Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” and a History of Black Women and Sexual Consent

On August 10, 2020, the Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah featured an interview with Black British creative, Michaela Coel. The topic of discussion was her spectacular dramedy, I May Destroy You. Aired on HBO in the US, the series explores life after sexual assault and the complex, often destructive ways that trauma manifests in victims. It centers on Arabella, a character played by Coel, whose processing of post-rape trauma drives the narrative. But we also see the subtle ways that her best friends, Terry and Kwame – played by Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu, respectively – cope with their own experiences of sexual assault. 

In the interview, host Trevor Noah asks Coel about the role of sexual consent in the show. “When you have so many different worlds of consent that you’re playing with… do you think that you found the answer?” he asks, “Or do you think the point of the show is to make us ask the questions about what consent is and what it should be?”

In an assured manner, Coel replies, “Well, I think it’s really simple.” She goes on to explain that some of her characters’ sexual assaults resulted from the fact that their sexual partners manipulated the conditions they consented to. “This is why I call it a theft of consent,” she concludes, “because details are purposely hidden from you that you consent. But if you saw those details, you wouldn’t consent. So, for me, this is sexual assault.”[1]

In I May Destroy You, Coel is clear that there is no such thing as “a bit rapey” – a phrase familiar among British millennials. As the show depicts: a threesome between a Black woman and two white Italian men that was not as spontaneous as presented, is assault. Stealthing – removing a condom during sex – is rape. Also, gay Black men can be rape survivors too. 

Still, contemporary fixations on so-called “gray areas” in a post-#MeToo world haunt each episode. Sexual consent remains crucial, yet ever dangerously ambivalent and unsettled. How can we not analyze these scenes at the intersection of power, race, gender and sexuality?

Perhaps unwittingly, Coel’s idea of a “theft of consent” evokes a deep history specifically of Black women’s fraught relationship with notions of sexual consent in Western culture. Rooted in the concept of the social contract, consent affirms the ideas of individual liberty and proprietary rights central to liberalism in the West. Demarcating such rights within the parameters of the law, consent has and continues to serve as an instrument of subjectivity and its attendant freedoms, as well as a weapon of dehumanization and subjection. As scholar Ariane Cruz reminds us, “Consent is not a universal principle; it does not have the same valence for everyone.”[2]

For decades, Black feminists and women of color have analyzed sexual violence at the intersection of race and gender. Scholars Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman, for example, have shown that the negation of consent was intrinsic to the sexual subjugation and enslavement of African women in the West.[3]

In colonial America and the US, pervasive stereotypes of African American women’s sexuality as wanton and available also reinforced cultural assumptions of their extraneity to the liberal-subject province of consent. Central to what historian Adrienne Davis calls the “Sexual Economy of American Slavery,” the narrative of Black female sexual excess was tremendously convenient for the accumulation of US capital in the 19th century.[4] In contrast, middle- and upper-class white women were idealized for their so-called sexual and moral purity. Tasked with guarding their virtue, white women exercised sexual consent under the heavy governance of white patriarchal power and some legal protections. Written by and for white men with political power and privilege, rape laws have excluded Black, nonwhite, and poorer women for most of US history.[5]

My own research on African American women’s pursuit of sexual autonomy in the transition from slavery to freedom in the US also uncovers Black women’s troubled status vis-à-vis sexual consent. Through appeals to ideals of chastity and feminine virtue, Black sought access to the language of sexual consent. Some Black women used chastity as an assertion of sexual resistance sovereignty. Though, it did not guarantee them protection from sexual violence. 

The Civil War marked a crucial moment of rupture and possibility for Black women in relation to sexual consent in the US. As historian Crystal Feimster has revealed, African American women increasingly sought sexual justice with the introduction of the Lieber Code in 1863.[6] Outlining the rules of conduct for Union soldiers, this document was groundbreaking in its recognition that women – regardless of race – could be victims of rape and had a right to seek justice from the state. 

African American women did not wait for their legal status to be determined by the state before they brought sexual assault charges against men who were soldiers or civilians, Black and white. As refugees and freedwomen, they testified in military courts. In doing so, they pushed against the racist parameters of sexual consent within American liberal culture. 

