What is consent? You’d think it would be straightforward: two (or more) people saying “yes”. But as Michaela Coel’s new BBC drama I May Destroy You shows, sexual consent is never that simple. It’s a far more complex and thorny issue.
What happens, for instance, if you consent to having sex with a man, before realising he removed the condom halfway through? Or that you have a threesome with two male strangers, and it’s only afterwards that you realise that the men were pretending not to know one another? Did you consent if you didn’t know the full circumstances? Can consent be taken from you?
Those two scenarios are among many that Coel raises during the course of the show. The series is “definitely not entirely fictional”, as Coel has told RadioTimes.com – in 2018, the Chewing Gum creator and actress revealed that she had been sexually assaulted, under circumstances that are strikingly similar to those that her character in the show, Arabella, finds herself in.
Arabella, a writer, is feted as the voice of her generation. She found fame via social media, eventually publishing a bestselling book about the millennial experience. Now she’s working on her second novel, but she’s hit a creative wall – and with her publishers at her back, she’s forced to pull an all-nighter at her publisher’s London office in order to meet her deadline.
Halfway through the night, she slips out to join some friends nearby for a drink. The next thing she knows, she’s back at the office – and all she can remember from the rest of the night is a vague image of a man bearing down on her in a toilet stall. She was, she finally realises, sexually assaulted.
The scenario parallels Coel’s real-life experience, which she outlined in her MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival 2018. Pulling an all-nighter at a production company’s offices, she “took a break and had a drink with a good friend who was nearby. I emerged into consciousness typing season two [of Chewing Gum], many hours later.”
The show is a journey of Arabella balancing her life and career against her growing anxiety following the attack (she studiously avoids being alone, or going to bars, where her drink was originally spiked).
The show’s official synopsis also promises that she eventually comes to some “controversial conclusions”, which I can readily believe – from the first four episodes I’ve seen, the show is nothing but unexpected, especially in the way it deploys humour. Arabella’s first flashback to her attacker is almost framed as the punchline to a joke. In therapy (paid for by her scrambling publishers), Arabella reveals that when it all gets too much for her, she repeats over and over, “Not everyone has a smartphone, not everyone has a smartphone”.
The sex scenes are also brilliantly realistic – especially the scene where Arabella is on her period and lying in bed with her holiday fling. I can’t remember ever watching a TV show that talked so openly about tampons and blood clots.
Arabella is the heart of the series, but we also closely follow her friends, including Terry (Weuche Opia), an actress struggling to score a spot in an upcoming Dove commercial, and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), an attractive gay man and fitness teacher who has self-esteem issues.
Both Terry and Kwame encounter sexual partners who have different ideas about consent to them – the scene where a casual hook-up turns on Kwame is particularly upsetting.
Many of the scenarios that the characters find themselves in will be familiar and personal to viewers at home, whether or not they believe they have ever been sexually assaulted or a victim of drinks spiking. And many critics will likely praise Coel for her bravery and openness in tackling this very personal story – but, if you take away the autobiographical link, the show still stands up as a biting and witty drama that dismantles and rebuilds everything we think we know about casual dating, and our own consent.
I May Destroy You will begin on Monday 8th June on BBC One at 10:45pm. For more to watch, visit our TV guide.