Sunday, November 28, 2010

TSA, Sexual Assault, and Opting Out

Like a lot of people, I anticipate flying over the next couple of months, and so I have been following the TSA debates closely. I am planning to opt out because several folks have come forward recently to warn that the focused radiation on the skin that these new scanners use are likely to cause skin cancer in certain populations, including cancer survivors, people at risk for breast cancer, and children. That's two-thirds of our traveling group.

So, we are expecting the intrusive pat downs. And I'm frankly concerned about how this is going to be experienced by my 8-year-old child. I'm hoping that, if we explain everything ahead of time, and if the TSA agent also explains everything ahead of time (they are supposed to do so, but they don't necessarily do so), that he will take it in stride. I'm also concerned about just how intimate and invasive this touching will be. Despite the description the TSA agent gave to John Tyner, they really don't seem to be telling people exactly what they are going to do (check out the links below for examples). We are aware that they will be touching our genitals with their palms rather than the backs of their hands - but how many people expect this (note especially the discussion at the end re. the two levels of pat down - one standard pat down and one as punishment)? Or this? Or this? And how many people expect the TSA agent to put their hands inside the traveler's underpants?

Further, the TSA has now regrouped and is ready for the next John Tyners, arresting and threatening to fine anyone refusing to go through either the scan or the "pat-down" (scroll down to the bottom).

So we are faced with the "choice" of showing our naked bodies, including other intimate information that the scanners can see such as whether or not we are menstruating, whether or not we wear prostheses, etc., to people we don't want to show this to, OR we can submit to invasive touching that many people are calling akin to sexual assault. I find it interesting that those refuting this last statement on various blogs are responding by saying that the TSA agents don't enjoy this and don't intend it to be sexual assault. But, as with racism, intent is not really the issue. Legally, rape and sexual assault can occur regardless of whether or not the perpetrator thinks that that is what he's doing. There are many cases in which men have raped women and not thought that what they did was rape.

What is important is whether or not the person experiencing this experiences it as unwanted touching - which many clearly do, and it has serious ramifications, particularly for those who are survivors of past assault. This is not about Americans' prudish ways, and it is not about how comfortable individuals are with nudity. It is about simply being able to choose to whom and under what conditions we will share the intimate details of our bodies.

I am aware of my privilege operating here, as someone who has never been pulled aside for any additional screening beyond checking through my carry-on. I am aware that lots of people have been dealing with these situations for the last decade, at least. And so I feel uncomfortable at my own sudden outrage at this situation in which I must choose between two situations that I feel are violating. I should have been more outraged long ago.


If the recent news that Opt Out Day fizzled has left you feeling intimidated about opting out, you should read these two statements.

If you do fly and you experience anything you feel is inappropriate, here is one way to report abuse. And here is another resource.

(Just a last comment: As I have suspected, getting rid of TSA screenings in favor of private companies is not going to change a damn thing.)


Anonymous said...

Is there any way you can drive?

Plain(s)feminist said...

Actually, Bean and I will be taking the train. Travelocity arranged with AirTran to give me a full credit (no change fee). It's not as good as a refund, but it's better than nothing.