The TSA’s Impact On Bodies, Sexual And Otherwise

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

The recent change in TSA regulations, requiring passengers chosen at random to either undergo scanning in a dubiously safe backscatter machine, or getting invasively full-body searched, has stirred up many issues related to sexuality, bodies, and personal boundaries.

The TSA has released statements about the new backscatter machine, which according to them does not provide a full-nude scan of the passenger as believed by many. Nor are the images saved, but rather deleted immediately by employees. Others have contested this claim, however, asserting that there is not enough oversight to ensure that the images are always deleted, or do not contain or portray personal identifying features. There are also health concerns, as the backscatter machines are thought to emit unhealthy levels of radiation–or levels that might be healthy for a normal person, but potentially dangerous for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

If a person selected for screening decides to opt out from the backscatter machine, that person is then subjected to a more thorough full-body search by a TSA employee (ostensibly of the same gender as the passenger, but this can lead to issues for transpeople). Passengers have complained that the full-body search is unnecessarily aggressive and invasive, and is thus being used as a deterrent, to keep passengers quiet and obedient. These procedures could be devastating for people who struggle to maintain a sense of bodily integrity. One survivor of sexual assault felt that the choice between being scanned in the machine or being groped was, itself, unjust and further an assault to her (and this was not, sadly, an isolated incident). Another woman was aggressively groin-searched because she was wearing an alternative to a pad while on her period that happened to be a little bulky. Additionally, transgender people may be subjected to increased scrutiny and discomfort, as they may be met with resistance when they ask that whoever searches them is an officer of the same gender they’re presenting as, even if that’s not the gender listed on their official form of identification.

In one of the most notable instances of a woman being punished for her body, a passenger was told that she was searched because she “had boobs.” This after she had struggled with breast cancer and had a mastectomy; this in front of her teenage son, who then spoke up in protest. In another article on the “boobs” incident, other personal violations are listed: a man who was extensively patted down in his genital area due to an abnormal appearance from an injury when he was young; a young girl, a minor, who was searched without the consent of an adult responsible for her well-being.

Many passengers have staged protests of what they feel are violations of their rights while flying; one sex worker, for example, stripped down to lingerie for her pat-down and caught some of it on video. But these protests, while witty and bold, are not for everyone. I admire the people with enough guts to go get groped in their panties, but what about the people who desperately do not want to be touched, or scanned, or forced to choose between the two?

It’s also important to ask: are these new procedures really making us more safe? The TSA still misses important safety hazards, letting one passenger board a plane with a gun in his carry-on. The whole procedure has been called “security theater,” meaning that it is a farce, a spectacle meant to make passengers feel safe even if it is largely ineffective.

More significantly, we should be aware that even if the TSA procedures are not especially helpful in the security department, they are harming minorities–women, cancer survivors, sexual assault survivors, transpeople–which, typed out like this, looks a lot like prejudice against people who do not belong to the mainstream due to their gender and sexual identities. Maybe it’s not intentional sexism and transphobia and insensitivity to survivors of various crimes and ailments… but if these are the people who are being alienated by the new policies, that’s essentially their effect. In the end, we as a people are only as well-off as the weakest among us.

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.

About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • Kate

    Very nicely articulated, Jeana. I really enjoyed reading this piece.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    Thank you! And, of course, after doing a bunch of holiday traveling, I didn’t get selected for either scanning or groping, go figure!