CW // sexual assault
Jill Gutowitz is a lesbian humorist perhaps best known for detailing queerness in Taylor Swift’s musical catalogue and creating the meme that launched a thousand memes: the Coachella lineup had it been lesbian. When I sat down to read Jill’s forthcoming memoir, Girls Can Kiss Now, I breezed through early chapters about early 2000s closetedness and queer pop culture, until a reached the chapter called “I Know This Now”. That’s where I stopped—because I saw my own experience of sexual assault reflected in the pages.
The chapter details Gutowitz’s sexual assault with an ex-boyfriend in epistolary form before her eventual triumphant coming out, a letter to her younger self. Gutowitz refused sex from her partner (just like I did) and is badgered and belittled (just like I was), until she can no longer advocate for herself (just like I couldn’t). The book sat on my bedside table for months before I could finally finish the chapter.
“The thing I really wanted to write about was this question that I had been asking myself at the time that it was happening, which was, like, am I gay? Or am I being sexually assaulted?” said Gutowitz over Zoom. “And you know, the answer to both of those things was yes.”
It’s an experience that’s sadly not uncommon. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects (NCAVP) estimates that nearly one in ten LGBTQ+ survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) has experienced sexual assault from their partners. Studies suggest that around half of transgender people and bisexual women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes. 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women experience r*pe, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 35 percent of straight women.
When picking up Gutowitz’s book, “I Know This Now” is a chapter that might seem tonally different from her well-known humor, but it’s an important and necessary departure that speaks to another aspect of the queer experience. The few meaningful representations of sexual assault we have are often discussed as the problems of people in straight partnerships, and contemporary queer life is not always dance parties and Uhaul memes.
“I Know This Now” is a chapter that might seem tonally different from her well-known humor, but it’s an important and necessary departure that speaks to another aspect of the queer experience.
Several reviews on GoodReads, a terrible site that writers should never read, have mentioned that a content warning for this chapter might have alerted them to what was contained in the pages. For writers dealing with traumatic content, this is an important way to protect readers, but it also shines a light on the hat trick that Gutowitz pulls off in her book: that a writer who could easily be pigeonholed to writing about Cate Blanchett for the rest of her career also has the bars to address darkness and difficulty.
“My coming out experience was just that I had no idea what I was doing,” she told me. “I wasn’t surrounded by queer people, which is like, the whole thing. The amount of knowledge and emotional growth that I have experienced since then is just unimaginable. Even if the sexual assault element wasn’t a part of it, I just feel like there’s so much that I wish I could tell my, my baby gay self in hindsight.”
What struck me about the writing in the chapter was that it was written as a letter, directly addressing Gutowitz’s baby gay self from a place of perspective and necessary distance. It reminded of Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House, which also deals with intimate partner violence. In Machado’s memoir, the writer explodes form and uses microchapters to reconstruct some of the most difficult moments of her life dealing with a psychologically abusive female partner. For some writers, turning to form is a means of addressing heavy topics, both for the self writing and the reader consuming that pain.
A writer who could easily be pigeonholed to writing about Cate Blanchett for the rest of her career also has the bars to address darkness and difficulty.
“It feels like writing for media these days can sometimes be an editor reaching out be like, ‘Hey, can you write about like the worst moment in your entire fucking life for $100?’ I think that I started off eager to talk about my personal experiences and then at a certain point it feels really soul deadening,” Gutowitz says. “The book was a really nice opportunity for me to expand and play with form and just be more real and emotional.”
Gestalt is a therapeutic modality in which patients will address an individual in their life who has harmed them or been present for harm—almost like Gutowitz addressing herself in the chapter. When I finally finished the book, it was like I had done a little therapy myself. It was a difficult session bookended with gay shit, and it sandwiched an unfortunate queer reality that affects Jill, me, and many others. ♦
Rax Will (they/them) is a graduate of UC Riverside’s MFA in fiction. They are at work on a memoir exploring their multiracial identity through food. You can follow them on Twitter @masamimommi.