For example, in 1863, Harriet Elizabeth McKinley, a formerly enslaved “mulatto” woman testified against Pvt. Perry Pierson after he raped her in Guy’s Cap, Tennessee. She was living on the plantation where she was held captive when Pierson attacked her. When McKinley was first called before the military tribunal, Pierson objected to her testimony on the ground that she “was not a qualified witness, being a colored woman.”[7] Taking Pierson seriously, the commissioners cleared the room for deliberation. The mere presentation of McKinley’s body in a court-environment caused debate. 

The commission rejected Pierson’s objection, but that was only McKinley’s first challenge. Despite recalling her experience with details attesting to her credibility as a witness to her own body, the court repeatedly asked whether or not she consented. McKinley had to confirm that she screamed throughout the entire assault. She stated explicitly that she did not consent to the act. And she was forced to disclose that she was unmarried and a virgin. (The presumption being that as a formerly enslaved woman, McKinley had no regard for chastity, a virtue of civil society in the Victorian-era.) Pierson was found guilty. He was sentenced to a year of hard labor and deprived of pay for four months. Black women who sought sexual justice navigated a legal culture that regarded them with suspicion and contempt at all stages of proceedings.[8]

Still, Black women pushed for more complex understandings of sexual consent in ways that deviated from the legal script of the chaste victim. In 1865, in Clarksville, Tennessee, a 14-year-old noted on record as “Rachel, a Negro Girl” testified that Pvt. John Locker attempted to rape her. Rachel was staying at a known “house of ill fame” when Locker met and attacked her. 

According to the court-proceedings, Locker was intoxicated and initially groped Rachel on her bosom. Witnesses differ in their accounts of how much Rachel resisted this act, but Rachel testified that she told Locker “to quit.”[9] She became more vocal in her resistance when Locker attempted to penetrate her. When the defense asked Rachel: “why would you not permit the accused to have carnal knowledge of you?” she responded: “Because he was not of my color.” The defense then asked if “color was the only objection,” and Rachel, who was likely a sex worker, said yes.[10] In her refusal, Rachel asserted a form of sexual sovereignty and agency on her own terms.

These examples are just snippets of a long tradition of African American women’s truth-telling about their experiences of sexual assault. They fold into a deep history of Black women’s fraught relationship with notions of sexual consent.

Today, Coel teaches us, a lot of everyday sexual violence lives and thrives on the “line spectrum border” – to borrow the title of Episode 8 – between consent and violation. Histories of gender and sexual minorities teach us that the “line spectrum border,” is dangerously plural, if existent at all. 

If we contend with a “theft of consent” that resides in the hidden details of individual sexual relations today, Black women have historically contended with a systemic exclusion from consent within the racist, hetero-patriarchal lexicon of Western liberalism.

Kaisha Esty is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies, with an affiliation in the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, at Wesleyan University. She earned her PhD in History at Rutgers University. She is working on her first book-project, tentatively titled, Weaponizing Virtue: Black Women and the Struggle for Sexual Sovereignty. Follow her on Twitter @professoresty and IG: BlackSkinLikeMine.

Image Credit: “Young woman wading at the beach, in front of a covered pier.” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Young woman wading at the beach, in front of a covered pier.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed August 27, 2020. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-14f8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

[1] “Michaela Coel – ‘I May Destroy You’ & Writing About Sexual Assault,” YouTube video, 8:18, “The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah,” August 10, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXDu90hbWbg.

[2] Ariane Cruz, The Color of Kink: Black. Women, BDSM, and Pornography (New York: NYU Press, 2016), 47.

[3] See Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64-81; and Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). 

[4] See Adrienne D. Davis and The BSE Collective, eds., Black Sexual Economies: Race and Sex in a Culture of Capital (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019). 

[5] See Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Estelle B. Freedman, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013)

[6] Crystal Feimster, “Rape and Justice in the Civil War,” https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/rape-and-justice-in-the-civil-war/ .

[7] National Archives Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General’s Office (Army), Entry 15, Court-Martial Case File, File Number MM746.

[8] Ibid.

[9] National Archives Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General’s Office (Army), Entry 15, Court-Martial Case File, File Number OO857.

[10] Ibid.