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.


Shieldmaiden1196 on April 18, 2011 at 2:19 pm.

One of the things that would humanize the whole experience for me would be if the TSA found a damn sense of humor about the whole thing. I know that the job is very important and serious and all, but I’ve had so many experiences that would have been much more tolerable (and I’d have witnessed far fewer passenger mini-meltdowns) if there was more of a sense of ‘hey, we’re all people, let’s just get this done’. I’ve gotten much more emphatic body searches done (in prisons, when visiting political prisoners in another country–double-teamed by two female guards) and even those women managed to call me ‘Love’ and have it come out non-ironic.


Heather on April 18, 2011 at 2:26 pm.

I, too, received a pat down. Mine was for radiation concerns, as I am on an immunosuppressant, and some doctors in California raised concerns about the radiation for those with compromised immune systems. Considering this and my hope for future non-mutant children, I went for the pat down. You raise good points that just because it seemed relatively safe/comfortable for me, I shouldn’t expect that it feels that way for everyone. That being said, the TSA lady was very professional.

I asked my husband to opt out, as well, because I am trying to protect his sacred sperm. Again, I’d rather not have mutant children, if we can prevent it. His pat down was less thorough than mine. He recounted the details to me, and they didn’t get nearly as close to his nether regions as they did to mine, which I found odd and a tad suspicious.

I thought about cracking jokes about “usually someone buys me dinner first before touching me like this,” but I was hoping to avoid cavity searches, so I just kept my mouth shut and complied.


vesta44 on April 18, 2011 at 2:47 pm.

I am so glad that I don’t have to fly anywhere. As long as scanners and pat-downs are going to be a part of the flying experience, I won’t be flying anywhere on vacation, nor will I be leaving the country by ship if they decide scanners and pat-downs are necessary for ocean-going travel. I’ll do all my traveling by car in the continental USA, thank you very much. I’m not risking my health with their scanners (ovarian cancer runs in my family) and no one touches me that intimately but my husband, even if I am fully clothed (not unless they want my fist or foot in their face). I’m sorry, but all their scanning and pat-downs aren’t going to prevent a determined terrorist from blowing up or hijacking a plane. They’re giving us a pretense of protection at the expense of our freedom to choose and our bodily autonomy. Sorry, I’m not buying it, and I refuse to give in to the government’s bullying tactics in their pretense of “public safety”.


metermouse on April 18, 2011 at 2:51 pm.

so that’s how it goes eh? Thanks for the play-by-play. I’m an incredibly nervous/anxious flyer and I keep forgetting about these new scanners that have been forced upon us. I’m glad I know what to expect either way, because when I can’t imagine how it goes in my head, it makes me even more anxious.

I don’t like that I have to choose between a full body scan or being “un-groped”. But what I dislike most of all is the whole moneytrail behind the scanners, which gives me a feeling I can only imagine is similar to what you felt before opting out of the scanner. Outrage, that we have no say and we’re just meant to accept it (even if I don’t accept it, I’ll be forced to do it if I want to fly, or visit another continent without the use of a boat).


Cathy S. on April 18, 2011 at 2:59 pm.

We’ll be flying this summer for the first time since the backscatter machines were instituted. I wouldn’t mind them so much if it was clear that they actually helped catch, you know, terrorists, but there has been no evidence of that. My husband and I have been debating the scan vs. the pat down, but because we have 2 young sons, it’ll have to be the machine. There’s a slight risk that scanner now might mean cancer later for growing boys, but I don’t want them to think that strangers touching them is a good thing, when it isn’t something they can consent to. Of course, they might still get patted down, if there’s a problem with the scan and I’m not sure how I will react if that happens. I have a visceral reaction just thinking about it.


Eve on April 18, 2011 at 3:04 pm.

The last time I flew, I got the pat-down as well. This was not because of opting out of the scanner, but because the industrial-strength underwire in my awesome bra set of the standard metal detector. Every. Freaking. Time.

My experience wasn’t quite so involved as yours, though I think it was probably the same procedure. They only felt up my inner thighs to the place where the chub starts to rub. Also, they asked me if I wanted to go someplace private, and I said no. I felt safer having it done in public, thanks.


schmemily on April 18, 2011 at 3:47 pm.

