Blush: tackling revenge porn and a culture of shame

Charlotte Josephine meets me at Old Street station, before taking us to a nearby café that has the murmur of Beyonce over our heads. The writer and performer looks slightly dazed and explains that she hasn’t seen daylight in a while due to the sheer amount of work she has had on. Despite the hermit status, she appears energised and eager to discuss the motivations behind new play, Blush, currently at the Soho Theatre. Co-created between companies, Sphinx Theatre and Snuff Box (which Josephine co-founded) the show tells five stories, with three characters, centring on the issue of ‘revenge porn’. A silly term coined by a tabloid newspaper? Josephine explains its meaning:

“It is the sharing of sexually explicit images or videos. If we were, say, in a relationship and you shared a video or picture of me without my consent. The idea is that you would get ‘revenge’”. She continues to talk about the specifics of who is involved, “most of the time it is when the couple has split up and he – most of the perpetrators are male and victims, female – has felt shame because she has finished the relationship.”

After last year’s Bitch Boxer, this will mark another strong showcase of Josephine’s work following Blush’s sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Its return once again forces the audience to think about how they use the web but most crucially, how they view themselves and one another. The real spur in getting the show to the fully formed discussion it is now came from a place of pure fury, as Josephine passionately explains:

“The legal system is just murderously slow at changing any laws that might help protect women. There are cuts to domestic violence charities and the one (revenge porn) helpline in the UK has just had all its funding cut.”

She also feels strongly against those that are in the majority when laws are enacted: “They are white, middle class men who are not on Snapchat or Tindr or any of these modern ways of interacting with each other so they just say ‘turn your computer off’ thinking that’s the answer to everything.”

What about directing some of this rage towards the men who’s destructive and direct actions put their ex-partners through hell? “The biggest change for me when writing this play is the anger I felt towards the men that do it, from researching what shame is and culturally what’s going on,” she goes on to say.

Something Josephine is very clear about is the term itself – ‘revenge porn’ and her desire to eliminate it and rid it of its ambiguous connotations. Developments have been underway to alter it to ‘image based sexual abuse’ by Durham University’s Professor Clare McGlynn, because, as Josephine states, “it’s closer to sexual assault.” The confusing, colloquial ‘revenge porn’ shows just how complex the issue is and especially with regards to why we are seeing more and more cases:

“I started to question what their (perpetrators) behaviour is a result of, and what we’re teaching them in order to be ‘men’. To be a man today you have to look and sound a certain way and have certain possessions, one of which is a fit bird. Then when she leaves you and it’s made public, you’re going to feel emasculated and shamed and as a result going to retaliate.”

‘Shame’ and conformity are two fascinating behaviours that are essentially implemented into many of us as we develop through society. The stereotypical idea of what it is to be a man – an archaic image perhaps, as is the expectation of women to be passive – still exists, to the detriment of those who often don’t want to be shrouded in such limitations. Where and why does it start? And where does porn come into it?

“Our sex education hasn’t been updated since around the 1970s and kids are learning about sex through porn,” says Josephine. “It’s just the bare bones of what happens between a couple taught by an embarrassed teacher, which to a kid, says there’s something to be embarrassed about.”

It is undeniable that the problems now faced with regards to sex and especially identity come from school education and Josephine believes we should be taking notice of other, more progressive areas of the world.

“In countries like Norway and Sweden, they start a lot younger. They teach kids about consent and respect and how to honestly communicate with your partner. Here (UK), it feels like girls are doing what they think they should be because they’ve seen it in a video and the same with boys. It’s all getting disconnected and the shame of not talking about it is spilling out sideways into acts of violence.”

Josephine could be forgiven for being anti-porn, but rather she “feels there’s a lack of education about it and if people just knew that there are other options available with regards to sex.”

Theatre’s power to provide information in an emphatic way is just one reason Josephine found her place in it, and Blush’s message firmly tells us that the antidote for ‘shame’ is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. The lack of empathy on a grander scale is also a concern for her: “Look at what’s going on politically – we’re scared and people are getting into Tory mindset of, I’m just going to concentrate on me.” But is there hope in the arts?

“Rather than saying ‘poor you’, which is sympathy, real empathy makes you feel more vulnerable, and art and theatre and music and literature are opportunity for us to practice empathy. We need it now more than ever.”

Josephine doesn’t claim to have all the answers and why should she? Conversation is encouraged after Blush with Q & As in place, set up by the show’s producer, (and AYT’s Artistic Director) Jake Orr and the content itself seeks the portrayal of all characters in an open-minded way. Josephine feels strongly about ensuring nobody ever feels alienated from theatre and that the empathy making machine continues to do its job. Oh and she wants you to bring your mum.

Blush is at Soho Theatre until June 3, and on tour until June 24.