Trigger warning: sexual assault and rape.
The BBC’s new myth-debunking consent drama, I May Destroy You, is taking the internet by storm with its rave reviews. The series starts with Arabella (Michaela Coel), a thirty-something writer, doing what most of the population have done many times over – procrastinating a deadline. With the temptation of a drug and alcohol fuelled night out in front of her, how could she say no? After drinking and dancing with her mates, the scene cuts right back to Arabella at her desk, this time with a bloody head, a cracked phone screen and little memory of the night before.
Through flashbacks, Uber receipts, and her friends’ accounts, she tries to piece together the previous night but can only focus on one thing – “a thought” in her head of a man thrusting above her as she’s trapped in a bathroom stall. The “thought”, as Bella refers to it at first, comes to her gradually and through flashes during menial tasks. As she touches door handle of her bedroom door, her mind flashes to the stall door that is being blocked by the unknown man.
There is a common argument in sexual assault cases that if the victim cannot remember details of the assault – or contradicts themselves in a statement – then it must not be true. However, The British Psychological Society suggest there are multiple reasons for memory loss following a trauma such as sexual assault. One of which may be that the victim’s memory has become fragmented into “hotspot” moments where some aspects of the assault remain vivid and clear, whereas other parts “will be more vague, have some gaps, in jumbled order and, possibly, contain inaccuracies.” Some people may also dissociate during trauma where they “leave” their bodies or “switch off” in an attempt to remove themselves from the distress of the assault.
It seems likely that, along with being spiked, Arabella dissociates during the assault as she regularly refers to it as “a thought” and doesn’t originally acknowledge that it is her own memory. She even goes as far as tracking down another woman out with her that night, in fear that she may have been the one assaulted. The woman’s response to Bella’s concern? “You need to get some help. You’re sick in the head.”
Despite Arabella’s trauma, she bravely seeks help in the form of talking to her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), attending therapy sessions and reporting the attack to the police, where she is instantly believed and even guided into the devasting and emotional realisation that she was spiked and raped. The series is authentically and skilfully written by Coel, with each scene underpinned by Bella’s frank humour and fun-loving nature. This authenticity comes from the events that inspired Coel to write the series – her own sexual assault during a break from writing the second series of her award-winning comedy, Chewing Gum.
It is refreshing to see the messy, confusing life of a woman portrayed on screen this way which resonates so much more with millennials of today. The series is unapologetically raw and real with its depictions of life including a blasé attitude to drugs and drinking, the vulnerability of many characters and a graphic scene of period sex in which a blood clot is revealed.
According to Rape Crisis, 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, and 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence. But this isn’t a show about rape, it’s a show about consent and what happens when consent isn’t given or, in Kwame’s case, is given once – but not twice. Coel told the BBC that “the whole show deals with that moment where consent was stolen from you and you lost the moment where you had agency to make a decision.” It is a common myth that once consent has been given, it doesn’t need to be given again. It’s a myth that often undermines allegations against romantic and sexual partners; that if the victim had consensual sex with them once then that is consent for all future sexual contact.
Throughout the series, Kwame engages in protected, but anonymous, sex with men he meets via Grindr. However, he is assaulted just moments after having consensual sex with a man named only as HornyMan808. Kwame is dressed and ready leave this stranger’s home, when he is pinned down to the bed. HornyMan808 then sexually assaults Kwame before reaching orgasm; it is only then that he is allowed to leave. Inspired by Bella, Kwame does initially try to report this assault to the police. Unsurprisingly, the police officer that takes his statement fumbles and his rhetoric shows how uncomfortable he is, judging Kwame as he cannot give details like the perpetrator’s real name or whether he actually penetrated him. In frustration, Kwame asks to leave and does not pursue the matter. He also does not lean on his friends for support and suffers through the aftermath of assault alone.
I May Destroy You does not pull its punches, and the series continuously shows the grittiness of real life and the affects of sexual assault on both men and women. Not only is Bella spiked and raped, she also must come to terms with the aftermath of stealthing; the removal of a condom during intercourse without consent. After Bella makes a connection with fellow writer, Zain (Karan Gill), she invites him over to her home to discuss her new book before the evening ends in consensual sex. However, Bella’s consent is given willingly and happily under the agreement of protected sex but during the act Zain removes the condom without her knowledge.
While there have been no convictions for stealthing in Britain, under U.K. law, it is sexual assault – something that Bella and her friends are unaware of until hearing it directly from a police officer. With this knowledge, Bella exposes Zain publicly and joins a support group of other survivors where she can talk frankly about both sexual assaults – even heartbreakingly asking the question, “was it my fault?”
In a decade where binge-able TV has become the norm, I May Destroy You is a staggered, muddled, messy story that we continue to piece together each week. This slow release of episodes allows the audience to learn new aspects of Bella’s assault, and her process of healing, with her, rather than consuming all the information at once and being given the near-instant gratification of justice – if there ever is any true justice for Bella.
I May Destroy You is available Monday nights at 9pm on BBC One, and on BBC iPlayer.
Words by Kate Goodyer