November 16, 2010
“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.