexual freedom. At the same time, this may also come from the fact that I did not have very much parental guidance as a kid. My father was a pilot and basically never home, and my mother was denied custody of my three sisters and me when I was just four. I was therefore free to encounter and evolve my sexual persona without prohibition. I’m very lucky in this respect.
COOLS: Can you tell me about your mother and her civil rights activities?
BV: Mother joined the Greensboro Four on February 4, 1960. And yes, her doing the right thing at the right time helped to spark America’s civil rights revolution. We can’t sit back on our laurels. Its very disappointing but we must continue to battle for and defend basic civil and sexual rights. We have not achieved the goals that my mother was fighting for almost 60 years ago so we are forced to continue fighting the same battles, which is so unfortunate. What a waste of time, no? We should be moving on, and we’re just back to where we started. History keeps on repeating itself.
“People think that because your work has something to do with sexuality, that you are doing something illicit, that you are a sex-worker or doing porn and you are censored.”
COOLS: And you’re fighting for liberties in a different medium?
BV: Well, our sexual rights are also very connected to our civil rights. Everything is interdependent and the right of anyone to own their body, to know their body and to be free to reap the benefits of a healthy and informed sex life, should be considered a basic human right. Over the years I came to understand that sex is not only about pleasure. For many sex it is often associated with pain, abuse and disappointment. It is for this reason that I decided to dedicate myself to the sexual realm. Our sexuality is so central to our overall wellbeing; and the sexually informed and more prepared to shed toe effects of sexual disappointment and evolve more satisfying and enduring relationships. By shedding light into the shadows of inhibition we can also learn to use our sexual energy to bloom in so many other ways. Sex is not just about sex at the end of the day, our sexuality affects every aspect of our lives. When you’re in a difficult relationship, or you’re having a sexual relationship that’s not bringing you joy, in some way or another, this seeps into your everyday life. By dealing with our sexual issues, no matter how difficult this may be, so many other things get automatically ironed out.
COOLS: You were quite pioneering when you launched your collection at Luisa via Roma. How has the industry’s reception of erotica changed over the years?
BV: When I started to design the Sado-Chic collection in 1992 the idea of anything that had to do with S&M as chic was far from the fashion systems’ mind. This first collection was highly symbolic then, over the years to follow the objects I designed became more and more focused on enhanced pleasure. I started to design erotic prosthetics, extensions of the hands and the body itself, but for private clients only. Luisa never sold the objects that were more explicitly sexual. As far as the luxury sexual market has evolved today, I’m not impressed. At the turn of the century I was convinced that we were entering a new age of sexual enlightenment, but sadly, aside from a few more female oriented sexual retail venues here and there, things have not really changed much. So I decided to make my more sexually oriented pieces available exclusively through my online store and through EDEN, my by-appointment-only salon in Paris.
COOLS: With your book The Boudoir Bible, how are you shifting people’s perceptions about sex?
BV: When I wrote The Boudoir Bible, the idea was to create a go-to source for the answers to important sexual questions that we don’t know who to ask, because of the pleasure taboos that shroud our sexuality. Even the title of my book has been a problem with some of the countries that I’m aiming to publish in. I was thinking of the term Bible as in the ultimate tome, but it’s true that my book has a lot to do with Spirit too. It’s naive to think that body, mind and spirit are separable– they are One. I wanted to play into the fact that I consider sex sacred, which is not a new idea. The Taoists believed that making love was the fastest way, after mediation, to know yourself better, to know your partner better, and to become one with the higher forces. Call it God, call it Spirit, call it whatever you want to call it but yapping into the transcendental via pleasure is not something that can happen during fast consumer sex. I think it’s natural to speak of our sexuality in sacred terms. There is a chapter in The Boudoir Bible called “Orchestrating The Senses.” I invite lovers to abandon phallocentric tendencies and learn to strum every sense, to treat the entire body as a sexual whole. I also talk about erotic meditation, and essentially I’m talking about being in the moment. One of the greatest inhibitors of pleasure is our inability to be in the moment. I invite you to really focus your attention on what you’re doing and feeling, and have fun touching each other, enjoying and exploring each other. If you’re not in the moment, you’re not going to reap the full benefits and tap into the transcendental pleasures of sex.
