Broad Recognition


Hands Up or Hands On: Keep Your Hands Off My Resistance


“You don’t really have a choice.” These are the words of my mother.   On the contrary, I do have a choice: have a stranger take a photo of my naked body, or have a stranger put their hand between my legs. This is the form that “national security” has taken in America as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implements their latest terror-plot-thwarting technology in airports around the U.S. In March of this year, TSA began deploying 450 advanced imaging technology units, including “back-scatter imaging” machines, which take graphically detailed x-ray photos of passengers as they stand with their hands behind their head. “They can’t see that much.” On the contrary, Mom, they really can see that much. A TSA employee in Miami was arrested recently after he physically assaulted a colleague who had mocked the captured back-scatter image of his modestly sized penis. If you aren’t yet convinced that this technology is an absurd violation of your privacy, I recommend you peruse the scores of actual back-scatter images available on the internet (including the TSA website). The TSA has assured passengers that images are not stored and that the officer examining your nude figure will be in a separate room, but I do not find solace in these claims.

I could not stand firmer on this: there is absolutely no way I am going to willingly stand inside a radiation-emitting chamber with my hands held behind my head like a criminal while a stranger whom I cannot see takes snap shots of my body that are so detailed they can practically tell if I am menstruating. So if I refuse to pose nude for a stranger in the name of national security, what will come of me?

The TSA website says:

Passengers who opt out of enhanced screening such as advanced imaging technology will receive an equivalent level of screening to include a thorough pat-down.

What exactly does a “thorough pat-down” entail? “We would not describe the pat-down in any detail for security reasons,” said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis. “You shouldn’t expect to see the same security procedures at every airport. Our security measures are designed to be unpredictable and are constantly assessed and updated to address evolving threats.” Somehow, this does not make me feel safer.

Capt. Mike Cleary, head of the US Airways pilots union, said that in informal conversations with TSA personnel, he was told that security officers now “are to run their hand up the inside of your leg until they meet bone resistance. In addition, they use a circular pat-down routine from the small of the stomach, around through a person’s crotch, and up into the small of the back.” Wait – was my vagina just referred to as the resistance?

This is what Christopher Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union has accurately dubbed “security theater”. There are innumerable questions over the safety, anonymity, and legitimacy of the back-scatter machines, as well as an understandably rising anger towards the new guidelines for the opt-out pat-down. However, there is one aspect of this controversy that has hardly received the attention it should: the emotional impact of these procedures on those who have been victims of sexual assault. Today, a story broke of a young female passenger, once a victim of rape, whose choice to opt out of the back-scatter machine left her utterly traumatized :

“I said I didn’t want them to see me naked and the agent started yelling ‘Opt out- we have an opt here’. Another agent took me aside and said they would have to pat me down. He told me he was going to touch my genitals and asked if I wouldn’t rather just go through the scanner, that it would be less humiliating for me. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I kept saying I don’t want any of this to happen. I was whispering please don’t do this, please, please.”

If that isn’t disturbing enough, she then describes what happened during the “enhanced” pat-down:

“He started at one leg and then ran his hand up to my crotch. Then cupped and patted my crotch with his palm. Other fliers were watching this happen to me. At that point I closed my eyes and started praying… for strength. He also cupped and then squeezed my breasts. That wasn’t the worst part. He touched my face, he touched my hair, stroking me. That’s when I started crying. It was so intimate, so horrible. I feel like I was being raped. There’s no way I can fly again. I can’t do it.”

We live in a nation where one in every six women has been a victim of attempted or completed rape, and every two minutes someone in this country is sexually assaulted – bare in mind these statistics do not include unreported assaults. While the issue of violation of the body is not limited to women, and this situation affects every American, today it is personal. Today, I am the American, and I am the woman, that must face the personal impact that these new security measures will have on me.

When I was 18, I was sexually assaulted for the first time, and I was not in the 26-38% of victims that actually file a report. My rights, my privacy and my body were violated by someone against my will, despite all my attempts to resist. So when I read the same pleading words I once spoke coming from a woman being screened at the security check-point in an airport, I was frozen and speechless and confronted with how this was going to affect me.

