'When I think of an image of a woman, I picture her with a hand over her mouth; silenced.' This is what artist, designer, and kink aficionado Betony Vernon told journalist and fellow fétichiste Anastasiia Fedorova when we invited the pair into the studio to discuss Vernon's latest book Paradise Found: An Erotic Treasury For Sybarites; the latest addition to our on-going Book Club series. The 45-minute-long conversation, didactic in its approach, charged in tone and intimate in setting, is full of revelations, facts and insights drawn from Vernon's 30-year career.
From Vernon's early erotic jewellery designs being rejected by Barney's New York in the 1990s - Vernon claims they saw her as 'a pervert' - to carving her own space within the kink scene, expanding its reaches outside of underground culture, there are few things Vernon hasn't done as a designer, author, wellness therapist, clinical hypnotherapist, sex educator and activist. That first erotic jewellery collection, Paradise Found - which contained objects that still remain at the epicentre of her practise today including a connecting ring and bracelet and a necklace designed for oral sex aptly named The Love Lock - provides the title for her new, second book. Arming readers with a language to talk about pleasure, Paradise Found: An Erotic Treasury For Sybarites is a continuation of Vernon's mission to equalise pleasure 'for all the sexes' in alliance with her community.
Vernon arrived to the studio for filming in a black leather cat-suit, her flaming red hair freshly dyed, hands adorned with two of her specialist 'massage' rings - something she feels naked without. Her commitment to pleasure is palpable, a trope that makes her all the more powerful given her awareness that society only deems sex appropriate for the young. 'Desire goes away with age,' we're told. At 54 years old, Vernon is battling with this deeply ingrained societal notion. Vernon's outfit alone says, 'does it fuck'. Conversations around sex may have evolved, it's not the act itself that is considered a taboo in many progressive societies, but once the act is enjoyed past the point of existing to procreate, that's when pleasure is suppressed - in particular, women's pleasure. Many things in this world continue to remain a privilege, and sexual pleasure is one of them.
Why are women no longer allowed to embody desire once they hit a certain age? Is it to do with society's obsession with youth or another way to unwantedly shut women up? We are all sexual creatures; you only have to look at the insanity many singles were driven to during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Why is it considered more powerful to be dominant rather than submissive - at least in societal terms - and why does society continuously objectify submission? These are all questions that delve into whole conversations in their own right and - it's worth noting - have answers that lie in the truth Vernon speaks.
Paradise Found exists as a conversation and has reinvented the language used around sex to challenge stereotypes and rise above pressured societal norms. By rewriting how we converse with pleasure and sexuality, Vernon transforms taboos and makes a business out of pleasure-seeking along the way. It's this act alone that - if going by tradition - is deemed as selfish. Pushing for pleasure is one thing. Publicly owning it takes on a different level of disgrace in society. Sex is fine as long as it's for procreation. Sex is encouraged in the name of starting a family and abiding by tradition. It's when you start to openly own and enjoy your sex life is where things become eschew, dare I say, even messy. Tackling this, Paradise Bound exists as a conversation and invented language in its own right. Brimming with images of the jewellery being modelled, sometimes on Vernon herself, it's crystal clear not only how these pieces are meant to be worn but also used. Instructions cease to exist but they're not needed. The explanation itself lies in Vernon's accompanying writing, sensually describing each object, why she designed them and what they can offer those seeking to whet their hedonist appetite.
Untangling a centuries-lasting web of lies was never going to be a mean feat. As Vernon notes in her candid Book Club interview - men's pleasure has 'been prioritised for tens of thousands of years', a disturbingly problematic myth that society has hailed as the be-all since the dawn of time. Ropes and all, Vernon's dedication to untangling this myth over her long career has meant she now considers herself, above all, at the service of everyone else in the name of pleasure, and yet, the artist is still aware of the silencing that happens.
We have, of course, come a long way. At least here in the UK, primarily when you look at kink not only serving as a taboo but being totally forbidden in the mid-20th century. To reference history, as does Vernon in the interview, engaging in BDSM was incredibly dangerous only 40 years ago, with the underground scene taking its name from those who engaged in illicit acts, having to keep their 'secret' exactly that, a secret. Filming such an interview would have seen us thrown into prison and losing our jobs. Over the past twenty years since SHOWstudio was launched by Nick Knight, we have been in the fortunate position to be able to have open conversations about sex and pleasure.
If you go to our search bar right now and type in the tag 'NSFW' you'll discover two full pages of content we've produced on kink since SHOWstudio launched in 2000. And that's before you type in our other tags around the content - Sex, Erotic, Fetish, Love, Fantasy to name a few - all of which deal with the subject of erotica.
From countless films on sex and love (Adoration, featuring Tessa Kuragi, Simon Costin's Penis as well as Vernon's L'Envol) to the many essays that have come before the one you're reading right now (counting Erika Eiffel's Objectum Sexuality Carrie Scott's The Photo of A Girl and Lou Stoppard's As Sexual Object); the Tumblr takeovers are, too, seminal, namely the ones by Florian Hetz and Fia Yaqub (viewing discretion is advised); as are the video diaries (Fellatio, Fucking and Angel, all courtesy of Asia Argento and her exploration into truth and fiction in the age of the internet make up the project Don't Bother To Knock). Then you have all the other projects that fall into a category of their own, including but not limited to Soft Furnishings with Peter Saville and Vernon (recognise the jewels?), The Boudoir Bible, Selling Sex, Fashion Fetish and Forget-Me-Not.
Even in the most progressive societies, the right to one's own identity remains a risky pleasure to have, especially when you draw the ties between UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and trans equality which is contradictory to the fact that we're still in the healthiest place we've ever been regarding our attitudes to sex and pleasure, at least in the west. However, it's important to note there are still many countries around the world where homosexuality is illegal, just as trans rights are under threat in the UK as is a woman showing her hair in Iran or Afghanistan, let alone other body parts in public. To rewrite the language of pleasure correctly, one should note that only few are allowed to converse in that language, a vernacular that is dependant on socio-political stances, with that dependence alone varying around the world.
We may be 50 years ahead here in some ways, but let's not forget the death of Masha Amini in Iran just two months ago, an event that we're still feeling the effects of today while women continue to burn their headscarves in the streets and cut off their hair, acts that are supported by their male peers for the first time in history.
Pleasure is still a privilege; it's down to us to help Vernon nourish, protect and widen that privilege, empowering ourselves and others worldwide through validation and transformation.