On Generational Activism and Designing Desire with Betony Vernon

Betony Vernon, the multi-faceted and pleasure-positive crimson-haired high priestess of erotic accessories, has released her latest book published by Rizzoli New York, “
Paradise Found: An Erotic Treasury for Sybarites”. The book dives into her sexually liberating and empowering practice and the world of multi-functional “jewel-tools” she has designed over the span of the last 30 years. Here she expands on her calling, post-COVID sexuality, and her biggest influence- her mother. 

Rianna Murray: You are a designer, artist, author, sexologist, teacher, activist and more. How exactly would you define your work?

Betony Vernon: No matter the medium I am using, my aim is to empower through enhanced pleasure. I discovered my purpose, which no sooner became my mission over 3 decades ago: to dismantle the pleasure taboo, one collector, one reader, one client at a time.  

RM: How did you discover this purpose?

BV: My erotic jewelry designs revealed the void in sexual education and therefore wellness, that negatively affects society globally. It became evident to me that I could be a vehicle for change. The battle is ongoing, but my sense of purpose is ever-growing.

RM: Do you consider yourself a healer?  

BV: I am often told and always pleased to learn that my work has a healing effect. My aim as a designer, author, clinical hypnotherapist and activist is to better the quality of day to day life. I believe that healers, like artists, have a calling. We do not choose our path, our path chooses us and we cannot avoid the calling.

RM: Coming to Paris, I imagined a place which was much more open and varied in terms of the expression of all things sex, but I have found that the general attitude towards people who express or participate in non-conforming sexuality, gender, or pleasure-seeking is quite conservative- and it seems really hidden. I see and hear about these really subversive performers and creatives working together to create these very open and sensual events, projects, performances etc. – but it still feels akin to, like, prohibition era drinking if you know what I mean? Having lived in Paris and recently relocated- What do you think? Maybe your background in religious studies gives you more perspective on this.

 BV: Paris remains one of the most liberated cities I know in spite of the puritanical “prohibition” vibe that you are speaking of, which seems to be sweeping across the planet, not just through the city of lights. To be fair however, I must admit that  some of the best things happened underground, even when I was living in Paris. I can’t deny that EDEN, my space in the Marais, was definitely part of that underground! In blatant contrast with the pornographic content that continues to proliferate on social media, the Covid pandemic, which made hugging, kissing and having sex a potentially lethal pleasure, probably contributed to this prohibition and conservatism. The Paris underground was thriving during Covid, but the general public was not privy and no matter your location, the world has yet to recover from the negative impact of Covid, not only on our sex lives, but in general. Societies’ sexual perspectives are in constant flux, but no matter how hard I work or how many books I write, it seems that sexual pleasure remains the most die-hard taboo, alongside the taboos of illness and death. I guess you could say that I have my work cut out for me! The good news is that I work with a lot of students around the world, who will help to further the mission and avoid that we are stripped bare of our right to sexual pleasure in our lives.

RM: Do you believe that Covid will have a long-lasting effect on sexuality? It just occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t engage in sexual activity with someone who doesn’t share the same opinions on vaccination as I do…I know that’s maybe extreme but I’m guessing a lot of people probably feel the same way. It’s almost like the pro/anti-vax binary has politicized our sexuality and weaponized it against us in favor of abstinence. Have you noticed this? Perhaps you have more perspective on if, historically speaking, the context of plague and illness has resulted in more puritanical societies?

BV: Covid definitely impacted our sexuality and it is definitely keeping us apart. People have become conditioned to take distance and the statistics in the USA alone reveal that fifty percent of the adult public is experiencing loneliness and its effects on mental wellness, including depression. Sexual terrorism on this level has not been experienced since the advent of HIV. When I work with clients who are suffering from the fear of connecting intimately and physically with others, I remind them that to touch each other is to heal. In fact, newborn babies who are not held can actually die. We have to get over this fear together, as adults. Our happiness and mental health as a whole depends on our sensual and sexual wellness. 

RM: What roles do discretion, hiddenness, and nuance play in your designs? Are these elements essential to their elegance?

BV: I am a true believer in the power of mystery and if it were not for the subtlety of the erotic power in my works, I would probably not be here with you today. When I started designing erotic jewelry, there was no space for designs on the market and I would have been canceled long before cancel-culture actually existed as a reality, if it had not been for brave journalists like Diane Pernet, who understood the importance of the work I was trying to do. As you know, most of my designs, like my interior projects, have a dual purpose that is discreetly embedded in the design. This very characteristic of “hiddenness”, as you say, of the sensual potential that demures in each design, became the foundation for what became my mission to empower  sexually mature adults through enhanced pleasure. Nuance and discretion became my secret weapons and  “elegance” allowed me to subliminally further the sexual rights movements through the design and fashion milieu, rather than becoming a direct target for censorship, like all pro-pleasure activists. I pursued my goals thanks to the protections that the jewelry afforded me. Today, the risk of censorship or being canceled all together is far greater than ever before.  Consider that doctors who advocate for sexual education and wellness are being banned or prevented from building an audience on line, so it should not come as a surprise that someone like me, who escapes categories, titles, and definition, and who publicly embodies women’s rights and freedom of sexual expression, is shadow banned and “not approved” when attempting to reach a wider audience. If I were just exposing my body or posing as a mere object of desire, I would have millions of followers. But because my aim is to empower you with sexual knowledge, and due to the fact that I don’t operate on a corporate level with a corporate budget like many of the houses that have been inspired by my works, I am considered a threat and thus kept in the shadows of social media. This is one of the many reasons that I remain active across all forms of media.

RM: Would you say that you maintain a more polished image of yourself than you would if it weren’t for the risk of being censored? Is it still limiting at this point in your career?

