I didn’t expect my Sunday afternoon flight from Boston, MA to Washington, DC to turn into a moment of activism for survivors, but it did. I travel a lot for work, so I know the security drill. Shoes off. Laptop out of your bag. No liquids. Remove your belt. Take everything out of your pockets.
But on Sunday, the drape on my shirt set off the scanner, highlighting a large area over my chest. Because of this, the TSA agent explained, she was going to need to pat that area down, including my breast.
I gulped. Not what I had in mind. So I asked her if I could take off the shirt and come back through the scanner, since it was obvious this was the cause. She said it wasn’t allowed, and that once the machine registered something, it had to be resolved. At this point, I’m holding up the security line.
Nonetheless, I took a deep breath. And I spoke up.
Well, I’m a sexual assault survivor and I would prefer not to have my breast touched by a stranger.
Too many survivors would rather re-traumatize themselves than come out as survivors. When we are visible, we are shamed – and made to feel we are broken or at fault. But when we remain invisible, our experiences aren’t considered. This is the basis of my work at The Enliven Project.
Looks were exchanged. The agent asked someone to go get a manager. We waited. She looked uncomfortable, and said something about not shooting the messenger. I said I was speaking up for others who couldn’t. She said she was glad I did – and I should.
The big boss came over. There was now a crowd of agents watching and listening. I explained my situation. The answer was the same – in no uncertain terms. I asked for her boss’ name. It was all very civil. But it was clear that if I wanted to get on my flight, I was going to have to get patted down.
And then something unexpected happened. I started to cry. Because it turned out that I really, really did not want to have my body touched by a stranger. I was tired. I didn’t have the energy to process it or protect myself emotionally.
We can do it in a private area, she said, in an attempt to soothe me. Get a tissue, she barked to one of the agents.
And so it was. I endured the pat down. I did my best to make this poor traumatized TSA agent assigned to touch me – for no real reason – feel less sad and awkward. She told me again that she was glad I spoke up. That she used to be a social worker. That she gets it.
I drank extra wine that night. I didn’t sleep well. The experience reminded me of past trauma. It took mental and emotional energy to process. All because the TSA doesn’t consider sexual violence survivors as a group they need to accommodate like they do for passengers with pacemakers or metal joints.*
Will the TSA change its policies because of this? Probably not. But did I create a teachable moment for the agents who were watching. Absolutely. Now they know – in a visceral way – that invasive pat downs can be emotionally painful for survivors of sexual violence. After all, every fourth woman and every sixth man who passes through security shares a story like mine.
One of the hardest things about being a survivor of sexual violence is that it’s an invisible experience. When invisible, your pain is yours, and yours alone. And no one can help you address it. When we are visible, our experiences and walk through the world can be known – and eventually understood. That’s why I feel compelled to speak up for survivors – to make us visible to the world, TSA agents included.
*Clarification: Passengers with pacemakers and metal joints are still required to be searched, often with pat down searches. The point is that they are considered as a special population, whereas sexual violence survivors are not.