Interview: RAZZ x Recognise Red

**Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment**

During RAZZ’s SHAG Week (Sexual Health and Guidance week), online deputy editor, Holly McSweeney had the wonderful opportunity to interview Campaign Manager Abigail Hartshorn and Publicity Officer Emily Black from the anti-sexual harassment campaign Recognise Red as an extension of our recent collaboration. Their discussion covered the origins of the campaign and getting it off the ground, the incredible work it does to sustain engaged discussion surrounding sexual harassment and the main challenges faced within that goal. One thing that seemed to come up across the conversations was the challenge of making specific positive change on the Exeter campuses while remaining connected to broader national and international movements too. Their discussion follows:

Normal text is Abigail’s responses, italicised text is Emily speaking.

Where did the idea to start up the campaign Recognise Red originate?

Myself and Filipa started it in Grand Challenges and our reason for starting Recognise Red is that we didn’t feel there was sufficient knowledge on the university policies surrounding sexual harassment and we didn’t feel that there was a campaign that was sustaining the conversation. There was NeverOk but when we came to university in 2017, that was kind of at the tail end of the campaign … I don’t want to critique it, but it was literally just a poster near the Xpression studio and they didn’t have any events and there wasn’t any kind of sustained conversation on sexual harassment.

“we wanted it to have an impact within our campus community and we wanted to make sure our engagement was strategic and precise and that it was well-delivered and well-executed”

How difficult was it to implement the Recognise Red Campaign in the first stages and what were the key challenges in getting the project up and running across campus?

It wasn’t difficult initially because we were in Grand Challenges we were working quite closely with lecturers and they had external speakers … we had an entire week just to brainstorm everything, we actually managed to get quite a bit done in a week which is probably how we got the ball rolling. I’m not here being like this is the only way to do something but for us it really worked.

But then after that – so it was kind of the inverse, sometimes you would think it would be a bit harder and then get a bit easier, I think after Grand Challenges, when the structure of that went, and then we had some people who graduated … it was kind of difficult initially to get going, to launch the campaign in the new academic year and to also make it a sustainable collective effort without it being kind of hierarchical like societies, and we wanted it to have an impact within our campus community and we wanted to make sure our engagement was strategic and precise and that it was well-delivered and well-executed.

So I think that we took quite a bit of time and now we’ve reached a level, especially on the media side, with the submissions and the format of the submissions that we are very happy with and we think that we have fulfilled our goal in that regard.

“actually breaking down the stages meant that the conversation would become more accessible”

‘Red’ stands for ‘Recognise’, ‘Engage’ and ‘Discuss’; how and why did you decide that these were the three most important steps in tackling sexual harassment?

So with the NeverOk campaign, we literally looked at the “NeverOk” and thought, well that doesn’t really tell you anything, apart from the fact that it’s not okay. What it did is it kind of gave a very clear stance in saying “no, that’s not acceptable” but then, what are the factors within that, how do you get to that stage, how do you talk to someone who doesn’t even recognise harassment. That was something I wasn’t particularly clear on, is that I didn’t know what constituted sexual harassment until I found myself in certain situations where I actually felt really uncomfortable … and then I looked into it and I realised it can be comments, it can be verbal. So I think actually breaking down the stages meant that the conversation would become more accessible. So that was the drive to kind of break it down and not just have one slogan kind of thing.

So with ‘recognise’ it’s recognising situations of sexual harassment and what you find comfortable and what you don’t and the fact that you can say something about it. And then ‘engage’ is whether that’s engaging in the moment, or how to respond, who to call, with engaging you can report it but you don’t have to. It’s a boundary, so it’s to do with your own boundaries. And then ‘discuss’ is bringing it out into the wider cultural conversation and how we want to think about the implications of sexual harassment in our community, on campus. We had one conversation, an event with Model Westminster and we were talking about the top-down influence of politicians and issues of sexual harassment in parliament.

We know that Recognise Red have a podcast in the works, what can we expect from this podcast, are you seeking for it to become more of a regular occurrence? 

We’re going to try and do it for the remainder of this term and then have a few next term when everything gets a bit more busy. We’re wanting to talk to academics about these issues, to talk about the new policy at the University – not many people are aware of the new sexual harassment policy. We want to talk to campaigners and journalists and activists. To not look at it [sexual harassment] in isolation, but also to talk to people on campus as well. We really just want it to be an accessible platform to further these conversations.

“not many people are aware of the new sexual harassment policy”

Recently, on your social media you uploaded an admiring post which praised the acclaimed bus storyline in season 2 of Netflix hit Sex Education. Are you observing a positive trend in terms of representations of sexual harassment in film and TV, and how influential do you think this is in terms of furthering important discussions? 

