Rape culture is everywhere — even at my local pool

As the temperatures rise to above 100 degrees F, my 7-year-old twin daughters and I frequently find ourselves at the city pool in the summer. Unlike the pools of my youth, this area is pristine. The water is a sparkling blue and clean. The Olympic-size watering hole has lanes cordoned off for serious swimmers, diving boards, an amusement park-grade waterslide and a large family section. There’s even a splash pad off to one side for the younger kiddos and at least a half dozen lifeguards patrolling at any one time. It’s an amazing resource, and I’m happy to have it available, gladly paying the $12 each time we go.

Imagine my surprise, then, when one day, strolling through the women’s changing area, I looked up to see an old sign with a very troubling message drilled into the wall.

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Meant to outline the pool rules, the sign used perky colors — reds and blues — and cartoon sketches outlining the dos and don’ts of the area. No running, no diving, no glass, etc. As my eyes continued down the sign, an image and message jumped out at me.

No rough play.

That’s a fine and important rule, and there are many ways it could be depicted. Kids wrestling, perhaps, or someone pushing someone else into the water. Instead, we saw this:

rough play
Image: Darlena Cunha

My city spelled sexual assault wrong. What it is depicting is an utter intrusion of a woman’s space without consent. The sign laughs it off like it’s a joke.

This is rape culture at work.

My kids asked me about the sign, as kids do, and we went over all the rules. When we got to that image, however, I paused.

Then I told them that if a man or boy ever tried to get their bottoms off, that was not play at all, and they needed to tell an adult immediately.

Of course my words were received with the canned, glazed look of acceptance kids show you when they’re not particularly listening. My girls were about to go swimming. That’s where their minds were. They smiled and nodded and agreed, but more likely because the blue waters of the pool beckoned, and they knew what they needed to do to get to the other side.

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I’ve spoken to them about it since, comparing inappropriate touching to getting lost, getting in trouble or seeing someone else do something they shouldn’t. I used the only-parents-and-doctor line to try to show them that a boy pulling off their bathing suit while laughing and making it a game was the same as someone touching them in any other circumstance. Those are all messages we ram into children from a very young age, but somehow, when it comes to men invading our personal space without consent, the message stops short. I hope I managed to push it through.

It’s not a game; it’s not behavior that should be normalized. It’s criminal. It’s rape culture. This sign says, “Hey, when swimming while male in Florida, remember to not sexually assault anyone, but if you do, boys will be boys.”

Kids are visual creatures, and they understand messages at their base level. A sign such as this — one my kids walk by weekly — normalizes non-consensual sexual behavior. It makes it cutesy and funny. The picture doesn’t depict “play” at all, and I do not want my girls associating that type of behavior with something lighthearted and fun. How many times have women heard growing up that they need to lighten up, that the bra-snapping, the sexual innuendos, the snide comments, the butt-grabbing are all just in good fun?

Having internalized signs like these from the youngest of years, girls are more likely to stay quiet, to accept that these infringements are just “boys being boys.”

Since the sign says “no rough play,” many would defend it as the city is, apparently, against it. However, I would argue that semantics are important, and I don’t want my children ingesting these images at the pool and equating advances like that as playful. In addition, it’s a very sexual sign, what with the bottoms coming off, which solidifies the “good old boy” jokey joke.

To my city’s credit, when I called to ask about the signage, they expressed apologies immediately and confessed that while signs are looked at every year to ensure they are in good shape, if the written messages are relevant, the signs have stayed. The city’s sports coordinator, Michelle Weydert, said that particular sign had probably been there for more than 20 years.

“It gives a correct message of no rough play, but not the correct image. Because that’s an inappropriate image,” she said.

Weydert assured me (without my prompting) that she would travel to the pool to take a look at the sign herself that day, and she did. “After looking at the sign, I had staff take it down right away,” she said. “We plan to have some new signs made with appropriate images and wording.”

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Parents, we can make change. If you see something, say something. Even if it’s just a silly old sign. Because words mean things, and pictures are worth a thousand of them. I learned this week that a complaint can make physical change. And I couldn’t be prouder of my city.

My girls deserve to swim and have fun without internalizing patriarchal messages. And now they can.


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