A vision in crimson, lilac and cream (hair, dress, and skin, respectively), Betony Vernon reigns on her dominion like a lethal Eve- a fiery, modern séductrice who has created her own take on paradise. The 19th-century boudoir looks like it came straight out of a book by Sacher-Masoch, complete with tied-up dolls and phallic statues. Lines of books remain hidden behind heavy curtains: in the boudoir, nothing can serve a purpose beyond that of pleasure.
Sashaying through the velvet-lined rooms to pick up a silver ring, a giant white feather, or a pair of vintage reading glasses, Betony has vertiginous command of herself and the room, and we sit, raptured, wondering how we are going to measure up to this prodigious dose of sexy. But there is a distinct generosity in the way she introduces herself, and immediately includes us in her world. Trying on different pieces of jewelry for our photoshoot, she demonstrates an elaborate knot maneuver on a high-waisted belt, rejoicing: “I love a good knot!” The girl is funny, and unself-conscious in such a way that we don’t blush through an entire conversation covering geisha balls, foreplay and virtual sex.
It has only been five minutes and already we are in love. Is it her purr of a voice, warm like a shot of whisky? The way she punctuates her sentences with « no? », Italian style? The way she’s noticed a tiny speck of blue on our hair and coyly enquired about its source? One thing is sure: Betony Vernon is unexpectedly moving, and her passionate defense of intimacy and slow sex leads us to consider our sexual lives as rarely before. That, in itself, could be her gift to the world. But she’s also got the cerebral end of sex talk covered, calling herself a sexual anthropologist instead easing into a conversation about the larger picture of what it means to be human today, bringing up AIDS, gender imbalance beyond the bedroom, and the internet’s impact on our senses.
One gets the feeling that Ms. Vernon is a sort of scout for an invisible contingent of sexually adventurous women, exploring practices and defending freedom of choice: “Sometimes, we are attracted to things we might not expect to be attracted to”, she argues. Such a simple affirmation is rarely heard nowadays, when the sexual has never been more political, and acts are so crudely discussed that they bear little resemblance to the experiences we are having behind closed doors, that happen on a human, skin-to-skin level. “Touching each other is the way we build bonds”, she declares. “Making love is important. People are afraid of relationships. Afraid of getting hurt.” She insists: “Porn is the worst teacher that we could possibly have. There is such a phallocentric vision that we are conforming to”. It’s all about discovering what turns us on, and reclaiming the sphere of intimacy in an increasingly disconnected world, where Skype sex and porn are ubiquitous.
Ms. Vernon locates her work at the crossroads of wellbeing and design, and it is not surprising to learn that she studied art history, religious studies and metalsmithing in college. Her knot-inspired jewelry (not naval, she assures us) recalls Shibari, the Japanese art of bondage that Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographs helped popularize in the West. The word literally means “decoratively tie” in Japanese, and her jewelry makes plain the aesthetic appeal of SM paraphernalia, moving beyond sex toys (which, mind you, she’s not opposed to) into fashion territory. Style is in her DNA, and as she changes from her high-heeled black fur slippers into the Alaia platforms she selected for our photoshoot, we get a whiff of the playful relationship she has with her shoe closet. Betony has a love of « fine materials - durable materials. Clothes that don’t necessarily come straight from a shelf, but are tailored by a seamstress. »
The young girl hailing from a small village in the Appalachian trail has become a modern-day priestess, illuminating the connection between the sensual and the spiritual, and rekindling the archaic belief in the sacrality of the sexual act. “The sexual energy is transcendental. There is something sacred about that and there is only one way to do that, to share that vibration.” Sexual ceremony has always been a way of communicating with the Divine, and the title of her new book, The Boudoir Bible, sounds like a playful takedown of Modern puritanism. Historically, along with religious marriage came the burden of monogamy, which she believes can be sustainable, if sufficient effort to spice things up is provided by both partners. In order to escape boredom, she recommends: “Don’t get sensorially bored. Learn as much as you can. Build a relationship that can continue to grow. Marriage is a license to make love to each other. You’ve got to be incredibly creative, but I think it’s possible with a powerful sexual bond. There is no need to seek elsewhere if you’re fully happy…Learn some new tricks!”
A question remains. How does she reconcile her praise of both bondage and women’s lib? Isn’t it contradictory to dress-up like a pin-up, literally images that are meant to be “pinned-up” on a wall, and yet argue that we can command the sexual game? Says Vernon, “I was one of those girls in the 80s that were fighting for their freedom. I am the daughter of a revolutionary, Anne Vernon, who sat at a whites-only counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. I was wearing very strict corsets and high heels, and still fighting for my rights as a woman.” She argues that the pin-up look can be an asset: “I was very young when I was first corseted and put into very high heels. Suddenly I felt empowered. Let’s not confound being bound and constricted from a social point of view with something that is politically incorrect. Any woman who is wearing a corset or a beautiful garment is turning her silhouette into the absolute. It changes your attitude - and it makes you stronger, not weaker. Your power is also in your beauty! How do you feel when you slip into a 10cm Louboutin? You feel like a woman, no?” Undoubtedly so.
By Marie Winckler and Audrey Guttman for Semaine