It feels like everyone is talking about Michaela Coel’s newest creation I May Destroy You, a drama based on her experience of sexual assault. The series has been applauded for its honest, candid and nuanced exploration of consent, sex in the digital age and recovering from sexual assault. Although the series will be refreshing and helpful for a great number of survivors, we also acknowledge the challenges that many will face when watching. We want to offer up some tips for survivors thinking of watching the show as well as discuss some of the important topics covered in the series (discussion of sexual assault to follow.)
For a great number of survivors, watching movies or dramas depicting sexual assault or rape can be really challenging. Seeing triggering content can stir up bad memories which can cause anxiety, low moods or flashbacks. Far too often, the depictions of sexual assault we are shown on TV are used as a plot device to elicit drama or other character’s reactions. These depictions, on top of being incredibly insensitive and re-traumatising for survivors, do not tell the full story. The trauma that survivors face does not end when the assault does. By only portraying this one chapter in their story, they minimise a survivor’s experience and reduce them to what happened to them – not the unique, full and complex character they truly are.
What is rarely acknowledged in film and TV is the long and bumpy road of acceptance and healing that survivors face. These depictions are still very challenging, but they can also be helpful and inspiring for survivors as they show us that we are not alone. As humans, we have always wanted to see our experiences reflected back to us through art and this is no different for survivors.
This brings us on to I May Destroy You – a drama following Arabella, a young black creative living in London, as she comes to terms with being spiked and sexually assaulted on a night out. If watching any depictions of sexual violence or abuse is a categorical NO for you – we totally understand! we are all on our own journeys of recovery and your wellbeing must ALWAYS be your priority. If however, you are thinking of watching the show but have some reservations, here are a few of our tips:
Break it down. Consider watching episodes at your own pace. Maybe that looks like 15 minutes at a time or one episode a week. Whatever feels the least overwhelming for you is the right option.
Call on your friends. Try watching with a trusted friend or family member. Failing that, let someone know that you’re about to watch something that might trigger you. If you know that someone is there to support you even before you need it, you will feel far more comfortable reaching out if you do feel triggered or upset. This will also give your supporter some preparation for your call should you need to. If neither of these are an option for you, call our helpline. We are happy to help you work through any memories that might resurface when watching triggering media. You can find details for this at the bottom of the page.
Plan ahead. Make sure you have something in mind that comforts you should you need it. That might be a cuddle with your pet, a bar of chocolate or putting on your favorite album. That way, if anxiety sets in, you have a distraction ready.
If you’re not in the right frame of mind, give it a miss. Remember, YOU are the one who is in control. If you’ve had a bad day or are feeling particularly bogged down, don’t take on something that will only exasperate those feelings. Be truthful with yourself and your capacity to handle challenging viewing – just because today you do not feel strong enough does not mean tomorrow will be the same.
You are in control. If you get half way through an episode and realise that it isn’t for you, don’t force yourself to watch any more. It’s ok to turn off the TV or excuse yourself if you need to. You don’t have to prove anything to yourself or anyone else and how ‘strong’ you are is not contingent on your capacity to watch.
Read an episode summary beforehand. If you want to know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for before you watch an episode, consider reading a summary. You can find episode recaps here. Alternatively, you can listen to the Obsessed with… I May Destroy You podcast hosted by Sophie Duker which delves into the topics that are covered in each episode with special guests.
The dramas depiction of the aftermath of sexual assault will ring true for many survivors. Arabella’s character shows how challenging it is to go about your daily life whilst experiencing flashbacks, disassociation and unexpected triggers. She finds herself unable to be alone with male strangers, struggles to see intimacy, can’t relax in crowded places and doesn’t trust even the tap water in a bar. The show is very effective at demonstrating the extent that sexual assault can impact even the simplest things that we take for granted. Life doesn’t slow down when you have experienced immense trauma – if anything it speeds up. Arabella’s reactions are often manic and hard to understand – a depiction much closer to the reality of dealing with sexual assault than the general public often realise. Many of us will empathise with Arabella’s struggle to keep up appearances and deliver on responsibilities whilst managing the aftershocks of what has happened to her.
Arabella, like many survivors, initially finds it difficult to admit that she is a victim. For so many survivors, admitting what has happened to them can be the first hurdle. Our brains store traumatic memories in a dark corner out of our reach as a way of protecting us. Often it can be difficult to remember details about an assault which can lead to doubt or disbelief about what really happened, both for the survivor and those they disclose to. Just because you can’t remember everything about an experience does not mean it did not happen, it can often be a sign that remembering what happened is too much to handle. The show’s complex depiction of this is extremely helpful for educating the general public who otherwise do not understand why survivors forget details or take a long time to remember what has happened to them.
The show touches on many storylines that are rarely discussed in TV and film. For example, the portrayal of ‘stealthing’ – the act of removing a condom without the consent of your partner. Like so many of us, Arabella doesn’t realise that this is an act of rape until days later. As the police officer rightly points out, “the problem is when people don’t know what is a crime and what isn’t a crime, they don’t report it and people get away with it.” Currently in the UK, non-consensual condom removal is hugely under-reported yet from anecdotal evidence, fairly common. With this in mind, the show has taken a great opportunity to educate audiences about another form of sexual assault and shed light on it’s violating nature.
The series is full of nuanced examples of sexual encounters, both consensual and otherwise. It depicts both the subtle and explicit ways that the boundaries of consent can be undermined and power becomes imbalanced.
Coel explains 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.
The drama also follows Arabella’s two best friends, Terry and Kwame, through various sexual encounters. Terry’s threesome initially appears consensual however when the two supposed strangers leave together, she is left feeling deflated and deceived. When she later tells her date about this, he points out that, “it still burns like it was yesterday, hey?” No matter what the circumstances may be, any sexual experience that leaves us feeling uncomfortable and deceived can have lasting implications. Terry’s experience poses the question – can consent really be granted if you didn’t know all the facts? Much like Zain’s condom removal, if the conditions to which someone consented to are false or altered, true consent has not been granted.
Kwame’s experience of sexual assault is one very rarely depicted on screen despite it’s commonality. After meeting a Grindr date and engaging in consensual sex, he is sexually assaulted when he tries to leave. The encounter highlights the particular risks that dating apps pose, especially apps such as Grindr where users do not use their real name. This is a particular issue for the LGBTQ community where so much of the dating scene has been pushed into private spaces due to wider homophobia within our society. So often in narratives of sexual violence, all of the focus is placed on female victims despite the estimation that 70,000 men are raped every year in the UK. This storyline gives a voice to male survivors, something so rarely seen in mainstream media.
Although the show touches on many challenging and raw topics, it is also full of humour and light. Arabella, Kwame and Terry’s friendship is heart warming and brings heaps of joy to the screen. Michaela Coel’s character Arabella is not the typical victim stereotype we so often see depicted – she is flawed and real. The final episodes of the series are a cathartic experience, showing that although we can not change the events that happen to us, we can move past them in our own way.
You can watch I May Destroy You on BBC Iplayer and listen to the Obsessed with… I May Destroy You on the BBC Sounds app or online.
If you have been triggered by I May Destroy You or anything else, please call our free and confidential helpline. We are open 7 days a week and provide emotional support, information and advice.
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