The language I use often plays, as you said, “poetically” with that of a spiritual journey. It’s not pornographic. My work is a response to Porn, and while I am not against pornography, it happens to be the most accessible, but worst teacher when it comes to all things sexual. Porn has shaped our sex lives in a negative way as it perpetuates phallocentric, fast sex ideals that do absolutely nothing for the real enhancement of anyone’s shared sexual pleasures.
“Sex is not just about sex at the end of the day, our sexuality affects every aspect of our lives. When you’re in a difficult relationship, or you’re having a sexual relationship that’s not bringing you joy, in some way or another, this radiates into your everyday life. By dealing with our sexual issues, no matter how difficult this may be, so many other things get automatically ironed out.”
COOLS: Over the years, you participated in various art exhibitions. Now, what I consider your greatest opus [the Boudoir box] is on display after 20 years in hiding. In elevating erotica to an art form, what aesthetic are you creating around sex?
BV: I was very excited to have the invitation from the Musée des Arts Moderne in Paris to participate in the exhibition Medusa- Jewelry and Taboos. I had been asked many times to show the Boudoir Box, but I wasn’t ready until now. It’s a very liberating feeling. As soon as the show is over, the Boudoir Box will return to its dedicated private space in EDEN, I’m working on some larger works at the moment that engage the human body. On September 28 I’ll be doing a happening at the Museum in the Salle Dufy, in a room that was realized for the Universal Exposition in 1937 called the ‘History of Electricity.’ I’ll be generating human electricity, the most basic kind of electricity, in this incredible room, with my subject. I am looking forward to this electric moment!
COOLS: What role has fashion played in your sensual exploration and defining your brand?
BV: My fascination with eroticized fashion was sparked when I was in my teens. I was 16 when I started working at a vintage clothing store called Street Theatre after school. The store that had a hardcore leather area with lots of very sexy leather boots, harnesses, bondage gear and whips. My aesthetic, which was initially shaped by my love for John Willie’s illustrations of sexually empowered women in his 1950’s cult fetish magazine Bizarre, came to fruition at Street Theatre. My fashion goal was to look like I had walked off of the pages of Bizarre and this required corseting, dangerously high heels, thigh boots, lots of fabulous lingerie and sheer garments. Street Theatre helped to meet my needs. The fetishist, at the end of the day, is intrigued with fine materials just like the fashionista and today, there is not a single fashion designer who hasn’t been inspired by what was once considered the aesthetic of the deviant, the gear of the ‘perverted.’ Fetish has become fashionable, and I think it’s fascinating.
COOLS: In The Boudoir Bible, your closing remark is that “The art of loving is founded on self-love.” What is your advice when it comes to self-loving?
BV: It’s a mistake to think that you can have a great sex life if the other areas of your life are lousy. When I speak of self-love, I speak of the importance of taking care of your self in every way. Eating properly, breathing properly, getting proper exercise, proper sleep, and having non-toxic thoughts is essential to the art of loving. Just think about the negative impact that toxic thoughts have on every other aspect of our existence. They can really whittle away at the body as well as the mind and spirit. The art of loving is essential to the art of living. When someone says “I haven’t had sex in the longest time,” I say you better change that now. Start loving yourself everyday. Masturbation keeps your sexual energy flowing; this is essential to our overall well being. Self-loving keeps desire alive when we are between relations. It makes us glow and attract new lovers, and new experiences, and possibly everlasting love. Self-loving is really important because it allows you to know yourself. It allows you to know what makes your erotic body tick, too. If you know what you need, you can get it, and guide your lovers too when necessary.
COOLS: What’s the underlying message?
BV: By dismantling the pleasure taboo with concrete knowledge and understanding, we can shed pleasure-inhibiting myths and chisel away at the detrimental effects of guilt, shame and censorship and fully embrace the power and importance of sexual satisfaction in our lives. Sexual satisfaction is crucial to our overall physical, emotional and spiritual well being, so lets embrace pleasure and make the most of our life long journeys to paradise with love!