Sunday 12th March

| BY Natalie Dembinska

Betony Vernon: Mistress Of Pleasure

Betony Vernon 1The designer, author and sexual anthropologist Betony Vernon is, when we talk, “sitting in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by Mother Nature”. We, by contrast, are sitting in the decidedly less glamorous environment of the of office laundry room, surrounded by dirty towels and ink cartridges.

The 25th anniversary of Vernon’s erotic jewellery line is coming up – her Sado-Chic collection launched in 1992 – and as she says herself: “There are some good things about getting older. For me, it’s that I have a maison and I have a body of work that evolves from itself. I was 17, at university, when I designed my logo. I think one of the things I can say is that if you know what you want, you can get it. The outcome may not be exactly what you were expecting, but in the end it is the journey that matters.”

NATALIE DEMBINSKA: “Betony, how are you?”
BETONY VERNON: “I am good. I’m in the countryside, sitting under the platanus trees, feeding a baby kitten that was abandoned by its mother.”

ND: “Where in the countryside are you?”
BV: “I’m in Amelia, in Umbria. It’s 1 hour 20 from Rome. This is where I spend half of my time–in Italy. You know I have a big connection with Italy.”

ND: “You went to school in Florence and used to work there as well.”
BV: “Yeah, I taught jewellery in Florence and I got my master’s degree in Milano. Then I was married to Barnaba Fornasetti for 17 years. I did design direction for his company. At the end of the day it’s a country I love and there’s not a centimetre of it that I’m not passionate about. Paris is home but so is Italy.”

ND: “You have two homes.”
BV: “As Josephine Baker said, j’ai deux amours.”

ND: “So, what attracted you to Italy? Why do you love it so much?”
BV: “Well, I ended up here because I was actually trying to move to Paris and I was really young. I was too young. I was too post punk, really, not quite ready for Paris. And at a certain point I got on a train, I was 19, and ended up in Florence. I looked for studios, jewellery studios, and I found this Japanese man, of all things. His name was Tamayo Fujimura and he had a school that was basically dealing with international classes for California State University, Syracuse University – it was at university level. So he said, ‘Why don’t you work in the studio for a while?’ So I did, and at the end of about, I don’t know, it was about six weeks, he said to me, ‘Do you want to come back and teach?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ It was kind of like a dream come true. So I went back and I finished my studies at university and I packed everything up in America and I left. That was it.”

ND: “Were you studying before you moved to Italy, or did you begin your studies when you moved?”
BV: “I started when I was 17. I went to a liberal arts school in America called Virginia Commonwealth University. I took art history and religious studies. I was taking classes in jewellery as well and I loved it. I really did. You know, my mother worked in a museum for 36 years. She was the director of education at the Chrysler Museum [in Norfolk, Virginia] and I just couldn’t see myself closed inside institutional walls. I was in love with jewellery and ended up in Italy. It was like a dream come true because, as an art history major, I found myself in Florence.”

ND: “Which is the best place to be.”
BV: “Italy in general. But Florence was like a heaven. I was hunting down artisans and learning lots of traditional techniques, from repoussé to enamelling. Then, when I applied to Domus Academy [Milan], you had to have an architecture degree, so I thought I’m just going to do this and see what happens, and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. At the time it was considered, and still is, the best design school in the world.”

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ND: “So, I wanted to ask, what were you like growing up? What was your childhood like?”
BV: “Well, I was actually born on the Appalachian Trail. I left at the age of 15. My childhood was… I’m actually working on a new book that has nothing really to do with my design work, but more to do with my life up until I was 15. I don’t think I’m old enough to write a memoir, but basically the goal of this book is to honour my mother. My mother lost custody of me when I was four and was by law not allowed to see me or my sisters. It hinged on the fact that my mother, Ann Vernon, was a civil rights activist, and in 1960 she did the first sit-in on the east coast of America, which sparked the American civil rights revolution. She was the white woman who joined the African-American Greensboro Four at the Woolworth’s whites-only counter. She couldn’t have imagined the impact of her actions. She was 20 years old, of English nationality and attending art school in North Carolina. Greensboro was essentially the seat of the KKK. She was kicked out of university and sent back to England, but my grandfather managed to convince the director to let her back into school. I don’t know how he did it, but my mother finished the last year and a half of grad school. This was also thanks to Martin Luther King, who put a bodyguard at her side, because he realised she was truly in danger.”

