**Warning: contains spoilers for episodes 11 and 12 of I May Destroy You**
Earlier this month MPs voted to outlaw the “rough sex gone wrong” defence. Right now, if someone consents to sexual activity but is killed during sex, the perpetrator may only be charged with manslaughter.
Provision against the “rough sex” defence is included in the new Domestic Abuse Bill, and if the bill becomes law, the defence could no longer be used in court to justify murder.
This real-life reexamination of consent coincides with Michaela Coel’s BBC drama I May Destroy You, which also holds a magnifying glass up to why the lines of consent are so often “blurred”.
Art reflects life, and vice versa: the show reflects both shifting societal attitudes (#MeToo being the most obvious) and legal changes, but it also comes from a place of real-life inspiration. Coel herself was a victim of sexual assault while working on the second season of her hit E4 comedy, Chewing Gum.
On researching the show, Coel told RadioTimes.com, “I began to ask other people questions, both women and men – I realised that basically I was definitely not alone in wondering why these lines of consent were always blurred, and there were so many different experiences. So I tried to take on the challenge of creating a show where I explore the different forms of where sexual consent can be stolen.”
Throughout the show, Coel explores consent from every angle. Her character Arabella (“Bella”) is sexually assaulted in a nightclub, by a man whom she believes she was drinking with earlier in the night.
She also has sex with Zain, a man her publishers hire to help her with her novel. However, he takes the condom off during sex without her consent – an act which is termed “stealthing” Bella is unsure at first about whether he technically raped her (about 40 per cent of British people don’t think stealthing is sexual assault), but she eventually outs him as a rapist at a literary event.
During the series, Bella’s gay friend Kwame consents to protected sex, but is then assaulted – and an upsetting trip to the police reveals just how differently a male rape victim and a female rape victim are treated.
Meanwhile Bella and Kwame’s actress friend Terry consents to a threesome with two (apparent) strangers – but she soon realises that the men already knew each other, and that she was lured into a premeditated encounter. Does the fact that they lied mean that the threesome wasn’t fully consensual?
Coel tackles questions like these and more, the show twisting and turning through both storylines and time itself, with leaps and flashbacks.
The show’s penultimate episode (‘Would You Like To Know The Sex?’) seems to resolve several plotlines, including: Terry’s relationship with a trans barman; Kwame’s intimacy issues; and his sexual “experiment” with a white woman who fetishised black men and didn’t know he was gay.
We also meet Zain again, who is revealed to be ‘Della’, the new author whom Bella so idolised and asked for help on her own book. Since the literary event where Bella exposed him as a rapist, he had been unable to publish under his own name.
They end up back in Bella’s bedroom – this time, Zain helps her piece together the narrative of her book, scraps of paper with plot points dotted on her walls. It doesn’t make sense to him, he says – but it does to Bella.
The same could be said for the show’s finale (episode 12, ‘Ego Death’), which explores her drug-assisted sexual assault and psychological state. Bella’s trauma, like her scrambled book plan, is a huge, sprawling entity that can’t be contained in a box. Only she understands it fully – and it’s also now a part of her.
The ending has been described by other critics as “surreal”. It’s initially confusing, beginning with Bella appearing to recognise her attacker, David, at the same bar where she was drink-spiked. The criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, she excitedly tells Terry – or does Terry tell her? Because the same scenario plays out three times, and each time differently.
In the first, Bella, Terry and Theo conspire to give the rapist a taste of his own medicine, tricking, drugging, and brutally beating him. There are so many callbacks and symbolic nods that I couldn’t keep track: Theo strangling him with Bella’s knickers; Bella smiling benevolently on the bus, David passed out and bleeding heavily on her shoulder, as a fellow bus passenger grins and says, “Boys will be boys!”.
In this first scenario, Bella eventually rolls the bloody David beneath her bed and leaves him there.
In the second scenario, where Terry is the confident instigator, a coked-up Bella dances in front of David – and with an unseen person dressed exactly as she was the night she was attacked, in a pink wig and red-and-white jacket.
David ends up crying in the loo stall after he’s caught out, his whispered excuses reminiscent of Bella’s own early attempts to heal herself, when she’d compare her assault to foreign wars and famine. She takes him back to her room, where she hugs him just as the police break down the door.
In the third, final version of the events, it’s no longer night time – the bar is drenched in sunlight, and David is sweet, disbelieving of Bella’s interest in him.
They make out in a toilet stall; drawings of the stick man and the stick woman (symbols for the men’s and women’s toilets) are both on the cubicle door, appearing to suggest that the genders have been flipped. This is echoed when we see David’s male friend give a stony-faced lap dance for Terry – in previous versions it was the other way around.
Bella and David end up at her place, where they have consensual sex. In the morning, he’s watching her. “I’m not gonna go unless you tell me to,” he says. “Go,” she replies – and he leaves, followed by the bleeding version of David, who crawls out from under the bed.
There are so many ways you can read the I May Destroy You finale – and the show as a whole. Did Bella really see and remember David, or is he a manifestation of something: her trauma?
The viewer sees her go through all the stages of facing up to her own trauma, including anger, compassion, and finally what seems like acceptance – and dominance over it. She is more and more in control with each version of events. In episode e11, she told Zain about the darkness lurking under the bed – and it’s now left in the form of the bloodied version of David.
There are plenty of possible interpretations, and how you see the show may differ from the next person. That’s probably the point. Michaela Coel has created something strange and daring, a multi-layered work of art that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Above everything else, it will change how you see consent, and the scars left behind when those lines of consent are crossed.
I May Destroy You is available to watch as a boxset on BBC iPlayer. You can also check out what else is on with our TV Guide.