Trigger warning: discussion of sexual harassment, assault, and rape as a concept.
It took me a while to find the time to watch it, but once I did I ripped through it in a couple of nights. It was back in Istanbul, round two that is, when I returned in December to find the original magic I had found in that city swathed in a damp chill that often left me retreating indoors.
And look, I know everyone has already said just about everything there is to say about Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, but hear me out.
There are topics explored in this show that I’ve never seen in any piece of media, ever. And they are numerous. Even aside from the “brave” depictions of characters navigating consent and the aftermath of sexual assault, the surrounding tapestry is so full of firsts that hard to understand how one person could have amassed them.
And not only that, but storylines are woven together so precisely, so mathematically, that I’ve gone back several times and poured over the series with a notebook and a pen in hand just to try and understand how she accomplished it. I know for a fact that there are secrets locked in there; within the text there’s something reproducible, I’m sure of it, but damned if every time I’m doing an active rewatch to try and figure out what those things are I’m just left wrapped in the story, my notebook unattended.
And by the end of every episode I’ll look down at what I’ve written to find very little.
After a rewatch of the Ostia episode, I remember looking down at my notes and seeing only the word: “wow.”
There has been a lot of press about this show, particularly after it failed to receive even a single Golden Globe nomination. Fans and celebrities around the world took to Twitter in their outrage, which I think in some instances could be categorized as grief, but none of it would manage to secure a nod for a show so revolutionary that it has rendered a landscape wherein television may never be the same.
It is not a stretch to say that I May Destroy You is easily the best television show I’ve ever seen in my entire life. To be clear, I know it doesn’t really matter what I think, but I can’t help but watch and watch and rewatch it and wonder where we go from here, because much like the pandemic will forever change our collective understanding of security and status quo, our understanding of what media can and should look like simply won’t be the same now.
And you see, part of knowing that, for me, is also knowing that this work has opened up a landscape for creators to make things they couldn’t before.
The series is bookended by a particular song. It’s called It’s Gonna Rain, and I’m obsessed with it. We hear it in the pilot, when we see Coel as Arabella first succumbing to the revelry of a night out with friends, one she’s bought with her neglect of the pages she’s been tasked with delivering to her publisher the following morning. It is the last song we hear before she is raped, though the way the story is presented we, as the viewers, are not absolutely sure that’s what has happened for a couple of episodes more.
The next time we hear this song is in the penultimate episode, when the story she wants to tell begins to click under Zane’s tutelage, evidenced by the Post-Its covering her bedroom. We see on her face and laid out so precisely on her walls that these will be the last few weeks left for her before the whole world knows what she was forced to so violently endure.
It’s the latter that fucks me up the most. You see, in its initial run – either on the BBC or HBO or on whatever outlet you found it where you live – the show was serialized, so you may have missed this gorgeous cue, the one that equates the pain of Arabella’s assault with the pain of telling the world she’s been assaulted. But for me, watching episode after episode in my slim hostel bed tucked into a corner in Istanbul, I already had the first episode fresh in my mind as I watched the last, so understanding that you are meant to see how these two storms can feel identical wasn’t lost on me.
I have never, in my entire life, been so moved by any other single scene in any media, and yes, I know that a lot of it has to do with what I bring to it: my own experiences and choices and struggles and work. But for someone that, for so many years, put her entire life on the internet for literally any passerby to read, it’s weird to realize that this – this time when the clouds begin to gather right before your lay your life bare on the page – is something I’ve lost under the auspices of so carefully curated social media and the authority of the outlets that I write for that don’t really allow for such vulnerability, even when I’ve been granted the rare occasion to tell stories about my personal experiences.
Traveling around, everyone always asks me what I do, and when I reply that I’m a travel writer, they ask if I have a blog. Yes, I suppose I do, but this is not a place rife with high-res photos splashed, full-width, across a bright white background. It’s not full of affiliate links and sponsorships and tips and tricks and funny little colonial anecdotes about trying to commit a handful of foreign words to memory.
I write these for me, to remind myself that ultimately, in this industry full of influencers and editors and advertisers and so many fucking white men, that I came to it because writing has always been my best love. And that traveling, albeit so central to whom I have become, is auxiliary to it.