ND: “At that time, definitely.”
BV: “Oh yes. So in 1970, when my parents’ divorce started to brew, she was basically considered deviant and psychologically unstable as an English white woman meddling around in American racial issues.”

ND: “How did your mother end up in North Carolina?”
BV: “Her father, my grandfather George Dearsley, invented the cigarette filter and the machine that installs it. He was in the tobacco industry in England and was contacted by Phillip Morris, and ended up taking the family to Virginia of all places. The state of lovers.”

ND: “Is it the state of lovers?”
BV: “Virginia is for lovers – it’s the state motto. So my mother fell in love with America and before her parents moved back to England she started to apply for universities. There were not that many art schools in America that accepted women – schools were still segregated at the time – but finally she was accepted at the Woman’s College of Arts, North Carolina. It was at this time that she met and fell in love with my father, who was going to Chapel Hill. By the time I was four I had three sisters and we were all being raised by nannies, because my father had gained full custody. He was a pilot and was basically flying all the time. So we were left to our own… ”

ND: “Devices?
BV: “Yes, and my oldest sister was 10 at the time and by the time she was 13, there were no more nannies. My father told her, ‘You’re a woman now, you’ve got your period, your cycle is here, it means you’re a woman.’ My sister ended up being the maternal reference, which is really bizarre. So we were kind of wild children. We didn’t have much parental guidance. My studies were like a haven. I studied piano and I loved going to school, strangely. It was sort of like a safe place for me, where there were adult figures.”

ND: “Your father was an inventor.”
BV: “Yes, as well as being a pilot, he was always inventing something. He built the helicopters that he flew and invented a seeding system as a response to spraying fertilisers and other toxic chemicals, such as DDT. I used to describe him as an airborne Johnny Appleseed. As you know, in the 1960s, the way we grew food became industrialised and my father became afraid of the effects this would have on the earth.”

ND: “DDT… ”
BV: “And my father refused to be part of that. He was quite a rebel, just as my mother was. He sprayed DDT once and then, the following day, he surveyed the valley where he’d sprayed this horrid chemical and the river that ran through it was full of dead fish. He rebelled against the system and refused to be part of the union, which was really dangerous for someone in his position. He built his independent piloting company and the invention of his seeding system allowed him to focus on areas that had been destroyed by coal mining. That’s how I ended up in this tiny little town on the Appalachian Trail called Tazewell, Virginia, with two highly educated parents. It was a really small town in the middle of nowhere, where mostly miners and farmers lived. If I had been born to a family from the area, I may have had children by the time I was 13.”

Betony Vernon 3

ND: “Have you always made things? Were you always creative as a child?”
BV: “Always, always, always. At one point, my father turned our fabulous Victorian dining room into a woodwork studio. My first medium was wood and my first tools were woodcarving chisels. I would sit next to my father at his workbench in the dining room-cum-studio. He gave me my own set of chisels, which may not be the safest tools for a young girl – in fact, I hurt myself sometimes, but I guess that is part of any learning process.”

ND: “It happens. That’s how you learn. No pain no gain.”
BV: “I remember, one day, looking over at my father who was gasping and I realised he had just run a chisel all the way through his hand. This accident made me really wary. I, too, have had accidents that have scarred my hands over the years – it’s very common with jewellers.”

ND: “The hands of a lady who has lived.”
BV: “Yes, lived and worked. I did 18 years at my jeweller’s bench. I still do a lot of the prototyping for my collections. I love the hands-on aspect of my work.”

ND: “Am I correct in saying you studied psychology?”
BV: “I did, I studied psychology as well as art history at university, but I felt that neither fields would appease my creative drive. I have been using my hands to create since the age of about six. So I ended up getting my degree in art history and walking away from the six credits needed for my psychology degree.”

ND: “You don’t need them.”
BV: “I was naive when I started to do the erotic designs. At the age of 21, I thought everyone was as sexually adventurous and eager to have a great sex life as I was. I was young and very open about sex, but it didn’t take me long to realise most people didn’t feel the same way I did about the importance of sexual pleasure and satisfaction in the overall scheme of our lives.”

