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August 08, 2016

Joani Blank: A Remembrance

Yesterday, AVN reported that Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank had passed away. Journalist Kim Airs, who also has been a retailer of sex toys for many years, celebrates the memory of the pleasure product industry giant. Above, left, the young Joani Blank; right, Blank (center) with Jackie Strano and Carol Queen at the 35th anniversary celebration of Good Vibrations. There are not many people you meet in life that you wish everyone you know could share the joy in knowing, too. One of those people in my life was Joani Blank. Joani Blank, the subtle yet outspoken founder of the revolutionary store Good Vibrations, passed away at home on August 6 at age 79, from pancreatic cancer. She had been diagnosed in late June and took what many would consider devastating news and created a positive exit many people would envy. Just like she lived her life. Joani was always the outspoken and generous woman who questioned things and created worlds where none existed before. In the field of sexuality and sex education, Joani was truly a pioneer. A native of Belmont, Massachusetts, Joani had a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact personality, which reflected her upbringing in the Boston suburb. After attending Oberlin College, majoring in anthropology and sociology, where she remained a proud alumnus her whole life, she wound up in the San Francisco area in the 1960s. Her candidness around sexuality during the ’60s revolution of free love never seceded from Joani’s life. She never understood why sexuality and sex was considered taboo and while combining that outlook with her sociology skills, created a publishing company called “Down There Press,” a play on the term which people use often refer to their genitalia. Down There Press’ first book was The Playbook for Women About Sex, published in 1975. And a playbook it was! Featuring simple line drawings with quizzes and fill-in-the-blanks (no pun intended), the book created a comfortable atmosphere for women to explore their feelings, attitudes and bodies when it came to sex. In 1976 the companion book, The Playbook for Men About Sex, came out, followed by The Playbook for Kids in 1978. But something happened in between. Joani realized there was no “clean, well lighted place” for women to shop for vibrators and sex toys in San Francisco, so in 1977, she opened the first location of Good Vibrations in the then-seedy Mission area of the city. History was made. The store expanded to a larger storefront on Valencia in the Mission soon after. Believing that women needed to try out vibrators in order to be comfortable with them before buying one, Joani encouraged women to experiment in the bathroom of the store. With a hand-printed sign on the wall asking women to try the vibrators over their clothes, the “try out room” remained a staple of Good Vibrations for many years. For many women, Joani changed their lives by giving them permission that this was okay to do. She also changed the world of sex toys. During the early years of Good Vibrations, the only ones available were hard plastic, cylindrical vibrators generally created for internal stimulation. Joani always knew that many women obtained their pleasure from external, clitoral vibration and while a cylindrical vibe could do that, something that was created strictly for hands-free clitoral stimulation did not exist. So Joani came up with the world’s first hands-free, strapped-on clitoral vibrator, simply called “Joani’s Butterfly.” Yep. The very first one. And yes, I owned one, and yes, it rocked my world. In 1992, I had also believed that Boston needed a change as there were no other “clean, well lighted” places for women to buy vibrators in the Boston area and I wanted to change that. The only way I could learn about these stores was to apprentice in one and that store was Good Vibrations in San Francisco. In keeping with Joani’s philosophy of sharing, she had recently shifted the store from being the sole owner to becoming one of the first co-operative stores in the Bay Area, making the workers of the store, owners as well. The staff embraced Joani’s business outlook and enthusiastically accepted my application to become the second apprentice at the store. That was in March 1993. And that’s when Joani and I became friends. She generously shared with me her deep business acumen, her attitude about creating a store like Good Vibrations (and subsequently my store, Grand Opening!) and advised me in so many ways on how to navigate the world of sexuality retail: to be inclusive and honestly, with clarity and a good dose of humor. I had originally planned on having the store open to only women, similar to what my East Coast mentor, Dell Williams of Eve’s Garden (which opened in 1972), had done. Joani questioned doing that, advising me, “You’re creating a store that sleazy guys won’t want to go to because there’s nothing tantalizing for them there!” She again was spot-on. We also shared our passion for Boston and during her many trips back east to visit her family, Joani would check on my store to see how things were going. I’d lunch with her sister (also a resident of Brookline, where my store was located) as well as with her parents. She was the friend of everyone she met. Joani’s life wasn’t all about sex and sex toys and Good Vibrations, too. She taught countless classes on many diverse topics and devoted herself to the growth of co-housing in the United States. Popular in Europe, co-housing was relatively new to the US and often referred to as communal living. Joani was very active in the early days of co-housing and continued to live in emerging co-housing developments, often supporting the renovation of old, abandoned buildings being repurposed for housing. She lived for many years near the tracks in an area that was full of empty warehouses, which grew into the urban hub of Emeryville, in the East Bay of San Francisco. She later saw the opportunity to move to the burgeoning downtown Oakland area when no one wanted to step foot there, never mind move there. She was one of the pioneers of the redevelopment of Swansway Market, now a popular living and working center in trendy downtown Oakland.  After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June and realizing she did not have long to live, she gave away many of her possessions, and after making sure her daughter and grandchildren were going to be taken care of, proudly donated her savings to socially minded organizations in need, encouraging others to do the same. She wanted to have a gathering of her friends so she organized her 79th birthday party on the Fourth of July (which I proudly attended) and held her own Celebration of Life a week before her passing. She didn’t believe in her own funeral because, during a conversation we had after her diagnosis, she shared, “What will I care? I’ll be dead!” That’s true Joani if there ever was! Summing up Joani’s life cannot be done on mere words on a page. She touched thousands of people through her philosophy, generosity, honesty, sincerity, brevity, bluntness, brilliance, fierceness, kindness, spirituality and, most of all, sexuality. So the next time you use or sell a hands-free clitoral vibrator, remember the woman pioneer who started it all, my friend and now yours, Joani Blank. Godspeed.

 
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