HBO’s I May Destroy You introduces us to Arabella (creator Michaela Coel) 24 hours before a draft of her novel is due and 15 hours before she goes out for a drink, and then another, and then gets drugged and sexually assaulted. That’s how I would tell the story; here’s another way. We meet irresponsible young writer Arabella as she goes out and gets drunk and high to avoid writing her novel, then wakes up to realize she blacked out, and only remembers seconds of a sexual encounter.
As I said before, I would never describe what happened in I May Destroy You that way. But I did describe my own sexual assault that way for years. And it took watching this show to realize just how much I’d been blaming myself for what happened.
An irresponsible young woman (me) went out and got drunk and high at a college bar. I was with a new friend and we met two men, other students. They said, let’s go back to our place. At their place, my friend disappeared. Soon, the one I’d met at the bar disappeared too, passed out drunk behind me in a room with three other men.
Later, I remember only seconds, and I don’t tell myself it was assault. I tell myself that I wouldn’t have been there if I didn’t want to have sex with someone. I tell myself I didn’t put up a fight. Mostly, I tell myself: do you know how ridiculous you would look if you tried to call yourself a victim?
Arabella is not a good victim. She sniffs cocaine off her friend’s hand and downs shots. We see her briefly, somewhere between drunk and drugged, stumbling, nearly falling, the ground clearly not where she expects it to be. “Is the scene comedic?” Doreen St. Félix asks of this moment in The New Yorker. For years, I asked the same question of my assault.
When I told my friends about that night, I told it as a joke, with my incapacitated state as the punchline. I stumbled too that night, just like Arabella in the bar, while trying to pull back on boots and tights on a ground that kept shifting. But I chose a different anecdote.
“I was so messed up I couldn’t open a car door,” I tell my friends. “The cab driver got so angry at me.”
That’s true too — and I’ve even found it funny. But when I watch I May Destroy You, I feel certain that what I’m watching is not a comedy. And that’s because I May Destroy You is so certain that what happened to Arabella is assault.
The only way we see Arabella’s attack that night is from her perspective in the flashbacks that follow: a man, sweaty and thrusting, looms above her. With this visual, there is no room left for ambiguity about whether or not Arabella has been assaulted. Her attack is not something viewers can debate and dissect as third parties. Her experience is laid out as fact — as a victim’s experience always should be, and so rarely is.
For all the thinking I’d done about what my own assault would look like to a third party, I had done very little thinking about what it looked like to me. From an outside perspective, you might see me asking a guy I was hooking up with to go upstairs, so that’s what I told myself happened. If I’d bothered to remember it from my point of view, I might have remembered what it felt like to have him push up my dress on the kitchen table while I tried to pull it back down. How I tried to get up when other guys walked in to the room and he wouldn’t let me. How I asked to go upstairs not because I was asking for it, but because I was more scared of being assaulted in public than I was of being assaulted.
If Arabella had been attacked in that scene that looked like mine, I wouldn’t have painted over it as a consensual encounter. And since watching, I’ve felt more validated than ever before to say that what happened to me was not right. All the questions that I May Destroy You refuses to entertain — what was she wearing? Is she sure she said no? — are the same questions I used to tell myself I was to blame for what happened that night. If there’s a single element of fantasy to Coel’s tremendous new series, it’s that, in this world, those questions don’t exist.
Click here to see celebrities who have bravely opened up about being sexually assaulted.