ND: “People who didn’t want to explore that side of themselves.”
BV: “A lot of people are afraid to explore their sexuality. Alongside my private collectors I found myself surrounded by many people who had sexual blocks. I realise today that my upbringing and the general lack of parental guidance left me sexually free. In the late 1990s I began to do one- on-one therapy work with my collectors – I kind of built the plane while flying it. As my work and my own sexuality evolved, I recognised the therapeutic effect of bondage, the healing capacity of the cords – I use the cords, for example, in the therapy. I use very untraditional methods, but today I collaborate with various reputable psychologists both in New York and in Paris, as they have seen the healing effects of my alternative methods. Often, I am sent people who have hit a dead end in their healing process. I have worked with many victims of sexual abuse, mostly women but also men. The fact that I got involved in therapeutic work happened very organically via my erotic-design work, but I don’t consider myself a therapist. There is, however, a therapeutic aspect to my work and it is thanks to this aspect that I ended up writing The Boudoir Bible. A big part of my job was just giving permission.”

ND: “You’re allowed to do this, it’s okay to want this, it’s absolutely fine… ”
BV: “Yes, this is the giving-permission factor. Sometimes I work in collaboration with therapists who send me individuals with sexual blocks often caused by abuse, which is still all too common. Statistics show that two in four girls and two in five boys are sexually abused. Sexual abuse causes huge emotional damage and if it is not dealt with, the repercussions stay with us and reverberate in every aspect of our lives. At the turn of the century I started holding sexual-wellbeing salons, because I realised that if I didn’t become an educator I would not be able to continue my erotic- design work. There is so much unlearning that needs to be done when it comes to sex. There are a lot of people who have joined my mission in sexual wellbeing – more and more. I think the internet has a lot to do with this, it connects like-minded people. For example, people in the LGBTQ and BDSM communities can find partners with similar interests and there’s no judgment, enabling them to explore aspects of their sexuality they might not have been able to openly explore before. Isn’t that fabulous? This is one of the most wonderful and revolutionary things about the internet and digital dating.”

ND: “It frees you to be a sexual person.”
BV: “Yes, it allows you to find sexual information, be more informed and find compatible mates. Up until the dawn of the internet, if you were gay you would seek partners in gay bars. Some people think digital dating is the end of love, others think that relationships as we once knew them are falling apart. I couldn’t disagree more – the internet has definitely caused a revolution in our sexual evolution, but desire, sex and love will continue to motivate everything.”

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ND: “You’ve mentioned in the past something you refer to as ‘sexual common sense’ – could you explain what that means to you?”
BV: “Sexual common sense is the basic knowledge about our bodies and how to explore the sexual dimension together, in the name of heightened pleasure, connection and intimacy. We don’t learn about the importance of pleasure in our lives at school, but teaching the biological facts of the sexual body as well as the impact that pleasure has on the wellbeing of the couple and individual is fundamental if we are going to shed the pleasure taboo. Take something as basic as the female orgasm. Women can experience at least four different types of orgasm, each of which are generated in a specific part of the vagina or vulva, though they are all connected to the clitoral system. Consider the G-spot – if you or your partner don’t know where the G-spot is or how it likes to be stroked, you cannot seek it out and the potentially transcendental states of pleasure it provides. In my book I delve into the sexual ritual and dismantle the belief that sexual knowledge and understanding kills the mystery of sex – this could not be further from the truth. Did you know that the G-spot is the tangible aspect of the female prostate and the biological equivalent of the male prostate?”

ND: “Really?”
BV: “Yes, but it was not recognised by the medical community until 2001. It was and still is denied by many doctors. It was sort of ‘rediscovered’ in the 1950s by Dr Ernst Gräfenberg, who noted that it was an important part of female pleasure. Little by little, women have come into the medical force and made a huge impact on the advances that are being made in our understanding of the sexual body. Women have been told for the past 2,000 years that their pleasure is complicated, but it’s not! Lovers just need to know where to go to get it, and to get lots of it, over and over again. In general, our sexual understanding is evolving faster than ever and we are getting there, but we still have a way to go on the road to sexual enlightenment.”

ND: “In finding out which button to press?”
BV: “I see it as like getting instructions for proper use when you buy a complicated electrical appliance [Laughs.] – it should be a basic right to know your body so you can own your body and take control of your relationships, happiness and, of course, your sexual pleasure and wellbeing. It’s just so important. It’s fundamental – that’s why I call it sexual common sense. The same goes for men. Porn is the omnipresent but worst teacher. Porn teaches men the age-old belief that ejaculation is where it’s at, but every man knows that if they wait to come or learn to dissociate the orgasm reflex from the ejaculation reflex – because they are two different functions – then their pleasure will grow, alongside the pleasure of their partner. This is my main concern with digital dating, that fast sex is still the main motivator for the heterosexual male. With fast sex, women just don’t get what they deserve.”

