You may not have heard of her, but the chances are excellent that she changed your life.
Joani Blank was, among many other things, the founder of Good Vibrations, the feminist sex toy store. You might be thinking, “Which feminist sex toy store? There are so many!” There are now. There weren’t in 1977. Good Vibrations was only the second one in the United States (the first was Eve’s Garden in New York). The roaring success of Good Vibrations made it clear that women cared about sex and wanted to improve their sex lives — and that sex shops didn’t have to be sleazy, shameful holes in the wall with shoddy goods. If you’ve ever bought sex toys, sex information, erotica, lube, or other goodies in a pleasant, shame-free environment (brick-and-mortar or online), one that welcomed men but focused on women, your life was changed by Joani Blank. She died of pancreatic cancer on August 6, 2016.
Like tens of thousands of women, I bought my first vibrator at Good Vibrations. I screwed up my courage and walked into the store, excited but nervous and embarrassed — and found a clean, well-lighted place where sexual products were sold openly and without shame, with clear information about which product did what, and a well-informed staff that would help you make your decision as if sex was healthy and entirely ordinary. The store Joani founded did more than just sell sex products. It changed the way people see sex. She shaped tens of thousands of lives. Probably hundreds of thousands.
Her effect on the world didn’t end with vibrators. Blank was one of the pioneers of the feminist sex-positive movement, advocating for clear, open, evidence-based, shame-free sex education and information. In addition to starting Good Vibrations, in 1975 she founded Down There Press, the feminist publisher of both fiction and non-fiction sex books. She was one of the first volunteers at San Francisco Sex Information. And Good Vibrations itself has always been a clearinghouse for sex information: their staff has always been a wellspring of information, and they’ve offered sex-ed classes for years. This seems ordinary now, but when Blank started her work, it was anything but. She’s one of the people who made it possible. If you’ve had access to good information about sex — and felt comfortable looking for it — Joani Blank changed your life.
And she was just a swell person. I didn’t know her well, but we traveled in the same San Francisco alt-sex/ sex-positive world, and I always found her to be kind, warm, generous, thoughtful, funny, and caring. And she faced her impending death with a courage, wisdom, and acceptance I hope to have when I die.
I could go on at length. She had a living memorial a week before she died, and I learned about areas of her life and work and activism I had no idea about: her early and tireless advocacy for co-housing, her social justice work in the Unitarian Church. But I mostly knew her through her work in sexuality, and that’s how I will always remember her.