Due to some personal stuff, I the new scanners and pat-down procedures really, really freak me out. I could undergo it, but I would truly rather not, to the point of driving when flying would be more convenient (so far I’ve done this once, but I don’t have a job or other situation that requires travel, and I’m not sure how I’d handle it if that were the case).

I also wholeheartedly agree with Vesta, in that I don’t believe that any of this BS is actually making us safer.

All of that said, if I had the opportunity to travel internationally, I’d deal with the airport gauntlet. Preferably with anti-anxiety medication handy. But it makes me nuts that we have to make these choices at all.


rightingteacher on April 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm.

I am reading this waiting for my plane, having just gone through security. I was anxious about procedures for days in advance, dressed carefully to allow for modesty (I wear mostly dresses, too, and wore a split petticoat because it didn’t want anyone frisking bare inner legs under my dress), avoided metal, prepared to opt out if the backscatters were on, for the same reason you mentioned. I wanted to feel more in control.

They weren’t on, but then for some reason no one can explain, the alarms went off every time through the metal detector, so I had to have the patdown experience, too. Ugh. There isn’t much choice in this situation after all.


Megan on April 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm.

Thanks for writing this. I totally giggled over your last paragraph, but you bring up such a fantastic point about how it’s mostly men who are leading the charge about the invasiveness of the “advanced pat-down.” That definitely gives me something to chew over (like you so often do!).


Jami on April 18, 2011 at 4:57 pm.

When we went to New York, we weren’t given the option of the pat down. Fine by me as I was sexually assaulted repeatedly in junior high and even going to the doctor can have me in tears. The scan wasn’t so bad, except they were rude to my mom who’s partly wheelchair bound. She can walk and stand but not for long periods of time so the entire time she was in the machine she was swaying and they were mean to her. That was LAX.

JFK they were 100% jerks. Massively. They forced a worker on us to push mom. (*I’m* the one who operates her chair. I’m better at it than dad.) They confiscated our toothpaste because it was “over 3 oz.” (Really it wasn’t, it was about 3/4ths empty.) Though they did agree with dad that if they just did things the way Israel did there’d be no need for any of this crap. They were even ruder than LAX with mom. Forcing her to stand for nearly ten minutes going over her with the wand repeatedly just because her hair combs set off the metal detector. Finally we came to a ramp and the worker insisted she HAD to call someone else to help. Mom got pissed off, got out of her chair, grabbed it, and used it like a walker to walk herself down.

I think we need to redo the whole thing. I mean, have you seen the picture of the little boy – probably not even 8 years old – getting groped by the TSA? The man is full on grasping this kid’s testicles. You can’t tell me that doesn’t do some mental damage.


bloomie on April 18, 2011 at 5:29 pm.

Your observations about why men are the most vocal outraged voices is interesting and I can’t believe it’s something I hadn’t heard talked about before. We’ve been talking about this a lot at our office lately. A lot.

Also “I’m ticklish,” I said, and she paused apprehensively. “I may just giggle a lot,” I explained.”

That is me times a million. I laugh at the doctor, getting a massage and I’m sure getting groped by the TSA as well.


Kate on April 19, 2011 at 7:53 pm.

I get so conflicted about it because my initial reaction to the men complaining is ‘you don’t know NOTHING!’, sometimes accompanied with an internal sneer. I don’t like that reaction, but I have it every time and it’s enough to disengage me from the conversation (I don’t live in the US, so it’s not a personal conversation, but still).

So I liked reading ‘This is not because these men don’t have a right to feel assaulted: they do, uncategorically, they do.’ because this is what I try to remind myself, and it clarified for me that the outrage I feel is not that they feel assaulted. It’s that there’s (generally, or at least publicly) no one going ‘oh… I guess this does suck. I guess being required to make my body available for ‘the good of all’ and then told to shut up and not be so emotional IS hateful. Huh.’


Annette on April 18, 2011 at 6:34 pm.

