This is a sex and relationships education guide to I May Destroy You, the TV show which is currently on BBC iplayer and HBO.
It’s popular, everyone seems to love it, and it’s got people talking about some of the things that we cover here at BISH. I’ve even seen people saying that thought it was a valuable source of sex and relationships education. ‘They should just show this in school’ that kind of thing. I’m not so sure about that (as I’ll talk about below) but I thought that it would be good to put together a sex and relationships education guide to the show. Just like I did with Normal People, which I did a few weeks ago.
About the show
I May Destroy You is a show about sexual violence, trauma, and the absence of consent. It’s really well made, brilliantly acted, it’s funny at times, Kwame wears this amazing coat, and a lot of the time it’s pretty harrowing I think. Pay attention to the content notes at the beginning of each show because it is a pretty tough watch. The BBFC rates some of the episodes for over 15s and some for over 18s (helpful!). Also we’re going to be talking about sexual violence in this article, so feel free to put this down and do some colouring in instead. This is hard stuff. There are also some spoilers.
(So teachers, don’t show this to your students. Also here’s an article from me about why showing videos in RSE isn’t so great.)
There’s one key act of sexual violence that the story revolves around, which is when Arabella gets her drinks spiked at a bar and then gets raped in a toilet cubicle. This scene is pieced together over the course of the show in a series of flashbacks, so you don’t see the whole thing till the end. It’s tough and based on real life experiences of the writer.
This kind of sexual violence, where someone gets attacked by a stranger, using alcohol or other drugs to sedate them, happens a lot in real life. The scary and depressing thing though is that this is not the most common form of sexual violence.
According to Natsal 3 (the biggest sexological survey we have in the UK) around 10% of women have had sex against their will (sexual assault or rape). One in ten. 15% of those women reported that they were attacked by a stranger, mostly their attacks were from a family member or friend (21%), or most commonly from a partner or former partner (41%).
Read more about sex and the law
Arabella later goes on to experience sexual violence from a partner (we’ll get to that in a bit) and that is a big part of the storyline. So this show does tell different stories of sexual violence, from strangers and those known to us. What were the stories of sexual violence that you took from this show? Think about the stories of rape and sexual violence you hear about in the news, or on TV shows and compare that to the statistics. What’s going on here? Why don’t we talk about the fact that the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults happen within existing relationships? What have you been taught about relationships, safety, and consent?
Let’s talk about Kwame
Kwame also experiences sexual violence (and also some serious homophobia, more on that later). The perpetrator of the attack was somewhere between a stranger and a partner (because they had agreed to meet up for sex at first). Kwame consented to sex the first time, but not for the second time, which was clearly a sexual assault. He seemed to be a bit unsure about whether this was a crime committed against him, but it definitely was. The definitions that we have for sexual offences are a bit confusing and we might have the idea that it’s only acts of penetration that are crimes. Any sexual touching without consent is a crime. More on that at the sex and the law page.
Compare how Kwame was treated by the Police when he was reporting the offence to how Arabella was treated. He wasn’t listened to properly. The officer seemed insensitive and didn’t take it seriously. Officers are supposed to be trained in helping survivors of sexual violence and if happened in real life this is where you can make a complaint.
Was this an example of homophobia? Maybe it was racism and how black men are too often just seen as perpetrators and not victims? Perhaps it’s something to do with being a man and how men are supposed to be in society?
Removal of a condom without consent
As I said above, Arabella experiences another form of sexual violence when Zain, her partner / lover / fuck friend, removes a condom without her knowledge or consent and then continues having sex. A Police officer does a bit of great sex education in the show and confirms that this is a crime. If you consent to having sex with someone with a condom, it’s no longer consensual if that condom was removed. What Zain needed to say was ‘I’m finding it really hard to ejaculate / stay hard / feel anything with the condom on, how would you feel about me removing it?’ He didn’t and just claimed he thought that she knew, which she didn’t.
It’s called ‘Stealthing’
This removal of the condom during sex without the other person is called Stealthing, which is a depressing term I’ve already written about. I’ve got some advice there for any of you would be Zains out there. It is also an example of what is called reproductive coercion and I’ve also written about that lately too.
