The lady is a tramp: On getting my bits touched by the TSA

By | April 18, 2011

A uniformed TSA employee puts on the ominous light blue latex gloves.

Are you ready for your close-up? (PHOTO: REUTERS/Jason Reed)

I was faced with the new airport scanner technology for the first time immediately prior to flying back from San Franscisco in early March. The machines in SFO were not the ominous black-box Rapiscan monsters of ill radiation-dosing repute, but a clear tube with two scanning pillars that rotate around the scanee. I was pulled randomly from the regular bag-x-ray-and-metal-detector line for this privilege, and it was only when I found myself inside said plexiglas tube—which was very shiny and Total-Recall-ish and thereby more intriguing than scary—that I realized what was happening.

The woman on the exit side of my tube instructed me to place my feet on the footprints helpfully appliqued to the floor, and to raise my arms, elbows bent, palms facing out. Unfortunately, my first scan was a wash, as it seems I have a hard time raising my hands in the air without also waving them like I just don’t care, and so during the first go-round I did a little impromptu dance, which blurred the results. “PLEASE STAND STILL, MA’AM,” barked the exit-door lady, once the botched scan had completed, but there was a trace of amusement in her voice—I believed my dance to be saucy and appropriate for a clear-tube go-go performance, so I felt validated. On the second scan, I stood still, and they let me leave to get on my plane.

Leaving Fort Lauderdale this past Saturday, I was faced with the aforementioned Rapiscan machines, and truth be told, if they’d looked shinier and more futuristic, the notion of opting out probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Oh, I am a simple thing, when it comes to flying, prone to extreme anxiety, and so any vivid distraction, even one that comes with x-rays, is a welcome sight. Where the SFO scanners—which I assume are made by L-3 Communications, the other company contracted to supply them—looked like human-sized pneumatic tubes, or alien-spaceship sleep pods, the Rapiscan machines look like two big dark boxes with a three-foot space between them. Also, at FLL, it seemed everyone was dutifully tromping through the scanners, instead of just random selectees. My husband and I stuffed our carry-ons into the x-ray machine and then got in line for scanning. Again, we had helpful footprints on the floor to instruct us where to stand, as though standing in line itself is a murky, unfamiliar process, requiring clear instructions.

My husband popped between the boxes and raised his hands in the now-familiar stance, and my heart began to race. We were early to the airport, so time was not a factor. For some reason, I really didn’t want to stand between those boxes with my feet planted and my arms raised. It’s not the resulting seminude pictures that bothered me—on a strictly personal level, I don’t give a toss if the aptly dubbed “pornoscanner” images are stored or deleted or wanked off to or whatever, though I support the outrage against this as an invasion of privacy for the majority of participants. (In other words, I would never argue that this should not bother anyone, simply because it doesn’t bother me.) Likewise, it wasn’t the radiation issue that was preying on my mind, as if I was worried about radiation exposure I wouldn’t be flying at all.

I was angry at the principle of the thing, at the expectation that people will just go along, docile as cows, and trust that whatever they’re told to do is necessary and right. And so when my husband stepped out of the scanner and the machine’s attendees smilingly beckoned me in, I stood firm. “Um, can I opt for the pat-down?” I inquired, more meekly than I meant. The gentleman on the unscanned side confirmed that I wanted to opt out; apparently doing so meant holding up my progress, as a special lady-patter-downer would have to be located. There was a slight tension in the air; I’d willfully gummed up the smoothly-running scanning machine. After a few moments of confusion, I was told to step to the side until summoned.

I didn’t have to wait long. My successfully-scanned husband, unaware of my last-minute decision to opt out, stood on the other side and was just reapplying his shoes and belt when a woman in TSA blues—henceforth, The Ladygroper—came through the fray and led me between the machines to a far corner of the security space. I shouted at my husband to guard my laptop whilst I was patted-downed, but I needn’t have bothered, as the TSA employees helpfully brought my stuff over to a table in my corner for me.

I felt much calmer in patdown town, watching the neverending flow of beltless and shoeless bodies coming through the scanner process like a river of potential terrorists, or a Where’s Waldo picture, only if Waldo had explosive underpants on instead of a pom-pommed and striped hat. I felt more like a person, is what it was. The Ladygroper, who was calm and polite and professional, explained that I was about to receive a thorough going-over. This included the “upper thigh area”, which struck me as vague code for “I will be touching your bits.” She also explained that she would use the backs of her hands over my boobs, instead of the palms. I almost laughed. It’s as if someone at the TSA looked up “groping” and decided that groping requires use of the palms, so this can’t possibly be offensive to anyone! She then asked if I’d prefer a “private” screening, which struck me incongruously like being offered a private lap dance in the back room of a strip club. No, I don’t want a bottle of champagne, we can do it right here. Finally, she asked if there was any part of my body that might be painful to the touch—any part at all—and that I should tell her if so. “I’m ticklish,” I said, and she paused apprehensively. “I may just giggle a lot,” I explained.

First she tested her gloves for explosives, and then the pat-down began. The Ladygroper started on my back, at the top, feeling my neck and under my hair, moving on to my arms and shoulders, and then down my back. The butt area is also a place where the backs of the hands are used; I figured the TSA is trying to avoid any allegations that any part of anyone’s body is ever, accidentally or intentionally, “cupped”. I imagined the training: there’d be a Powerpoint slide that stated, emphatically, “DO NOT CUP ANYTHING, EVER.” Probably with some clip art of a teacup. The tiny little distinctions here are fascinating, as there must have been a process to come up with a standardized means of establishing touch that is distressing and touch that is not, when in reality such standards are far too subjective to ever usefully apply.

