Sensitive Areas

by Shaker koach

[Trigger warning for description of "enhanced security pat-down."]

I recently flew across the U.S. and was selected to go through the body scanning machines at one airport. I declined, and opted to receive the TSA pat-down instead. Since I'm not easily triggered by pat-downs, I thought I'd go through it, pay careful attention to what was said and done, and then share my experiences with others, so they can make a more informed decision knowing what the pat-down entails.

This is not about the pros and cons of airport security, how to actually create a more secure environment, the health implications of backscatter machines, etc. This is only about what you can (probably) expect if you opt out of entering the backscatter machine and have to be patted down by TSA agents.

I am a cis lesbian and present as a butch, fat female.

My flights were on a major airline, through mid-size airports. Although all of the airports had backscatter/millimeter wave machines installed, they were only being used at one airport. (This always intrigues me—why have the machines if they aren't used? I've seen security officials decide to stop using the machines when the security lines get too long, sending everyone through the simple metal detector instead. Somehow I don't think that busyness = less chance of terrorism, or that terrorists would be unable to notice this pattern. But I digress.)

My partner and I were in one of the lines that were occasionally directed1 toward the backscatter machines; as we got closer to the machines, I wrestled with my choice. If selected for backscatter searching, would I do it, or would I refuse? I decided to opt out of the backscatter machines and have the pat-down, for two reasons. First, I thought I might be able to leverage my not being triggered to provide a description to those who may be triggered, or just want to know what to expect. Secondly, I see this as a small form of civil disobedience, a token stand against the process of eroding our liberties. I refuse to submit to the machine just because everyone else is or just because everyone thinks I should.

A male TSA official waved me toward the backscatter machine and said, "You need to go through there."

koach: No, I decline.

TSA (professional, slightly bored): Really? You do know that means we'll have to pat you down, including touching sensitive areas (with a glance at my breasts)?

koach: Yes, I know.

TSA: Ok, stand over there, on the yellow X. (There was an X on the floor, made from yellow tape. The TSA official said, 'Call for a female screener,' and another agent, with a much louder voice, did so.)

2nd TSA agent (professional, calm, pulling on latex gloves): You want a pat-down instead of using the machine?

koach: Yes.

2nd TSA agent (a little skeptical): Well, you know I will have to touch you all over, including sensitive areas?

koach: Yes, I know. I'm fine with that.

2nd TSA agent: Do you want a private screening, or is out here ok?

koach: Here is fine. (I wanted it to be public, open—let others see. This is my bit of civil disobedience, my protest against the system.)

2nd TSA agent (very calm, almost resigned): Ok then. Where are your items? (We waited until all of my items—carryon bag, laptop, shoes, jacket—came through the metal detector. The agent collected them and put them on a table in front of me. I was not allowed to touch my belongings, but I could see them. She asked me to remove everything—even a cough drop and a receipt—from my pockets. She stood facing me, about two feet away—just inside my personal space.) Ok, I'm going to describe the process to you. If at any time, you are uncomfortable or want me to stop, just say so. If you want to go to a private screening area, we can. Ok?

koach: Ok.

2nd TSA agent (professional, perhaps a bit nervous): I'm going to ask you to hold out your arms. I'll start by touching your head, your hair, your neck. I have to touch your collar; you may feel a bit of tugging. I'll run my hand down your arms and your fingers. Then I'll check your torso. I have to check the front of your torso, using the back of my hand. I'll swoop under your chest, from the middle around to the side. I'll do this on both sides. Then I'll check your legs. On your legs, I have to go from your torso, from where I meet resistance, down to the floor in one motion. On the interior of your legs, I have to go from where there is resistance to the floor. I have to check your waistband and your pant cuffs. You may feel like I'm tugging on it as I check it. Ok?

koach: Ok, I'm ready.

2nd TSA agent: Do you have any problems areas, with being touched? Any difficulties I should know about?

koach: Nope, nothing.

The TSA agent then did as she described. She asked me to stand on the yellow X, my feet about shoulder width apart, and hold my arms up, straight out from my shoulders (forming a T-shape). From behind me, no more than a foot away, she touched the top of my head, ran her fingers down my hair (but did not run her fingers through my hair). My hair is short, but thick, and she kind of patted it, to make sure there was nothing hidden in/under it. She touched my ears and my neck, then put two (gloved) fingers just inside my shirt collar (I was wearing a t-shirt). Still behind me, she grasped my collar and lightly tugged on it, first the left side, then the middle, then the right side. She ran her hands down my shoulders, my upper and lower arms, all the way to my fingertips. She did this on both arms, on both the outer and inner sides of my arms. Then she touched my back, running the palms (I think) of her hands from the top of my shoulders down to my pants waistband. She did this a few times, to cover my entire back.