When I think about the already-booked flights I plan to take during my winter break from Columbia, I find myself asking: which option is less likely to trigger traumatic flashbacks of the day that a stranger violated my body? Under no circumstances should anyone have to pose such a question to themselves. The mere thought of experiencing the “thorough” pat-down brings me to tears, and I can assure you that the physical experience will do the same. Man or woman, back or front of hand, glove or no glove, sexual or security-enforcing – absolutely no one should be putting their hand between my legs against my will. Nor should I be obligated to stand exposed to a stranger in the name of national security. It seems elementary, yet this is the reality that every American traveller faces, and a situation I will be forced to confront as I make my way through three of the nation’s largest airports come December.

When I brought up my disgust with all aspects of the TSAs new security processes – including the term resistance - with my mother, she suggested I save myself the trauma of the groping and just go through the scanner. This is something I cannot do. Either option is a violation of my body, but in choosing to opt out, I am consciously allowing all the other passengers witness the violation instead of only the stranger sitting behind the back-scatter image screen. I can guarantee that the anger this process causes me will make me cry, but I will be sure that every person who sees me cry is also witness to the physical violation of my body that brought on such an emotional protest. I stand in solidarity with victims of sexual assault, with women, and with all Americans. These new measures are an attack on our dignity and human rights, all in the name of airport security.  Images of my nipples will not determine national security, and my vagina, I can assure you, is not the “resistance”.

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”  — St. Augustine

Alexandra Lukens is a senior in Columbia University.  She is a contributor to Broad Recognition.

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of Broad Recognition.

Comments (15)

  • Y’know, we all have to make compromises for the sake of others. I can understand how people would feel violated by these developments, but these are dangerous times we live in. I mean, someone tried to blow up a plane mid-flight last Christmas (of course no one remembers that because we all have terrible memory span), thankfully it failed, but the fact remains there is a clear threat out there and airports and planes are high value targets for our government’s enemies.

    Personally, I wouldn’t really have that much of a problem with either option, as long as it was carried out in a professional and polite manner (granted I haven’t been sexually molested like the author of the piece, so I don’t have any traumatic memories that might be re-awoken should I have to go through with a pat down) I mean, you’d let a doctor see you actually naked and the TSA isn’t even asking you to take your clothes off, just let them run a casual hand around your body for a couple of minutes to make sure you don’t have any weapons or have them take an x-ray that doesn’t show your face clearly and a pale blue image of your body which is then immediately deleted. It’d be one thing if a TSA officer tried to slip a finger in you, that would be a clear and blatant violation of your rights as well as a crime (I would be in favor of doubling the punishment of any TSA personnel who abused their position of authority in such a manner) but just a pat down through your clothes does not, to me, seem a violation of your rights. Remember: your rights end where mine begin and vice versa, but wouldn’t you agree that we both have the right to fly in safety? I’d rather we both be uncomfortable for a few minutes than get killed in an terrorist attack.

    But I have a few questions for you: why get so worked up about it? You’re only going to make yourself upset and, in your own words, cry. I’m sure it’s terrible to have been sexually molested, but are you gonna let an experience like that ruin your life by letting it haunt you? I say you should stand strong and not let it affect you. You have inherent dignity and the only one who can take that away from you is yourself, only you can give it up. That girl you referred to, the one who cried while getting patted down, she made it an embarrassing experience by not being fully in control of herself. No one would’ve known that it was traumatic for her if she had just kept a stiff upper lip and reminded herself that she wasn’t going to get raped, that she would be through with it in a matter of minutes and that it was for reasons devoid of sexual intent.

    The TSA personnel are probably over loaded with the people that they have to screen, I’m sure they want it to take as little time as possible on each person. They probably don’t even care what you look like naked, they just want to keep the line moving. It’s all quite impersonal. Is that what gets you so upset? The impersonal nature of it? You seem to get real worked up when they refer to your crotch as “[bone] resistance”, but they’re just trying to keep it impersonal when they say that (sounds more official than “cooch” or “junk” or what have you). You stick a hand between my legs and move it up, eventually my pelvis will provide sufficient resistance to the hand to keep it from moving up. No reason to make a mountain out of a molehill on something so trivial as the choice of words used to describe your body in an impersonal and sterile manner (which was probably done for the sake of political correctness).

