From sexology to erotic jewelry design, Vernon’s three-decade career draws on countless disciplines in the fight for our right to pleasure
“I try to make my life as erotic as possible. For me, even going shopping for vegetables is erotic. Getting dressed in the morning is erotic—I like to wear silk, and fabrics that feel good on the skin,” says Betony Vernon, gesturing at the flowing mulberry dress she donned for our Zoom call. “And eroticism isn’t just about sex… Eroticism is about everything that you do. It’s about the way that you cook. It’s about the way that you create an ambiance to receive friends. It’s about the way that you move through the world—and it doesn’t have to be in the service of men or sex.”
Not that she’s averse to either of those things. Quite the opposite: Vernon has been exploring human sexuality over the course of a prolific 30 year career, spanning from erotic jewelry design to her work as a sexologist, author, and clinical hypnotherapist. Her fiercely interdisciplinary approach is informed by a simple pursuit: to make life better for people on a daily basis, in a society that is privileged in all aspects—except in its refusal to center pleasure. “Monotheistic religion has done everything in its power to suppress our sexualities, so there’s not much missing from our lives in the West,” she says, “except for information and design around sex.”
When Vernon started designing erotic jewelry at the age of 21, she was unaware that her designs would activate the American taboo tripwire. It was the late-’90s, and at the time, the idea of using luxury materials for a sensual experience was “completely foreign” in a culture that didn’t value its merits. So when Vernon presented her erotic jewelry to luxury department stores like Barneys, they panicked. “The buyer looked at me and said, You can’t do this.” In that moment, she realized she’d hit a nerve—but rather than discouraging her, this resistance only served to confirm the radical nature of what she was doing. “When I launched my first full-blown erotic jewelry collection, I lost all my relationships with luxury retailers,” she says. “Everyone was telling me, You’re a pervert, you’re crazy. And I was like, Thank you so much!”
This was the cultural landscape into which Vernon launched her pioneering “jewel-tools”: multifunctional objects that straddle the line between adornment and sex toy, from the “massage ring”—a simple, unobtrusive design constructed to enhance the pleasure of touch—to the “love lock,” a collar with an attachment that doubles as a cock ring, connecting one person to the other. She wanted to design pieces that could go “from the opera to the boudoir,” empowering their wearer with the ability to please—but she didn’t realize that would be revolutionary. “Going into this, I was blissfully naïve,” she says. “I thought, Surely everybody wants to have a great sex life. But it quickly became clear that, not only did people not want to talk about pleasure—they were actually terrified of pleasure.”
Witnessing the pushback against her work led Vernon to investigate the wide-ranging impact of America’s puritanical streak—from the absence of sex education in schools, to the lack of well-designed sex toys on the market. “Whatever you put inside of the vagina, the anus, the mouth is going straight into the bloodstream,” she says. “And at the time, a majority of sex toys were made of flexible plastics. And when I started researching what was inside these materials, I thought, Why are we putting this inside ourselves?”
This inspired Vernon to start designing sex toys in precious metals like gold and silver—materials that “honor the body” and possess additional helpful qualities, from the antibacterial properties of silver to the conducive nature of copper alloys, which Vernon says “carries an electrical current” from one body to another. In Paradise Found, a book commemorating the fruits of her 30-year career in erotic design, Vernon explains the importance of “sexual ceremony:” a practice in which lovers “transcend the doldrums of everyday sex,” using her designs to guide one another to new heights of pleasure. While her jewel-tools are designed to tantalize and delight, she’s quick to state that sensation itself “isn’t enough”—rather, in order to experience deep satisfaction, the mind, body, and spirit must be treated as a united whole.
“Human sexuality is so big and expansive, even before it’s at the forefront of our psyche—and the fact that we lack education around this is one of the biggest deficits in modern society.”
It’s an approach embodied by jewel-tools like the “petting ring,” a male masturbation aid which constrains the index finger and thumb to form the chi mudra: a gesture used by practitioners of yoga and meditation to maintain a focused mind. (“Which is also essential for great sex,” Vernon adds.) Her jewelry is also designed to enhance psychological dynamics of erotic power exchange—something she firmly believes is not exclusive to BDSM. Rather, Vernon emphasizes that all intimacy requires one to submit themself to another’s desire to provide: to surrender to pleasure.
