‘It’s Rare And Refreshing’: Why So Many Rape Survivors Rate I May Destroy You

Michaela Coel’s new series is one of the most realistic portrayals of trauma ever seen on screen, argues sexual violence expert Lizzy Dening

Michaela Coel

by Rhiannon Evans |

There should be a word for when you watch something you think is utterly brilliant, but your stomach is twisted because you’re so tense (Twinge-watching? Netflix-knotted?). Whatever it is, it’s the predominant feeling I’ve had while watching the incredible myth-busting prowess of I May Destroy You.

As someone who works with survivors of sexual violence for my interview platform Survivor Stories, as well as being Vice Chair of Peterborough Rape Crisis Care Group, I find it thrilling to see a programme that’s unafraid to deal with the true messiness of trauma.

And I’m not alone in this. Numerous survivors have been in touch to say they’ve also found the programme powerfully accurate. 'I like is that the trauma is not used as a plot device - it's the focus,' says Catherine*, a survivor who contacted me on social media. 'It’s rare and refreshing. I think that sexual assault is often used as a backstory, or just quite casually referenced or depicted. What is rarely explored is all the consequences of the trauma, but also how prevalent it is. So seeing it means we can have real conversations rather than not talking about it.'

Numerous survivors have been in touch to say they’ve also found the programme powerfully accurate.

Depictions of (cis, female) rape on screen are, of course, nothing new – this year alone we’ve had documentaries about Jeffrey Epstein and the Cyprus rape case, new seasons of 13 Reasons Why and stalker-drama You, and film releases including The Intern, Bombshell and – albeit delayed – Promising Young Woman. And yet, while it might feel that we’re starting conversations about rape more easily than ever, I’m still having to correct the same tired myths about sexual violence. Some people are still baffled by the idea that survivors might have seemingly ‘confused’ stories about the most traumatic moment of their life – that they may experience time distortion, or forget details that they’ve blacked out. They might even not realise they’ve been raped for days, weeks – even years.

That’s why I’m so impressed with I May Destroy You. The series, for the uninitiated, is written by Michaela Coel, who also plays the lead character, Arabella (or Bella). She goes out one night, while swerving a deadline, has a drink and some coke with a friend, but the following day is unable to piece together the night before. She’s left with images in her head – memories, she eventually suspects – of a man aggressively blocking a toilet door and having sex with her… but had she agreed to that? Her memories are patchy, and she – like many survivors – isn’t keen to label it abuse or rape.

It’s details like this – when she goes to the police and can’t quite put the night’s events in order, and isn’t even sure if she has a crime to report – that make the story ring true. It was certainly no surprise to many of us that the story is loosely based on Michaela’s own sexual assault – particularly her own feelings of confusing about the events surrounding it. Survivors are constantly being told that, in order to be believed, their experience of rape has to look a certain way – and in particular that if you were under the influence of booze or drugs, that you’re somehow at fault. Her Italian sort-of-boyfriend, says in a flashback ‘if you get in trouble, don’t come crying to me’. It’s so often the treatment that those who were raped after drinking or taking drugs unfairly receive – or worry about receiving if they open up.

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You
©I May Destroy You / BBC

The only drama series to rival it in recent months was Unbelievable, which also did a great job of portraying victim blaming and trauma, and how that can affect statements given to police. For British survivors, I May Destroy You’s London setting makes Arabella’s experience even more relatable, as well as the importance of telling the story of black rape survivors, who are often left out of programmes about sexual violence.

The ONS found that 4.3 per cent of black adults (16-59) were victims of any types of sexual assault in the last year, compared to 3.4 per cent of white adults (survey from March 2016 – March 2018). Almost a fifth (17 per cent) of those who turned to Rape Crisis England and Wales are from a BAME background (where someone’s race was known), yet the majority of rape-based programmes focus on white women.

