I May Destroy You ignites fresh debates about consent as a public health issue
Artwork and article by: Funmi Lijadu
*Trigger Warning: This article includes references to sexual assault* (and spoilers)
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (BBC) is a show that doesn’t shy away from honest presentations of sex, consent and health. This frankness and authenticity makes the series stand out in a media landscape that often oversimplifies sexual assault. Much of popular media glosses over contraception to maintain the comfort of audiences.
A key standout quality of the show is the way it illustrates the need for consent to be discussed more. The show depicts inconsiderate individuals capitalising on the blurred lines surrounding what is and isn’t considered consensual sex. The show explores the issue of substances facilitating rape, stealthing, and rape following casual consensual sex.
In I May Destroy You, the protagonist, Arabella is a writer living in London, planning her next steps following the success of her debut novel. This transition period is interrupted when Arabella discovers that she was a victim of drug-facilitated rape on a night out. She wakes up with a smashed phone, bruises on her body and a deep cut on her forehead.
The show depicts the process of the law enforcement addressing sexual violence. Arabella’s case is taken seriously and the police officers treat her with empathy and respect through the process. Contrastingly, in episode 5, we get a male perspective when we see her friend Kwame report a sexual crime against him by a previous Grindr date. Kwame was treated with disdain and annoyance by a police officer who downplays his traumatic experience.
The police officer dismisses his experiences due to the fact that Kwame had experienced a non-recent sexual assault. Additionally, this episode exposed the awful social stigma men face when reporting sexual assault and rape because consent violations are often seen as women’s issues. This stigmatisation demonstrates how the system needs more flexibility in recording and bringing justice to crimes that violate consent and human rights.
As the programme progresses, we explore some nuances of sexual assault. One thing that stands out is the topic of 'Stealthing’, a type of sexual assault that is rarely talked about in mainstream media. The show draws firm lines around the crime of stealthing, as a nonconsensual practice that prioritises male pleasure and dominance at the expense of oblivious partners. When Arabella asked him where the condom was, he replied by denying her claims. He gaslighted her, saying ‘I thought you knew?!’ as if it was her responsibility to discover his deceit. This was wrong, but Arabella only realised it was rape after speaking to a police officer.
So what is stealthing? Under UK law, stealthing is an illegal action as it violates the legal definition of consent. Stealthing is an insidious and abhorrent crime that impacts many individuals, most of them women. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that in 2016, 510 000 young women were raped in the UK. The ONS also 83% of all victims did not report the crime to the police. Stealthing could be defined as the act of removing a condom during sex to a partner unaware that it has been removed. Stealthing is rape. Contextually, stealthing is an awful act because it goes underreported. Many people do not know what it is and so do not report it. The crime is also complex as it is masked under the veneer of previous consensual sex and is an insiduous violation of the partner’s agreement to participate in the act.
The issue of people with penises disliking condoms is often a comic theme in pop culture, but this has severe consequences in real life. Putting their pleasure before the health of their partners means they undermine contraceptive methods and trust. Arabella’s casual sexual partner undermined her health by removing a condom without her knowledge.
A silver lining lies in the show’s portrayal of healing in the face of trauma and hardship. Arabella sees a therapist but she initially refuses to open up about her experiences. Observing Arabella in denial about her trauma is disappointing but it shows that healing processes look different for everyone and cannot be rushed.
To add, the show illustrates the fact that therapy is not an easy fix to mental health challenges. Trauma isn’t healed in a day and the show sensitively and humourously depicts Arabella move from denial to self-knowledge and healing. At first, Arabella does not want to open up to her therapist but eventually finds value in speaking her mind to a licensed professional. Arabella experiences an ego death, she does not define herself by her trauma or by ideas of being a good person, she holds empathy for those around her and most importantly, for herself. She is much easier on herself by the end of the show.
Overall, the show facilitated a generative and progressive conversation about why the nuance of consent must be written into law and why we must speak more openly about sex. Arabella is a survivor of traumatic experiences but in getting educated on her rights and consent, she begins a journey of safe exploration.
I May Destroy You sends a clear message by naming specific forms of sexual assault and empowering survivors of these crimes. By shining light onto the grey areas of consent, we can call out abusive behaviour and raise the bar for safe sex.
The episodes of I May Destroy You can be viewed on streaming services including BBC iPlayer and HBO. After watching, let us know what you think!