The Marais, Paris. I enter a barred, wooden carriage gate and follow a path into a cobbled courtyard full of jasmine.
At one window, the blind is half drawn. Black Yves Saint Laurent shoes arch two perfect feet; moon-white calves; a taut pencil skirt... A slender frame with a tiny waist; dark copper hair straight over her shoulder with an angular fringe across her face; alabaster throat; red lips; green eyes flickering between bashful and steel. Betony Vernon beckons me: "Come into Eden."
This story began in December 2010, at Coco de Mer. Each Christmas, the erotic boutique invites favourite clients to a special salon. The seasoned crowd knows one end of a flogger from the other, and has interesting ideas of what to do with both. But that night they sat, rapt, as a 6' Bettie Page fantasy in a corset and spiked heels ordered a petite blonde to bend over and clasp her ankles.
"If she stands like this, it stretches the skin and the muscles tauten, increasing sensation," Vernon explained, unclipping the leather collier she was wearing, pulling it straight into a whip. "This whip is mean," she purred, and proceeded, expertly, to show us that indeed it was. "But, it doesn't have to be."
As Vernon worked, I realised it was not just her necklace that had a double use. Vernon's silver bracelets had runners for rope. Her ring was set with pearls that were part adornment, part device. By the time she passed around a mahogany spanker - the wood polished soft to the touch, with an ergonomic silver handle - it was clear she was a mistress of eroticism, a rare woman whom I would have to track down.
"Eden" is Vernon's private salon. As she leads me inside, down a spiral staircase, she explains, "It is a 17th-century vault, which used to belong to the nuns of the Abbey of Malnoue. Now it's my boudoir." The décor of the long, arched room is elegant. My first glance takes in a low, suede sofa, lacquer tables and a bespoke set of mahogany drawers topped with tall triptych mirrors. Then you notice the rings screwed into the ceiling. The leather floor. And that she entirely controls the environment: the light, the sound. "It is completely insulated," she smiles. "No one can hear us..."
At one end there is a pink suede isolation chamber. The inside of a cupboard door at the other is hung with floggers. She opens a few of the armoire drawers, catching the clasp with short scarlet nails. Each is lined in leather and backlit like a cartoon treasure chest - a deerskin flogger here, a pair of silver nipple clamps there, a pheasant-feather tickler...
"For a truly great sexual experience you tease the eye, tease the mind, tease the body and turn on all of the senses. If you're just going to get yourself off in 15 minutes, you will never know the meaning of a sexual high. In three hours you can really start to reach higher dimensions in the sexual realm, but over that length of time it is never going to be genitally oriented sex alone: you have to know how to treat the entire body as a sexual and sensorial whole."
As a teenager in Virginia, Vernon worked in a vintage shop whose wares included corsets, leather harnesses and body bags. "My initiation to sex began with the hard-core."
A goldsmith since 17, she took a degree in art history and a masters degree in industrial design in Milan. But alongside her own jewellery - she made collections for Gianfranco Ferré, Fornasetti and Missoni - Betony started her sado-chic collection in 1992: beautiful items that were either invitation to, or equipment for "play".
"The erotic objects, the bejewelled tools, were driven by my own needs. Initially I didn't think there was a wider market for them, I made them for myself." This is perhaps their secret. An aesthete and a hedonist, Vernon loves to make love.
"We have lost the sense of sex as an art form, the alchemy of slow sex. Ultimate sex transcends the pain/pleasure barrier, even if we don't use tools at all. Too many people are stressed, on Prozac, getting fatter by the bite. If only they could learn to prioritize their sex lives. My luxury tools are a response to the cheap, tacky, disposable sex gadgets that abound. Beauty and pleasure are the real taboos - not sex itself."
Her desire to spread the word led Vernon to found her first salon, Paradise Found, in 2004. "I adore the 17th-century concept of a place where people could come together to learn and explore ideas. I am an educator. I inaugurated Paradise to work with couples. Then I decided to do Eden so I could work with slightly larger fruits. The sessions are hands-on - when I want them to be - but it is not as though you can just call in and say, 'Can I have a session, love?' No, no.
"I work around my objects. They are an interface for everything that I do. If someone buys an anal dilator kit, of course I'm not going to show them how to use it. I am not going to say, 'Bend over baby, I'm going to dilate your anus!' but I will teach them how to use it on their partner to ecstatic effect."
Those who want to learn from Betony Vernon must contact her through her website betonyvernon.com, where her collection of sex toys, tools and treats are available to pursue and purchase.
Contact her and, if you pique her interest, she might accept you as a pupil.
Betony Vernon's rules of engagement:
"Pain is not the object of what I do," explains Vernon. "If you work gradually, and increase the impact of your strokes ever so sweetly, you will milk endorphins into your partner's bloodstream: they are the bridge between pleasure and pain. Balance and rhythm are key. Count the strikes, and make sure you deal them out evenly from one side to the other. If I just whip the sole of her right foot then pretty soon her left foot will be wanting it, too..."
1. The sweet spot
"The first thing you do is to find the tailbone. You don't want to go anywhere near it - it's fragile. Novices need to concentrate on the buttocks, the sides of the hips and the upper parts of the back of the thigh - known as the sweet spot. Never hit around the waistline, or anywhere where blood vessels are close to the surface: the inside of the elbows, the wrists, or the back of the knees. Don't go near the neck or the face."
2. Bend it like Betony
"The classic spanking position is to bend her over your knee, or the bed: for most scenes, she should be braced against something - a wall, a bed, you. For a scenario in which you want to use short implements that sting rather than land with a thud (a whip ora crop, rather than a full-length flogger), Betony suggests you put your partner on all fours or braced against a wall or piece of furniture. By bending her over, you will stretch the flesh of the buttocks and thighs, bringing the nerve endings closer to the surface, heightening sensation."