    I assure you, no one cares about your nipples or vagina or what they look like (except probably you or your significant other).

    I understand that this is a hot button issue for you, likely to draw forth a lot of emotion in your response, but instead of just responding with the first thing that comes to mind I beg of you, let it sink in a little bit, cool off and then reply.

    posted by Mikey      November 17th, 2010 at 1:21 pm

  • This article is spot on. Airport security has essentially become martial law. After mail bombings and Oklahoma, they didn’t start cavity searches at the post office, nor at U-Haul rental places. These “security” measures don’t only violate passengers, they also act as a deterrent and restriction on travel/free movement. They are keeping people confined geographically with the threat of violation. And I’m sure many security officers select women for special punishment (aka “screening”) just to cop a feel. Now the images of screened passengers have been leaked. Last time I heard, it was illegal to take nude pictures of people and disseminate them against the subjects’ wills. This is a civil rights issue, one that I hope will see some litigation.

    posted by Adrienne Dodt      November 17th, 2010 at 2:14 pm

  • I have to agree with the author, as well. I used to enjoy flying prior to 9/11. After that, it was just a nusance. Now, it’s down-right deplorable. Also as a victim of sexual assault, but at the age of 19, I can’t say that I am open to either option. I have a business trip to LA coming up next year and am keeping my fingers crossed that this disgusting invasive practice is rescinded by then. Otherwise, I will have no choice but to drive there (from the East Coast) or miss out on an opportunity that could cost me a promotion at work. Homeland Security is costing me my job security. And as far as” Mikey” goes, you are either oblivious to the anguish that sexual assault vicitms suffer, or simply an emotionless wretch. Or maybe believe that it’s okay to for a woman to be further subjected to agony.

    posted by Ann      November 17th, 2010 at 4:29 pm

  • Mikey,

    Your reply to this brave, excellent article is offensive and ignorant. Having your genitals touched is never “impersonal” and is in no way analogous to appearing naked before doctor, a visit which is conducted with consent and in private. No matter whether the security pat-down has sexual intent, no person should be forced to suffer an invasion of privacy and bodily integrity that is – yes – traumatic.

    It is not your place to interrogate a victim of sexual assault about why they are upset, or tell them to keep a “stiff upper lip” when confronted with the memory of this encounter. You are obviously more concerned with keeping our airports free of “embarrassing”, crying sexual assault victims than engaging with the reasons they are upset in the first place (which, by the way, have nothing to do with “impersonal” terminology).

    These methods are not going to save us all from getting killed in terrorist attacks. I do not object to enhanced security measures in general, however, determining whether a person is carrying a suspect object does not require the minute descriptive detail of the photographs. No one is going to smuggle a bomb onto a flight by stowing it in their vagina. These measures are entirely unnecessary.

    This article is not, as you so patronizingly claim, making a “mountain out of a molehill.” I beg of you, let this sink in, cool off, and reevaluate your moral compass.

    posted by Lizzie      November 17th, 2010 at 8:55 pm

  • I have to admit I disagree. I think the solution is ensuring that women can have a female pat them down if they are uncomfertable with the photo or with a male pat down. (I am women.)