I faced the scanning machine in London flying to the US a few years back, and it was even wierder in that I had to stand in this ackward calf stretching position with my legs far apart and arms in the air. It was so uncomfortable. Still, I would prefer the machine to the patdown, which is par for the course for everyone on all US flights in major German airports (although its nothing to the level you describe). The last time we flew through Frankfurt we were with my then three year old son and he was searched by the lady who did me. She was laughing because he assumed the wide leg stance very proudly and when she was done, he announced, “now I’m all clean” in this very satisfied way. Either way, I didn’t feel safer, and I doubt I will feel safe while flying no matter what.


Jackie on April 18, 2011 at 7:20 pm.

I had a very unfortunate pat down in Frankfurt, Germany on a flight back to the US where a a pretty decent speed karate chop hit my vagina. I was horrified, but also late for my flight so never complained. I never had that experience in any other European airports though-and I fly back and forth a fair deal.


teh_ace on April 18, 2011 at 7:09 pm.

I have a metal screw or two in my knee that I always forget about until the metal detector beeps and they try to find what’s causing it. At Heathrow last December they just waved a wand over me, shrugged and sent me through anyway. I was sorta scared of telling them about the screw because I didn’t want them to send me away somewhere for a thorough body search. It was easier to just let them think it’s a false positive or malfunctioning equipment instead.

Yes, I’m a wee bit cynical about the whole security theater thing. The stupid, it buuuuurns! You could have smuggled a dangerous amount of liquid explosives in the pad and it wouldn’t have been detected. 😉


Frances on April 18, 2011 at 7:34 pm.

It’s only 9:33am, but I’m fairly certain that “emphatically menstruating” will be the best phrase I hear today. Possibly the best phrase I’ll hear all week.


The Well-Rounded Mama on April 19, 2011 at 2:26 am.

I agree! If I’d been drinking milk at the time I read that, there would have been milk coming out my nostrils. Nice turn of phrase!


Awlbiste on April 18, 2011 at 9:12 pm.

The whole situation makes me want to simultaneously throw up and cry. I am already getting worked up about flying out next Xmas to spend time with my boyfriend’s family. Thankfully my local airport is very small and is (so far) doing only metal detectors and no pat-downs. But Seatac? I’m terrified. I narrowly escaped a pornoscanner last time I flew out of there.


kbryna on April 18, 2011 at 10:29 pm.

I am most swayed by the invasion of privacy arguments here, though frankly I simply don’t care that much about airport scanners. I just can’t work up enough outrage/indignation/etc. I figure I’m probably being exposed to low doses of radiation or other carcinogens most of the time, so I can’t complain about the scanner. And if some lame-ass wants to use my body scan for porno, well – I’LL never know about it. HOWEVER: I do appreciate the resistance to the Surveillance State, so – good on all of you for fighting the Man at the airport. Me, I’m waaay too consumed with anxiety about getting on my plane before it leaves to worry about cancer or groping or whatnot.

When these scanners were first introduced, and that guy in California freaked out because “dude they touched my junk!!!” I felt inexplicably angry. Your discussion of male discomfort here is helping me think through that anger. The fact that I, like many (most?) women have Protruding Body Parts at chest height, parts which are frequently brushed against, touched, or squeezed by strangers (usually unintentionally, sometimes intentionally and without my permission), makes me feel kind of unsympathetic to the guy whose “junk” gets touched. It has the ring of homophobia to it – another *guy* touched MY junk! ewww! But it also feels like, because of aforementioned protrusion of boobs: guy, just get over it. Your junk is not some sacred temple.

But I’ve got it backwards – I think. Maybe my sense of “just get over it” is wrong in all cases. Maybe I should be regarding every part of my body as MINE and sacred templey and therefore off-fucking-limits to anyone who doesn’t get the explicit greenlight.

I’m not sure. I still think the “dude you touched my junk” complaint reeks of privilege and, more importantly, homophobia. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t ALSO a valid concern.

I do wonder, however, if the first really vocal complainants about these scanners had been women – how would those complaints have been received? Is it just when the precious, precious penis-Americans have their junk threatened that people are mobilized and outraged?


kbryna on April 18, 2011 at 10:37 pm.

