The first person I interviewed for this story—days before I knew I would write it, because I felt ashamed—was my husband. Who else could I ask about my private parts being probed by a stranger?
If it had happened on the street, I would have known what it was and called the police. But it was done by a Transportation Security Administration officer. It was a sexual assault. But I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time.
“You got felt up,” said my husband, bluntly. “Sue.”
But you usually can’t sue the TSA for airport screening abuses (though an appeals court ruled in August that you can in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania). In practical terms, TSA officers can act with impunity, especially when it comes to travelers who are ignorant of their rights, like me.
It was only when I got into my car, four hours later, that I sobbed and sobbed.
Here’s what happened (people with a trauma history may not wish to read this description).
On the morning of October 23, I was returning to my home in New York from Florida, where I had been covering the conference of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence. It had been well organized, fun, full of information, and a chance to meet up with people I usually only talk to on the phone.
It was right after I went through the scanner at Orlando International Airport, which did not set off any alarms—at least not that I could hear. I got randomly (I assumed) pulled over.
The officer first showed me a picture of a body with a lot of yellow highlights on it. She said nothing, didn’t explain it, just pointed to it.
Then she spoke the only words she uttered during this ordeal; she asked me if I was injured anyplace, because she didn’t “want to hurt me more.” I was not injured, and had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, but I assumed she would somehow search me.
She first used her hands—all 10 fingers—in my crotch, spreading my genitals and wiggling her fingers around for quite a long time. She didn’t seem to be looking for anything.
Then she did the same thing to my buttocks, spreading them with her fingertips, then digging as deep as she could with all of them. Then she ran her hands quickly and hard up the inside of each thigh, ending each time with a kind of karate chop in my crotch.
Finally, she squeezed both of my breasts from behind, using the palms of both hands, for quite a long time. Again, she didn’t seem to be looking for anything.
She didn’t touch any other parts of my body during this “pat-down.” Just writing this has sent my heart-rate soaring.
At one point during this ordeal I looked over at the crowd staring at me a few feet away on the other side of the scanner. It added humiliation to the personal violation. I could see in their faces the understandable look of, “Thank God this isn’t happening to me.” But they stood there like sheep. So did I. That might have been the worst part of it—the acceptance that this was normal.
No one asked if I was okay afterwards. We all just walked like sheep to the train that was to take us to the gate. It was only when I got into my car, four hours later in New York, that I sobbed and sobbed.
I would be home for less than 12 hours before I needed to leave for another trip to Boston, so I had little time to discuss this with my husband, and was too traumatized to even think of looking at the TSA website.
If I had, I would have seen clearly that I had been mistreated. While she was doing this to me, there were other agents milling around, though she didn’t seem to have any supervisors. I thought it was allowed. It isn’t.
When I got home I took a shower and found I could not touch myself where she had touched me, to dry myself.
At first I minimized it, because after all, it was not a “real” assault.
It has now been a week and I still feel as if parts of my body have been made radioactive. Yet I feel psychologically and emotionally fine. I know what happened was wrong, rationally, and I know now that my symptoms are normal.
I have never previously been assaulted or had a sexual trauma. At first I minimized it, because after all, it was not a “real” assault. Nor was it anything like what an agency such as ICE does to vulnerable people, taking children away from their parents.
In my research I have learned that people who have trauma histories are much more damaged by TSA pat-downs than other people. So I felt silly to complain.
A few days ago, I spoke with Elizabeth Brico, the journalist who has written for Filter about her own history of sexual trauma. “I cannot imagine what was going through this agent’s mind,” she said, “but try to remember it was about that individual’s sick psychology and not you.”
When I broached my experience on Twitter, describing it briefly but minimizing it, Brico publicly validated my feelings by tweeting, “Trauma is trauma.” Later, she told me that if the brain registers something as trauma, then that is what you experience. “It doesn’t matter what other people think in terms of the relative severity.” Research on the subject supports this.
I’m grateful to Brico, and also to Lelena Peacock, an advocate for pain patients, who encouraged me to write this story as a way of trying to prevent this from happening to anyone else.
“TSA agents have unassailable power in the moment,” said Brico. “Sure, you can file a complaint later, but in that moment you have a flight to catch, you’re worried about being detained and missing your flight, or worse. If you fight back, you could be arrested and/or put on a no-fly list. It’s ridiculous how much power they wield, and to abuse that power in this way is not only a horrible transgression against your person, but also a violation of the public trust. So thank you for speaking out, for all of us.”
With their encouragement, I filed an official complaint with the TSA on October 28 (some identifying details are redacted):
What is your complaint about? Other
Other: abusive pat-down sexual assault
Where did this happen? FLORIDA – MCO – Orlando International
Date: Wed, 2019-10-23
Please provide a description of the issue: I was pulled aside after the scanner. The agent showed me a picture of of a body with yellow shading, asked if I was injured anywhere because she didn’t “want to hurt me more.” I didn’t know what was happening.
She took her fingers and probed my crotch, spread my private parts with her fingers, moved all 10 fingers around in there for some time. Then she did the same thing to my buttocks, spreading them and feeling as deep as she could. Then she ran her hands up the inside of each thigh ending with a karate chop in my crotch.
Then she squeezed both breasts from behind. She didn’t do anything else. It was just sexual. She never said anything after her first question.
List any witnesses: It was in front of everyone waiting in line at the scanner.
