Monday, November 22, 2010

Sex and the TSA Scanner

I flew to meetings last week and went through the new TSA machine.

I wasn't particularly bothered that an image of my body would flash on a screen for a minute or two. I have to admit that I have a minor fear of flying, and I generally feel that if the government or the airline wants information for my security, I'm happy for us all to oblige.

But, I did wonder what training the TSA agents have received. Are they comfortable seeing these images? Have they been trained to do the new pat down so they aren't actually handling people's genitals? What are they expected to do when people's body piercings show up on the screen? How will the new pat down affect someone with a history of sexual abuse or assault?

And what about people of transgender experience? A transwoman walking through the new scanner may show up with a penis; likewise a transman may not have a penis. What about people with artificial or enhanced body parts? Is this covered in the new TSA operating manual? I'm guessing not.

So although I'm okay walking through these new machines, I am concerned that the sexuality issues they raise haven't received enough attention. Maybe it's time to write a letter to the head of TSA and ask.

What do you think?


Margaret Sequeira said...

I have to say I am extremely upset about the screening guidelines - not so much the scanner as the pat-downs. As I sit here typing this the thought of some TSA agent patting-down my 11 year old daughter makes me furious and in no way would I give my consent. Yet if I don't give consent than she can't fly. I don't want some stranger touching me either. I know I would feel violated and I am not someone who has experienced abuse or assault. I just don't want strangers feeling they have the right to touch my body in the name of safety. I think the more we give away our power to the government in the name of "keeping us safe" the less safe we all are.

I don't think they are thinking at all about those who have experienced abuse or assault and are thinking even less about those who do not conform to the gender binary.

John-Manuel Andriote said...

I think you are correct that we need a policy for airport screening that balances the airlines' need to know (whether a passenger is carrying something dangerous) and passengers' expectation that modesty and bodily privacy are respected and accommodated.

This issue has raised unsettling questions: Is it acceptable to violate a religiously observant Muslim woman's modesty by requiring her to disrobe? Or a Catholic nun in full habit? Will she at least have the respect of being searched by a female TSA agent?

What about prurient TSA agents who might enjoy the free reign to touch strangers in private areas, or to humiliate them?

Another complex challenge the new procedures raises is this: We Americans have a difficult time thinking about "the body" and even genitals in anything but sexual terms. We would need a cultural shift in how we view the body before Americans would be more comfortable with pat downs and full-body scans.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I suggest you read some more before you get too comfortable with the whole TSA screening process...

Today in TSA Traveler Abuse

Anonymous said...

I just raised some of these same questions and concerns at my blog.

I would say it is definitely time to ask and inform those involved about the potential for harm!

Christine Robinson said...


You have missed repeated assurances (and 9 years of experience with TSA) that women agents work with women passengers and men with men, whether the passengers are nuns, Muslims, or ordinary women. TSA agents, in my experience as a frequent flyer over nine years, have 100% been respectful, unfailingly patient, and carefully trained. Naturally, there have been a few bad apples over the years, but supervisors are front and center, employees wear badges, and complaints can be instantly lodged.

Nicholas Barnard said...

One of the things I find quite odd about the TSA's policy's of men searching men, and women searching women is the implicit hetrosexism of it all.

I'm a gay man, the pat down that would have the least potential of being taken as sexual would be one performed by a woman. Alternately, a gay male TSA agent, while of course performing their responsibilities professionally, is in a position of potential sexual arousal.

One wonders which gender of TSA would be appropriate to pat down a bisexual person or an asexual person?

Volly said...

What I anticipate is this: Young folks with a lack of experience in "the ways of the world," who think people are supposed to look a certain way, will get some lessons in reality after looking at thousands upon thousands of images of everyday travelers passing through the scanners. Quite a contract, wouldn't you say, from the homogeneous depictions of rail-thin, doe-eyed women in the magazines? And that's to say nothing of trans individuals. I can only hope it will gradually usher in a new era of tolerance and understanding.

Volly aka Pollyanna