3. The collar should match the (hand) cuffs
"Your partner could easily walk out with a collar round her neck or her waist, but while it looks good it is a fabulous whip! You would use it on the buttocks, especially the sweet spot, or the upper shoulders. The advantage of working her sweet spot is that it will increase blood-flow to her clitoris. You can also use a collar wrapped round your hand. This gives you greater control and will make less impact."
4. A close crop
"The crop is a great tool. The silver handle can be hung from your belt. Like any other instrument of erotic flagellation, the crop is put into action with a flick of the wrist, not blows from the arm. The idea is to use little taps to warm her up, really light, small flicks from the wrist."
"[The spanking paddle] is potentially the most dangerous tool, and of course the one that is most loved by the British. It is only to be used on the buttocks. You must always exercise control with anything that is rigid. Before you reach for the spanker you want to have prepared her ass: maybe you've flogged it, whipped it, tickled it with a sweet feather. For a long session, I need to make sure that I don't do anything so hard that it over-sensitises the area and leaves you untouchable afterwards."
6. Harder, faster, yellower?
"Safe words are crucial - a lot of people say 'no' when they want more. Classic safe words are yellow (keep it cool) and red (stop, I mean stop)."
7. Tickled pink
Where it may seem that feathers are straightforward, Vernon has various different suggestions; she uses them not only to excite the skin at the start of a scene, she also uses them to soothe you at the end. "I often start with softer sensations: I might tempt you with this at the beginning, lightly tickling the skin, and then move on to other things. Or, if I'd worked you over with a whip, I could use [a feather] to bring you back to earth."
There’s a plague sweeping our nation: from coast to coast, we’ve forgotten how to have sex. Oh sure, we’re all quite proficient at slipping tab A into slot B (and sometimes slot C, if we’re feeling fancy), but many of us have lost any awareness of sex as something more than just a fun way to burn a few calories.
Luckily, Betony Vernon has the cure for what ails us. An intrepid sexual explorer, she has journeyed across the many and varied terrains of the landscape of human sexuality, and returned with great insights into everything that sex is and has the potential to be—insights which she has kindly distilled into the “Paradise Found Sexual Ceremony,” an erotic exercise that she happily details in her new book, "The Boudoir Bible." Of course, you have to crawl before you can walk, so "The Boudoir Bible" isn’t solely a treatise on Vernon’s sexual ceremony; in fact, much of the manual is concerned with far more basic elements of the sexual experience.
The book’s first section acts as something of beginner’s guide to the carnal experience, offering helpful advice on a wide array of topics ranging from the very basic (communication and safer sex) to the more advanced (multiple orgasms, female ejaculation, and anal sex). And it is here that Vernon is the most helpful: Even if the tantric stylings of her elaborate sexual ceremony seem a bit too woo-woo for your tastes, you’ll still benefit from the section on pornography, which highlights the many ways that erotic entertainment is a fantasy—one that won’t necessarily translate to the reality of your own sex life. Similarly, section three (titled “Transcendental Techniques”) functions as a beginner’s guide to kink, with chapters on erotic tickling, bondage, flogging, and temperature play, just to name a few.
Vernon offers these up as enhancements to her Paradise Found ceremony (explained in section two). Even if the ritualistic nature of the ceremony is not to your liking, the techniques of kink can still be fun to explore (provided that you take those lessons about good communication and safety to heart, that is).
Will "The Boudoir Bible" revamp your sexual experience and dramatically change your life? As with all things, it’ll depend on your attitude. It’s hard to argue with Vernon’s claim that better sex will make you healthier and happier; whether or not the specifics of the Paradise Found ceremony will result in better sex is in the eye of the beholder (or the besexhaver, I suppose).
Nevertheless, it’s always a joy to find a book that offers smart information on the building blocks of sexual pleasure; "The Boudoir Bible" is a most welcome addition to the sexual lexicon. Lux Alptraum is a writer, sex educator, and CEO of Fleshbot, the web’s foremost blog about sexuality and adult entertainment.
Betony Vernon is known for her erotic jewelry design, but the S&M enthusiast isn’t chained to one artistic outlet. She works with marble and text in her next two projects, spreading the doctrine of sex-positivity with each notch she adds to her belt
How important is it to spotlight sex in art right now?
Art and sex have often shared the same spotlight, and this will never change. After all, the creative process, just like sex, is driven by desire.
What kind of feedback have you gotten over the years? Has it become less prudish?
Yes, things have changed for the better since 1992, when I first started to design the Sado-Chic collections. I stayed in creative hiding then, for fear of ruining my business in the fashion world. I think it was about ten years ago that V first published my whip collar. If everyone had been as forward thinking as V at the time, my mission in sexual well-being would have advanced at a faster pace!
Tell us about the group show you're in.
I was invited to participate in the "Kama-Sex & Design" show at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan just a few days after visiting Henraux, one of the most prestigious marble companies in the world. When Silvana Annicchiarico, the curator of the exhibition, told me that she wanted to dedicate one of the museum’s eight galleries to my work, I felt a bit nervous, not only because of the prestigious list of participating designers (which included architect Andrea Branzi, who happened to be my favorite teacher at Dumus Accademy) but also because of the mere scale of the room. When I hung up the phone, I had a flash, and I immediately called Paolo Carli, the owner of Henraux. I asked him if he would be interested in realizing one of my designs in marble for the show. He agreed to sponsor the Origin monument (which has yet to be unveiled) and its declination, the Origin chair, that will be on exhibition at the Triennale until March 10, 2013.
How is sex represented in the Internet Age, and how is that different from its previous representations?
Before the onslaught of the Internet, the sexual image was still somewhat secret, hard to come by and therefore somehow still sacred. Today, sex equals pornography online. Never in the history of mankind has our sexuality been treated more as a commodity than it is today. If the diffusion of pornography was as profuse as the diffusion of concrete sexual understanding in relation to enhanced pleasure and sexual well being, our society would certainly be more satisfied.
My question is: How do we bring the sacred back into sex? I provide some answers in my upcoming book, "The Boudoir Bible." Before the advent of monotheism, sex was considered by every society to be the most surefire means to come into contact with one’s higher self, one’s partner, and even the divine.
