If you lived in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1977, you might have stumbled upon a tiny shop, about the size of a large parking space, with potted plants, macramé hangings on the walls, and a display case full of antique vibrators. Just down the street from a women’s cafe and a feminist bookstore that were part of the burgeoning women’s district, the store, at the time, was gaining attention in the local press for its head spinning array of sexual products and the disarmingly charming woman who ran it, sex educator and therapist Joani Blank.
Despite the store’s humble appearance, Good Vibrations would eventually become a standard bearer in an industry with few standards, a clearinghouse for sexual information in a sexually anemic culture, and an inspiration to feminist and queer-identified entrepreneurs everywhere who wanted to follow in Blank’s sex-positive footsteps.
Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank died at home on August 6 from pancreatic cancer. She was 79.
I met Blank more than a decade ago when I was working on my PhD dissertation on the history of feminist sex-toy stores. I interviewed her numerous times over the years, getting to know her well in the process. Last December I spent a week at her home in Oakland, California, helping her organize her papers to donate to Cornell University’s Human Sexuality Collection. Surrounded by boxes of memos, news clippings, letters, and ephemera, we talked about her family, her travels, her work with Planned Parenthood, her passion for cohousing, and how she ended up having an FBI file. As we sat on the floor of her bedroom loft, she told me the story of Down There Press, which she founded in 1975, and we flipped through the pages of some of the books she’d written, including The Playbook for Women About Sex, The Playbook for Men About Sex, and A Kid’s First Book About Sex. When I asked her for the umpteenth time where the idea to start a vibrator shop for women came from, she said, in a characteristically Joani Blank fashion: “Me being smart.”
In founding Good Vibrations, Blank brought to life an alternative vision of what a vibrator shop could be—wholesome, comfy, and women-friendly, with an emphasis on sexual education. Although Good Vibrations was not the first feminist sex-toy business—Dell Williams founded Eve’s Garden in New York in 1974—the company quickly became an innovator and industry leader. Blank prided herself on the fact that she was not a traditional businessperson (“I hated business,” she always told me). She was far more interested in what Good Vibrations did in the world—e.g., making books, sex toys, and sexual information available to as many people as possible—rather than how much money it made. She valued cooperative businesses practices—even selling Good Vibrations to her employees in 1992—and was extremely noncompetitive. She felt there should be a business like Good Vibrations in every shopping mall, in every city, a place where people could get their sex toys and accurate information about sex free from stigma and shame. So when aspiring entrepreneurs began approaching her in the early 1990s about opening stores like hers, she said, “Come on down. Let me teach you what I know.” With a spirit of generosity rarely seen in the often-cutthroat world of business, Blank freely shared financial information and vendor lists and, on more than one occasion, loaned new retailers start-up money to get their businesses off the ground and helped established ones stay afloat when times got tough.
Blank didn’t just talk the talk, she walked the walk, and in doing so, she ensured that Good Vibrations’ DNA, and its mission of sex education, would travel far and wide. As Babeland cofounder Rachel Venning recalled in a blog post remembering Blank, “She was generous in all ways and I don’t know where, or if, Babeland would be without her.” Retailer Nenna Joiner, who opened Feelmore in Oakland in 2011, and for whom Blank was both a friend and a mentor, agreed. “[Blank] lived what she talked about: Small businesses and co-ops were her passion. She wanted everyone to win.”
The daughter of a former schoolteacher and a research scientist, Blank was born on July 4, 1937 and grew up in the Boston suburbs with her younger sister, Bobbie. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1959, where she studied anthropology and sociology, she spent a year traveling the world. She journeyed solo by train through India with just an overnight bag, her guitar, and a purse, taking Indian dance classes and working at a camp outside of Madras. After returning home, she earned a master’s degree in Asian studies at the University of Hawaii and another master’s in public health from the University of North Carolina with an emphasis on community health and family planning.
Blank moved to San Francisco in 1971 and soon after met Maggi Rubenstein, a nurse, bisexual activist, and sex educator who cofounded San Francisco Sex Information (SFSI) and several other major sexuality organizations in San Francisco. Blank was part of SFSI’s first group of volunteers, and it was through the connections she made there that she met up-and-coming, now legendary, sex therapist Lonnie Barbach and began working with preorgasmic women at the sex therapy program at the University of California, San Francisco, teaching them how to orgasm.
“The San Francisco of the 1970s was an amazing ferment of sexualities, identities, and new ideas that gave us SF Sex Information, the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, many sex-related clubs and affinity groups, women’s cultural entities…and Good Vibrations,” recalled Good Vibrations longtime staff sexologist Carol Queen. “It was the perfect primordial soup to catalyze with Joani Blank’s ideas about social change.”
In her books, and eventually her small vibrator shop, Blank helped give form to what would eventually become known as “sex-positive feminism.” She blended the educationally oriented and quasi-therapeutic approach to talking about sex that she had refined as a sex therapist with aspects of 1970s feminist consciousness-raising and humanistic sexology, turning her small vibrator shop into a sexual resource center for anyone who might wander in. She felt that talking about sex should be as casual as talking about the weather; she also believed that sexual information was a birthright and that no one should be made to feel ashamed or embarrassed for wanting more pleasure in their life.
“Everything we know and love about vibrators, the new sex toy technologies, the proliferation of feminist- and queer-run sex-positive stores around the country—all of them have a piece of Joani’s vision, attitude, and spirit in them,” sex educator and writer Tristan Taormino wrote in an email. “Her legacy in the sex-positive world—and beyond—is huge and undeniable.”
When Blank was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June, she decided to treat the symptoms but not the disease, preferring instead to make the most of the time she had left with the people she loved, including, especially, her daughter and grandchildren. I visited her in late June, bringing her a bunch of sunflowers that I placed in a vase on the same table where just months before we had sorted through a lifetime of papers, photos, and memories. I saw her one last time in mid-July at a Good Vibrations reunion at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. Blank stepped away from the company shortly after selling it to the workers, and the gathering brought together former Good Vibrations employees from the 1980s and those who continue to carry the torch today. There were tears and laughter and speeches, and Blank, looking visibly thinner than she had just weeks earlier, was soaking it all in. Microphone in hand, people paid tribute to Blank, letting her know how much they had learned from her about business, ethics, publishing, sex-positivity, and life, defining, in deeply personal terms, the scope of the legacy she leaves behind.
“We were all young women who came from wherever we came from, and you showed us how to speak up for ourselves,” Anne Semans, who played a vital role growing Good Vibrations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, told Blank that night. “And we’ve taken that and gone on to be amazing women in the world, saying what we want to say—and you gave us something to say: whether it was sex, feminism, worker ownership, alternative business practices, or cohousing. You gave me, and a lot of people here, a home and a workplace, and you accepted and nurtured us. We are here, in all of our iterations in life, because of you.”
Rest in power, Joani Blank. You were a visionary, a go-getter, and a true pioneer. You helped make the world a better, more sex-positive place, and you will be sorely missed.