TV & Movies

How I May Destroy You Expertly Navigates The Thorny Truth Of Consent

Michaela Coel’s dark and sparkling drama teaches us about the inadequacies in how we talk about sex.

HBO

No one gets the sex they want on Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. The measure of how sex affects a character, so far, is in the distance between the sex they fantasize for themselves and the sexual encounter they ultimately have. Writer and creator Coel, whose character Arabella is raped in the series premiere, proves in this week’s episode that she’s not just distinguishing sex from sexual violence by gradation; she’s picking at the scab of consent itself.

No means no, but sex in the actual world isn’t a yes or no question. At best, it’s a long series of them: Condom? YES/NO. This position? YES/NO. That position? YES/NO. Consent isn’t a robust concept — which is to say, it can’t protect you from what you don’t want — without a shared idea of what sex looks like. But how realistic is this shared idea, especially between new partners? For Coel’s characters — Arabella, Terry, and Kwame — it’s not always the language of consent that fails them but the insufficiency of language around sex, too.

Sex occupies a liminal space between the taboo and the talked about, as I May Destroy You exposes episode by episode. We’re sufficiently evolved past Victorian squeamishness to discuss wanting it, as Coel’s characters regularly do. Kwame, eager to hook up with Damon, invites a third man to join them, in part because they need his flat. Damon, who is only beginning to interrogate his sexuality, says he “isn’t scared,” but there’s no further discussion of what the threesome will look like. Arabella wants to have sex with Zain, the young Oxbridge writer her publisher hired to help see Arabella’s manuscript through to deadline. Zain wants to have sex with her, too. He’s been thinking about kissing Arabella, he says, “for hours.” It’s all consent of a kind in that everyone is sober and lucid. There’s no reason to doubt the characters have an idea in their own minds of what they want and what their partner is agreeing to. Regardless of this agreement, both encounters end in assault.

For Coel’s characters, it’s not always the language of consent that fails them but the insufficiency of language around sex, too.

Kwame is ultimately assaulted by force when an uncomfortable Damon decides to leave, revoking his consent. Now alone, their host overpowers Kwame and humps him while he's pinned face down to the bed, protesting and unable to move. The disconnect between them started earlier in the evening, when Kwame pushed back at the man's suggestion that they have sex without a condom. “I thought you were into everything,” Kwame was asked then, an echo of his seductive promise being used against him. They're in the early stages of hooking up, but already fissures in the throuple’s expectation of what sex would look like are forming. Kwame is being asked — YES/NO — to some new question of sex; when he declines, the consent between them feels more strained than when they started.

In a concurrent scene, Arabella is assaulted by stealthing when Zain removes the condom Arabella asked him to wear. Zain either thinks Arabella knew he was taking it off or — what’s more likely — pretends to think that. The episode ends with the pair amiably visiting a pharmacy to pick up emergency contraception at Zain’s expense. That’s when Kwame calls Arabella, tears running down his face, needing to hear a familiar voice; meanwhile, Arabella shares a bag of chips with her perpetrator. The same bounds of consent have been crossed in both sex scenes, but the emotional aftermaths point to how reliant our idea of rape is on the presence of violence. Without it, Arabella doesn’t even recognize Zain’s deceit as a form of assault — at least not immediately.

In I May Destroy You, wanting sex and having sex are distinct and sometimes even unrelated. Wanting sex isn’t a reliable predictor of consent, because sex itself is a privately held idea among most of the show’s characters, even as they talk about wanting it. Partners agree to sex at the broadest, most abstract level: they agree to be in a room together where sex will happen, whatever that means to who. But once you’re already in the room, you’re more vulnerable. For Kwame, Arabella and even Terry, who in last week’s episode regrets a drunken threesome she has on holiday, consent isn’t a rampart against injury. Do you want to have sex? YES/NO isn't in the critical question. It’s What does 'sex' mean to you? and What will you do if it means something different to me?

Editor's note: The original version of this story mischaracterized the details of Kwame's assault. It has since been corrected.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.