    Terrorism is really not a joke (I am also a liberal democrat) and we really can’t mess around with airport security.

    posted by airplane Jane      November 17th, 2010 at 10:35 pm

  • I agree so wholeheartedly with this article. While I do think that airport safety is a very real and important concern, there has to be a boundary- at some point, things have gone too far. There has to be a balance between security and rights, and these new procedures, for all of the reasons mentioned in the article, place far too little weight on the importance of a person’s right to privacy. When security procedures make victims of sexual assault relive their experiences and could make anyone feel sexually violated, that is going to far. Security is undoubtedly an important thing, but so are people’s rights, and people have to speak up when the government reaches a level of unacceptable violation of rights, no matter what the purpose of the violating act is.

    posted by Julia      November 18th, 2010 at 12:45 am

  • Finally a view from someone who is neither a male nor an exhibitionist. Most of the news you here “what’s the big deal your doctor sees you naked!” Well that’s my doctor, and even sometimes that’s embarrassing- I certainly don’t take my clothes off for perfect strangers! Others say well you don’t have to fly! No and neither do you- if you aren’t willing to take some risks for your freedom like flying -when god knows any terrorist could get on a train, bus or even cause havoc in a crowd -your asking for it. Here it comes its get ready because it’s time to live your life in fear and change what you do and give up your freedoms! Any dignity you thought you had is being taken away – and to say well it’s your problem if you can’t get over someone looking at you or touching you is just wrong – with everything we do not to offend or disrespect others – one’s own body should have the highest priority!

    posted by Bambi Lukens      November 18th, 2010 at 8:26 am

  • Allie,
    Good job with the article. These scanners and the full body patdown are supposed to protect us? I find that highly unlikely. If we’re only able to catch terrorists arriving at the gates then we’ve lost already. I don’t understand the paranoia behind the added security. I feel like the TSA and the government want us to be paranoid. I think everyone that will get on a plane in the next year needs to protest these full body scanners and the “thorough pat down” one will receive if they decide to opt out of the radioactive non-privacy chamber screening. If we let them control us like this, then the terrorists have already won.

    posted by Mike      November 18th, 2010 at 10:01 am

  • fantastic article could not agree more, for those that say we were willing because we choose to fly, we are putting ourselves in that situation, no one is forcing us to – that is like saying since a man bought me dinner he gets to f*** me, how dare i not know that is the way it is supposed to be or i should have not eaten my meal

    posted by Ruby      November 18th, 2010 at 11:55 pm

  • There is only Love or Fear. That is it and the TSA, the Government and Mikey are living in fear. This is all a false sense a security created out of fear. There is no security. Death is inevitable for every single being on this planet. Period. We are not promised a full life or a death of natural causes when we are old. We are more likely to die of a car accident, murder or a disease than a terrorist attack. When it is your time to go, you are getting taken however that higher power decides. The terrorist have already won because if we’re living our life in fear then we are not truly living. A lot of this fear is created for hidden monetary purposes anyway. Wake up!

    I have traveled extensively all over the world and immediately after 9/11 happened and I lived in NYC. I lost friends then. But I know that when it’s my time to go, well then it’s my time and I will not worry how and when that is going to happen. Nor will I allow anyone to take away my freedoms. Being a child of sexual abuse, I can tell you right now, I will not do the scan and no one is going to touch my body. You are violating my body, my rights.

    Mikey – your ignorance and lack of compassion is disgusting. If you choose to live your life in fear well continue your life half lived. You just showed the ignorance that the majority of Americans are falling for without even thinking or researching for yourself. I have male friends and have been doing reading about it all of this and there are a lot of business men that feel that it is a complete violation of rights for both sexes. There are already lawsuits being filed against the TSA for misconduct and violations. Scans of people have already been leaked. And I guess that Americans do have a short memory because there was the Oklahoma City Bombing by two American former Soldiers and the first World Trade City Bombing that had no plane attached to it. So I suggest before you make a comment that is both ignorant and immoral that you do a little research.

    My father said it best – It’s like the war on drugs, you will never be able to stop people from doing what their going to do, you will only be able to slow them down temporarily until they figure out another way in a different way. It’s just like if someone wants to rob your home, you have your locks and you put in an alarm, if they really want in they will find a way to get what they want or they just move on to the next house!

