TSA Touching Crosses The Line

Trigger Warning: describes TSA’s invasive hand-pat-down procedures. Graphically. Seriously, don’t read this if you have a sexual abuse trigger.

Imani convinced me no one but abusers benefit from victims’ silence. Imani is the pseudonym I gave to one of the clients of the World Organization for Human Rights USA. Her story begins:

Imani’s story is told on her body: a scar on her ear, where her husband nearly tore it off with a slamming door; jagged gouges in her back where her husband pushed her onto a heap of broken glass; a deep, gnawing bite-mark on her wrist—her husband’s response when she told him she was too ill to have sex. Her story is written most clearly on her face: lines of grief for 23 years of torture and sexual abuse, fear for her two children left in the house of her abuser and their father in Cameroon, worry about starting a new life in the United States.

I went through half a dozen drafts where I was polite, euphemistic about the violence she lived through, the violations of her dignity and personhood she survived. Then I decided that I did her no kindness by hiding what happened. With her identity disguised, only her abuser would benefit from my veiling.

I was not a victim of the TSA, nor would I describe what happened to me yesterday as abuse, sexual or otherwise. But simply ending the story where I ended my tweet would protect a system which humiliates women and cancer survivors. Here’s that tweet:

Yep. TSA’s aggressive search did involve a stranger touching my junk and I do feel like my privacy was violated. My girl bits are mine! @JessiDG

Though I am not a victim, I find myself going through shadows of what a victim might feel. I demand of myself why I wore a skirt when I knew the agent would “have” to reach up into my crotch. Why I didn’t just let them take pictures of my nearly-naked body and avoid having to walk away from security, still feeling the agent’s hand between my legs. Why I bothered to come home for my grandmother’s 80th birthday, if it so easily lead to feeling small and cowed and hurt.

Self-blame is a form of self-control for me. If something is my fault, a friend’s sadness, a slow bus, an agent’s grope, then I feel better because I was in control.

Yesterday I was not in control.

Yesterday I was forced to be passive.

Yesterday a TSA agent touched my outer labia four times through my underwear, skirt, and two pairs of gloves. I could feel the bend in her fingers pressing into me, feel overwhelming relief when (on the third time) she only went up to my thigh barely grazing me, and shame when (on the fourth time) she pushed into me again.

If someone had even started what she finished on a bus, I would have broken her hand. Then her head. Strangers don’t get to touch me like that.

I filed no complaint about this [UPDATE: I did, thanks to the support of commenters and Twitter friends]. I’ve read the TSA’s blog posts about what how that search is supposed to feel, where they’re supposed to touch me, I knew it was firmly within the bounds that agency has laid out for itself. I have no faith that I would be taken seriously if I complained to the TSA.

As invasive and violative of my privacy as her touching was, I cannot begin to comprehend what it would have felt like for a survivor of rape or sexual abuse like Imani.

I do not believe it is within my government’s purview to harm the psyches of rape survivors, or be touching my junk.

Inspirational Quote:

“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”–Thomas Sowell


  1. I like the sentiment, but that’s kind of like boycotting pants because some cotton is picked by labor trafficking victims. I lose my ability to argue persuasively for my beliefs when I cannot get to professional conferences or jobs by plane.

    1. But the airlines are going along with this, passively, like cows being herded into the slaughterhouse. They are, by their inaction, a party to the abuse. Just because you have no choice but to fly (as I might also, someday), it doesn’t mean that we can’t avoid as much air travel as possible. My wife and I took a vacation trip to Texas from Southern California last fall. We drove.

    2. That is true for some, but when you have an optional choice to fly, you can just decide otherwise. We allow this to happen, unfortunately.

  2. Apparently Americans will justify or put up with any abuse for the sake of convenience. Will you allow them to do a cavity search when the inevitable anus bomber shows up?

  3. Americans only, really? The first time I had to take off my shoes was at Heathrow in 2003. My hair got felt in Dubai last Spring. I think it’s all frequent flyers aim for convenience, not just Americans.