The process continued. Over my hips. She felt my be-legginged legs, and gave a quiet warning that she was headed into that aforementioned “upper thigh area”. Me being a fatty with thighs that meet, this involved her asking me to, uh, stand with my feet further apart so she could get up in there. Basically what happened next was a gentle karate-chop movement up the back and middle of each thigh, until she hit snatchtown.

At this point I will note that I was emphatically menstruating. In simpler terms, I was heavy-bleeding on an overnight-strength pad, which is a normal course of events for me, about two days of every month. So when the Ladygroper hit my bits the first time, there was a squish. I snorted. I couldn’t help it. Poor Ladygroper had to do it again on the other thigh. Squish. Hey, at least she’s wearing gloves.

From here, the festivities moved topside, and she explained again that she was using the backs of her hands over my breasts, see, there is no cupping going on here and the backs of the hands are an officially anti-sexual zone according to the US government. Over the bra, past the lungs, look out stomach here it comes. The Ladygroper spoke the whole time she was groping, not unlike when my doctor gives me a pelvic, and frankly, by this point the whole procedure was feeling very clinical to me. She felt the “waistband area”, and I told her to let me know if my rolls gave her any trouble. Oh, we’re doing the “upper thigh” thing again, from the front? Aiight. Squish, squish. If I weren’t wearing a pad, the Ladygroper would indeed have done some unobstructed labia-bouncing, but things being as they were, Always Infinity came between me and my TSA screener.

I was wearing a dress, because I am always wearing a dress, so the snatch-bumping was not visible to anyone who might have been watching, my husband included. And yet he was still terrifically freaked out after the fact: “I just watched some stranger GROPE my WIFE!” He also didn’t understand why I’d opted for the pat-down, and while it was true that I was curious about it, I also felt somewhat more in control during the pat-down, which was a powerful thing given my existing travel anxiety. The Ladygroper re-tested the gloves she had now run all over my body for explosives. When they came up clean, I was allowed to go on my way, horrified husband in tow.

My overall, individual opinion? It wasn’t that bad. If I wasn’t in a hurry to get to the gate, I’d probably opt for the pat-down over the scan in future, but it’s pretty rare that I’m not in a hurry to get to the gate, so my opportunities to explore this option are generally limited. It helped that my Ladygroper was friendly (har har) and polite and professional, but that’s really a roll of the dice, as it easily could have gone another way. I found the gropefest less intrusive than a doctor’s visit, but more intrusive than I expected. It was somewhat intense, and may be unbearable for a person reluctant or uncomfortable to be intimately touched by a stranger, no matter the origins of that reluctance.

The most interesting factor about this experience is that I now possess a fuller understanding of the dude-outrage that has progressed from these pat-downs. If you have testicles? They’re gonna get touched. They’d likely get a bit of a workout, in fact. If you’re a dude who has never been groped against your will, and who is typically socialized as masculine, this has got to be the most astonishing and unresolvable experience ever. There is a reason why the loudest voices of protest have been male: men are not socially conditioned to accept that groping may happen, occasionally, in shared spaces, and that they should not raise the alarm but should simply “let it go”, that making a fuss would draw unwanted attention, that it isn’t “worth it”. Men have not spent their lives watching those who did speak up get condemned or blamed for their assault because they were “asking for it.” Wil Wheaton wrote movingly about his anger and anxiety following a recent pat-down experience, and while I sympathize, part of me rages. This is not because these men don’t have a right to feel assaulted: they do, uncategorically, they do. It’s because women are less enabled to speak up and less likely to feel entitled to that same anger, especially women who have a history of sexual assault, because we are taught to go along, to reconcile, to be quiet and accept that these things are inevitable and justified and that’s just how life is.

The choice between the scan or the grope is not a choice at all. We are instructed to either accept a technology that we may find unnerving, because of privacy issues or because of radiation concerns, or to be groped in a manner that will only be comfortable and acceptable to a very narrow margin of society. For most dudes, the problem is likely that this sort of unwanted touching is so unfamiliar. This is not to minimize sexual assault against men, which happens and is horrifyingly underreported, but the fact remains that cisgendered men are culturally entitled to express their indignation and outrage against this practice because it isn’t something that happens to them on the regular, or at least, it isn’t something they’ve been taught to accept as a part of being male. For most women, the problem is that this unwanted touching is too familiar, evocative of trauma or assault, and it exploits feminine conditioning to not make trouble, which is itself discomfiting, even without a past experience of violence. The possibility of sexual assault is culturally framed as a constant danger, and an inevitable part of feminine experience. The fear of opting out, of drawing attention and being a problem, is different for women than for men—women are supposed to reconcile, to be peacemakers, and to keep quiet. To step out of line is to throw a wrench into the works, to stop a well-oiled machine cold: this is not how women are socialized to behave.

I had wondered if my blood-heavy pad would be cause for alarm during my pat-down. I had even envisioned a performance-art demonstration of my bleedingness and the pad’s necessity, which probably would have gotten me arrested as a biohazard risk, bent on menacing the skies with my gobs of socialist uterine lining and my persistent and Un-American lack of pregnancy. My Ladygroper didn’t bat an eye at any of the squishing, however, and I got to walk away from the experience feeling as though I had made a choice with which I could be comfortable, in which I got the be an individual, in which I felt I had some semblance of control. For me it was a choice, but the same cannot be said for many people. There comes a point where we have to ask how much we’re willing to sacrifice for the appearance of safety, and whose safety we’re trying to protect, if not our own.


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