Where does underexposure end and overexposure begin?
While overexposure to porn is proven to have negative effects on our real sex lives, I don’t think that there would be any negative consequences to "overexposure" of concrete sexual information in regards to enhanced pleasure.
Your sculptures conjure memories of works by Louise Bourgeois. Is she an inspiration?
I am flattered by your association. Louise Bourgeois is one of my favorite artists. We obviously share a similar fascination with sex, and the body in general.
Working so closely with sex as a theme must in some ways stimulate you—or does it desensitize you?
I nourish my libido every day, in one way or another. My sex life is a priority and my sexual satisfaction is central to my overall well being: physical, emotional and even spiritual. My creative drive, art, design, however you wish to describe it, feeds into this overall sense of well being. I am aware that my work makes people happy, and this too makes me all the more happy and healthy and serene.
How is sculpting different from jewelry designing, and how is it the same?
When I designed the Origin chair, I felt as if I was designing a giant piece of jewelry. Some of the tools and techniques that I learned to sculpt marble are similar to those that I use to carve jeweler’s wax. The process of sculpting either of these materials is also similar, in that the process is deductive. What proved to be a truly different and new experience for me, was working on a monumental scale. The Origin monument is nearly three meters tall and was carved from a mass of pure white statuary marble that initially weighed seventeen tons. Today, the (near-finished) work weighs approximately one and a half tons. Working with such an enormous block of material obviously demanded a totally different set of tools and a strong, dedicated equip of skilled men.
Are some people better at sex?
Some people say that butchers have higher libidos. I say that we musn't categorize or pigeonhole each other.
And tell me about your book, which is out today on Rizzoli International.
"The Boudoir Bible-The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today," illustrated by Francois Berthoud, is my first book. It is the fruit of years of personal experience, research, and private and public consulting with both couples and individuals. I have been told it is the long awaited sequel to The Joy of Sex, but I recently heard myself describing it in a nutshell as "every shade but grey.” Although "The Boudoir Bible" covers the "fundamentals," which I think every man and woman, regardless of their sexual orientation, should, but do not necessarily know, my main objective is to dismantle the limiting categories by which society defines sexuality, and to explode the clichés and fears that hold people back from developing their greatest sexual and sensual potential. It is also an initiation to what I call the "Sexual Ceremony"—an ecstatic ritual that entails lengthy sessions of love-making. The true extent of our body's capacity to attain and provide pleasure cannot be experienced unless we transcend the doldrums of fast, phallocentric, everyday sex.
You want sex to stay mysterious, and yet you would like an open dialogue to take place about it. How does that work?
We mustn't confuse sexual ignorance with mystery. Don't worry, there is nothing that can kill the mystery of sex, and acquiring sexual knowledge and skills will only serve to enhance and amplify the fabulous benefits of the mysterious forces of sexual love.
Are there any rules you have when it comes to sex?
Consent, Communication, and Caring are essential rules for great sex. As long as the sexual encounter is enjoyed by sexually mature and consenting adults, and no one's wishes or innocence are being infringed upon, the only other rules that come to mind regard safety. Fluid exchange is a privilege that must be reserved for healthy lovers in a monogamous relationship. Safe sex is sexy… and it is relative to certain sexual tools, too. In order to provide your lover the pleasures of flagellation or restraint for example, you need to have some skills under your belt in order to play safe! "The Boudoir Bible" is your guide to the higher dimensions of the sexual realm. It is an initiation to the body, as well as to the tools and techniques that make it tick to maximum pleasure capacity, and safely!
Aiming to annihilate notions of taboo in the modern bedroom, Betony Vernon presents "The Boudoir Bible: The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today" as a stimulating guide to the sexual landscape. Appropriately cloaked in pink bondage ropes, the cloth-covered tome also comes with ringing endorsements from burlesque performer Dita Von Teese and designer Philippe Starck. This mix of accolades would only be appropriate for someone like Vernon, who straddles metalsmithing and couples therapy with her erotic jewelry collection, Paradise Found.
Vernon's success as an amorous advisor and sexual anthropologist have made her a permanent figure in the realm of sexual consultation, often lending expertise to leading magazines and television programs. Until now, Vernon's role as sexual sage has mostly been limited to a handful of clients, with "The Boudoir Bible" dropping as her first book on the subject. In the work, Vernon shows you the ropes—along with the whips, chains, clamps and harnesses—to sexual satisfaction.
But the book isn't all role reversal and BDSM—Vernon's intent isn't to frighten the uninitiated, but to guide seasoned lovers in the art of 21st-century sex. Much in the way that "The Joy of Sex" opened eyes to the 70s-era erotic technique, Vernon hopes to inform a new generation in marginally deviant acts.
Wonderfully and instructively illustrated by François Berthoud, the book is also replete with down-to-earth and occasionally cheeky language from Vernon. The author introduces subjects like anal hygiene and erotic restraint with the erudition of a historian, the wit of an entertainer and the honesty of a close friend.
Betony Vernon, who has red hair, red nails, and red lips, leans across the pony-hair table with its porcelain cups of rooibos tea and holds my gaze. “You have a seam on your testicles,” she says in her deep, elegant accent that hovers somewhere between her native Virginia and her adopted cities of Paris and Milan. “You are sewn up by some cosmic force of nature -- otherwise you’d have a pussy, too.”
It is late on a Saturday afternoon in the Marais, and the pale winter light is fading fast. Vernon, who is tall and slim and sports a 1970s Yves Saint Laurent men’s suit (“Get your hand on that -- impeccable!”), points to a white sculpture on a console. It resembles a giant shirataki noodle -- if it was made of marble and had a scrotum for a base—that is looped suggestively through itself.
