by Louise Perry
Monday, 27
July 2020
Seen Elsewhere
09:02

Daring to be honest about hook-up culture

Could Michaela Coel's 'I May Destroy You' be the start of a backlash against casual sex?
by Louise Perry
Michaela Coel in her acclaimed new series ‘I May Destroy You’

In an interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday, Michaela Coel – the writer and lead actor of the acclaimed series I May Destroy You – made some thought-provoking comments about her experience of leaving Christianity:

Michaela Coel has come to accept that there is a certain degree of uncertainty to life. Whereas the artist once turned to Christianity as a means of seeking stability, she has recently gotten into qigong. When you choose to leave religion, Coel says, you can lose your grip on reality.
- Sonia Rao, Washington Post

Many interviews with Coel skate over her religious background, and in doing so ignore an important aspect of her past. Coel has already explored her youthful experiences of celibacy and Pentecostalism in the delightful comedy Chewing Gum, and in this new project, she draws again from her own life, this time depicting the process of recovering from sexual violence. I May Destroy You has been almost universally praised, and rightly so. There is an elegance, wit, and complexity to Coel’s writing that is rarely found elsewhere.

Most reviews have focused on the show’s interest in sexual consent and trauma, two themes that are certainly prominent. But there are other, more provocative themes that have not caught the attention of commentators, and it’s here that we see the continuing influence of Coel’s lapsed faith.

A recent interview with The Economist triggered a brief flurry of controversy when Coel suggested the word “responsibility” should not be taboo in discussions of risky sexual behaviour. She also went on to describe her protagonist Arabella’s hedonistic pursuit of casual sex and drug-taking as “unhealthy and scary and dangerous.”

Reading the shocked and angry responses to these comments on twitter, I wondered have any of these people actually watched the show? Have they noticed, for instance, that every single character who has casual sex suffers in one form or another? That the two women who seek out threesomes both end up betrayed by men they trusted? That Arabella is raped during a boozy night out, and then raped again when she returns to hooking up?

Don’t be fooled by the gorgeous young characters, magnificent soundtrack, and graphic (although curiously unsexy) sex scenes. I May Destroy You is not a show about the joys of sex-positivism – in fact, it carries a cautionary message, perhaps even a conservative one, that retains some trace of Coel’s former commitment to faith and celibacy.

This isn’t a criticism of Coel. In fact, her success in smuggling such a message past the likes of Cosmo only increases my respect for her. I May Destroy You is a masterpiece, and a feminist one too, since it pays such careful and compassionate attention to the reality of sexual violence. But it’s also a show that makes some precise and stinging criticisms of our modern sexual culture.

I’m convinced we are due a reaction against a porn-saturated hook up culture whose harms are increasingly apparent, and that swing of the cultural pendulum could take many forms, some of them unwelcome. The tradwife movement, for instance, urges women to return to a world in which they are ‘barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen’. The anti-porn community NoFap is determinedly male-orientated. Elements of the far-Right openly lust after the male supremacy of the classical world.

Women need something else, a means of rejecting the “unhealthy and scary and dangerous” aspects of hook up culture without stumbling into another culture that is far worse. The subtly reproving message of I May Destroy You suggests that Michaela Coel, at least, is thinking deeply about this. And attracting millions of fans in doing so.

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Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago

Unfortunately, the tradwife movement is sneered at by the mainstream media who promote a narrow form of feminism that is linked to careerism. It is often mischaracterized as a form of submission to a husband, but it’s the furthest thing from it. In fact it obligates men to be better husbands.

Most women I know complain that their jobs get in the way of their household chores. Their workload has increased while for men very little has changed in that regard.

Leti Bermejo
Leti Bermejo
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

‘Their’ household chores? You don’t even get it do you? Thanks for outing yourself as the usual mansplaining chauvinist. ffs.

watsongd
watsongd
1 year ago
Reply to  Leti Bermejo

My wife refers to some household chores as hers (are they chores to everyone?) because she performs them as she doesn’t think I carry them out to her standards.
I also have a set of chores (definitely chores) that for various reasons I do seem to perform to an acceptable standard.
Perhaps Mr Dorsley was thinking of similar arrangements of her and his chores.

claire.orush123
claire.orush123
1 year ago
Reply to  watsongd

Yes, but how does this interpretation even remotely bear out what he’s saying?!

watsongd
watsongd
1 year ago

Their jobs get in the way of the chores they have allocated to themselves and of course my job would get in the way of my chores if my wife allowed it to!!

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago
Reply to  watsongd

This exactly. Whoever decides the standard gets to own them.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago

I’m too old to know about hook up culture. Is it second cousin to sixties free love, which I advocated enthusiastically at the time but later recognised as the biggest con trick men ever played on women?

John Broomfield
John Broomfield
1 year ago

Do our own risk management!

Next you’ll be expecting us to self-isolate, wash our hands and wear face masks in the face of a highly contagious virus.

Victim blaming at its worst.

/s

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
1 year ago

Louise, I was curious to see who actually “lusts after the male supremacy of the classical world”, so followed your link. Just how seriously are we supposed to take the thoughts of someone who uses the nom de plume “Bronze Age Pervert”?

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 year ago

I am old and old fashioned. But has all this promiscuity delivered happiness ?
Casual sex is largely unsatisfactory -possibly more so for women than men.
The women have lost out greatly in the last fifty years. House prices have been inflated so they have to work when married and have children later and later . (This is no accident Banks increased lending to push up prices to capture two incomes in repayments). For men the attraction of marriage diminishes if sex is available without strings -and without the threat of divorce ‘s financial pain. Where is the upside of casual sex ?

Saphié Ashtiany
Saphié Ashtiany
1 year ago

Thanks for this article. It’s exactly the dominant impression the riveting series left with me. And the sheer loneliness of the lead characters’ experiences in experiencing sexual violence and having no real means of dealing with it was so striking.

titan0
titan0
1 year ago

Only just watching on catch up. I must admit, I wondered at the hook up frequency and dangerous behaviour. Was she glorifying it? I quickly understood that the brilliant lead is caricaturing herself?, Certainly others.
I do wonder though how they all /most manage to wander around doing not much for a living but nonetheless surviving in London. But I guess that might detract from the central point.

Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
1 year ago

Good stuff from LP again, sane and humane. Isn’t the hook up culture just junk sex, not very good for you rather like junk food? And pretty useless for preparing anyone for something grown up like having children.