But unfortunately, my blog is also rarely a full picture of what goes down for me out here in the wide world. Kind of like my Instagram, it only explores a single passing thought a week; and while sometimes this reflects something about my broader experience over the last seven days, there’s usually so much that’s missing.
And part of the reason I’m telling you this is because I haven’t written a single word about how since I got to the Balkans I’ve met women in three countries who have all been sexually harassed or assaulted – or both – by a single man that I actually know. I met him in Skopje when he was on his way to Egypt, seemingly to escape the storm that was slowly closing in on him, one of mounting allegations that were beginning to encompass him in Macedonia. He had strategically positioned himself there as a volunteer in a place people merely pass through, where he could remain a predator for so long because so many women simply chose to move on rather than navigate any kind of official solution within a country and a culture that is foreign to them. And he did it in a way that belies that Macedonia is not the first country he has done this in.
And maybe you’re reading this and you assume it’s maybe two or three women, but I’m telling you that I personally know of at least six that he unequivocally harmed in his tenure working at that hostel.
And no, before you ask, I’m not going to write any names here nor divulge his identity lest someone trace his presence online back to his victims, because, at least right now, their stories are not mine to tell. This is a non-negotiable.
But I will say this.
This shit happens all the fucking time.
If you think this is just in the Balkans or just in hostels or just on Couchsurfing or whatever the fuck other platform you want to blame, then you are deluding yourself. And especially now, during the pandemic, when there are so few solo female travelers out here, I need you to know that we are even more vulnerable; we have fewer allies out here right now and more people willing to take advantage of that.
I spoke briefly about missing Tirana last week, and yes. There is the part where I simply miss my friendships there, but there is the whole other part where I miss these women as allies, and the support that a community, even a small one, can offer. And now that everything has become so much more clear in my mind surrounding this story holistically, I’ve realized how I’ve tried to create that exact scenario everywhere I’ve been, like when I first got to Albania and allied myself with a man just to feel like someone had my back in a place where I knew no one.
I think that situation is particularly interesting because I’ve written a bunch of words about it since it first began, and again after I ended it, and only now can I see that part of it was born of my own maladaptive coping mechanisms that have become even more difficult to eschew as the pandemic wanes on and anxiety and depression wax in and out of my life.
And yeah, I’m not saying that I know exactly how this is going to pan out, but I know a storm is coming.
That man, the volunteer from Skopje I mean, is now in Cairo; at least, that’s what his instagram tells us. And before that we know he was somewhere in Sinai, likely in Dahab or maybe in Sharm, and we guess he’ll be returning there shortly.
But you see, just like the ferocious-ass girlfriends I amassed in Tirana, I have been fortunate enough to collect them in other countries, too.
And I’m saying that I have girlfriends in Cairo and Chicago and Cape Town and Berlin and Tokyo, and they have girlfriends in Nairobi and Abu Dhabi and Madrid and Sao Paulo and Hong Kong, and so on and so on until our extended network creates a web around the world. And I’m just saying that there has to be a fucking way to collectively stop being swayed by the storms we encounter and create our own hurricane that traps any predator in it’s path.
There just has to.
Because the way that we are living out here is untenable, and that we lack of a platform to tell the world what has happened to us is unconscionable, and the lack of support from all of these platforms that we spend money on that actually just end up aiding our abusers is crazy.
If you need to read that last one back again, feel free. To be clear, yes, I am saying that dollars that we spend on many of these travel platforms simply end up funding corporations and organizations that either by their silence or actions are complicit in our abuse.
I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I know quite a bit about what we are missing.
Properties don’t fear deplatforming.
If you think properties where we encounter mistreatment are being deplatformed – meaning removed from booking sites where they are converting customers – then you aren’t paying attention. Every major booking site you have ever used is still listing properties where multiple instances of sexual assault have been reported, because removing them would mean losing the revenue that they can amass from them, thus they are prioritizing dollars over the wellbeing of women. I would love to tell you that there are a couple of them that are “worse than others,” but please trust me that there are not. They have all done this, and are all complicit in our abuse.