“This is called The Origin,” she says. “It’s male and female at the same time. It’s sort of an homage, not only to penetration -- to man and to woman -- but also to the middle sex.” A much bigger version, three meters tall, is currently on display at the Trienalle in Milan as part of an exhibition on sex and design, a subject on which Vernon is well versed. Her erotic, multipurpose jewelry has attracted a dedicated following since its debut in 1992 and has inspired her second career as an advocate for sexual creativity.
Vernon’s Wikipedia page credits her for inventing the term “sado-chic,” but her crusade for better sex goes far beyond her elegant bedroom toys: She wants to illuminate the threads that connect men and women, to coax us into a deeper appreciation of our bodies. This month, Rizzoli publishes "The Boudoir Bible," a closing-the-circle moment for Vernon, who has a vivid memory of purloining a copy of The Joy of Sex from her local library at age 12 and eagerly, guiltily, devouring it. She’d like nothing better than for a new generation to find similar enlightenment in her book, subtitled “The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today,” in which she encourages experimentation and play.
More important, Vernon wants to save relationships from boredom and decline. “Desire has a shelf life -- that automatic ‘I need you, I want you, I’m going to devour you,’ ” she says. “That sort of thing, it’s been clinically proven, can last from one day to, max, four years; after that, you’d better have some skill sets.”
As for erotica’s current lodestone, Fifty Shades of Grey, Vernon, whose own literary tastes run from Somerset Maugham to the Marquis de Sade, is conflicted. E.L. James’s runaway bestseller has lead to a spike in the sale of Ben Wa balls, a popular number in Vernon’s own Paradise Found collection, but the author’s literary style leaves her cold. “I don’t think she’s someone who’s actually ever been on her knees,” she says archly. “It sort of feels as if she’s studied it rather than lived it, but I do have to thank her for bringing different kinds of living to the people.”
Vernon calls out from the darkness below. “This is the boudoir,” she says, as the lights flicker on and I descend the corkscrew staircase to her 17th-century cellar, where she stores her Paradise Found collection, about 180 pieces, in a large armoire.
“I add things, but, as Gertrude Stein would say, a cock is a cock is a cock,” she says, retrieving a silver butt plug from its holder. “These are anal tools,” she explains. “It comes in a set of three, because, as you know, if the anus is dilated gradually, it can take on quite large things.”
Although her clients tend to be women, Vernon thinks men, gay and straight, would benefit as much, if not more, from her services. “If someone comes to me and says, ‘I can only be a top and I can’t do anything else,’ I say, ‘Well, that’s your limit -- why don’t you start to poke around that limit and see what happens.’ That’s where barriers are broken, that’s where we have revelations. But it does take trust, and you’re not going to do it with someone you’re never going to see again, whose face you maybe don’t even see online.”
An online hookup is also unlikely to be the best place in which to explore one of Vernon’s other biblical injunctions: delayed ejaculation. It is, she says, the hardest lesson to learn. “For the past 2,000 years, men have been told that they are actually born as sexual superiors,” she says. “Women, don’t forget, were punished for having an orgasm -- get out your rosary beads. I’m able to do what I’m doing today because of what happened in the ’60s and ’70s; because of people like Kinsey, and because of the sexual rights revolution when women began to break free from the ropes of a phallocentric society and gay men got inspired.”
Surprisingly, the most popular item from Vernon’s collection isn’t a bullwhip or paddle (made of sustainable wood) or the nipple clamps or various restraints -- it’s a simple and benign-looking massage ring with a row of pearl-sized balls running along the top. But like everything else in her boudoir, its appearance is deceptive. “I’m going to give you a little bit of a massage so you can understand what actually can happen,” she says, running the ring gently over my shoulders. “The goal with them is to do something that the hands can’t do.” The balls of the ring send tingles down my spine, releasing tensions I didn’t realize I had.
Vernon steps back, delighted with the effect she has produced. “You couldn’t do that with your hands,” she whispers in my ear. “Imagine that on your sex, darling.”
Betony Vernon is a bona fide sexual anthropologist. (How many of those did you meet at your high-school career fair?) With a background in fashion and design, she has translated her more than twenty-five-year embrace of what most would consider S-M, or bondage, into a seductive luxury jewelry line called Sado-Chic, as well as erotic advisement (for everyone from couples to fashion magazines—she’s even appeared in Purple, French Vogue, and The New York Times) and now a new book. Titled "The Boudoir Bible: The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today," the surprisingly upbeat and joyful tome teaches and encourages readers to experiment with untraditional bedroom antics in order to enhance what she calls “the sexual ceremony.” She aims to debunk S-M myths, open our minds, and foster a frank comprehension of new ways to give, receive, and reach the pinnacle of pleasure. Sexual knowledge is sexual power, she asserts, and much of the book is dedicated to understanding one’s own body, as well as learning how to properly use various titillating instruments—from feathers to floggers—which she refers to as “tools.”
This is all mapped out via tasteful drawings by Vernon’s longtime friend, fashion illustrator François Berthoud. (“You know, the illustrations were the only way to go. If I used photography, it would have become pornographic,” she laughs.) Vernon will be hosting a Valentine’s evening book signing tonight at Bookmarc in the West Village. And here, the redheaded expert on all things amour talks to Style.com about "The Boudoir Bible," sex in fashion, and how to make the most of your V-Day.
—Katharine K. Zarrella
I saw that you dedicated "The Boudoir Bible" to your parents. Considering it’s a sex book, that was a little surprising.
I thought about it a whole lot. My mother is my biggest fan, and my parents made me. They went through a messy divorce, but they loved each other a whole lot, and I was a product of that. So I can only thank them. But I suppose it is something that could be seen as a surprise, because a lot of people don’t talk about sex with their parents. I think that’s a big mistake.
To speak about sex and pleasure as a parent, from a very early time, is really important. There’s a lot of confusion out there. It’s very interesting that we’re living in this sexed-out society, but there’s so little information in terms of real pleasure.
Is that lack of information why you wrote "The Boudoir Bible?"
I wrote it because I felt like it was missing. I’m now very clear on what I want and what I need to have fun, but in my sexual evolution, I kept running in to people, lovers, who were just not prepared. And everyone’s so serious about having sex. They forget that it’s one of the funniest things we can do.