I’m also a little concerned about the language of “sexual assault” being applied to the pat-downs. I just read Wil Wheaton’s post, and one of his commenters says “you just described sexual assault.”
And I wonder about this. As a person who has never been sexually assaulted OR patted down at an airport (though once, oddly, rather thoroughly patted down before going into a Bob Dylan concert), I cannot say for sure, but I don’t feel totally comfortable equating the incredibly invasive search with sexual assault. The searches are invasive and probably inappropriate and I think we should all be hollering from the rooftops about this. But knowing that an at least slightly trained quasi-professional will be touching your body while wearing gloves, in public, with at least your grudging consent, and your advance notice, and not for the gratification of any sexual or violent urges of be-gloved quasi-professional – just doesn’t feel the same to me as the unexpected, unwanted, totally unconsensual attack that the term “sexual assault” signifies to me. You may feel violated by the TSA grope-down, and you should — but I do not feel 100% comfortable equating it was sexual assault.
I’d love for someone to correct me on this, btw.


S on April 18, 2011 at 11:32 pm.

I get what you’re saying, but I’m gonna have to go with “sexual assault” as a term that gets to be defined by the assaulted party. Because in reality, sexual assault is not always (or even usually) as black and white as an “unexpected, unwanted, totally unconsensual attack.”

The issue of consent here is difficult to untangle—yes, you are required to give your verbal consent for the pat-down to take place, but if you don’t consent (to either the pat-down or the scan), you don’t fly. For some people, that might be a viable choice—for others, maybe not. Consent under pressure isn’t a great model of consent.

Obviously, there are a ton of variables that go into this experience, and for a lot of people it may not come anywhere near anything that could be called sexual assault. For others, though, I think that term can absolutely apply.


Kate on April 19, 2011 at 8:01 pm.

I am going to second the “I get what you’re saying, but I’m gonna have to go with “sexual assault” as a term that gets to be defined by the assaulted party.”

I’ve not had the pat downs, but I was sexually assaulted as a kid. [trigger warning for sexual assault]

I can see a lot of similarities. A figure of authority, touching me in ways I didn’t want but didn’t know how to stop, telling me that I shouldn’t make a fuss, that will get us ALL in trouble and you wouldn’t want us to be unsafe, would you? Guilt, shame, fear. Waiting it out because I just want it to be over. Yeah, there’s not the same intent but I don’t know how much of a difference that would make, if you were already distressed before being patted down. I think it would be pretty variable by person, but either way, they are NOT practising good consent.


piny on April 24, 2011 at 10:05 am.

(I sympathize with the WATB feelings; thanks for the post.)

I don’t think these searches can be called consensual. I don’t have a choice between flying and not-flying. It’s like being searched every time I go to the supermarket. I can’t buy a cow.

But apart from that, I think I’d argue the exact opposite. I think that it’s more important to hold on to this perspective in the face of institutional theater or prerogative. I don’t think there should be a prima facie difference between a groping for national security purposes and a groping. The reaction on the part of the gropee is often the same. Many travelers aren’t too upset by it, but many are.

When we dismiss the physical facts of the interaction in favor of agency intent–he touched my son’s genitals, she touched my breasts, they prodded my colostomy bag, he held my wrist, she shouted at me when I cried–then we ignore that subjectivity in favor of institutional demands on our bodily sovereignty and freedom. We stop asking questions about necessity, as for example in this case, when there’s no real reason to suspect that pat-downs prevent attacks.

That leads to procedures like the labia lift (thankfully defunct; feel free to google, and get triggered all to fuck!). It endangers people whose lives are institutionalized or medicalized, including immigrants, prisoners, and many people with disabilities. It ignores the experiences of people who have met rapists in uniform. In general, it allows people working for institutions to argue that they have more right to batter, restrain, or invade your body than private citizens, and that they have little accountability to you as a person.


Laurie on April 18, 2011 at 11:27 pm.

I thought this was funny:

The odds of getting cancer from a scanner are so low, according to this, that they’re equal to the odds of being killed by a terrorist. So this makes us safer how?


Mimi on April 18, 2011 at 11:57 pm.

