Extreme Measures? New Airport Screening Causes Some Turbulence

Some female travelers say 'virtual strip-searches' and new patdowns are over the line

In an effort to thwart terrorist attacks, about 70 airports nationwide have been recently armed with more than 400 refrigerator-sized full body scanners. The Transportation Security Administration has also instructed airport security officers to use a far more aggressive pat-down technique to search passengers, utilizing their palms and fingers (in the past, they used the backs of their hands, particularly when near sensitive body parts such as breast and groin.)

The public outcry has been staggering, thanks in large part to horror stories like this bladder cancer survivor, who had his urostomy bag (which collects his urine) squeezed by a Detroit airport security official, causing it to spill its contents all over his shirt and pants. Blogger Erin Chase also spoke up about her horrifying experience at the Dayton International Airport in Ohio on November 12, where she alleges a TSA agent sexually assaulted her. “She said, 'I need to reach in and feel along the inside of your waistband,'” Chase blogged. Then, she moved behind me and proceeded to feel both of my buttocks. She then moved in front of me and touched the top and underneath portions of both of my breasts. She felt my inner thighs and my vagina area, touching both of my labia. I felt completely violated, abused and assaulted by the TSA agent. I shook for several hours, and woke up the next day shaking.”

For Chase, the experience was tantamount to sexual assault because the TSA agent never explained the new search policy and never warned her she’d be touching Chase’s private parts.

Inappropriate touching aside, many women are terrified of the full-body digital x-ray machines, which reveal your physical contours on a screen, but in a private room separate from security checkpoints. (The images are not capable of being stored or transmitted.) Women have spoken out about feeling as if they’re being virtually strip-searched, that the notion of strangers seeing our bodies in such an intimate way is psychologically devastating.

When I started writing today’s blog, I was planning on respectfully disagreeing. At this point in my life, I simply don’t have a problem with TSA screening me or even touching me -- inner thighs or underbreasts included -- in order to achieve the greater goal of public safety. As long as my chest isn’t being full-on fondled and nothing’s being, um, inserted anywhere, let’s just be done with it. And this is coming from someone who has experienced sexual assault, who has had her breasts groped in a wholly unwanted manner, who has woken up in a hotel room with a stranger on top of her. But as I wrote, I thought back to those years following the assault. I suffered from horrific flashbacks and crippling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the time, I had trouble letting even my long-time boyfriend touch me in certain places. And now I realize that no, at that point in my recovery, I would certainly not have willingly gone along with the patdowns. So now I also have to wonder, if I was not at the point I am now, where I am confident in my body and independence, would I have agreed to the full body scan? Or would I have been terrified of strange men examining my physique for potentially less-than-well-intended purposes? My past experiences aside, though, the fact is, TSA needs to keep us safe. We want to be kept safe. (A new CBS poll actually shows 4 out of 5 Americans approve of the full-body scanners.) 

At this point, I’m more concerned about the cancer risk posed by the digital X-rays (a Columbia University radiation expert deemed it "likely" that radiation from the screening machines will cause cancer.) Or what about the fact that TSA agents wear the same pair of gloves to feel inside of hundreds of pairs of underwear without changing between uses? I don’t need them planting a herpes bomb in my lady bits. When I fly next month, I’m more likely to request a pat-down and insist on a fresh pair of gloves than I am to make a stink. Where do you fall into this equation?

Do you have a problem with the new security measures?
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