How did you end up going into sexual anthropology? It seems like your Sado-Chic jewelry line had a lot to do with it.
It does! I came up with Sado-Chic in 1992. That was twenty-two years ago, and the concept of Sado-Chic was so far away from anyone’s mind. People were pigeonholing me and my work, and the association of certain tools and techniques was labeled as explicitly “S-M.” I don’t necessarily consider myself S-M, and I wondered about how to get around these limiting categories. I kept making my jewelry in secret, but in 2001, I realized that I have this huge responsibility toward my clients. So I decided to come out of creative hiding, and I loved it. That’s when I started to do a lot of research into sexual behavior, which led to the book. There is a huge gap in general sexual knowledge, and I decided that I needed to fill that gap, partly because doing so was necessary for me to continue my work as a designer.
What do you mean by that?
The pieces I make for Sado-Chic and the tools I talk about in the book need to be used correctly. You can buy any tool you like online. And things like [bondage] cords, crops, and floggers are objects that could potentially hurt someone if they’re not used with love, skill, and the intent to provide pleasure.
Keeping your background in design in mind, in what way are aesthetic and physical pleasures connected?
When the eye is pleased, we are aroused. Fashion is geared, in many moments, to turn us on and to turn each other on. When he was at Gucci, Tom Ford did a lot to explore sex in fashion. And fashion’s taken very brave steps toward sex ever since. I have never seen so many fetish-inspired shoes on the market in classic fashion houses as I do now. But at this point, I feel like it’s all been done. A lot of [fashion houses] have done cords. They’ve all done whips. So maybe now it would be more interesting to approach sex more subtly, or to go back to overt elegance. What’s more fabulously sexy than the body underneath the garment?
So is bondage, as a practice, “fashionable” at the moment?
Do you think that people are really using the cords in the bedroom to full yet? I think it’s a big fantasy. People are intrigued by it, and I’d like to think that everyone is getting tied up if they like it. In 2006, I allowed myself to be suspended for a shoot in Purple magazine, and it sparked this wave; the fashion world seemed to pull bondage in. I even got a call from Carine Roitfeld. Is this necessarily getting us anywhere or forwarding our sexual vision? I’m not sure. But I think it’s good that it’s on the surface.
Do sexual taboos still exist?
Sex is no longer a taboo. Pleasure is a taboo. And that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. The goal of "The Boudoir Bible" is to debunk myths, diffuse sexual information, and tap into the art of possibility. I invite people to open their sexual horizons. You’re not obligated to practice all of it. But you know what? If the occasion arises, and you’re in the know, you might actually find yourself saying, “Hey, why not? Why not experience an extra added pleasure?”
Is sex an art form?
Absolutely. I think that Ovid was right. He really got the art of loving. But that art is hinged on the art of knowing. There is so much “mystery” associated with sex, and the fear of killing that with knowledge is so silly, because it’s impossible. We shouldn’t confound sexual ignorance with mystery.
Valentine’s Day is, of course, minutes away. What are your thoughts on the holiday?
It’s an old-fashioned holiday, and it’s one of the best ones we have to celebrate. It’s a celebration of love, and if you’re not in a relationship, I think that you should get together with a lot of friends who are not in relationships and have a fabulous dinner and a fabulous party and a fabulous time. Sometimes we find that the most powerful, loving relationships that we have are with our friend. Your friend is not going to abandon you. Intimate relationships sometimes fall to pieces, whereas friendships can be eternal.
But friends aren’t going to tie you up in the bedroom.
Well, you never know. Friends are actually really good practice companions. It takes a while to get seriously skilled in the art of the cords, but if you’re not in a relationship, take advantage of the moment to get some experience.
Like many "holidays" that sound more fun than they often are, (Halloween, New Year's Eve), Valentine's Day can be an annoying collision of expectations and realities. It can also be a good excuse to give and receive something sexy from someone you like/love/want to sleep with. To battle some of the angst that comes with choosing the right gift, we've gathered twenty beautiful, naughty, indulgent things you will want no matter what your romantic status happens to be: studded Valentino gloves, artisanal honey, an uninhibited boudoir "bible," and the five perfect shades of Chanel pink lipstick, just for starters. Whether you want to be loved or spoiled, send the gallery to your paramours to help them avoid the default of useless bouquets, waxy chocolates, or lingerie you don't really want to wear more than once, anyway. Click ahead, and while you're at it, grab something for yourself, too.
An illustrated guide to ritual self-pleasure, spanking, and Boy Scout–level knotting techniques that might make you blush, but will definitely keep you entertained. Also fun: It's printed in purple ink.
"The Boudoir Bible: The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today" by Betony Vernon, $20 Amazon
Betony Vernon is a multifaceted designer whose work sits at the intersection of art, fashion and sexuality. Born in Virginia, she moved to Milan after high school and began to teach metal smithing. After exploring traditional jewelry design—and collaborating with Missoni, Gianfranco Ferré and design firm Fornasetti—she created her signature Paradise Found collection, which features fine jewelry that also has a discreet sexual function. A series of salons in the U.K. beginning in 2001 accelerated her journey into sexual anthropology, and this year, she compiled her accumulated wisdom into "The Boudoir Bible," a modern guide to expanding the horizons of pleasure. As she prepares to celebrate the tome in New York City this evening, we spoke to her about style and sexuality.
You wear a lot of hats—jewelry designer, sex educator, now author. How would you describe the common thread through all of your interests?
In 1992 I did the first erotic collection. As the collection grew, I did it quite secretly. When the September 11th disaster occurred in 2001, I felt empowered to come out with what I was doing, and I lost all of my clients in the fashion system. Maybe part of it was because of September 11th, but I’m quite sure that it was also due to the nature of the jewels. A lot of the objects have this double life. You can wear them out and no one would know unless they’re “in the know.” I realized that people pigeonholed certain tools, certain pleasures, as S/M [sadomasochism]. I don’t consider myself S/M; I consider myself curious. So I went on this mission to dismantle categories and open sexual horizons through knowledge. In the book I break down misinterpretations with understanding. It’s not really a how-to—I believe that if we have a skill set, we have a box of tools, we have knowledge, and then we can be more creative.