  4. “The prospect of a government that treats all its citizens as criminal suspects is more terrifying than any terrorist. And even more frightening is a citizenry that can accept the surrender of its freedoms as the price of ‘freedom'”
    ~ Joe Sobran

    I’ve already informed my boss that, if required to travel by air, I may not arrive at my destination, because if TSA wants to feel me up or take naked pictures of me, we’re going to have a long and serious discussion about the fourth amendment.

  5. Please reconsider, and do file multiple complaints. The TSA is under pressure from Congress now and is forced to report passenger complaint numbers. You should also write letters to your Congressional representatives, your airlines, the ACLU and EPIC. These bullies have no right to subject any innocent traveler to physical and psychological abuse. Your words have enormous power, so please do complain early and often about how the TSA victimizes all of us. I have been writing my letters, but we need to pull together to fight for our rights. My body is my own, and I won’t let these goons fondle me, so I am taking the train until we can stop the TSA!

  6. Thank you for trying to understand the horror that a rape survivor would feel in the same situation of being dominated and over-powered by another. The feeling of total helplessness you felt at the time of your pat-down is almost as bad as the emotions a person feels while being raped. I am one of those survivors, and just reading your story made me cringe in fear and loathing. I know that I would never be able to endure that treatment without ending up in jail for severely maiming the person doing the touching, so unfortunately, I can no longer fly.

    My children and grandchildren live over 2,200 miles from me, and in order to see them I will have to drive for about five days in each direction, thereby being away from my own home and responsibilities for a total of three weeks. On the other hand, a flight is only four hours, so I would only be gone for a week.

    I don’t know how closely you’ve been following all of this TSA and DHS nonsense, but DHS is strip-searching people crossing the borders, and TSA is expanding to cover ALL forms of mass transit, plus shopping malls and even schools. We soon won’t be able to escape their molestation or porno scanners.

    I am also a member of Boycott Flying. If you were to join us, it won’t mean that you have to stop flying. We have several members who have to fly as a condition of their employment. What you would get from joining is more knowledge about the possible purpose behind all of these machines and tactics.

  7. I had cancer last year, ended up going to Houston TX from Virginia every three months. Once this unconstitutional police state BS started getting worse as it has now I stopped flying. I will NEVER fly again for any reason. The ONLY way to stop this naziism(sp) is to NOT fly. The gentleman who compares this to pants is rather silly. This will only get worse as time goes by, the next thing is going to be cavity searches. There is absolutely nothing to stop them from doing anything they want as long as so called Americans comply. If you continue to fly complaining to the TSA will do nothing. The airlines have to have a financial reason to make this stop. There obviously are some people who have to fly for work or whatever, I would suggest they ALL opt out of the scanners and make the airport a mess, it will be inconvenient and it will cause financial problems for the airlines. Our govt is not going to fix this because they are the problem not the solution. This ALL comes from the govt wanting to see how far we will bend over to their BS. I for one will not.

  8. Good God. I’m so sorry you had to go through that, Jess. Thanks for speaking up — it takes a lot of courage (which, of course, it something I’ve never known you to have in short supply).

  9. Thank you to everyone who commented here and on Twitter. I will be filing a complaint with the ACLU here:

    EPIC here:

    And with my three Congresswomen: Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer, and Representative Anna Eschoo.

    If you’ve experienced something like I wrote about above (trigger warning still holds!), please consider submitting your story as well.

    PS: I how lucky am I to have 3 congress*women*?

  10. I am sorry you had this experience. I had a similarly ugly experience the last time I flew through Frankfurt Germany. It was humiliating, embarrassing, and caused me to avoid flying through that airport again. I also stopped wearing skirts to travel. That a stranger has the right to stick her hand up your skirt is unconscionable. I am proud of you for speaking out even though it is very painful to read about someone treating my beloved daughter with such indignity. Love you! – Mom

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