Fashion & Beauty / Culture Talks

The Sexual Anthropologist Behind a Box of Erotic Jewellery

We speak with jeweller and sexual anthropologist Betony Vernon about the pitfalls of dating app culture, and getting her silver ‘dilettos' through airport security

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Illustration by Francois BerthoudCourtesy of Betony Vernon

I could have spoken with Betony Vernon for hours. It was one of those rare phone interviews that started off in the usual manner, but by the time I hung up the receiver I felt like I had made a new friend. The connection is likely due to the fact that she is incredibly open in the way she speaks about sex and relationships – a breath of fresh air in a climate where the pervasive ‘swipe’ and the constant monitoring of WhatsApp ticks turning blue seems to take precedence over any form of authentic communication and intimacy.

While we veered off on various tangents, the crux of our talk surrounded Vernon’s Boudoir Box, a case of erotic fine jewellery designed by the American-born sex anthropologist (who also has a background in metalsmithing and industrial design) to sit between wearable objets d’art and tools to stimulate the entire body. The box has never before been shown in public, and will sit along works from Meret Oppenheim, May Ray and Alexander Calder at a new exhibition titled MEDUSA: Jewellery and Taboos opening today at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.

“I am stepping into the light for the first time and it feels good,” she tells me, on why she decided to unveil the Boudoir Box 17 years after its creation. Prior to now, Vernon had only ever used the sensory tool kit on private clients, to teach classes on sexual wellbeing and technique. “The taboo of pleasure is still a huge inhibitor for intimacy. In the current climate, it’s even worse. I mean I feel like we are at the risk of tumbling backwards, and quickly,” she continues. Here are just a few pearls of her wisdom.

On the objects inside the Boudoir Box…
“The idea was to stroke all of the senses. So inside the box there is everything from a masturbation mirror to objects for massaging each other; objects for the inside of the body as well as the outside of the body. There are anal dilators, what I call dilettos because I hate the word dildo: dilettos, which means ‘to delight’ in Latin. There’s also an ostrich feather tickler and a petting ring. My work has a double role – it’s jewellery as much as it is an object that can be used to provide sensations, so there is a leather woven necklace that is also a whip. My focus is always on full body stimulation. The idea that we just focus on the genitals is so limited when the entire body is riddled with nerve endings.”

On photographing the box…
“In 2004, I had organised for Helmut Newton to shoot the box fully in St. Tropez. The idea of shooting it was a little bit scary for me, but because it was Newton I said ‘ok we’ll do it! It’s Helmut Newton! Why not?’ And then I got a call a week later informing me that he had a stroke earlier that week and died. Then in 2006, photographer Jeff Burton shot the box in the museum house of Carlo Mollino. It was the first erotic shoot ever done in the house since Mollino shot there himself. Although these images were never released and I decided to keep them private until 2017, to coincide with the box going on display at the MEDUSA exhibition.”

On travelling with the box…
“It would go through the scanning machine and security would immediately start hustling around me saying, ‘Madame! Madame! We have to check this box!’ And I’d agree to it of course, but only in a private room. I didn’t want to open up the box in the middle of the airport, it was just inappropriate and especially because I had always been so private with it. So I would find myself in the back of the customs area where they do the private checking and it would end up being a group of people looking inside. And they’d always ask the same questions: ‘Madame what is this?’ and I would respond with ‘it’s called a whip collar’. And then they would always enquire as to whether it hurts, which I would respond ‘it depends on how you use it, Sir!’”

On mobile dating apps…
“I think we have the impression that we are sexually liberated because we can consume the sexual experience. Unfortunately I think it’s very naïve as the mind, body, spiritual connection is not present in consumerist sex. It’s almost like a supermarket of sex – to continue to give your body or share your body with unknown people as if they were throwaway objects. I published a French re-edition of my book The Boudoir Bible: The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today in November, because I wanted to add in a chapter about digital dating. Don’t get me wrong, if you use these apps intelligently it can have positive results – I still know a lot of people who have met online and formulated a real connection. But I did a few salons recently with lots of different kinds of people of all sexual orientations and ages, to see what the general impression of this phenomenon was. The feedback seemed to be that most women had issues with the fact that sex is perpetuated through dating apps as a quick fix for men. It does very little for female pleasure. And I think that’s where the danger lies. You don’t really know who you’ve got in front of you and at times it’s like being swiped into the trash can.”

MEDUSA: Jewellery and Taboos runs until November 5, 2017, at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris.

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