You’re very interested in ceremony and ritual. What about that speaks to you?
I think that in today’s fast-paced world, we’ve lost our sense of ceremony. And the same goes for our sex lives. We’ve come to this point of consumer sex. Fast sex is the standard. Statistics show that people make love in anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes, and that is not time enough for either a man or a woman to actually experience the real extent of their body’s capacity to attain and provide pleasure. Our sexual lives are the glue in a relationship. Sexual knowledge is fundamental, and we’ve lived in mystery for so long.
How do you use fashion to express your personal style and your sexuality?
Fashion is a powerful tool. You know what it feels like as a woman to be in your daily gear, maybe with a ballerina flat on, and decide that you’re going to go out in the evening and wear a high heel. Your attitude is completely shifted, just as it is if you wear beautiful lingerie underneath that nobody sees. It’s a mirror of the way that you feel. There’s a lot of what would normally be classified as S/M language happening in the fashion system at the moment. Look what Louis Vuitton did with all of the bizarre-inspired shoes and materials—shiny, shiny leather and latex. You can’t wear those things unless you’re feeling empowered. I’m very interested, in my work as a designer, with objects that actually change the way that we move through the world somehow. For example, [I have a] ring that dresses the thumb and forefinger. When you wear that ring, you are more centered, you are more in the moment. But it is also a ring that was designed to please a man. I also have the power to get rid of a headache. I can relieve back pain. I can give you a fabulous massage. I know what the power is behind that object, and you as the wearer know that there is that possibility to please.
Where do you hope to take the Paradise Found jewelry collection and your other design work in the future?
I’m working in marble at the moment. I did a show in Milan at the Triennale Design Museum. It is a celebration of sex, of woman, man and the sexual union, and it’s called the “Origin.” Even though the body is my point of departure with these works, it’s the first time I’ve worked on a monumental scale. I have a project that includes several other pieces in marble. My jewelry collection is a signature collection. It evolves at its own rate. I don’t adhere to the seasons of the fashion system. I think that this is in part the nature of fine jewelry. One of my big goals has been to create objects that actually resist the turning of the times. I always say—sort of tongue-in-cheek—a whip is a whip is a whip. God forbid that sex becomes fashionable, because if it’s fashionable that means it will go out of style! [My jewels] are pieces that my collectors will keep with them for a lifetime.
If someone was coming to your work as a complete newbie and they pick up "The Boudoir Bible," what would be the first thing you’d advise them to do?
I’d say, put your judgment aside, and open up your mind and your heart and let pleasure in. The book gives permission to explore. Understand that you’re not obliged to do all of it. Read it, even if you don’t use it—it’s good to understand why some people do. And the occasion might arise. Who doesn’t want to have a more satisfying sex life? I don’t know anybody. It’s one of the few moments when adults can let loose and have fun and enjoy each other, and exchange on a level with another person that is otherwise impossible.
What would be your ideal Valentine’s Day?
My ideal Valentine’s Day would be to share this day, like any other day, with my lover, and definitely have a sexual ceremony. Definitely [laughing]! But I consider every day potentially a Valentine’s Day. Try something new. Love each other. Enjoy it. The only way to maintain the fires burning is to have a skill set that allows you to evolve as a sexually mature adult.
When the Paris- and Milan-based jewelry designer and sexual anthropologist coined the term “sado-chic” in 1992, the world just wasn’t ready for Betony Vernon’s sterling silver Ben Wa balls. And while it seems that every housewife these days is hooked on erotic lit, Vernon believes there’s still work to be done. "The Boudoir Bible" (Rizzoli), her definitive “initiation” to sex and the human body, is both a primer on how it all works and a guide to obtaining greater pleasure. Covering everything from erotic flagellation to female ejaculation, her tome is, as she puts it, “every shade but gray.” Here, a few of her favorite things.
I do yoga, speed walking, Vipassana meditation, hamams. And I love getting a manicure in New York. The nail bars are so efficient—you get a manicure, pedicure, neck massage, back massage, all in one place.
It’s my new fascination; I consider it as noble as gold. Lately I’ve been working with a quarry in Italy that Michelangelo tapped into. I designed two objects for “Kama: Sex and Design,” an exhibit that’s at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan through March 10. I did a chair called The Origin Chair, which penetrates itself, and a sculpture called Origin Monument that is very sexy but also discreet. It’s the first time I’ve made a sculpture. But then, I’ve always broken down barriers.
JOSEPH ANTON, BY SALMAN RUSHDIE
I think Salman is an amazing person—so courageous and strong and inspiring. I just downloaded his memoir, Joseph Anton, on my iPad. And for those currently consumed by the E.L. James series, I suggest you read Pauline Reage’s Story of O instead. It’s a masterpiece of erotic literature.
A VINTAGE YVES SAINT LAURENT SUIT
I have a 1970s YSL three-piece men’s suit that a friend gave me. Somehow it fits. I wear it with heels—you can’t wear a man’s suit without something very feminine going on—my own jewelry, and a 1950s cocktail watch. I like a sharp, uniform look. At 5' 10", with curves and red hair, I can’t really run around in wild prints.
KIKI BY VERO PROFUMO
For years I wore Yves Saint Laurent Nu, until it was discontinued. Then I discovered this scent by a perfumer in Switzerland. It has a base of lavender, but it’s very musky, which makes me think of the woods. Probably it has something to do with my childhood on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. In any case, I find it very sexy.
I grew up without a television, in a town where there was no cinema. I got out when I was 15 and made my way to Italy. So my exposure to film was through the Italian greats: Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni. My favorite is Fellini’s Casanova. I love everything about it— from Nino Rota’s soundtrack to Donald Sutherland’s humorous performance—but most of all, I love the little case that appears during Casanova’s amorous escapades: It opens and a fabulous mechanical bird pops out and starts to play music.