Then the TSA agent came around to face me, standing a little less than arm's length away (it felt pretty close to me, just a bit closer than is usually comfortable). She repeated checking my arms, in same way. Then she said, "Now I'm going to check the front of your torso. I'm going to use the backs of my hands, like this," demonstrating a roughly U-shaped hand gesture, with the backs of her gloved hands toward me. "I'll do this a couple of times, on both sides." She looked at me to see if I objected. When I did not, she began touching me with the motion she had demonstrated. She did not look me in the eyes, but watched her hands; it seemed she was being deliberate, careful, and precise. I was wearing a sports bra, so she could not easily put her hands between my breasts, but just kind of started at the bottom of the bra in the middle, and moved her hands across the bottom of my breasts to the outside, near my armpits. (I am large breasted, a DD, and she did not "pick up" my breasts and check underneath them. May have been the sports bra.) She used the back of her hands to softly pat me on my clavicle, above my breasts, on my breasts, and on my stomach, down to my pants waistband.

Then she had to check my pants. My shirt was untucked, hanging over my waistband, so she asked me to pull it up, so she could visually inspect my waistband. My stomach and back, about 1-2 inches, were exposed. She went behind me again and touched the waistband of my pants, then tugged horizontally on my waistband (so it didn't feel as if she was trying to pull my pants down). She tugged in the middle, on the left side of my back, on the far left side, and on the right and far right. She then crouched behind me, touched my waistband, and ran her hands from my waist, over my buttocks, down the backs of my legs, to the floor. (I do not know if she used her palms or backs of her hands.) She did this a few times, to cover my entire backside and thighs.

Still behind me, she then said, "Now I'm going to check the interior of your legs. I'll go from where I meet resistance straight down to the floor." She put her hands, palms together as if she was praying, between my legs at about knee height. Because I am fat, when I am standing comfortably, my thighs meet and touch below my vulva. She slowly moved her hands up, until they touched where my thighs come together; my pants were a little baggy and this did cause my pants to move, to bunch up a little around her hands. She then separated her hands, and moved the backs of her hands down the insides of my legs until her hands touched the floor. She repeated this process.

Next she moved to my front, and essentially repeated the same steps: asking me to raise my shirt a bit, tugging on my waistband, running the backs of her hands down the fronts and outsides of my legs, then checking the interior of my legs in the same way. At no time did she touch my genitals; I think it was only because my fat thighs came together. People with a wider stance, less-fat thighs, or a more ambitious TSA agent, might have their genitals touched.

The agent finished by tugging lightly and horizontally on my pants cuffs (again, it did not feel like she was trying to pull my pants down, but just pulling the cuffs away from my body). She then told me to wait a minute, while she ran her gloves through a machine (to test for residue from bomb-making, I believe). She came back and said, "You're finished. You can put on your shoes and gather up your stuff," which I quickly did.

I am not triggered by strangers touching me, but nonetheless I did feel a bit uncomfortable—I think it was the depersonalized nature of the experience (similar, maybe, to some experiences of hospitals and medical professionals). She was not rude, but she clearly did not care about me, koach, in the least. She was just doing her job. Having my body touched like that was a bit uncomfortable. I also felt that I was putting her in an awkward situation by insisting on a pat-down, though none of the TSA agents said anything like that. I assume that some TSA agents will be more aggressive in checking between and under breasts and between legs. Overall, I was surprised and impressed with her professionalism, her lack of interest in my body as a body, and the amount of time she took to explain and describe her actions. It is safe to say that not all TSA agents will behave this professionally, but at least a few do.


1 A word on the selection: One TSA official chose people, apparently at random, to use the backscatter machine; everyone else went through the simple, standard metal detector. The people selected to use the backscatter machine weren’t entirely chosen at random: one man complained about having to take off his belt, and he was selected; two young people of color, in their late teens or twenties, were selected; one person per apparent family group was selected. The TSA official also let all people with toddlers go through the metal detector, often carrying the kids, contrary to reports I’ve been reading. I don’t know the rationale behind the some of the selections, but if you watched, the not-quite-randomness became apparent.

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