Designer, author and clinical hypnotherapist Betony Vernon in conversation with Maria Abramenko on ecstatic experiences, erotic objects, sexual intelligence and activism, her fascination for rituals and much more.
To begin with I would like to ask your opinion about those who seek more intense and particular sensations when it comes to sex.
There are still many misconceptions around those who enjoy pushing the boundaries between pleasure and pain. People who appreciate more intense and impactful sensations have a higher threshold for pain. Our perception is very subjective, what one person may consider “discomfort” may send another person to Paradise! More direct, full body sensations fling open the doors to what I call the body’s natural “feel-good pharmacy”. Beta-endorphines, dopamine, and serotonine are happy hormones, that are emitted into the blood stream when we explore the body as sensual whole over extended periods of sexual stimulation. Beta-endorphines in particular have a chemical formula that resembles that of opioids. Their effects are just one of the benefits that people who enjoy more intense sensations are seeking — and the same natural body “drug” that makes us feel good also acts as a natural painkiller. So you see, it’s not pain, it’s the natural high that comes with the ecstatic experience that we are looking for. Fast phallocentric sex does not unveil the body’s full pleasure potential and those who look for more intense sensations actually need them to perceive pleasure.
I would definitely consider your creations as artefacts. In fact, you have exhibited them in museums and showrooms through the years. How do you see your work through erotic art and design history?
When I first started designing the erotic collection in the early 90s, my work frightened people as much as it fascinated them. Because our sexuality and more specifically sexual pleasure is still a taboo subject, believe it or not, I still work hard to keep my work in the light. Thanks to open-minded collectors, curators, and journalists like yourself the work was gradually institutionalised. When I was invited to exhibit “The Boudoir Box” at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2017, I knew that I had made a mark, not only as a designer, but as an artist and craftswoman too. I work in many media and this permitted me to bolster my mission as it expanded and as I matured. If I was banned in one arena, I would step in another. The process was organic and perseverance is just part of my character. I never give up!
Let’s talk about the “Sado-Chic” collection and the duality of what you call “jewel-tools”. How and when did you start designing the erotic collection?
In 1992, I coined the term “Sado-Chic” to name a collection of designs inspired by “Histoire d’O”, the infamous book written by Anne Desclos in 1954. At the time, I was 24 years old and living in Florence, Italy, where I taught goldsmithing and modeled to make ends meet too. I was naive and I had no idea how this collection would come to shape my career over the years to come. The object that made me realise that I was onto something important is a detachable 3 piece set composed of a ring, bracelet and chain. I was wearing this “Sado-Chic” set the day I had my epiphany. It was during a dinner with an intimate friend and at some point, I took the ring off of my finger and slid it onto his. I instantly felt a sort of electrical charge that reinforced my sense of connection to this special man. I asked him if he felt what I felt and he said to me, “Look at my arm…” He had goosebumps and so did I. In that moment, he belonged to me and I belonged to him, but we both also realised that we belonged to something bigger. This experience convinced me that jewelry can have more than a decorative, symbolical, talismanic and of course intrinsic value. It could also reinforce our intimate pleasure bonds.
A few years ago in New York City I had the honour to visit an event hosted by you with a Shibari performance by Marie Sauvage. You did a reading from your book “The Boudoir Bible” and gave a wonderful talk about the importance of sexual pleasure in our lives. Could you tell our readers more about that night in New York?
It feels like another life ago! The event harked back to the days when I hosted “sexual wellbeing workshops” regularly in capital cities around the world. There were so many sexual barriers to hurdle at the time that I had to teach in order to continue creating my erotic pieces. My workshops were fun, it was a totally new concept and they were definitely enlightening, but they were very exclusive, everything but democratic.
By 2006 I came to terms with the fact that in order to truly make a difference in the world, I must reach a wider public, and the best way to do this on a global scale was to write a book. “The Boudoir Bible: The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today” was first published 7 years later in 2013 by Rizzoli International. Fruit of 20 years of research in human sexual behavior and intimate relationships, it became a vehicle for spreading sexual intelligence. It also allowed me to step back from my international salon circuit and return to my studio to concentrate on designing, researching, and private sessions with my collectors.
You understood early on that your work would require initiation. I would love to know which one of your creations is your personal favourite and perhaps more tips on using it.
When I began to design the erotic collection there were no venues or galleries who dared to represent me and there was very little information available with regards to the tools and techniques of full body stimulation. Whips, crops, collars, chains and the like were being used as fashion accessories, but to speak of their use for sexual enhancement was unacceptable. In 1996, when I decided to present the erotic collection to Barneys New York the response of the buyer was one of shock. This experience made it clear to me that the
“Sado-Chic” collection was still ahead of its time. It also led me to understand that the pleasure taboo, and not the taboo of sex in itself, was the primary inhibitor of our freedom of sexual expression and satisfaction. I continued to design the erotic objects, but underground and for private collectors only until September 11. The attack on the Twin Towers made it clear to me that all the world needed more of was love and I would make it the foundation of my mission. However, there were still no boutiques or galleries willing to represent my erotic works, so I decided that the only real solution would be to travel to my collectors with the collection. Therefore, I created “The Boudoir Box”, which is definitely my personal favourite. It can carry up to 80 of the 400 piece erotic collection. With The Boudoir Box I was able to showcase my work around the world, and turn any hotel or living room into a sacred space. I am fascinated by rituals and ceremonies; they distinguish the sacred from the profane, the extraordinary from the ordinary.
What do you think is the main sex-related issue in our society today?
The greatest issue today is the absence of sexual education from a pro-pleasure point of view. This is compounded by the lack of physical contact in our virtual world and its polar opposite: consumer sex. It is naive to think that sex is just a physical act. It also affects our minds and our souls. I find it unacceptable that all things related to pleasure enhancement and education are banned on social media today, while pornography proliferates in the world-wide web. It is a very complex situation indeed; my work continues to hit a nerve and is heavily censored, but I will not give up the fight. I guess you could say that I am as much a sexual activist as I am an artist today.
What are your current and upcoming projects?
I am currently launching “Eros: L’arte di amare senza tabù”, the Italian translation of “The Boudoir Bible”. I did the first event in Rome with the support of Maison Valentino, and on Valentine’s Day I will do another book signing at the Fondazione Sozzani in Milan, with the illustrator François Berthoud. This fall, I will celebrate the 30 year anniversary of the erotic jewellery collection with a new book in collaboration with Rizzoli International, called “Paradise Found”. It’s an erotic compendium that also honours 40 artists who photographed and illustrated my work over the years. I will also be re-opening my creative studio in Italy, but I can’t unveil too much about this now, so stay tuned, it will be amazing!
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