Who best to celebrate on #sexyday than Betony Vernon, the provocative, boundary-defying sex educator? Renowned for her striking jewelry designs, Vernon is also a prolific teacher and writer, holding seminars at educational institutions and intimate salons.
Continuing her mission to empower men and women to enjoy and experience greater sexual pleasure and dismantle the pleasure taboo, Vernon has released her first book entitled "The Boudoir Bible: The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today," born from a miniature guide that she provided with her jewelry designs and preparatory notes for her Sexual Skills salons. Beautifully written with accompanying illustrations by celebrated French illustrator François Berthaud, the book serves as a comprehensive and instructional guide to the new sexual landscape, covering subjects such as rope bondage, sex toys and erotic tickling.
In two weeks, Vernon will use her new column on anothermag.com to discuss varying sexual subjects suggested by the AnOther audience. To get involved, simply suggest your topic on twitter using the #pleasurezone hashtag. Vernon's features will be accompanied by exclusive illustrations by London-based illustrator Jo Ratcliffe.
To coincide with the UK release of "The Boudoir Bible," AnOther presents a selection of highlights from the book...
On her sexual journey...
Unlike most little girls, I did not have dolls. My father was convinced that they served little more than to train girls to be mothers. (He might be right, as only one of his four daughters chose to have children.) While I did not have dolls of my own, I had a playmate who possessed a throng of Barbies, as well as Barbie's friend Skipper, her boyfriend, Ken and an infantry of minuscule plastic babies. We spent hours in her bedroom after school, dressing and undressing Barbie and her friends. We inevitably discovered that the most exciting thing to do with Barbie and Ken was to make them have sex (and of course, make babies!).
On the female orgasm...
In 1905, after analyzing the differences between female orgasms in association with vaginal penetration and those born from purely clitoral contact, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud stated that women who did not experience orgasms from penetration were sexually immature. Today it is commonly understood that the majority of women do not actually experience orgasm through penetration alone, but through direct or indirect clitoral stimulation and/or contact with the G-spot or the A-spot through the act of penetration.
On orgasms for better health...
Pleasure is the "glue" in long-term relationships, and the greater the pleasure, the happier the couple. The beneficial effects of a mutually satisfying sex life on the harmony and stability of a couple are undeniable. Learning to enhance the impact of the orgasm reflex will reinforce the pleasure bond by heightening your overall sense of satisfaction – and provide some unexpected benefits beyond the boudoir, as well. Clinical research reveals that orgasms reduce stress and therefore, the risk of heart attacks. They alleviate headaches, migraines, and overall aches and pains, including those related to menstruation... Orgasms have the advantage of improving the overall health of the skin, balancing the brain's chemistry, and boosting the immune system.
On the home as erotic temple...
For the established couple, the home is an obvious environment in which to erect the erotic temple. While it has the advantage of providing a permanent stage for more elaborate rituals, allowing for greater control, it also presents a greater challenge – that of keeping everyday reality at bay. Partners will need to make certain that the stress, worries, and obligations of everyday life [phones, watches, doors, bills, laundry etc] are not allowed to creep into the ritual dimension, especially once the ceremony has commenced... Evoke the innate beauty of nature in the temple with a gorgeous bouquet of flowers.
To quote Salt-N-Pepa, “Let’s talk about sex, baby!”
Chatting with Betony Vernon is like getting advice from a more elegant, inhabited issue of Cosmopolitan. As a designer, sexual anthropologist (Google that sh*t!) and author of "The Boudoir Bible," Vernon is the chicer, crimson-haired version of your high school Sex-Ed teacher who not only practices what she preaches but she single-handedly coined the whole “Sado-Chic” thing. Turns out her collection of jewelry was a direct result of the erotic jewels – er, “jewel tools” – she had created for “her own pleasure and a few private collectors.” While some may be ashamed to keep "The Boudoir Bible" bedside, – we don’t suggest reading it on the subway ride to work – we have to admit that after being described as "Every shade but grey!” we were, well, curious.
Vernon’s gothic/retro look and voluminous fiery red hair (with bangs, nonetheless) is piercing against her porcelain skin. We had heard tidbits here and there about Vernon’s abode, but nothing could prepare us for what we found inside. It had this eerie, mysterious, movie-like quality that was straight out of the pages of some sort of dark romance novel. Every crevasse of her home had Vernon’s signature whimsical touch: deep green velvety walls, fur detailed pillows and a luxurious soaking tub, which Vernon treats more like a sanctuary.
When it comes to bridging the gap between the taboo topic of sex and everyone’s favorite topic, fashion, Vernon credits Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford, Ricardo Tisci and herself as the connecting force between the two. “After the suspension bondage photos I did with Katerina Jebb were published by Olivier Zahm in Purple Magazine in 2006, I felt a definite shift,” she told us. “The fashion system as a whole began to embrace the idea of erotic restraint and other practices and materials that have long been considered kinky or abnormal. I was suddenly called upon to tie up beautiful young girls for the same major fashion and lifestyle magazines that were calling in my Paradise Found fine erotic whips, body chains and other sexy jewels and tools for photo shoots.”
As for her take on the Fifty Shades madness? “I think E.L. James helped millions of people realize that what they once considered to be either their wildest fantasies or totally unacceptable sexual behavior, is actually totally normal.” Well, that makes the fact that our moms have read books one through three very awkward…
In her headshot by Ali Mahdavi, author Betony Vernon holds a come-hither gaze worthy of an Old Master courtesan. No girl next door is she – flame-red tresses frame alabaster skin, voluptuous cheekbones and pouty lips. Her dark fingernails drape over her ear; a lush green tattoo wraps around her shoulder. She is sultry and severe, alluring and mysterious.