I had to stop reading this blog for awhile, but I am so glad I clicked the link today! Fat While Travelling is my normal state of existence, but I never hear too much about it (other than “Get Your Own Armrest, Fatty!”). Thanks, Lesley, for opting out, and for humorously detailing the experience here. I’m moving to the Middle East this summer – can’t help but fly – and dread having to make the choice between invasive scanner or invasive “pat-down”. So far I’ve been able to avoid making a choice…but a little part of me dreads the day I do.

Which option is actually better? I carry a lot of body shame, so for me the question isn’t really which is better, but which is worse: for some stranger to SEE my body, or for some stranger to TOUCH my body? I don’t want either and cannot understand how my decision to work overseas means I must either give up my Constitutional rights or submit to a “mild” form of sexual assault.


Karen on April 19, 2011 at 12:33 pm.

I am SO wearing the bulkiest pad I can find if they’re still doing this nonsense the next time I fly. This is the best travel tip I have EVER heard. While I feel for the guys, I’ll feel no guilt whatsoever about using this.

I flew back in the fall for the first time in years, and was horrified to see Rapiscan machines in both airports (Cincinnati and OK City), despite those airports being then conspicuously absent from lists of Rapiscanning aiports. I’m deeply grateful that I was allowed to just pass meekly through the metal detectors.

Now that I know I can’t trust the information the TSA is saying about their own programs, I’m avoiding flying wherever possible, which may get me another several years. But I will NOT be Rapiscanned, no no no, I don’t care, I won’t do it. Being groped by some woman is marginally preferable. I think it’s a control and knowledge thing – I can see who’s touching me and can make eye contact, try to make some kind of human-to-human connection, however fleeting. I can gauge whether she’s enjoying this or is (hopefully) as uncomfortable as I am. But I have no idea who’s looking at my Rapiscan image or what’s being done with it, and that’s just intolerable. If there were an issue with the pat-down and they tried to push me into getting scanned, I’ll leave without flying. They can detain or sue or whatever they want to me.

I would also absolutely opt to remain in public for the pat-down. I’d much rather be uncomfortable in front of sympathetic witnesses – and remind those witnesses how awful this nonsense is. I could conceivably get upset enough to cry a bit, and would display that reaction without any shame at all.

I need to mull over your analysis of the male reaction more, but am right now feeling mad all over again that women are actually used to these violations. But if it takes the male outrage to change the situation, I’m ok with harnessing that.


piny on April 24, 2011 at 10:13 am.

Um, I’ve heard that women may be asked to remove menstrual pads. So…be careful.


Alyson on May 5, 2011 at 11:40 pm.

Ew. Seriously? Guess I’m never flying during that time of the month again. The idea of sitting on an airplane for X number of hours wearing bloody underwear just isn’t cool.


Rachel on April 19, 2011 at 2:23 pm.

That is an excellent point about the gendered conditioning and the corresponding responses to pat-downs…I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense that the most vocal outrage (or most reported outrage via various media outlets) has been from sexed males, often performing masculinity (as they have been conditioned to do since birth in this society). Thanks for bringing this up and going into it and exploring the reasons this has been the case.

Also, of course, thank you for writing about your personal experience with the whole pat-down process. Helpful on many levels and also very decent of you to share.


ToeDipping on April 19, 2011 at 2:45 pm.

Thanks for your insight into your scans, of both types. (And extra thanks for wrapping them in your ever-amusing Lesleyness!) I only fly a couple of times a year, and one of those is coming up. I very much doubt the security process at my tiny little local airport will have changed, but I’m expecting to have to make this decision when I fly back out of Dallas. I really don’t like the idea of unnecessary radiation from the scan, but I think I like the idea of the grope even less, even if it is completely cupping free.


Amanda on April 19, 2011 at 2:47 pm.

So basically, if someone wants to smuggle in a weapon or other dangerous materials, all they have to do is… wear a pad?

When I got the TSA patdown, they didn’t ask me if I wanted to be in private, and it did upset me a lot more than i expected it to.


Frowner on April 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm.