In her therapeutic work, Vernon utilizes a multidisciplinary approach that combines practical teachings with clinical hypnotherapy and other holistic methods to dismantle the socio-cultural boundaries that stand in the way of pleasure. Often, Vernon is approached by people who desperately want to reclaim their relationship with their bodies, whether as a result of sexual trauma or simply being raised within a sex-negative culture. “I work a lot with women who are afraid to let go during sex, because they don’t know what’s on the other side,” she says. “But if you don’t let go, you can’t experience an orgasm.”
Vernon wants people to understand that not only is seeking pleasure good for our health, but it’s also part of human nature. “Ultrasounds have shown that in their mother’s womb, little babies start stroking their genitals as soon as they’re fully formed, and they don’t stop stroking them for the rest of their lives,” she says. “Human sexuality is so big and expansive, even before it’s at the forefront of our psyche—and the fact that we lack education around this is one of the biggest deficits in modern society.”
According to Vernon, this lack of pleasure-focused sex education sets individuals up for failure, and consumer-capitalism up for success. “Broken people are great for economies,” Vernon asserts, explaining that not knowing how to tap into the “natural body pharmacy”—the “feel-good” hormones triggered by sexual intimacy, exercise, or food—leaves individuals more likely to fill the spiritual void with other sources of gratification, like a spending-induced dopamine rush.
She’s quick to admit that, because her jewel-tools are designed only in precious, body-safe metals, they’re more likely to be found in a museum than the average couple’s couple’s bedside drawer—meaning that while her design work might be a catalyst for conversation around the lack of sex-oriented design, it’s not the solution for people seeking to access pleasure in their daily lives. That’s why Vernon authored The Boudoir Bible: an erotic syllabus dedicated to the new frontiers of 21st-century sexuality, from kink to anal and back again (though notably, not back-to-front). “I wanted to create something accessible that everyone could have in the bedroom,” she says.
Having worked as a consultant for couples seeking sexual satisfaction, Vernon was struck by the realization that the primary culprit behind their disappointment was no longer taboo against the act of sex, but a lack of information about how to obtain pleasure from it—especially for people processing histories of sexual abuse and trauma, which Vernon believes is strategically perpetuated through our culture’s stigmatization of sex. “There is a war against pleasure in our society, and helping people discover it is a big social sin,” Vernon says. “The establishment doesn’t want you to understand your brain or your sexuality—because to understand one’s body and mind is to be empowered in all realms. It’s why every religion in the world has tried to take that power away, especially from women. I want to give that power back.”
In part, Vernon attributes her own liberatory attitude toward sex to her upbringing. Raised mostly by her sisters, she grew up on the Appalachian Trail without much parental guidance—something she describes as “very risky,” but also really great. “I was never told, Don’t do this, don’t do that, this is wrong,” she says, “so my belief system wasn’t tainted by adults.”
“To understand one’s body and mind is to be empowered in all realms. It’s why every religion in the world has tried to take that power away, especially from women. I want to give that power back.”
That’s not to say she didn’t have mentors. Her best friend’s mother, the spiritual teacher Asha Durkee, took Vernon under her wing—one day telling her, at the age of 18, that she was a “way-seer.” “I was like, What do you mean?” Vernon recalls. “And she said, You’re going to show people the way.” There, together in a sweat lodge, she “cried in the arms of her spiritual mother,” and took the first step on what would become her life’s path.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but I had revolution in my veins,” Vernon says, referencing her biological mother’s work as an activist with the Greensboro Four—which was, in part, why she lost custody of her children when Vernon was young. It’s a fact she didn’t learn until years later, when she visited a newly-opened museum dedicated to the fight for Civil Rights. She remembers calling her mother immediately, asking, “Why didn’t you tell me who you are?” Her mother’s response was simple: “Because it’s not about me.”
This was a potent teaching, and impressed upon Vernon the importance of carrying this spirit forward in her work at the new frontiers of pleasure advocacy—which, she reminds me, serves as an extension of the battles for sexual liberation, queer rights, and gender equality fought by her forerunners. “My work as a designer is just a catalyst for this conversation. It’s opened my mind and the minds of others, but real progress happens because of like-minded people coming together to fight for our rights,” Vernon says, explaining that often, these people find out about her work through word-of-mouth—in part because of the censorship she and others in the sex industry face on social media.
Yet despite these restrictions, people still reach out to her on a daily basis, saying things like, “Your work made me realize I was normal,” or, “Your work saved my life.” These words shook Vernon to her core, and helped her realize her life’s purpose: to normalize every form of consensual pleasure between adults, helping people to reclaim their relationship with eroticism of all kinds. “After all,” she says, “The pleasure centers of the brain are the ones that make us want to get out of bed in the morning. Through educating people about pleasure, we give them the keys to the mind.”