In person, however, this modern-day femme fatale – more precisely a jet-setting jewelry designer as well as a writer/sex educator – is equal parts elegant and down to earth. We are in a back room at Bookmarc in West Hollywood, moments before the signing party for her book, "The Boudoir Bible: The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today" (Rizzoli, $35).
I got the feeling she slipped into her fuchsia cocktail dress and Louboutins as easily as she might throw on a favorite pair of jeans. Her pale-pink back-seam tights are from a shop she loves in London. It was in London that Vernon started her educational sex salons in November 2002. She felt compelled to teach after retail buyers rejected her fine erotic jewelry collection in late 2001. The snub was a sign that there was a vast need for knowledge, among the fashion elite and everyday people alike.
Vernon is friendly and approachable, green eyes playfully glinting, lashes fluttering as she makes a point. Other times her words are punctuated with an easy laugh as fizzy as the champagne she is sipping. I can picture her growing up in the mountains of Tazewell, Va., in the ’70s, then heading to Florence to launch her design career.
I’m curious about the fact that "The Boudoir Bible" is dedicated to her mother and father who, she says, made her extraordinary life possible. Says Vernon: “I grew up with very little parental guidance. I was sort of a free agent. Sometimes absence has a greater impact than presence.”
While we live in a sex-sells society, that doesn’t mean we are truly liberated, much less enlightened, Vernon believes. Where there are hook-ups, there are hang-ups, along with taboos, repression and fear. “We’re in a country where billions of dollars are made through porn,” she says. “Sex is very accessible but pleasure’s really not.”
Vernon recommends taking a holistic approach to sexual pleasure. For starters, she suggests setting aside time to experience a sacred sexual ceremony. In her book, she explains as follows: “By creating a ritualized context for sexual exploration, extending the duration of the time of the sexual encounter, and engaging the entire body as a sexual whole, the ceremony aims to broaden the horizons of pleasure beyond that which may be experienced through ‘normal’ everyday sex.”
Or as she put it during our chat: “Fast sex is a killer.”
The beautifully laid out book (with illustrations by François Berthoud) covers basics, such as anatomy and hygiene, as well as more risqué topics such as bondage, flagellation, role playing, restraints and cutting-edge sex toys.
Also central to satisfaction: empathy and communication. “There’s still the belief that a woman’s pleasure is very much like a man’s. It’s not. People tend to consider the act a performance and make orgasm their only goal. Goal-oriented is really dangerous. It’s better if you let go and not use a script.”
Speaking of scripts, Vernon possesses a healthy irreverence for the language we use to broach the subject of sex. She has banned words such as guilty pleasure, dirty and naughty from her vocabulary. And, for those playing the field, she doesn’t like the word single. “It signals alone when in fact you could be multiple.”
Success is, of course, a beautiful thing, a gift of affirmation from the world that comes in a neat little box. The only problem is that if you want to keep this gift, you usually have to get into the box and stay there. In other words, the good news is that you get a niche. That’s also the bad news. If you don’t fit easily in your assigned compartment, you may get uncomfortable.
Or so Betony Vernon, the American-born, Paris-based jewelry designer, has found. It has been 21 years since Ms. Vernon started her provocative line of jewelry, its mission being to meld the pleasures of style and sex in a conscious, artful and upscale way. On her Web site, one can obtain a cat claw pinkie ring, a pair of sterling silver Ben Wa balls or, for $1,510, a woman’s petting ring.
So ... it’s quite a niche. But in college, Ms. Vernon studied art history, religious studies and metalsmithing, and she has not abandoned the first two to focus on the third, voicing a desire for a doctorate in anthropology. And while she has become a racy and popular figure on the fashion scene, she hates being painted as racy, reluctant to be typecast as a dominatrix in Dior.
“Take someone like Carine Roitfeld,” said Ms. Vernon, a tall redhead who was born and raised in Virginia before moving to Italy at age 20 to pursue jewelry design. “As soon as she saw the work I was doing, back in 2006, I started getting requests from Carine, saying, ‘Can you please come and tie up this and that,’ and we did quite a few things together. But she still comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, you are so wicked.’ Um, no. Your visions are silly and clichéd. Read my book, please. It’s really about loving each other and using your sex life as a vehicle to know yourself.”
Her book is “The Boudoir Bible” (Rizzoli), a witty and frank sex guide aimed at loosening attitudes about certain sex practices thought of as kinky. With it, she hopes her philosophy, that self-knowledge can emerge through the loss of inhibitions involved in sexual exploration, comes across more fully and articulately than it does through her jewelry. With apologies to Harry Winston, jewelry says only so much.
Yet when asked to name a possession that spoke to her more than the rest, Ms. Vernon, for all of her very modern views on the current state of affairs (so to speak), chose a relic from her childhood: a funny little winged ceramic figure resembling a medieval muppet. Most likely an incense burner, it was passed down from her grandfather.
“He traveled around Asia a lot in the 1930s doing research for tobacco companies, and he created a huge collection of Asian art,” she said. “When I was a little girl, I had some sort of connection with this genie, which was hanging in his living room. I loved how it was suspended, so it could move and sort of fly. It was probably considered to have magic properties, built to burn incense and to purify space.”
But she found that burning incense in it is problematic.
“It is quite beautiful because the smoke curls up out of his mouth and makes him even more magical, but I felt he was too delicate,” she said. “In reality, when I get back from traveling, I give him the foreign change I have left, so his tummy is full of money. He hangs in the corner in a space I call Eden, where I receive my guests. He doesn’t have a particularly beautiful face, but his purpose is probably to scare off nasty entities and protect whoever owns him, which is me.”
Ms. Vernon is not a religious woman, describing herself with one of those popular but vague hedges, “spiritual but not religious.” If the genie fills a somewhat superstitious role in her life, it seems well matched to its multifaceted owner: both funny and serious, rooted in history but rootless in origin, hard to date or place, and ready and able to mean whatever you want it to mean. And that’s not even counting the change. In its slippery way, it neatly illustrates its owner’s philosophy for getting through life: better to stay up in the air than be stuck in a box.