I really, really hope this comment isn’t unconsciously a “what about the menz!” comment…

I think it’s true there’s a lot of homophobia and privilege in [straight] men’s responses to this pat-down business. And yet hey, there are also lots of men who have been sexually abused/assaulted, lots of men who have been fat-shamed; and lots of men who just aren’t macho-looking enough (short, fat, really skinny, delicate features, whatever) who have been body-shamed by other guys for years. (One of the guys I work with gets body-shamed a lot…supposedly for wearing shorts, but it’s no coincidence that he’s the smallest and slightest guy at my job.)

I also wonder–as a queer woman, one reason I hatehatehate unwanted touching is because I am afraid of homophobia. I hate those situations where some really straight, really cis- woman has to deal with my queer, gender-non-conforming body and I have to anticipate, deal with and often mitigate her dismay and disgust. I assume that for queer men (and maybe some straight men), there’s probably some similar anxieties.

The last time I flew, not all the scanners were functional yet, so I sneaked through the metal detectors. I truly do not know what I’ll do if I’m ever pulled for a pat-down; it’s not something I think I can handle. Just thinking about it makes me nauseated.


Lili on April 19, 2011 at 6:52 pm.

All that I wanted to say has been said. I really just wanted to add Thank You !
Just. Thank. You.


Elizabeth on April 19, 2011 at 7:13 pm.

This article really made me crack up. 🙂 If it weren’t for the fact that I plan on opting out every single time I fly (I’ve experienced the pat-down, and personally had no visceral reactions to it, although intellectually I was outraged), I would totally do a little dance in the backscatter box. It’s like, hey, I’m being objectified here anyway — at least if I make it *super*-objectified, some part of it will have been my own doing.

But I do plan on opting for the grope-down instead, if only to muck up the works as much as possible on my way through (think about it: if everyone opted for the pat-down, eventually they’d have to give up on all this nonsense because there’d just be too many of us), so I guess I’ll leave the go-go dancing to others. 🙂

Excellent article — both funny and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


W on April 19, 2011 at 8:41 pm.

Does anyone actually think that scanning/patting down hundreds of people each day is pleasant? Do you think they enjoy their jobs? I doubt it.


Lesley on April 21, 2011 at 2:47 pm.

Seriously. The average TSA employee makes between 25K and 32K a year, and are just trying to get it done. It’s unfair to make individual employees the targets for our anger about these policies — the employees did not set them and would probably be just as happy if they were withdrawn.


Dangerangell on April 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm.

Hey Lesley,

Since you’ve flown recently maybe you can answer this question–are you able to fit comfortably in a coach seat? I am flying internationally in July and I am really stressing out about being able to fit in the seat. For what it’s worth, I am a size 24/26 and short. The coach seats are already really expensive and I don’t want to have to purchase another seat.


Tiferet on April 26, 2011 at 12:11 pm.

When I was a 22/24 I fit into the seats and saw people who were larger than me doing so. I wouldn’t call it comfortable (but I don’t call it comfortable in 16-20 range either, and I doubt I would call it comfortable if I were a 10 or a 4).

But I didn’t have to buy a second seat.


Lesley on April 26, 2011 at 2:01 pm.

I can fit in coach pretty reliably, though some airlines are worse than others. I’ve never been asked to buy a second seat, though, and I fly six to eight times a year on average.


Jessica on April 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm.

I was “searched” (more like felt up) at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. It’s called underwire. I mean, really.


Erin Satie on April 21, 2011 at 2:22 am.

Really awesome post, full of the kind of good points that are so good they seem obvious once they’ve been made.

Without disagreeing with anything you said at all, I guess I’d also like to point out that you were modeling, yourself, that there is a healthy aspect to being used to having one’s privacy invaded now and again. You learn, from experience, that some touches are offensive and others aren’t – that sometimes a boob graze is an accident and sometimes it’s not, that sometimes the subway really IS so crowded that the guy next to you can’t help but press close, and sometimes he’s taking advantage. You get a frame of reference, and make distinctions, instead of living in a world of black/white, good/bad. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always good to see those shades of grey.

And I think you were also modeling the healthy, positive result of getting some perspective – you rolled with the punches, you can articulate your objections and still be comfortable (it seems, at least, from this post) with your own skin.


steve on April 21, 2011 at 2:05 pm.

hetero-male – if I have to fly could I opt to have the pat down by a woman?
don’t like men – don’t really like being touched – have a woman dentist – if I have to start seeing a doctor it will be a woman – not just looking for a free grope – just wondering about the protocol – sorry you girls have had to put up with this by the male half of the species – men really suck!