That’s without mentioning the fact that I can count the number of TV incidents of men being raped that I’ve seen with the fingers of one hand – mostly in soap operas, and again, predominantly white. So it’s significant that the series has also shown Bella’s friend Kwame (played by Paapa Essiedu) being raped after consensual sex. It might have felt like a sucker punch to an audience that’s already reeling from Bella’s assault, but it was a bold, important move to show parallels between the two experiences. (Specifically, I think, that both ‘party girls’ and gay men with active sex lives, are often held responsible for their experiences of sexual violence more than any other groups.) A big reason I wanted to set up my project Survivor Stories is to highlight that sexual violence affects people of all genders, ages, backgrounds, races and experiences. Rape can happen to anyone. It affects around one in five adult women, as well as one in 10 men.

Paapa Essiedu as Kwame in I May Destroy You
©I May Destroy You / BBC

Trauma is a strange beast, and it’s so refreshing to see the whole messy picture on the screen, rather than just one possible angle. It makes sense that Arabella might be lost in conversation with her friend but entirely unable to eat. Or feel muddled about her memories, yet able to flirt with someone she fancies. As Bella herself says – she’s ok, as long as she’s with other people – when she’s alone, her flashbacks get worse. It’s often something leveraged against survivors: ‘You claim to have been raped, but why are you still able to enjoy a joke with your friend/have sex with your partner/go on a night out?’. It’s estimated that 94 per cent of those who experience sexual violence will experience PTSD symptoms (including flashbacks, depression, sleep problems or panic attacks) within the first fortnight, while half go on to experience symptoms in the longer term.

'The way the programme captures the intrusive and unpredictable flashbacks is brilliant, and the way that her life actually carries on in a way that many around her would have no idea,' says survivor Emma*. 'I spent years and years in the state of keeping my trauma at bay by "getting on with life", having lots of sex - often unsafe - drinking too much, kidding myself I was fine and what happened wasn't that bad... and then ultimately falling apart when the truth of my trauma laid itself bare. I can see that all in the programme.'

In fact, many of the survivors I’ve interviewed for the project had more casual sex after being raped. Casual sex can be used as a form of self-harm – they don’t care about what happens to their bodies, or if they’re putting themselves at risk, as ‘the worst has already happened.’ Sometimes, the idea that they’ve made a choice about sex can feel safer than the fear of being assaulted again. This can leave survivors more vulnerable to other forms of abuse – as we see with Bella, when Zain non-consensually removes a condom. This is known as ‘stealthing’, and is also a form of sexual violence, which she laughs off – perhaps unable to deal with the repercussions of admitting a second assault on her already shaken mental health.

Whilst it does feel like pressing on a painful tooth there is also something in finding comfort in shared experience, shared responses to sexual violence

The flip-side of being incredibly accurate is, of course, having the potential to be triggering. It’s in no way the fault of Michaela Coel, but watching the programme on BBC iplayer, there are no helplines afterwards, and only the briefest trigger warning at the top of the screen – something that this brilliant petition by Karen Jardine is currently trying to address across the board. 'I've found this show very triggering,' says stand-up comic Eleanor Conway who makes shows about sex and addiction. 'Michaela Coel did an amazing job of capturing what any party girl has done. The slurring on ecstasy, the love, then the dismay. The bloke following her home has happened so many times to me, the casual sex where I don't really know what happened… has happened a lot. I'm six years sober now. The realisation that those situations might not have been totally consensual is scary. But the subtle conversations around consent have to be made. We look and talk about consent in a different way than we did five years ago and that's a result of difficult conversations.'

For those survivors who are in a relatively good place with their own trauma, watching I May Destroy You has been cathartic. 'Whilst it does feel like it is pressing on a painful tooth there is also something in finding comfort in shared experience, shared responses, common reactions to sexual violence - it reduces the anxiety, the isolation and the fear that we are a bit crazy,' says Emma.

At the time of writing, we’re only four episodes in, but the series has already done so much to battle victim blaming narratives. ‘If you take drugs you’re asking to be abused’ – nope! ‘Sleeping around means you’ve already consented to everything’ – I don’t think so! ‘If you’re uncertain about your experience, it means you’re lying’ – not a chance! And the best part is, it’s achieved all of this while building believable characters that we care about, and adding moments of real humour. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the show brings – although I probably won’t relax my stomach for the foreseeable.

For help and advice please contact: Rape Crisis England and Wales, Rape Crisis Scotland or Nexus NI (Northern Ireland).

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