After my last post I joked (threatened) that I was going to start the blog off with an anality triptych and write about the first scene of The Argonauts or something. Instead this is about I May Destroy You, my third post about sexuality in contemporary women’s TV and the last one before I write about something else.
I May Destroy You is a dissection of contemporary sexuality, one largely free from the artificially simplistic cynicism of heteronegativity (there is of course Arabella’s familiar disavowal, “I’m not straight, I just love dick”—more on that later). Its negotiation of women’s sexual agency in a landscape crowded by the mundane brutality of rape and assault is often brilliant, yet there are certain aspects of the show’s navigation of sexual ethics that puzzle me. Still, I think there’s a way to read the show against the heavy-handed and at times troubling moralism of the latter episodes, instead locating an ethics in the transformative ambiguity of its earlier moments.
The moment in the show that most moves me is one I epically misread. It’s the scene in Italy where Terry has her threesome—with the viewer arriving at the threesome’s conclusion, when the two men quietly gather their belongings in the cool glow of the early morning and leave together. Terry watches them through her window, her expression conveying (so I thought) the depersonalized tenderness of the anonymous sexual encounter, a tenderness for these two men who have set down their heteromasculinity for long enough to not only have sex together (with each other?) but to have a friendly conversation on their way home. I (hopefully) imagine that the the two men sucked each other’s dicks or kissed or touched at some point, although this is all optimistic speculation as the threesome itself is barely depicted.
What I initially see in Terry’s expression standing at the window is a deeply familiar and treasured feeling, the sense of boundless porousness that washes over you in the wake of sexual promiscuity, the erosion of the boundary between self and world. No one can deny that there is a sinister version of this promise—one symbolized by the bar in which Arabella is raped, Ego Death—but I thought what Terry is experiencing is the beautiful version, the version that endows you with a carefree lightness, a reprieve from the demand to be sovereign.
I deliver my euphoric reading of Terry-at-the-window via text to my ex-girlfriend/best friend Fenja. She replies: “Really?” (Like a therapist slash skilled pedagogue, Fenja never explicitly tells me I’m wrong, just gently tosses whatever I’ve said back at me for reexamination.) Fenja has what turns out to be the correct understanding of the scene: the men deliberately deceive Terry, pretending not to know each other, a fact that begins to dawn on her in that literal dawn moment standing at the window and seemingly haunts her later in the series.
I find this twist disappointing for the way it dramatically relocates the threesome’s location on the pleasure/danger axis. Of course, the threesome may have been terrible for reasons other than deception. It may have been awkward, corny, painful, frightening, boring, devoid of sexual pleasure—but we don’t even get to the point of knowing that. (Terry’s smile and sultry pronouncement—”Yeah it was wild”—indicates she enjoyed it, but this is never unequivocally confirmed.) By displaying so little of the sexual encounter nor Terry’s feelings about it beyond the deception element, the show sidesteps the question of Terry’s experience, making the entire issue whether or not she was tricked.
I stubbornly protest to Fenja: Who cares if she was tricked! I reimagine Kelis’ Trick Me as an anthem about semiconsciously consenting to deception in order to have sex with two strangers in a beautiful bed in Italy. I think about the opening of this essay by Emily Ogden. I think about something my sister once said, the mantra of straight girl sexual reclamation: “You think you had sex with me, but really I had sex with you.”
But my text is somewhat disingenuous. I know it matters if Terry was tricked because the show eventually suggests that she feels (at least somewhat) violated by the deception. At the same time, I am intrigued about the possibility that this deception might not be the defining fact about the threesome. This possibility—and the ambivalence it produces—is masterfully conveyed by Weruche Opia in that window moment I can’t get out of my head.
Taken on its own, the episode deals spectacularly in ambivalence. (As an aside, it also contains one of the least corny, most accurate and most hilarious representations of drug use that I’ve ever seen in mainstream TV.) However, as the series goes on, ambivalence around the issue of deception/disclosure gives away to a more straightforward moral regime that does a disservice to the sexually vulnerable, the sexually deviant, and the overlap between the two (this last category including, of course, everyone).
One of the pieces of evidence for my initial reading of the threesome scene is the exhilarated text Terry sends Kwame—the gay male character who embodies sexual liberation and the joy of promiscuity—after the encounter. As Oluwatayo Adewole, Jason Okundaye, and Leyla Reynolds have pointed out, Kwame and the gay freedom he represents are done dirty by Arabella, Terry, and the show itself. After being assaulted during a hookup, Kwame inexplicably sleeps with a cringeworthy white woman, Nilufer, without first disclosing that he is gay—an act framed as assault in what Adewole points out is a “false and worrying equivalence.”