    Great article Alexandra. Thank you for sharing.

    posted by Ethel      November 18th, 2010 at 11:59 pm

  • I think this article sums it up and kudos to Alexandra.

    posted by Tess      November 19th, 2010 at 5:45 pm

  • I believe her article stated a female was pat-down by a male.

    posted by Tess      November 19th, 2010 at 5:47 pm

  • I believe that every individual has the right to defend themselves from aggression or physical intrusion against our will. That is, against an act of violence. It comes as a condition of personhood , our sovereignty as individuals. It should not be voluntarily forfeited. Only by conceding to a violation of one’s personal dignity and moral convictions, does one relinquish an inherent human right which is both sacrosanct and universal. If we failure to support this right in practice, it will be increasingly violated at random, with or without official authority or sanction by law. We may be subjected to misdirected or even malevolent intentions of those who seek answers through fear or intimidation. They may also act out of ignorance or in response to their own fears and insecurity. They may merely be doing their job, some with more thoughtfulness and respect than others. Their actions may often seem irrational and provoke anger or frustration. We know that It doesn’t seem right and we don’t understand . In the end, this is of little consequence. Trust your own judgement and intuition. You have a right to say no. You have a right to say ” Stop— no further– your rights end where mine begin’. Above all, stand up for yourself. Don’t look for anyone to give you that right. You already have it.

    posted by Jerry G.      November 20th, 2010 at 10:12 pm

  • Hi Mikey,
    Your entire response gave me the heebiejeebies. But since some good criticisms have already made, I want only to stress that anyone approaching this issue considers carefully the nature of trauma. Trauma is not an unpleasant event from which one can move on by “staying strong”; it is an ongoing experience of memory repressed. The very definition of trauma is that it cannot be fully remembered, that it haunts you. It should be of no surprise that being unnecessarily patted-down by a stranger can and often will recall trauma in victims of sexual violation.
    Consequently, to relegate the thousands of men and women who actually have been sexually violated to a mere parenthesis, as you have done, is obscene. You seem well intentioned, and I’m glad – no, envious – that you do not quiver at the idea of either being x-rayed or having your “junk” touched. Instead, it appears that you view the greatest humiliation that this world holds to be a public display of emotion. You poor, repressed thing.

    posted by Artemis      December 1st, 2010 at 2:07 am

  • I fully believe that in the utilization of this new security technique both women and men have had their civil rights, not to mention their personal space, violated. It is unacceptable that a woman—or anyone—be subjected to a public, humiliating pat-down by a TSA agent of the opposite sex, and I find it particularly disturbing that the woman quoted in this article was put through such a traumatizing experience even when she was clearly under emotional distress. I also find it repugnant that these issues of privacy violations and body-shaming have only been granted a media shitstorm when—gasp—white men are finally subjected to them, when women have been dealing with comparable issues for years. I cannot even imagine the pain this procedure causes to women who have been victims of sexual assault or who are suffering from PTSD.

    That said! Your claim that “No one is going to smug­gle a bomb onto a flight by stow­ing it in their vagina” seem terribly naive to me in the context of modern terrorism. Only last year Abdullah Asri smuggled a bomb into the palace of Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef ( The bomb was in his rectum, and it was successfully detonated. Bin Nayef head of Saudi Arabia’s counter terrorism operations, and you can be sure that he has even better security than the TSA can provide. While Bin Nayef survived, I think this incident—as well as other tragic demonstrations that some people will stop at nothing to sow terror and violence, like the willingness to use pregnant women as suicide bombers (—shows that we really can take nothing for granted as far as airport security goes.

    I do think that this issue has been bungled from the beginning, and I find it abhorrent that anyone be subjected to such a humiliating procedure against their will. I also certainly do not claim to be a security expert, or to have anything close to total faith in the government’s genuine desire to keep the public safe; in some ways this tactic seems more a CYA than a truly necessary measure. At the same time, were a suicide bomber to succeed in murdering hundreds of people by slipping through security with a cavity bomb, none of us would hesitate to castigate the TSA for failing to keep us safe. Flying is ultimately a choice, not a right; while I believe this particular security measure has been mishandled and manipulated to shame and discomfit travelers, in the end some of us may simply have to decide that the price we now need to to pay to fly safety is simply too high.

    posted by Kate      December 1st, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Leave a Comment