Michaela Coel’s BBC x HBO hit series, I May Destroy You, sees the main character, Arabella, grapple with the aftermath of being raped. The show really resonated with me because, like Arabella, I’m a survivor and I talked about what happened to me on my social media. Here, I’d like to talk about my experience of sharing my story online, showing how complex social networking channels can be for survivors choosing to speak out and what I’ve learnt from using them to talk about my personal traumas.
*Trigger Warning [about this post and about I May Destroy You]*
I May Destroy You (and this post) come, inevitably, with a trigger warning. It’s right there in the plot blurb: the story follows Arabella, a Black London writer with a sizable social media following, after her drink is spiked on a night out, when she becomes the victim of a drug-induced rape.
As a domestic violence and sexual assault survivor, I tend to avoid stories about rape like the plague. I’ve processed my traumas, I’ve gone through a lot of therapy and I’d rather avoid having to feel them again because of a show or a book. But why, then, am I watching I May Destroy You?
Why I May Destroy You Is So Brilliant
I May Destroy You has been called “the most sublimely unsettling show of the year” and another bunch of really great things, and they are all true. It’s the show everybody’s raving about, and it’s finally giving its creator, Michaela Coel, the credit she deserves. I’ve been loving her work since Chewing Gum and now I’m even more blown away by her after finding out she turned down a $1m Netflix deal for I May Destroy You because they wouldn’t let her retain her any percentage of the copyright. Luckily, she found another home for the show and we can all enjoy it in its brilliance.
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The final episodes of ‘I May Destroy You’ dropped today, and the ending is *so* powerful. “What feels so different about this show? For me, it’s all in the fluidity. Sexual assault isn’t treated casually, but it is treated as a constant – a spectrum of experiences, that flow into one another and between characters.” Click LINK IN BIO for more. #imaydestroyyou
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show depicting someone report a rape to the police, and how appalling and difficult the process is. I’ve already written a thread about it on Twitter, and since it’s slightly unrelated to what I’m trying to say here you can read it separately by clicking below.
*TW: Sexual assault* Watching #IMayDestroyYou years after attempting to report rape by my abusive ex to the police + after years of studying #criminology has helped me contextualise my experience of speaking with the police in case it helps anyone. 1/— Blogger On Pole (Carolina 🇮🇹🇬🇧🏳️🌈) (@bloggeronpole) June 23, 2020
Yet, the show isn’t just a show ‘about rape and consent’. It’s a show about a person, her friends, their backgrounds, their troubles. It’s refreshing to see a hit show with a main cast of Black characters, from varied backgrounds and with different sexual orientations. It was great, for me, to see the East London I live in on screen. Ostia, near Rome, too, was represented in its real and current vibe, with a modern Italian soundtrack, instead of through cheesy stereotypes around Italy.
Because of all these things, I May Destroy You is a series that reflects the incredible voice, craft and power of its creator. But I’m not watching it only because I try to watch everything Michaela Coel makes. I’m watching it because I knew what the show was about, and I knew she’d deal with the subject of rape properly.
This is why trigger warnings are helpful: as a survivor, when I know a book or film or series feature something that might hurt me, I feel prepared, not ambushed. Even when it’s a hard watch, I know what’s coming and I can give myself a pep talk; I could choose to avoid certain sections, or watch them when someone can hold me, or at a time when I’m not feeling vulnerable.
Why I’m Watching I May Destroy You
I’ve made an exception to my “no triggering shows” rule because I May Destroy You is one of the few stories where rape isn’t just another plot line. In Michaela Coel’s show, women (and survivors) aren’t collateral, something to make a story more gruesome or horrible: they take centre stage, and the story is about them, not about the tragedy surrounding them.
This is why men, in particular, should really watch this show. It teaches you everything about the effect rape has on a person, about how horrible and disheartening reporting it is, about how much soul searching and just plain surviving you’ve got to do after. It’s hardly something you’d make up just to ruin someone, or to get a bit of attention. And it can definitely be written better than in most harrowing pieces of “entertainment” I’ve seen.
As I think I’ve made clear I, like many others, am O B S E S S E D with I May Destroy You. But I don’t think you follow me for my TV reviews. If you read this blog, it’s probably because you’re interested in my experiences or views. So here you are: like Arabella, I chose to share my experiences of rape and abusive relationships through social media, through a blog and a novel. This post is about that.
In the UK, 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16. With social media being one of the go-to self-expression and sharing platforms, a lot of those people have, post-#metoo, chosen to share their stories online – whether they have 100 or 100,000 followers. It’s important that they do so safely and in a way that doesn’t hinder their healing, so I wanted to write about my experience of speaking out about this type of trauma via social media and share my self-care tips – because remember that even if you’re speaking out, you still have to survive.
Why I Started Sharing My Story On Social Media
In I May Destroy You, Arabella, who has quite the online presence after the publication of her first book, uses her social media channels to raise awareness about rape and other victims’ stories – to the point that it breaks her. In the show, you watch her responding to never-ending notifications, to victims’ messages, to calls for help, up until she spirals out of control because of stress.
I think this is interesting because it shows how complex social media can be for survivors. Personally, when I started understanding what happened to me and I was finally able to overcome the guilt and the shame, I wanted to gain my agency back. Pole dancing and writing were a way to do so for me, and I became more vocal about my experiences through my social media, my blog and I finally self-published my novel inspired by what happened to me.
When I started processing my traumas, I also felt like I was too naive, ashamed and young to understand what was happening to me, and that I didn’t want people in my same position to be so oblivious, lonely or helpless. So I started writing, even if I didn’t have Arabella’s following. Yet, while writing about private issues on public platforms can help educate about and reduce the stigma around sexual assault and violence, it also attracts a lot of attention that survivors may not be prepared for.
