Note – this article contains spoilers for I May Destroy You
TW – Sexual Assault
The immensely talented Michaela Coel is the creator, writer, co-director, executive producer and star of the ground-breaking 12-part BBC and HBO series I May Destroy You. The series follows Arabella, a working-class black woman, on her journey to understand and process her experience of sexual assault, whilst simultaneously refusing to let it define her identity. Through the various characters in the series, Coel delves deep into how sexuality, race, class and gender can intersect, and how this manifests in everyday life. What makes I May Destroy You so beautifully unique is how nearly all the cast members are black and yet the narrative is not entirely centred on race. Of course, it is still about race – but it is about so much more than that issue alone. Coel, in giving her characters the space to navigate and explore more than one axis of their identity at a time, revolutionises the way in which the black British experience is depicted on TV. She portrays race to be a part, but not the defining feature of, the character’s identities, highlighting the multifaceted and nuanced nature of the black British experience. Coel’s unique and intricate depiction of sexual trauma, which is based on her own real-life experience, is so raw and honest that throughout the course of the 12-episodes it feels as though we join Arabella on her journey to self-actualisation. I May Destroy You is both unsettling and heart-breaking, witty and hilarious, whilst being completely transformative and educational.
The show begins with Arabella struggling to find inspiration and motivation to write her second novel, so she takes a break by going out with some friends in London. However, this night ends up with Arabella finding herself abandoned and confused at a bar, with no recollection of the events that led her there. We later learn that on the night out Arabella was spiked and sexually assaulted. Over the series, and with the help of her best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), Arabella attempts to both discover, and come to terms with, what happened to her that evening. Coel offers a refreshing exploration into how consent is defined, with each character becoming a victim of precarious sexual encounters, all of which spark an important conversation surrounding the nature of consent.
Following her sexual assault Arabella meets a man called Zain, a seemingly likeable character that appears to care for her, who she then enters a consensual sexual relationship with. However, in the middle of their consensual sex, he takes the condom off without her knowing. It’s an unnerving scene to watch, as Arabella is initially distressed and confused as to why she has been misled, but quickly becomes preoccupied with getting the morning after pill. However, as time progresses, she becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the situation that Zain put her in, but she does not have the language to articulate what has actually happened to her. It isn’t until she asks a police officer in charge of her case about non-consensual condom removal that she, and I’m sure many of the audience – myself included, discovered that it is far from just a morally dubious and deceitful act, it is actually a form of sexual assault known as ‘stealthing’. Stealthing is such a perfect example of one of the many underrepresented and widely misunderstood ways in which a person’s consent can be violated.
Similarly, Kwame, who Arabella and Terry call the ‘king of Grindr’ is an overtly sexual man, yet he is still just as susceptible to abuse as his female counterparts. After a Grindr hook-up, Kwame goes to leave, but has the door violently slammed in front of him and ends up being a victim of non-penetrative sexual assault. Here Coel confronts some common misconceptions surrounding sexual assault; sexual assault is not exclusive to women, and yes you can enthusiastically consent to having sex with someone once AND refuse consent later on. The stigmatisation of male rape victims is highlighted in the dichotomy between the way in which the police react to Arabella’s case compared to Kwame. After mustering up the courage to report this incident to the police, the blatantly homophobic officer refuses to take his testimony seriously. Kwame subsequently embarks on his own journey, alongside Arabella’s, to come to terms with what happened to him and to speak openly about it with his friends. In this scene Coel challenges the taboo surrounding male sexual assault victims by writing Kwame’s story into the narrative – assault and the subsequent trauma can equally affect all genders and sexualities.
Coel explores the many ways in which consent and people’s boundaries can be violated – both clear-cut and subtle. In Rome, Terry has a threesome with two men that she had met that evening. However, as she watches them leave from the window, she discovers that they knew each other prior to the threesome, and had planned and orchestrated the entire thing. Inevitably, Terry is left feeling manipulated and unsettled by the event, as these men had lied to make her feel as though she was in control of the situation. These more subtle incidences of coercion and violations of consent, challenge the widely held belief that a rapist is always an inherently ‘evil’ human, and that assault is always in a violent and forceful context. Coel expands society’s understanding of the nature of sexual assault, showing us that it is not always as binary as we may have previously thought. Instead, we are encouraged to reassess and re-examine our ideas of consent.
In this fascinating exploration into the nature of consent, Coel navigates complex topics with so much sensitivity, challenging our conceptions and misconceptions of what it means to be sexually assaulted. Consent isn’t a binary, it isn’t as simple or clear as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it is multi-layered and nuanced and needs much more discussion and consideration than we currently give it. I May Destroy You has paved the way for a much more sophisticated and informed conversation surrounding what constitutes consent, and is a series that everyone, especially men, can learn so much from.
By Sophie Rumble
If you or someone close to you has been affected by sexual abuse, below are some support lines:
Helpline: 0808 802 9999 (12-2:30 and 7-9:30)
The Survivors Trust
Helpline: 0808 801 0818
Survivors UK – Male Rape and Sexual Abuse Support
For members of the LGBT community