Oh definitely. I think Sex Education is in its own lane, I don’t think you’ve seen a series with that diversity of experiences in placing that situation of sexual harassment in a wider context of relations, of relationships. I don’t think it’s part of a bigger framework of how we identify, and how we relate to other people, how we interact with other people; I think that that’s quite crucial, that’s crucially what’s different about Sex Education, it’s not looking at it in isolation … it’s integrated into real life and I think that’s what makes it an effective storyline.

I think it’s also quite progressive in the sense that we are able to follow characters too and it’s not just sort of an isolated incident which can be nameless and solitary, so we get to identify with different characters or recognise those figures in our own lives.

Sex Education is in its own lane”

A significant action of Recognise Red’s campaign is sharing anonymously submitted stories and experiences across digital platforms to open up the conversation about sexual harassment. In terms of preserving anonymity and its reach, social media provides a particularly protected and safe space to facilitate this discussion. However, what are the key challenges you encounter in running the project in this way and how have you sought to overcome them? 

I think it’s mostly positive, some of the challenges that come with it are, a lot of the time it is female dominated,  which obviously makes sense because a lot of harassment is directed at women, but it’s difficult to get a well-rounded scope of the experience people are having out there which can lead to it being very narrowed down to particular, conventional ideas about harassment. And you hear the same types of stories over and over which can sometimes be difficult. So I guess it’s about just encouraging people to submit things that perhaps they felt uncomfortable with, or in hindsight see as things that shouldn’t have happened and they won’t let happen again in the future. A lot of them that we get are people reflecting on incidents from a couple of years ago, they’re not always really recent things. I think trying to encourage people to get a wider scope of stories submitted is definitely difficult and just being sensitive about how we handle those stories because it can range from anything, from a verbal, uncomfortable comment to full-on physical force and aggression and trauma. 

Following on from this, some people may find it particularly traumatic to vocalise or talk about their personal experiences of sexual harassment. How does Recognise Red try to support those who do not feel as though they are ready or able to discuss their stories?

We’re not qualified therapists and we’re not equipped to effectively deal with other people’s trauma, we can just provide a platform where they can choose to share it if they want to. Obviously people interact with similar situations in different ways – but our aim is to show that we do want to talk about it, whatever form of conversation that takes, for an individual or a group of people. We don’t want people to feel as though they can’t talk about it crucially.

Even though there are some commonalities with the stories, what we do respect and emphasise is that there is such a diversity of experiences, and there’s such a diversity in terms of how we approach the conversation – everybody deals with it in a different way. We just want to make clear that this is a space where you can talk about it if you so wish, but we’re not saying you have to talk about it.

I suppose it’s more of a tool than a resolve, so it’s a platform people can use if they feel it’s appropriate or it might help them articulate their experiences as opposed to this big plaster on trauma. 

And we do signpost on our platforms to other well-being, mental health resources.

“it’s more of a tool than a resolve”

The University recently participated in “Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Week” from 3 to 9 February. Do you notice an upsurge in engagement from university students in such dedicated weeks, do you find they are beneficial in terms of encouraging people to come forward and share their experiences?

Genuinely, probably not. On the university part, they’re doing really good – they’ve reworked the university policy on harassment so you don’t have to report and rearticulate your situation numerous times, so that’s really good, and Dr Rachel Fenton who’s a law lecturer here she’s been really influential in making sure that that’s happened and she’s also going to introduce bystander training. So even though the week itself didn’t result in a surge in story submissions, it’s definitely an indication that things are going in the right direction and there’s definitely a drive for there to be more going on at the University and for there to be a bigger and louder conversation on this.

Having talked to other student groups and people from the Guild and lecturers and people who work at the university, there’s a kind of general consensus that there needs to be more done.

I think ironically, one of the noticeable differences in a surge of people interacting with our pages was when there was that assault on St German’s Road, which is quite sad that it’s not positive change which is attracting people to our pages, but almost the idea of people being scared or seeking things for their own safety because they are actually terrified that it could have been them or they might know people. 

That was one week where I definitely noticed a huge increase in likes and people submitting things … I mean fear is probably more influential than some of the positive things, sadly.

“bringing something into practise in an actual clubbing environment is quite a positive step”

A significant proportion of your shared online story submissions recount experiences of sexual harassment that take place in clubbing environments, often it’s the case in these stories that friends intervene to protect victims, or sadly a lot of stories end with people feeling the need to escape. This is a complicated area, the incidence of sexual harassment in off-campus spaces makes it harder for the University to implement protective measures. In line with this, could you tell us a bit more about your upcoming event at the Exeter Phoenix. Do you see your collaboration with Sister Sounds there as perhaps providing an alternative to conventional clubbing in Exeter and the risks and dangers involved there?

It’s a collaboration with Sister Sounds so it’s kind of in support of Recognise Red and raising awareness of our platform, but it’s not really our event. We want to try and encourage this conversation in a space where people should be able to feel safe, and then hopefully with this awareness, people can be more aware of this kind of thing, in this context on a night out. We just wanted to try and put it into practise so to speak, in a real life situation.