What You Can Expect From Speaking Out
Speaking out about your experiences can result in both support and (although that luckily hasn’t happened to me yet) even in trolling or in people trying to discredit you to invalidate your experience. Whatever the reaction to what you say however, be mindful that people will react – and if my experience and I May Destroy You are anything to go by, they will start sharing their own experiences of rape and violence. This is can be quite overwhelming.
Initially, when I first started sharing my story and promoting my book, people in my network came forward. They were sharing their support for me, and essentially just saying “me too” – which highlighted the amount of (mainly) women I knew who went through the same experiences as me. That made me really angry, but it helped to know they felt seen (kinda like I feel when I watch I May Destroy You).
However, when my book gained a bigger audience (particularly after an interview with Cosmopolitan), a lot of people dealing with a current or recent abusive relationship / sexual assault started writing to me, either via social media DMs or via email. While, once again, I feel that if people feel seen I have done my job, these stories are massively triggering and result in a lot of reliving my own experiences and in vicarious trauma.
Most people would simply thank me for sharing my story, saying they could resonate with me because they had similar experiences – something I, too, do when I thank a writer or artist I like – and I really appreciated that. Others would ask me if they could share their story, giving me a trigger warning. Others, however, would just go with the gory details first thing, and those were hard to read. I don’t blame them: when you are so scared and overwhelmed, you just need to let it out.
If you have a platform and choose to share your story, you may be put in a similar, difficult position: as a survivor, you know what these people are going through, because you’ve felt it on your skin and are aware of their pain; however, as a person who isn’t a qualified therapist, or a domestic violence/sexual abuse expert, or a police officer, you can’t really help. So you feel more powerless, because whatever you say or don’t say may hurt or endanger that person who’s asking for help – and you’re reliving traumatising experiences in the process.
So here’s what you can expect from sharing your story online. Basically, in my experience sharing your traumas may mean that you’re helping somebody else come forward, or come to terms with something in their past that they hadn’t understood as abuse. You may be taking ownership of your story, regaining the agency that your abuser may have taken from you, even bringing someone to justice. But your story will be out there for people to use, share and talk about as they please. And people will want to speak to you, because you may seem more relatable than a therapist or the authorities – and that will put you in a difficult position.
So How Can You Deal With It?
I firmly believe that if you have a platform, you should use it to amplify other people’s voices and try to do good. But, when faced with allegations and stories that you can’t verify, sharing them isn’t always helpful. If, like Arabella in I May Destroy You, you are asked to share stories of abuse about famous characters or even unknown individuals, you may get done for libel, or accuse people who are innocent, or even endanger a victim whose story gets blown up online, putting them in the eye of a social media storm they may not be prepared to deal with. So here’s a list of things you can and can’t do as an ‘out’ survivor with a platform.
What you can do if someone on social media reaches out to you about their experience of abuse:
- Express your sympathy with the person who has shared their story, thanking them for trusting you with it.
- Direct the person who’s written to you to charities – they are WAY MORE qualified than the average victim to talk about getting out of a difficult situation. Charities that can help in these situations include: Refuge; Women’s Aid; The Survivors’ Trust; Survivors UK; Safeline; Rape Crisis.
- If someone is in danger NOW, send them this page, called “I need help”, by Women’s Aid, putting them in touch with support workers through emails, chats etc.
- If someone is looking for confirmation that they’re the victims of abuse, Refuge has a helpful page to recognise it here.
- Basically, say your version of “I’m sorry” and “I understand how you feel,” etc., but also: “I’m not qualified to provide professional help in this situation, but here are some organisations who are trained to help you and can do way better than me.”
What you can’t do:
- You can’t rescue the person asking for help, especially if you don’t know them, unless you’re a trained professional.
- You can’t call the police for them – they might want that at that time, but they might change their mind in the future. In my experience, after a harrowing night with the police, I decided not to press charges even if friends wanted me to. I regret that now, but that was my choice: I wasn’t ready at the time and facing legal procedures sounded incredibly scary back then.
- You can’t guide a person through survival. Your experience is your experience, and it’s shaped by your upbringing, your background, your life and your story. Every story is different, every survivor is different: e.g. I healed through pole dancing, but that’s not for everyone.
- You can’t be the person who raises awareness of every story. You talked about your own experience, because that’s what you know. You have to let survivors find their own voices, not cover theirs with yours.
What To Do When Your Platform Gets Too Much
There were times when emails and DMs with stories of abuse really got to me, and I’d be sitting in front of my computer crying or staring at the screen, feeling powerless. Sometimes I’d think: “It’d be nice if people gave me a warning before sharing their traumas with me,” but really, when someone is struggling, they don’t think of what’s “nice”. So it’s up to me to know when things are becoming a bit much, and to put a process in place to look after my well-being. When this is happening I:
- Set my boundaries. I try to remind people through a post or a story that I’m there to help, but that I’d be more inclined to have conversations when I’m warned about potential triggers. A general post is better than a late request for a trigger warning asked to a distressed person.
- Try to take a break from social media. This isn’t easy, because social media helps me promote my classes and my blog, and it’s through social media that I keep in touch with loved ones and do my research. But promotion can wait a few hours or days, and those closest to you will be around for a phone chat if you need them. Which brings me to the next point…
- Speak to somebody. They don’t have to be survivors to understand you’re having a rough time dealing with messages, and just venting helps.
- Try to remember that my experiences don’t make me an expert. Yes, I have a degree in criminology. Yes, I’m an abuse survivor. No, I’m not a trained mental health professional or police officer able to deal with situations when a person is in danger. I can empathise, provide verbal support, but especially when I don’t know a person asking for help, I’d be more helpful by pointing them to the right resources.