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Alumna Makes Women's Sex Lives Her Business

by Ariella Cohen

At first glance you notice a neatly groomed sweater set and matching gold jewelry. The founder of Good Vibrations sex shop, Joani Blank, (OC '59) reminds you of seventh grade health. Then she opens her mouth. Blank is no run-of-the-mill sex ed. teacher. Wilder 112 quieted Sunday night as she jumped into the evening's discussion.

Founded in 1977, Good Vibrations came about in response to a need Blank observed while working in family planning. She realized many women in the field were uncomfortable with sexuality. Consequently, workers were counseling women in a way Blank found to be negative. "I opened Good Vibrations in order to provide a comfortable space for women to explore sexuality," Blank said.

Vibrators and other sex toys make up the largest component of the sex superstore. Books, including 23 published by Blank's own publishing company, Down There Press, and other assorted sex related materials fill the popular San Francisco landmark.

Good Vibrations aims to promote sexual positivity for both men and women but especially strives to open women's eyes to the joys of sex. "Activists are really concerned about oppression, but 80 to 90 percent of all Americans, cutting across class, gender, race and ethnicity lines, are sexually unhappy and that dissatisfaction is one thing that can be relieved by education," Blank said.

Blank believes much of contemporary sexual education dwells on the negative, ignoring sexuality's ability to empower women. "Encouraging someone to be aware of their own sexuality is activism," Blank said when asked by students how to work in sexual activism. "Family planning clinics and organizations such as Planned Parenthood and other more alternative options are places to do really positive things promoting healthy sexuality."

Sexual positivity is something many at Oberlin want to encourage. With activities such as Safer Sex night and Drag Ball, campus activists try to promote sexual awareness and freedom. "I wish everyone could hear, see and deal with in-your-face sexuality but they can't, and I am struggling to figure out how to educate in different ways. Even people who are tearing down sexually bold posters and boycotting Safer Sex Night need to be aware of sexuality. Even just so when they are married they can deal with it," Blank said, as members of SIC discussed varying campus reactions to last week's theme party.

"I feel my Oberlin environment is very sex positive, but the campus is divided and when I have windows into other circles on this campus I don't see that same positivity," senior Laura Levin said.

Blank has made it her life's mission to climb in these windows and create the positive attitudes she thinks women need in order to heal and survive as sexual beings. "It means more to me that one small town wife enjoys her once-a-week sex than some person decides to try out S&M," Blank said.

Even the church is not exempt from her particular brand of proselytizing. Blank has helped guide the Unitarian Church movement into a sexual awareness and education policy she found appropriate to different populations and positive for all students. "I love to talk about sex on Sundays, especially when I am wearing my flaming chalice," Blank said, fingering the silver religious pendant she wears around her neck.

Blank remembers an Oberlin where Fairchild was inhabited by theology students and a mixed sex couple could not be in a dorm room alone unless at least three feet were firmly rooted to the ground and the door was left six inches open.

"In comparison with Oberlin's history and other college campuses, Oberlin is very gay-friendly and sexually positive. But in any environment there is going to be sexual negativity and we need to find ways to reach out and fix that," Blank said.

"It's hard to get people to admit that they don't know everything about sex but once you do, the education can really change people's lives," she told her wide-eyed audience, smiling.

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Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 129, Number 7, November 3, 2000

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