This Women’s History Month, we wanted to introduce you to some lesser-known women in history: the Women of Sexual Wellness History. Today’s profile is on Joani Blank, another woman whose example inspired us to start Nox—enjoy!
While Dell Williams may have opened the very first woman-run sex shop, Joani Blank built the blueprint for all of us that would follow her. Joani Blank was pretty much a sexual wellness jack of all trades: an entrepreneur and the founder of Good Vibrations, writer of nine books, sex educator, an all-around innovator in the field of sexuality. Using her platform to spread the good word about sex-positive feminism, Joani also served on the board of directors for the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, which publishes the Journal of Sex Research, and facilitated many workshops on sexuality, eroticism, masturbation, and sexual education for young people. Her many papers are preserved in the Cornell Library’s Human Sexuality Collection.
It started like this: Joani, who held a master’s degree in public health education, was hired at the University of California, San Francisco by the famed sex therapist Lonnie Barbach to work with ‘pre-orgasmic’ women who had difficulty achieving orgasm. The sheer commonness of this experience for women inspired Joani to develop her business model, a sex toy store and practical research center where any woman would be able to access pleasure products and information in a comfortable and safe environment. (That’s part of our mandate, too—thanks Joani!)
In 1975, Joani founded Down There Press, which published sex-related books, including the popular I Am My Lover; shortly after, in 1977, she opened Good Vibrations in the San Francisco Bay Area, considered the second-ever feminist sex toy business in the United States, following Eve’s Garden. In her own words, Joani wanted a shop that was ‘clean and well-lighted’, compared to the darker, dingier adult bookstores that were the norm in San Francisco at that time. Her mission statement for the shop was that sexual pleasure is everyone’s birthright, an that consenting adults should be able to make sexual choices without judgement.
Blank's 1978 book on self-love, I Am My Lover: Women Pleasure Themselves.
Though she was a driven and successful entrepreneur, she was not a dishonest one by any means: she refused to stock cheap plastic and rubber toys, preferring to sell only the best-quality products and willing giving supplier lists and stacks of info to any women looking to open similar shops in their own towns. Not long afterward, Blank effectively gave the business away to her employees, creating the parent Open Enterprises that functioned as a cooperative, owned and operated by the workers.
Joani was something of a vibrator historian—her collection of antique vibrators, originally displayed in her flagship store, was meant to illustrate the historical treatment of women’s ‘hysteria’ as something dysfunctional and help women to reclaim the idea of their sexual agency. Her collection eventually grew into the Antique Vibrator Museum, (roadtrip anyone??!!) which displays pieces from the late 1800s all the way up through the 1970s, when Good Vibrations was born. She was also the inventor of the Butterfly vibrator, a strap-on model devised to give women evenly applied, hands-free clitoral stimulation, which remains a popular seller with many variations to this day.
The Antique Vibrator Museum
Blank passed away recently in 2016 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer, but her legacy lives on; Good Vibrations, which has since been sold to a larger parent corporation, still runs seven locations in California and two in Massachusetts, and is still considered one of the most trusted and education-forward sex toy retailers around. Vibrators are no longer considered guilty pleasures, and feminist sex toy shops in general, like ours, can even be considered mainstream—so we think it’s safe to say that Joani Blank made a lasting impression in the field of sexuality, for all kinds of women and men.
Thanks, Joani, for showing us the way!