ND: “It’s like eating McDonald’s.”
BV: “Totally – it’s like fast food. It gives us instant gratification, but doesn’t nourish us. Again, I really hope my male readers are on the rise. I didn’t write a book dedicated to women and their pleasure only. I wrote The Boudoir Bible for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation. The relevance of full-body stimulation is essential to enhanced pleasure and I talk a lot about this in the book. If we focus on the genitals alone, our pleasure is limited.”

ND: “To educate. Is that your mission?”
BV: “Yes, and also to dismantle the pleasure taboo. You and I are part of the population who are very privileged because…”

ND: “We have access to books, to knowledge, to education.”
BV: “Yes, to education. We work in a tiny sector that is very open-minded. Fashion, design – it’s commanded by very forward-thinking people and we don’t judge each other because of our sexual orientation or our needs. There is a very clear understanding that fashion is a way to communicate your sexuality and more and more so. There isn’t a single designer today who hasn’t tapped into the erotic vocabulary – actually into the hardcore sexual vocabulary that used to be underground. Look at what Marc Jacobs did at Vuitton a few years ago with latex, leather, ‘fuck me’ boots and harnesses. His fetish references were obvious, they cannot be denied. In 1992, when I designed the Sado- Chic collection, the fashion system was not as sexually accepting as it is today. In fact, I really battled. My work is often a response to the sexual market that has a tendency to treat our sexuality as something vulgar and cheap. For me, sex is sacred and it should be treated as such.”

ND: “You have spearheaded a movement. Do you believe your book is instigating change?”
BV: “Absolutely. I have positive feedback from my readers on a daily basis. With the re-edition of the French version of The Boudoir Bible, which was released on November 3rd, the book has become an international erotic bestseller. I realise that the book will grow with me and my readers as our sexual understanding evolves. I aim to make this crazy world a better place, if I can. Otherwise, what is the purpose of doing anything at all? I feel like, as a designer, this is my duty. My design work is a bridge to the didactic part of my work. It allows me to speak very openly about topics that people find taboo or uncomfortable. When I started designing the erotic collection I was 21 and I had no idea where it was going to lead me. I feel really lucky, as working in the sexual realm can lead to lots of misconceptions. But today, 25 years down the road, thanks to the media, I feel embraced and my mission is making a difference. And I don’t have to… ”

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ND: “Hide?”
BV: “Exactly! Because the risk was there – it’s a risky business.”

ND: “But it all worked out in the end, which is great.”
BV: “Yes. Exciting, no?”

ND: “Very exciting. So how would you describe yourself?”
BV: “Well, you know, one of my goals through my work is also to erase the need to categorise people. Categories limit us, but I can attempt to tell you in a few words who I am.”

ND: “Who are you, how did you and yourself on this path?”
BV: “I am a woman on a mission and my mission is sexual wellbeing.”

ND: “You’re a modern-day renaissance woman – a revolutionary, really.”
BV: “Thanks, I consider that a huge compliment. I guess I’ve got revolutionary blood in my veins thanks to my mother – she taught me that one person in the right place at the right time who does the right thing, no matter how risky it might be, can really make a difference in the world. It can even start a revolution!”

Taken from “Mistress Of Pleasure” Issue 58 of 10 Women, ANGELS PLEASURE FLUID, on newsstands now… 

1. Noble Rope shibari belt and double sphere massage ring in 18-carat gold by Betony Vernon 
2. Bondage rope by Betony Vernon, dress by Louis Heel vintage brooch Betony’s own 
3. Sado-Chic collier with cock ring attachment by Betony Vernon 
4. Bondage rope with spheres by Betony Vernon, dress by Louis Heel
5. From left: he wears large Sado-Chic O-Ring by Betony Vernon; Betony wears Mini Sado-Chic chain bracelet in 18-carat gold, Sado-Chic O-Ring in 18-carat gold with diamonds, Mini Cat Claw ring, Long Cat Claw ring, spike cuff in sterling silver with rubies, pearl cuff in 18-carat gold, Sado-Chic cuff and seven-sphere massage ring in 18-carat gold and silver by Betony Vernon, dress by Hervé Leger

Photographer Maria Ziegelböck
Fashion Editor Yasmine Eslami
Hair Marc Orsatell
Make-up Tania Gandré

Underwear throughout by Yasmine Eslami