Lesley on April 21, 2011 at 2:45 pm.

I’m not sure if you can. I know they will refuse to allow a woman-identifying passenger to be patted-down by a man, even if she says she’s fine with it.


Kath on April 22, 2011 at 6:23 am.

Thank you for this Lesley. It doesn’t allay any of my fears to know the details, but at least I have an idea of what to expect.


MayDarling on April 22, 2011 at 1:34 pm.

Just recently flew back from London – I apparently failed the metal detector and so I got treated to a mega pat-down + wanding. Once the chick figured out it was the massive amount of metal cantilevering my boobs into the socially acceptable position she let me go. My bf who always, without fail, sets off the detectors? Sailed through without so much as a by-your-leave. #side-eye


Kylie on April 25, 2011 at 12:15 am.

Hmm, interesting. A really good argument for not heading back to the US for a few years. Last time was 2002, when I was traumatised by being asked for contact numbers in case the plane blew up (they only asked US passport holders, like the rest of the plane was going to be fine).
For a few years various female members of my family would consistently be asked to step aside for an extra “voluntary” explosives scan. My mother once asked why they picked her- because she looked like she wouldn’t object. Lesson learned- look like you are willing to start complaining loudly, and they stay away.
That is the problem with a lot of the scanning processes- while there are machine tools, at the end of the day it depends on the human processes, and the reactions of that person. So the answer (in the eyes of the PTB) is even higher tech machines.


Kytara Epps on April 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm.

I know this is totally random, but what airline did you fly on? I am flying this summer and I am looking for a fat-friendly airline. I’m nervous I’ll become one of those “too fat to fly” cases.


Lesley on April 28, 2011 at 4:18 pm.

I’m fond of JetBlue, but everybody has their preferences. Seat Guru is the best resource ever for researching seat size and pitch; I consult it every time I’m flying an unfamiliar airline.


Katryn on May 3, 2011 at 12:19 pm.

I wonder if they’re more thorough with the pat-downs if it’s “voluntary” (ie, because you opted out of the scanner). I’ve been randomly selected from the metal detectors at Newark the last 2 times I flew and both pat-downs were pretty perfunctory. The first time I was wearing a tight skirt, which the groper didn’t bother going up, and the second time I had my cat in my arms, so she just wanded my shoes — didn’t actually pat me down at all.

It’s amusing to me that smaller regional airports in the US have the new scanners and thorough searches sooner than an international hub like Newark. I’ve been groped at various international airports over the years, so am not so freaked out by that — I was more embarrassed by the two(!) thorough searches of my handbag when flying out of Guatemala…


Rhonwyyn on May 8, 2011 at 11:02 pm.

“un-American lack of pregnancy” – I thought it was American not to have children? You know, the whole “but we’re going to run out of room and resources” thing.


MH on July 22, 2011 at 11:26 am.

Lesley, sounds exactly like the pat down I always get when I go through the detectors (which always beep, despite my conscientious emptying of pockets). Last time I, too was bleeding like a mofo, and had a spare pad jammed in the pocket of my pants, along with a couple individual wet wipes (you know, for emergency cleanup!) which I gleefully handed to the TSA agent when she asked me to empty my pockets yet again. Apparently waving feminine hygiene products around was at least as embarrassing for her as for me, because she handed them right back and said they could go back in my pocket.

Thanks so much for posting this. I’ve been reading all the outraged and appalled man-accounts and it was sounding really scary. This sounds exactly like what already happens to me in every single airport on the planet. (I don’t think I look like a terrorist, so my current explanation is I’m just so cute that security forces round the world just need to touch me to believe it.)


jill on August 28, 2011 at 4:00 am.

I laughed my ass off during my patdown; I am very ticklish all over


Kali on November 8, 2011 at 1:43 pm.

I believe the whole issue should be a serious one. Given the situations we have been faced with terrorism should be taken seriously. I don’t see why people have to be upset when they are just trying to protect their freedom. Be happy someone else cares if you live or die.


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