That was the main thing we noticed, that this is a common theme – such a trope almost, where it’s just these clubbing incidences and they are quite similar, obviously everything’s different but the lines that are crossed in clubbing are far more common often than when alcohol and dark and strobe lights aren’t involved, because identities can be found a lot easier. So I think bringing something into practise in an actual clubbing environment is quite a positive step. 

Recognise Red offers a safe community for those who want to speak up about sexual harassment. But how do you think we can extend the discussion to reach those people who are most likely to perpetrate sexual harassment. You recently shared an article based on research by academics from Exeter, Queensland and Bath on your social media considering in-built biases among men, leading to greater sympathy for male perpetrators. How can we reduce this by extending the kind of discussion Recognise Red is creating? 

There are discussions, unfortunately these things within the institution take time and it’s a shame that something like what happened on St German’s Road is a catalyst for this and this is what pushes the change … but it feels like there’s a real movement to change the situation, across the board, people want that change so that’s quite encouraging.

So I spoke the other day to Cameron who is AU President and he said that in February and he previously did one in November he was running a Good Lad Workshop, well he wasn’t personally running it but there’s an external initiative and they come in and talk about toxic masculinity and sexual harassment. And that was with the sports committee and some members. And he said that proved to be a very effective conversation and that it was unexpected … In November there were 81 participants. [There is a BBC Sounds episode, published on 11 February talking about this].

In Recognise Red we try and convey that it could happen to anyone, but unfortunately it does happen disproportionately to women, we are aware of that. But by highlighting the actions and behaviour rather than falling into tropes or stereotypes, we kind of feel that that is a way to open up the conversation …. without necessarily going in with any expectations.

Sometimes – not always, sometimes people are fully aware of what they are doing – but sometimes people aren’t aware that someone is uncomfortable or equally someone who is uncomfortable doesn’t know how to articulate that in that situation.

It’s giving people the means to communicate between them if they feel uncomfortable, for someone to say, “I’m sorry I’ve overstepped that line, I’m going to reign it in” or take a step back so people know where boundaries lie.

“it feels like there’s a real movement to change the situation, across the board”

At RAZZ we have loved collaborating with Recognise Red to spread awareness, do you have any other plans in the works or ideas for other future collaborations?

We would love to collaborate with UN Women Exeter, that’s something we have discussed with them briefly but nothing’s in the works yet. It’s very ambitious and I don’t know if it would happen but ages ago we were contacted by a student from LSE, and then they went and did their own thing which was “Hands Off LSE” and I think I would just like to maybe see what other universities are doing, because not all universities are doing things, and I think this is, it has the capacity, not specifically with our campaign, but talking about universities and welfare is a nationwide conversation and so I think I’d be interested in developing conversations with other university campaigns … that’s where I would want to go next. Then you’re bringing in the idea of institutional responsibility a bit more and how we as a collective, a student body and different student bodies, can actually implement change with demand.

“even if it’s helped 50 people … it’s working to a degree. It doesn’t have to be the most successful campaign; it doesn’t have to be nationwide. If it’s helping people then it’s successful”

Final question, obviously this kind of project and the types of stories you are dealing with can be very harrowing, how do you as leaders of this campaign deal with this personally? Do you have support networks in place for one another? Exepose’s latest print issue headlined an article, titled ‘Sexual Assault Triples in Exeter Since 2010’. How challenging do you find it to balance an awareness of the seriousness, sensitivity and trauma of this topic with a sense of hopefulness? 

As a campaign manager, I do try to check in with people.

Yeah, you’re very good at that. 

I think that well-being is something that is really prioritised and it’s something we take into account almost above – if someone needs time off that’s something we accommodate.

For example, over Christmas when obviously everyone’s got a lot going on personally, and there’s a lot of pressure to be doing things with family, we felt it was probably a good time to take a step back on the publicity particularly, because you don’t know how triggered people are going to be, it can be a difficult time and you don’t want to be flooding people’s newsfeeds over Christmas with assault stories. Just looking after ourselves at busy times and making sure we step back for other people.

“We want it to be sustainable”

Individually, I think that personally seeing the submission is sometimes what gets me to do the work. It’s just so encouraging. And even if it’s helped 50 people that have submitted then that means it’s working to a degree. It doesn’t have to be the most successful campaign; it doesn’t have to be nationwide. If it’s helping people then it’s successful … We want it to be sustainable and I think that you can’t – I admire people who go on relentlessly – but you do need to refuel.

– Holly McSweeney 


If you feel as though you have been affected by any form of harassment, verbal offence, physical force, emotional blackmail or aggression, then please reach out. You can call the university nightlife service on 01392724000, or estate patrol on 01392723999. Call 112 if you want to report a crime, or 999 if you’re in immediate danger. To talk to rape crisis then call 0808 802 9999, Women’s Aid Federation 0808 2000 247, or 02035983898 for male victim support.

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @RecogniseRed

Featured Image Source: Pexels, edited by Emily Black






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