Why does Zain thinks that’s okay? Did he make himself accountable for what he did? Once Zain was called out for this he disappeared and his book came out under a pseudonym – but how could he have made himself accountable? When we call people out on social media, what are we asking them to do?
Also consider the differences in power in the relationship between them. He was paid by the publishers to help her: did he have more power? If so, how could he have used that power more responsibly?
Friends vs Lovers
Arabella has two besties, Terry, and Kwame. As she tries to deal with the trauma of sexual violence (more on trauma in a bit) her relationship with them ebbs and flows but they remain in her inner circle. However, at the beginning of the show, Arabella also has someone else in her inner circle, Biagio.
As it turned out things went wrong with him, but rather than me explain it, here’s some work for you to do. Compare the relationships that Arabella has between Biagio, and her relationship with Terry or Kwame. Use the relationship graph below (or read more about the relationships graph here).
Arabella has a very tight and close relationship with her besties. I love that they call each other bae because that word is usually for people who are in romantic relationships with. But think of all the years and the many hundreds of acts of love and kindness that have gone into those relationships. Compare that with the relationship with Biagio and consider how we (as a culture) are encouraged to get close to ‘romantic’ or ‘sexual’ partners so quickly. Sex can be good, but it’s not that good! You don’t immediately have to promote people into your inner circle because the sex was good. Just saying.
Think about your relationships in this way, who’s in your inner circle? Can you be intimate and romantic with friends as well as someone you might be having sex with? Do you know the phrase ‘new relationship energy’ (it’s the trendier and cooler version of ‘the honeymoon period’)? It’s at the beginning of a new relationship and everything is really shiny and exciting and you want to do all the things with that person. What if we could get rid of that? Would we have better or more boring relationships?
Sexaul Assault Referral Centres
Okay back to the grim subject of sexual violence. In the show when they report the sexual violence they go to the Police. Just to let you know that, in the UK, you don’t have to go to the Police to get support about a sexual assault or rape. There are Sexual Assault Referral Centres that you can go to. They provide an all round service to support anyone who has been sexually attacked (any gender): medical treatment, someone to talk to, and also they can support you if you want to report the assault. I’ve got more information about that at my services page and links to where you can find your nearest one. There’s also a good list of support services here at ITV (randomly) https://www.itv.com/thismorning/rape-helplines). In America head over to Rainn.
Much of the show is about how Arabella (with the help of Terry and Kwames) tries to deal with the trauma of the initial attack. When we experience stress our bodies go into react mode. How exactly our bodies react is different for different people, but we don’t get a choice over it. But some common biological features are tunnel vision, loss of hearing, needing to pee, and a dry mouth. I’ve written more about dealing with stress here.
Trauma, and particularly complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can result in our bodies going into this stress mode when we are triggered by something. It could be what someone does, or says which brings back memories and could put us right back in the stress mode we were in when we were being attacked. Sometimes our brains can also do this for us with flashbacks, which is what Arabella is experiencing during the show.
My mate and colleague Meg-John Barker has written this really great Trauma 101 article, so check that out. Also The Havens, sexual assault referral centres in London, have this really useful pdf about dealing with sexual violence, flashbacks, and how to get grounded when you are in react mode.
The key to recover from trauma is to try to nurture and allow the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. And how do we do that? Self care.
Terry and Kwame are such great friends and really bring Arabella in close to them when she tells them about the attack(s). Terry makes it her mission to do self-care for Arabella, which I think was great to begin with, but you might want to adopt a different strategy if you do this for a friend. The key to self-care is not the bubble bath, or the yoga, or the colouring in, but it’s the choosing of which of those things you want to do and how you want to do them. When we have been treated non-consensually we have had some of our choices taken away. So the antidote is to give ourselves more choices and so more consent.
The point of self-care is that we can make the right choices for us about what care we can give ourselves. If a mate isn’t really doing their self-care you can gently remind them, or nudge them, or make some suggestions. However, it’s probably not brilliant just to make them do nice things.
A show about consent?