The show doubles down on its demonization of queer/trans “deception” through its celebratory depiction of a trans man who is essentially a walking act of disclosure (quite the cis fantasy!). This man, Kai, is the first person who suggests to Terry that the men she had sex with may have deceived her, doing so while they are on a date in the penultimate episode. As Reynolds points out in her essay at Gal-dem, Kai’s “only storyline is the disclosure of a trans identity.” Not only that, when Kai tells Terry that he is trans, he does so through a suspiciously immediate and clinical description of his genitalia: “Well, I was born in Hertfordshire, I moved to London when I was 17 to make it as a guitarist […] Couldn’t compete, so I ended up studying fine art. And now I have the outward appearance of a young man, but there within my pants lies a vagina.”
In an attempt to convince him that she isn’t too “prudish” to date a trans person, Terry tells the story of her threesome, explaining with flirtatious boastfulness that she seduced not one but two men, that, in this moment, “I could have had anything I wanted.”
Kai immediately informs Terry that she misread the situation. “They weren’t strangers […] Sounds like they made a plan and waited for someone to take the bait.” This is some classic mansplaining, but it’s also more sinister than just that. Kai creates an analogy in which the Italian men are conniving hunters, Terry the naive prey. You actually can’t have anything you want, Kai effectively tells her. You thought you were having sex with them but really they were having sex with you.
Crucially, Kai not only informs Terry that she misread her threesome, but reconceptualizes her recollection of pleasure as traumatic. After Kai’s revelation about the men, Terry admits, “There was something about the way they left,” before becoming flustered and distant. She notes, “It was a while ago,” to which Kai replies, “Still burns like it was yesterday, huh?” putting the words of trauma directly in her mouth.
This is where I May Destroy You is at its most heterofatalistic. On one level Kai and Terry’s dynamic is very straight, but the way in which Kai distances himself from the Italian men—who have suddenly become the men of Men Are Trash—also signals a departure from heterosexuality. (This scene is also haunted by Arabella’s earlier pronouncement, “I’m not straight, I just love dick.” What are the implications of this heteronegative catchphrase for Terry and her new trans boyfriend?) Seemingly harmed by cis men, violated by what (according to the logic of the show) Kai reveals to be an act of assault, Terry is redeemed by the cis fantasy of what a trans man should be: rigorously moral, nonaggressive, disdainful of sexual deviance, and willing to disclose his transness with almost comic immediacy. When Terry and Kai become an item, it is a triumph of nonthreatening masculinity, of the miraculous evaporation of Terry’s (initially quite intense) transphobia, and of the couple form.
(Another aside: I am always trying to write about sexuality in a way that is analytical rather than normative, that describes what exists rather than what should be exterminated, but I throw my hands in the air and admit that I really struggle to extend this to the couple form. I’m working on it.)
The date scene annoys me, confirming, as it does, my own earlier misreading—a misreading that of course parallels that of Terry herself. On my second watch of the show, I am drawn to wonder if misreading can actually form a deliberate strategy for claiming sexual agency, desire, and pleasure for straight women in a world that denies them these things (all the more so to black working-class women like Terry). Misreading might be seen as a refusal to excavate sexual truth, a refusal of the “logic of the trial” which Jennifer Nash, following Loïc Waquant, laments has become the foundation of so much feminist analysis of sexuality. For straight women in particular, misreading names a strategy for wilfully misperceiving apparent facts or men’s subjectivity in one’s own erotic interest—ignoring, for example, that a man thinks he has conquered or debased or violated or tricked you because you want to have sex with him anyway. (If you can’t already tell, this is where the essay gets personal; as a dyke of occasionally sleeping with men experience, I’ve done a lot of misreading in my time.) Misreading is about refusing a man’s “objective” truth in service of a truth of your own or, for that matter, no truth at all.
There are of course limits to misreading. In advocating for it, I’m conscious that my own misreading of Terry’s threesome was inevitably informed by my position as a white lesbian, as well as a scholar of (hetero)sexuality invested in certain kinds of sexual representation. Lord knows there are harmful forms of misreading, which include misgendering, racist misinterpretation, and misreading “no” for “yes” (I hope it goes without saying that you can’t misread your way out of an assault). Nonetheless, I’m intrigued by situations in which misreading is a liberatory strategy, one of the many un- or under-articulated tools straight women employ in order to access freedoms and pleasures the world holds at arm’s length.
In any case, what moved me so much about the scene of Terry’s threesome is not a conviction that the encounter is straightforwardly pleasurable or (yikes!) empowering—it’s the look on Terry’s face at the window. Following Nash, I read this as a look of “ecstasy,” a term Nash explains “marks the fraught nature of racial-sexual pleasure.” What is so brilliant about the scene—for all the issues with its later framing—is how it submerges Terry in the ecstatic. In this sense it’s perhaps crucial that she never verbally articulates her experience of the threesome. As Nash puts it: “I am drawn to the term ecstasy in much the same way some feminists have been drawn to the term jouissance, to describe pleasures that exceed or transcend the self and to capture a bliss that exceeds language.”