Gene Rohrer and his wife found themselves in the typical grind. They were busy and successful, but they didn’t have enough time for their kid or each other. So they threw it all away, and now lead an idyllic life in a small town in South Carolina. Their son fishes off a dock in the backyard and his parents have plenty of time for him now.
So how do these yuppie dropouts afford to live like some family out of a Norman Rockwell painting? By selling butt plugs over the Internet.
Mr. Rohrer was an M.B.A. trying to think up merchandising angles to pull Macy’s out of bankruptcy. His wife, Anne Chiaviello, was an attorney with Ron Brown’s logrolling Washington law firm of Patton Boggs. Most weekends, Mr. Rohrer took the shuttle down to Washington, where his son was being raised by a nanny. “It was insane,” said Mr. Rohrer, who got to know the other commuter dads as they sat on the runway at National Airport watching the sun rise and waiting for the 7 A.M. green light that lets planes take off. “We bought into that whole yuppie lifestyle about quality time versus quantity time.”
Then one day in 1994, when it looked like the whole family was going to move to New York permanently to help run the turned-around Macy’s, his wife said she didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore; she wanted to be a mom. “I said, sweetheart, you make way too much money, and so let’s never talk about this again,” Mr. Rohrer recalled. “And then Anne said, We’re not doing this. We’re going the other way.”
Mr. Rohrer’s side lost the battle to control Macy’s, anyway, and so the family moved to Beaufort, S.C., which is where Pat Conroy set the non-New York City scenes of his psychosexual novel The Prince of Tides .
“She was a big-time lawyer and I had this big-time job and our son was being raised by people who didn’t speak English,” Mr. Rohrer said. “That’s what it came down to.”
Now Ms. Chiaviello is a “full-time mom.” Mr. Rohrer and his wife run a business from their home that sells how-to sex videos, vibrators and other sex toys on their on-line site, www.sensualsource.com. Mr. Rohrer’s mother isn’t too happy about her son’s new vocation, but who asked her?
Sitting in the conference room of his publicist’s Broadway office, Gene Rohrer, 37, wore a chambray shirt, black tasseled loafers and blue and red floral print tie. He looked like a Sun Belt businessman: a bit red-faced, thickening around the middle, decent and wholesome and prosperous-looking right down to his West Point class ring.
From their site, which they run from their house on South Hermitage Road in Beaufort (though the computers and designers are in New York City) you can order, for $37.50, the Ultimate Beaver Vibrator, which looks something like a hand-carved Eskimo nature-worship totem; this little item is sure to “pay attention to two of the key ‘hot spots’ at the same time.” Or perhaps the Probe L’Amore Vibrator is more your style; it comes in two parts attached by a cord and runs $26. A video about “self anal massage for men” sells for $39.95; the instructor pays special attention to the details (he’s a former Jesuit priest, after all). And the ever popular “Solid Butt Plug” can be delivered to your doorstep from the Sensual Source warehouse in Arizona for a mere $26.
Mr. Rohrer does not appear to be a dangerous sex maniac. He has never seen Boogie Nights . But the former Airborne Ranger is quick to announce that his interest in adult toys and pornography is intensely personal. Back in 1995, when he was considering dropping out of the yuppie grind, he wasn’t exactly sure what to do for a living.
“We had a list of five ideas,” he said. “But then the adult business took a very personal turn for us.”
Mr. Rohrer said he and his mate started dabbling more and more in the adult merchandise themselves. Mr. Rohrer was extremely willing to talk about this over the burbling New Age music in the dim conference room-about how, after being married almost 15 years, they were then “learning about each other … you explore, you try new things …” Living in New York, he knew where to buy all the stuff. “There are terrific stores here,” he said. “There’s Eve’s Garden uptown. The Pleasure Chest is, uh, down there …” And that got him thinking: Where do you buy that “denim 3-snap cock ring” ($10.85) if you live in some outback of Tennessee? The idea might seem obvious, in retrospect; but it wasn’t easy to raise money in the beginning.
“It wasn’t your typical investment ploy,” Mr. Rohrer said. “People were afraid of the Internet and that their spouses and partners ‘wouldn’t understand.'” He quickly gave up on trying to raise funds in the uptight Northeast. “After the third or fourth lecture from a 23-year-old investment banker from Boston or New York, who’d say I was crazy-‘Oh, Gene, are you really sure you want to ruin your life this way?’…” It got worse. “I went to present to someone who I thought was a friend. When I was done, he physically pushed himself away from his desk and said, ‘What you are doing is immoral and we have nothing more to talk about.’ I was a bit taken aback.”
But for all his New Age, self-fulfillment proselytizing, Mr. Rohrer is no pervert wrapped in the American flag. He’s still that Georgetown M.B.A. who took a look at an industry-admittedly, one that interested him intensely-and saw that it wasn’t operating as an efficient retail mechanism. “It wasn’t systematized,” is how Mr. Rohrer put it.
Since he attended his first Adultdex sex-toy trade show in 1995, Mr. Rohrer has networked his way through the porn business. His consultants have just returned from the Consumer Electronics Show, which is where all the newest sex gadgets are displayed alongside the latest cellular phones and Personal Digital Assistants; the fair, held in Las Vegas, just happens to coincide with the annual porn Oscars, the Adult Video Awards.
Mr. Rohrer knows the importance of building up confidence in his consumers. “It’s very important that people buy the right whip the first time,” he said. “Because if they buy the wrong whip, and get hurt, they’re not going to use one again.”
The Web site went live just over two months ago. It includes a question-and-answer area, where experts answer delicate questions about sex and grooming. From there, you can hook up with the section of the site that sells the toys and videos. Shoppers are instructed to enter their credit card numbers on the encrypted field; and Mr. Rohrer warned that “because of state laws that forbid them, residents of Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas or Kansas can’t order vibrators or dildoes.”
Mr. Rohrer and his wife don’t exactly go out of their way to tell the neighbors what they’re up to. And it looks like Mr. Rohrer’s mom will never quite understand. “She thinks it’s needed,” he said, “but she wishes I wasn’t doing it.”