I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
In 2011, I encountered a story on Gawker that fell right into the site’s high-meets-low wheelhouse: salacious rumors about, and a below-the-belt feud between, acclaimed author and sexagenarian Salman Rushdie and a Maxim U.K. pinup in her 20s named Devorah Rose. It was intriguing: In what universe would these people even rub shoulders, much less have a relationship?
Rushdie apparently has a track record with beautiful women significantly younger than he is. He’s been married and divorced four times, most recently to model and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, and even satirized his own womanizing on this season of Curb Your Enthusiasm — allegedly, “fatwa sex” is “the best sex there is.” (I suppose few of us will ever be so lucky.) But back in 2011, when Rose tweeted a picture of the two of them together and thanked him for a nice evening, Rushdie was not nearly so good-humored. He told the press he was “mortified” to be connected with her.
Rose was furious, and decided to leak her Facebook messages with Rushdie to “Page Six,” despite smears from the gossip rags and the author’s vague threats about the consequences of going public. Based on their contents, the two seemed to have had an online flirtation that led to several real-life meetings. At one point, Rushdie tried to break it off with her. The part of this saga that is never far from my mind comes right after that breakup message in Rose’s inbox: a message sent months later, seemingly out of nowhere, in which Rushdie writes, “you look so gorgeous and hottt! See you v soon.”
Yes: “Gorgeous and hottt.” The winner of the Man Booker Prize, an author whose writing has been described by The New York Review of Books as “the most important to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation,” is a worse booty caller than your average college freshman. I will never stop thinking about it.
Granted, I feel for the guy. I cannot cast the first stone when it comes to thirst texting, and I would probably join witness protection if any of mine were published in “Page Six.” But I think the reason Rushdie is on my mind so much is because his texts demonstrate how male desire can feel simultaneously laughable and potentially dangerous. His message would be clumsy coming from a random OKCupid suitor, let alone from one of the most acclaimed literary voices of the last half-century. It’s almost endearing — a window into a totally unguarded part of this man, a self separate from and more primitive than the one who writes the flowery language. But this goofy message is also coming from a powerful man more than double its recipient’s age, a man who would go on to shame and embarrass this woman simply for attracting him in the first place. It’s a familiar story. In a way, the ability to reduce otherwise intelligent, respectable men to drooling, horned-up morons feels like an exquisite power. In another way, it feels like an extreme liability.
Whenever I think of Rushdie’s messages, I also think of Tony Hoagland’s poem, “Adam and Eve.” It’s an uncomfortable poem, but it describes my experience of desire better than any I’ve read. There’s a stanza in the middle where Hoagland describes heterosexual sex as an act in which “the woman thrills with the power of her weakness, and the man is astonished by the weakness of his power.” I think Tony is saying the same thing I am, albeit in more eloquent terms: men are fundamentally horny dumbasses, even if they can write a beautiful novel or dunk a basketball or cure polio. Their power is weak.
It doesn’t matter who you are, horniness makes fools of us all. In the right context, the revelation of that vulnerability can be almost sacred in its intimacy. But in a society that unconditionally gratifies powerful men and derides sexual women, it’s easy for that desire to get turned inside out, to become weaponized against its object. I probably don’t need to explain why I think of Rushdie so often these days. As Hoagland concludes in “Adam and Eve”: “as long as there is desire, we will not be safe.”