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Art & Books

Siren Call


Sexual anthropologist Betony Vernon is on a mission. Will you join her?


Photography by Ali Mahdavi

Betony Vernon, who has red hair, red nails, and red lips, leans across the pony-hair table with its porcelain cups of rooibos tea and holds my gaze. "You have a seam on your testicles," she says in her deep, elegant accent that hovers somewhere between her native Virginia and her adopted cities of Paris and Milan. "You are sewn up by some cosmic force of nature -- otherwise you'd have a pussy, too."

It is late on a Saturday afternoon in the Marais, and the pale winter light is fading fast. Vernon, who is tall and slim and sports a 1970s Yves Saint Laurent men's suit ("Get your hand on that -- impeccable!"), points to a white sculpture on a console. It resembles a giant shirataki noodle -- if it was made of marble and had a scrotum for a base--that is looped suggestively through itself.

"This is called The Origin," she says. "It's male and female at the same time. It's sort of an homage, not only to penetration -- to man and to woman -- but also to the middle sex." A much bigger version, three meters tall, is currently on display at the Trienalle in Milan as part of an exhibition on sex and design, a subject on which Vernon is well versed. Her erotic, multipurpose jewelry has attracted a dedicated following since its debut in 1992 and has inspired her second career as an advocate for sexual creativity.

Vernon's Wikipedia page credits her for inventing the term "sado-chic," but her crusade for better sex goes far beyond her elegant bedroom toys: She wants to illuminate the threads that connect men and women, to coax us into a deeper appreciation of our bodies. This month, Rizzoli publishes The Boudoir Bible, a closing-the-circle moment for Vernon, who has a vivid memory of purloining a copy of The Joy of Sex from her local library at age 12 and eagerly, guiltily, devouring it. She'd like nothing better than for a new generation to find similar enlightenment in her book, subtitled "The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today," in which she encourages experimentation and play.

From left: Bondage kit; gold clamps; petting ring.

More important, Vernon wants to save relationships from boredom and decline. "Desire has a shelf life -- that automatic 'I need you, I want you, I'm going to devour you,' " she says. "That sort of thing, it's been clinically proven, can last from one day to, max, four years; after that, you'd better have some skill sets."

As for erotica's current lodestone, Fifty Shades of Grey, Vernon, whose own literary tastes run from Somerset Maugham to the Marquis de Sade, is conflicted. E.L. James's runaway bestseller has lead to a spike in the sale of Ben Wa balls, a popular number in Vernon's own Paradise Found collection, but the author's literary style leaves her cold. "I don't think she's someone who's actually ever been on her knees," she says archly. "It sort of feels as if she's studied it rather than lived it, but I do have to thank her for bringing different kinds of living to the people."

Vernon calls out from the darkness below. "This is the boudoir," she says, as the lights flicker on and I descend the corkscrew staircase to her 17th-century cellar, where she stores her Paradise Found collection, about 180 pieces, in a large armoire.

"I add things, but, as Gertrude Stein would say, a cock is a cock is a cock," she says, retrieving a silver butt plug from its holder. "These are anal tools," she explains. "It comes in a set of three, because, as you know, if the anus is dilated gradually, it can take on quite large things."

Although her clients tend to be women, Vernon thinks men, gay and straight, would benefit as much, if not more, from her services. "If someone comes to me and says, 'I can only be a top and I can't do anything else,' I say, 'Well, that's your limit -- why don't you start to poke around that limit and see what happens.' That's where barriers are broken, that's where we have revelations. But it does take trust, and you're not going to do it with someone you're never going to see again, whose face you maybe don't even see online."

Vernon sculpting The Origin

An online hookup is also unlikely to be the best place in which to explore one of Vernon's other biblical injunctions: delayed ejaculation. It is, she says, the hardest lesson to learn. "For the past 2,000 years, men have been told that they are actually born as sexual superiors," she says. "Women, don't forget, were punished for having an orgasm -- get out your rosary beads. I'm able to do what I'm doing today because of what happened in the '60s and '70s; because of people like Kinsey, and because of the sexual rights revolution when women began to break free from the ropes of a phallocentric society and gay men got inspired."

Surprisingly, the most popular item from Vernon's collection isn't a bullwhip or paddle (made of sustainable wood) or the nipple clamps or various restraints -- it's a simple and benign-looking massage ring with a row of pearl-sized balls running along the top. But like everything else in her boudoir, its appearance is deceptive. "I'm going to give you a little bit of a massage so you can understand what actually can happen," she says, running the ring gently over my shoulders. "The goal with them is to do something that the hands can't do." The balls of the ring send tingles down my spine, releasing tensions I didn't realize I had.

Vernon steps back, delighted with the effect she has produced. "You couldn't do that with your hands," she whispers in my ear. "Imagine that on your sex, darling."

The Boudoir Bible (Rizzoli, $35) is out January 22.

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