A lot of reviews of this show say that it’s about consent and I’m like huh! For me, it’s a show about sexual violence, trauma, and an absence of consent. Consent is about freedom, choices and decision making power. Think about all the relationships in the show and the times when decisions needed to be made. Did characters ask open questions? When was there more than just two options given (do you want to do this thing, or not do this thing Y/N)?
How did people with more power manage to help those with less power to have more choice and freedom? Think about the boss of the publishers coercing Arabella into writing about her sexual assault. Consider her agents and how they might have given more support to help Arabella with her work.
Why people have sex, a consent issue?
There were a couple of instances of sex where there seemed to be a grey area about whether, in retrospect, the sex was consensual or ethical. One is the threesome, where it appeared that the two men in the MFM knew each other and may have planned it beforehand. The other is where Kwame and the homophobic (and racist) white girl called Nifuler had sex.
Is it okay to have sex with someone when it’s not completely clear why we want to have sex with them? We all make assumptions about why people might want to do anything with us, but is it fair to allow people to assume, or should people not be making these assumptions in the first place.
Certainly for the threesome, it wasn’t cool for those two guys to pretend to be strangers when they and Terry had sex. The most consensual and ethical (and in my view, sexy) thing to have done would have been to say ‘here’s my sexy friend, we both fancy you, would you like to have sex with both of us, or one of us, or neither of us, or both of us one at a time, or both of us at the same time?’ As it was they deceived her into thinking that they were strangers, which perhaps was what attracted her to the situation. It was not informed consent even if it might not technically have been a sexual offence. Just because something might be legal, doesn’t make it ethical. Doing the right thing is really important when it comes to sex. If giving someone all the information they need to have consensual sex might mean they say no, then so be it.
For Kwame and Nifuler a more consensual approach might have been for them both to be clear about what they were wanted from the sex (hook up, having sex with someone new, friends with benefits, or some kind of relationship). And yes, talking about why we might want to have sex can be a good idea.
Read more about why people have sex and how to make that consensual
However, Kwame did not have to tell Nifuler about his sexuality. It’s none of her bloody business. It was wrong for her to suggest that his non-disclosure of his sexuality was the same as a sexual assault and it was wrong for Arabella to say the same. As this really good article points out “[t]he idea that non-disclosure of sexuality is adjacent to assault echoes some homo/biphobic ideas” to do with gay men (particularly black men) being seen as people responsible / carrying HIV or that bi folk are imposters and getting sex under false pretences. I’m not sure if this was critiqued within the show enough and I think Kwame deserved better.
Also, I know that Kwame is just one gay man, and the other gay men he meets are through (the generic BBC version of) Grindr, but not all gay men are interested in hook ups. In fact not all gay men are interested in sex at all. Just wanted to flag that up.
Punishment and accountability
So in the final episode (and hey, where did Kwame go?) Arabella and Terry finds her attacker at the bar and find three different ways of dealing with him. Violence (an eye for an eye). Compassion and understanding (understanding his trauma and centring his needs). Seducing him and rewriting the sexual script where she has power and agency and uses that to ensure they both have mutual and exciting sex.
Yeah I found it strange too, but I think these scenes are actually just meant to be a metaphor for her trauma. As the naked version of her attacker drags the dead and bloodied version of her attacker from under her bed, she is able to somehow allow the trauma to leave.
If the perpetrator was caught (and crucially, found guilty*) he could have received a maximum of life imprisonment for his crimes. It’s likely that he would have spent over 10 years in prison. What do you think about this? Reoffending rates are high for people coming out of prison, so is it better to lock up rapists to stop them hurting people (at least outside prison). Should we spend more money on treatment to rehabilitate rapists to prevent rape? Are there other ways to make people accountable for harms they have committed?
*we have a shockingly low rate for rape convictions, for lots of reasons but mainly because of rape myths which prosecutors and juries believe
That’s it! Gosh, sorry this is so long! I’ve got so much more I want to say but what did you think about the show? Let me know in the comments (I moderate them, so we don’t have any abuse or spam for your russian porn site here thanks). Also let me know if you have any questions after watching the series that you might want an answer to!
Here’s a great video about seeking out therapy for survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
And here’s a great comic book by Nina Burrowes (from the video above) called The Courage to Be Me
© Justin Hancock, 2021.
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. Find out more about Justin here