Good Vibrations: Center of Pleasure Activism

From FoundSF

Historical Essay

by Elizabeth Sullivan

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Comparative shopping at Good Vibrations
Photo: Phyllis Christopher

Big cities have always been the place to go to for sex. But why has the city of San Francisco in particular produced so many sex activists, and such a vital, visionary pro-sex movement?

Joani Blank, founder of the Good Vibrations sex store, claims it's the testosterone. "Really," she says, "all the gay men living in this city does have something to do with it -- sexual energy is driven by testosterone in both men and women. It's not an excuse to exploit people but it's a biological fact." Gay men have been especially attracted to San Francisco, at least since the 1940s. The mystique of the frontier frees people, and there's a sense that civilization doesn't reach from the East coast. People move here to change their lives; it's the decadent "Baghdad by the Bay."

In early 1975, Blank published her first book: "The Playbook for Women About Sex". She had left UCSF, acquired her Marriage and Family Counseling license and was running women's sexuality workshops for small groups. She was also running sex communication workshops with her husband, marriage contract workshops, and the ever-popular women's sexuality workshops for men.

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Historic vibrators in the Good Vibrations in-store museum.

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Vibrator Demo

Video clip: Caitlin Manning's "Stripped Bare"

In her consciousness-raising group, there was some talk about vibrators and how fantastic they were for women to experiment with. Unless a woman was confident enough to march into an all-male adult sex shop, however, it was next to impossible to buy a vibrator. Most didn't even know what one was, let alone their power to unleash sexual satisfaction in a broad range of women. There should be a store where women can feel comfortable trying out the range of toys and literature, they decided, and by March of 1977 Blank had pulled it together. She started the first storefront as a sole proprietorship on 22nd St. at Guererro, near Cafe Babar, in 1977.

In November of 1977 Blank's adopted daughter was born and she hired someone to help out in the store. They gradually grew from there. It went slowly, with practically no advertising, and there were days, Blank says, where she took in only twenty six dollars. But word-of mouth was a powerful force in the tight-knit feminist community of the 1970s, and soon Good Vibrations grew to be an integral member of the Valencia Street corridor of women's spaces. Frustrated by the missing information on vibrators, as well as the sexist perspectives of many manual writers ("Vibrators are no substitute for a penis"-- New Joy of Sex) Joani Blank, in 1976, wrote and published the only guide to vibrators that exists: "Good Vibrations: The Complete Guide to Vibrators".

The store moved to 1210 Valencia Street and grew into a two-location worker-owned and democratically-run business. In 1985 Good Vibrations expanded to offer an extensive mail-order catalog. In 1989 Joani initiated the process of converting Good Vibrations into a worker-owned business, and that process was completed in 1992.

"Joani had always encouraged her employees to participate in decision-making" Good Vibrations's web site reports, "Staff had always met regularly to discuss policies and procedures, including setting their own salaries." Unlike most businesses, policy is set through an open process of considering the environmental, economic and human impacts of business decisions.

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Interior of Good Vibrations, mid-1990s.

Photo: Phyllis Christopher

Good Vibrations has been selling vibrators, dildos, cock rings, and other sexual toys and books in San Francisco's Mission District for over 20 years now. Joked of as the "clean well-lighted place to get a butt plug," Good Vibrations is partly responsible for the air of celebration that exists around sexual pleasure in this city. The stores are well-stocked, customer-friendly, celebratory and even activist about sex. Frequently they sponsor workshops and lectures with titles like "Female Sexuality for Men Only." People are drawn to the message that sex is wonderful, joyful, and nothing to be ashamed of.

P.S. The collective's business went into severe decline in the wake of 9/11 and in the early 2000s sold itself to a large porn purveyor. It continues to be largely self-managed, but the "good ol' days" are clearly over. One former employee wrote this thinly veiled send-up of his experience in the collective.

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