BV: Censorship has been one of the greatest obstacles for my work and it remains this way today. I am shadowbanned on social media, unable to promote my work and sensual awareness in general. Therefore, I cannot grow my business in an organic manner.

This makes my work an ongoing battle, but I will not give up. My position is sadly a mirror of what’s happening on a macroscale globally today. Anything that has to do with the diffusion of sexual knowledge and therefore wellness is banned: keeping people in the dark is big business. There is an increasing level of conservatism, to the point that I consider that we all have to work together in order to avoid a neo dark age. Just to give a single example, consider that the principal of a school in the United States was forced to resign for teaching the children about Michelangelo’s David, as a parent complained that it could be perceived as pornographic.

RM: Esther Perel says (to paraphrase) that the problem with the modern monogamous relationship and domesticated sexuality is that we are seeking to meet contradictory needs in one shot. She explains that the emotional safety and grounding of a (monogamous) relationship requires predictability, and routine, but desire thrives on the elements of unknown, spontaneity, and taboo- and so desire often strikes out in the long-term. What are your thoughts on this? I feel like your pieces reflect the antidote to this idea.  

 BV: My work over the years has been in part to initiate people to the art of loving. When we rely on spontaneity, desire is guaranteed to dwindle, so it’s a good idea, if you really care about your significant other, to learn new ways to constantly stoke the embers of the passionate fires that united you in the first place. This requires sexual intelligence and skills, which come with experience as well as having open minded partners, who are willing to test and push boundaries so that boredom stays at bay. My book The Boudoir Bible: The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today (Rizzoli International Publications, 2013) is a compilation of the workshops I held around the world at the turn of the century. Ester and I respect each other’s work and our methods are more complimentary than they may seem. Together we provide a wide fan of possibilities to help relationships thrive.

RM: Most of the people I’ve met who work in either erotic or BDSM worlds are so remarkably kind. Do you find that it’s more a constant weeding out of toxic people or more a rule of attraction type thing that brings the right sort of people together particularly in this universe?

 BV: I believe that people who follow their desires to the core are obliged to shed the crap per say, acquire sexual intelligence and leave the shame, fears and the inhibiting taboos behind. This makes them more true to themselves than anyone who continues to follow the socio sexual norm, and live their sexuality through shame and secrecy, which can lead to frustration, and even violence, addiction and abuse. The sexually liberated community knows that pleasure is essential to our overall happiness, so we seek out and therein attract those who allow us to be as true to ourselves, and therefore to others as is humanly possible. The sexually liberated are generally happier and healthier as a whole and so they say, “birds of a feather flock together!”

RM: Who have you been most inspired by?

BV: My mother Ann Dearsley Vernon was my biggest inspiration, supporter and fan. She pushed me to continue my work as a sexual activist, in spite of the dangers she knew were lurking. I dedicated my first book The Boudoir Bible to my mother. Now that I know her better, I see it as a continuation of her work as a civil rights activist. Our sexual rights, education and pleasure should be valued as a basic human right.

RM: Who are you most grateful to?

BV: I am most grateful to my collectors and readers and to all of the journalists who allowed me to shine over the past 30 years. They, and therefore you, are all active participants in the sexual rights movement that makes my work possible. I think that it’s important to remember that only 70 years ago, I could have been banished from society, imprisoned, or even lobotomized for the work that I do!

RM: Who has grounded you? Who has opened you up?

BV: I was grounded by my spiritual teachers, starting with Asha Durkee in the early ‘80s. I was part of the East Coast post punk scene at the time. The BDSM community was also directly connected to it via the music and fashion scenes. I was always the youngest member of the group. In retrospect, I am grateful to have survived what was also a dangerous period due to  my sense of sexual freedom. I managed to swerve the AIDS crisis and survive and even thrive in my experimental drug phase. This was thanks to my elders and certainly my preference for psychedelics helped me to make it through the ‘80s alive and well! But it was definitely my spiritual work that kept and still keeps me grounded.

RM: The release of Paradise Found: An Erotic Treasury for Sybarites also celebrates 30 years of your success and accomplishments. What are you most proud of? What do you aspire to now?

 BV: I had to create a niche for my work which required that I also become a voice for sexual freedom and rights. I am proud to have managed to carve out a space for my work and even prouder to continue on my mother’s path as an artist and activist in a time when censorship risks snuffing out anyone who aims to pass on the keys to sexual enlightenment and happiness in general. This is my aspiration –  to continue handing over the keys to sexual knowledge and understanding, because education is inherent to freedom and freedom is inherent to happiness. I will also pick up where I left off writing my next book before I started what feels like a never ending move back to Italy from Paris. This book talks about approval and lack thereof over the course of my life and work, including the trials and tribulations of being a female pro-pleasure designer and activist in a man’s world. It will also give me the opportunity to talk about my mother’s early life and activism. She was one of the white women who joined the Greensboro four at the whites-only counter sit-in in February 1960. It was the first sit-in in history and it fostered the civil rights revolution of the 1960s in the USA, which in turn bolstered the battle for womens and LGBTIQA+ rights as well. I discovered this side of my mother, who had by the way been denied custody of her children in 1972, for the first time in 2001 when the Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina was inaugurated as a civil rights museum. When I asked why she  had never told me about the sit-in she said, “I did not tell you because it was not about me, I just did the right thing.” This was one of the most important lessons I ever learned and what I aspire to do everyday.


Above, Ann Dearsley Vernon joins in the protest against the “whites only” counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Read more at https://greensboro.com/woman-honored-as-unsung-hero-during-sit-ins-ann-dearsley-vernon-is-the-first-white/article_8e61ede1-a07f-58fd-90db-c63f728f904c.html .


Merci, Betony. 



Rianna Murray

American in Paris. Interested in Art and Fashion.