It doesn’t end at guests.
In fact, women who move to other countries or cities to work in hospitality are often most vulnerable, particularly when their housing or visa – or both – are tied to that opportunity. It’s not a stretch to understand that when it comes to reporting an assault, when we risk losing a paycheck or a place to live, particularly when we are in a position where we don’t have the support systems typical of non-nomads, that we are even less likely to reporting our experiences for fear of the aftermath. And if you think this only happens on sites like Worldpackers or Workaway, then you may be shocked to know that I saw, firsthand, this exact scenario occur at a five-star, five-diamond resort in Aspen, Colorado which recruits people from all over the world to work and live under questionable conditions in exchange for a United States work visa. I won’t name it, but there’s only one there with those accolades so do what you will with Google. And by the way: fuck that place.
There’s no market for publishing accounts of of sexual assault when traveling.
Part of the reason you don’t realize how pervasive this is links directly back to the simple fact that travel media doesn’t publish personal narratives and essays that engage vulnerably with this subject at all. While you’ll find tons of solo-female travel articles peppered liberally across the internet, the vast majority – and please hear me here: it is so close to all that I might as well just say all – is focused on information directed solely at women that outlines how we may protect ourselves. I have never once, in my entire life, seen an article about how male travelers can recalibrate how they navigate the world to make women feel more comfortable, nor anything personal from the perspective of a victim of sexual assault abroad. Never. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but as someone who engages with a lot of travel media – an obvious occupational hazard – if I have never seen a single one, you can imagine how many a layperson has likely seen.
And really thinking about this, I am realizing that this has created a scenario wherein travel journalists feel like they have no place to pitch this type of story because we’ve never seen an example. No matter how much a publication touts that they respect, uplift, and aim to broadcast the voices of women, please remember that nine times out of ten these outlets are owned by men who care more about their advertisers than their complicity in rape culture. And honestly, the ones owned by women aren’t much different as they are still forced to engage with the broader industry in the exact same way.
It’s hard to know where to begin.
Capitalism shows us that the most effective way to inspire change is to challenge the Almighty Bottom Line™, but as I’ve already laid out here, our entire culture, including our economic culture, is designed to cater to our abusers at the detriment of victims. A lot of this scenario is bred within the complicated relationship between corporate interests, advertising, and the various platforms spending and competing for those dollars. And while I don’t think you’ll ever see a travel corporation straight-up taking the stance that female nomads simply aren’t experiencing sexual assault (as soon as I typed this, I realized how big this world is and how that’s probably definitely happened at least once,) basically all of them are ferociously silent on the subject. And that has to change. And I have no idea exactly how to begin that process because there is absolutely no established route to do so, nor an obvious weakness that they share that can be exploited.
But even the Death Star had a weakness. And the irony here is that it had one because a writer designed it that way.
And I’m not even saying I’m going to be the one to do it, but one of us will, and not only will I believe her but I will stand behind her writing ferociously for anyone willing to read it.
So. I guess it’s finally time to circle back if you’ll indulge me.
I’m not a developer, or a marketer, or an advertiser. I’m not even currently an editor. These aren’t my fields, and I’m never going to be the woman that creates, say, an app that helps us to eliminate the possibility of being raped or harassed while we’re traveling.
But I am a writer. And my responsibilities within this realm are not lost on me.
And though I’ve never seen any travel media address rape in a way that we deserve, I’m also lucky enough to have watched, just last year, a woman write something that never existed before. And I watched in rapt attention as this brand new invention unfolded across 12 episodes, and so many of the tears that I cried while I watched it weren’t just for the characters onscreen, but were for me, too, and for all the writers who have struggled to find a place for the stories that mean something, or even fought for the strength and will just to write them down in the first place.
I watched an interview, just this morning actually, with Michaela Coel where she spoke about googling “how to write a television show” before she sat down and wrote the single greatest television show in the history of the world.
And I’m telling you that I don’t know exactly what to do about all of this, but sometimes, when you see the storm on the horizon, the only place to start is at the beginning.
Can’t you see the clouds gathering?