While researching this article, I connected with many people—sources, other people who had been to the conference, friends, colleagues—who have had pat-downs, including focusing on the groin area.
“That happened to me,” they said at first—until they heard my whole story. Their experiences were not like mine. They weren’t pleasant, but they involved the back of the hands only, and the officer said what they were going to do first.
Introducing myself as a journalist, I asked Sari Koshetz, the TSA press officer for Florida (and some other states) about what a pat-down should consist of. Most of the information is also available on the TSA website. Here is what she sent me:
Here is some information on pat-downs that you could use in your reporting. Also, here is a link to a YouTube video on pat-downs: https://youtu.be/0Q_903kS6BQ. The video shows a lot of pat-downs and explains the procedures and what passengers can expect.
Below is a good written summary of what passengers can expect regarding pat-down screening:
* Our officers will explain the procedures to you as they conduct the pat-down.
* A pat-down may include inspection of the head, neck, arms, hand, back, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks. You may be required to adjust clothing during the pat-down.
* Pat-downs require sufficient pressure to ensure detection.
* Our officers use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body. In limited cases, additional screening involving a sensitive area pat-down with the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist.
* You should advise the officer if you have difficulty raising your arms or remaining in the position required; an external medical device; or areas of the body that are painful when touched.
* You may request a chair to sit if needed.
* You will receive a pat-down by an officer of the same gender.
* At any time during the process, you may request private screening accompanied by a companion of your choice.
The officer in Orlando didn’t explain any procedures. She didn’t touch any body part except for crotch, buttocks, inner thighs and breasts. She didn’t use the back of her hands at all, rather the front of her hands—supposedly restricted to “additional screening” for “limited cases.” I was not offered a private screening with a companion, nor did I know that this option existed.
Here is the response to my personal complaint that I received from the TSA Contact Center on October 29:
Thank you for contacting the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Contact Center.
We understand patdowns may be uncomfortable; however, they help us detect hidden and dangerous items, such as explosives. Patdowns are used to resolve alarms and as part of our random screening activities. We believe these security measures are necessary and appropriate for ensuring the security and confidence of all air travelers.
TSA Officers must apply sufficient pressure in order to ensure detection of any prohibited items. The officer will describe the patdown procedure, which may include inspection of your head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and buttocks. Officers use the back of the hands for patdowns on sensitive areas of the body. In limited cases, however, additional screening involving a sensitive area patdown with the front of the hand may be required to determine a threat does not exist. You may also be required to adjust articles of clothing during the patdown.
We understand and regret the discomfort and inconvenience you experienced as a result of the patdown. If you have concerns about your screening experience during future travel, please ask to speak with a supervisor at the checkpoint.
For more information on our screening procedures, please visit www.tsa.gov.
And here’s the TSA statement in response to Filter’s questions about my pat-down: “TSA’s security screening procedures are in place to ensure that prohibited and dangerous items that pose a threat to security are not allowed onboard an aircraft. A traveler may be required to undergo additional screening including pat-down if the screening technology alarms during the screening process. TSA officers are required to follow established protocols when conducting pat-downs to ensure the safety and security of the traveling public.”
As for the body areas highlighted by my scan, which were not explained to me, TSA officers should “resolve each of the areas that were highlighted in the yellow boxes on the screen that you noted.”
Despite what we might assume, drugs are apparently not a concern to the TSA.
“TSA officers are not looking for drugs,” Koshetz told Filter in an email. “We are looking for threats to the aviation system, threats that could bring harm to fellow passengers as well as catastrophic damage to the aircraft.”
Nobody could argue with that in principle.
I asked Koshetz how many safety threats have been averted by pat-downs. I also asked whether I had the right to refuse the pat-down. At publication time, she had not responded to these questions.
I won’t describe how the stonewalling TSA responses to my complaints and questions may have compounded the trauma; I just can’t process it right now.
I’m left wondering whether it would have helped if I had told the agent to “use the back of your hands” when she did this? Or would she have just done something worse? Maybe arrest me, as Brico suggested—or at least cause me to miss my flight when all I wanted to do was get out of that airport as fast as I could.
“I’ve been patted down a few times and never had anything close to that,” Randy Lamartiniere, MD, a Louisiana-based internal medicine physician, told Filter when I sought a medical perspective. “Squeezing would not be appropriate,” he said. “That type of exam would be inappropriate for either sex, and I would think that men and women would both object to it. Your comments should be taken seriously.”
He also expressed concern about others who might be impacted by this officer. “Maybe she gets off doing that,” he said. “She may be doing it to a lot of people. They don’t train them to do that. You bringing it up may stop this from happening.”
Lamartiniere is no stranger to government invasions; his license has been suspended by the Drug Enforcement Administration for prescribing opioids “inappropriately.” He had prescribed extra medication to make sure that pain patients who might be cut off had enough. The feds “require doctors to treat pain patients like criminals,” he said, noting the presumption of guilt applied to both pain patients and air travelers.
Ironically, the week this happened to me was the final week of the comment period for huge changes proposed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to 42 CFR Part 2, a regulation that protects patient privacy. This was also a big topic at AATOD.
H. Westley Clark, MD, JD, Dean’s Executive Professor at Santa Clara University and the former director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment is an advocate against this change. “In the name of security, we are asked to tolerate an erosion of personal privacy,” he told Filter.
As a psychiatrist and lawyer, Clark also commented on my experience when I asked him to. “You don’t have to have a trauma history to experience trauma,” he noted. “Your experience, particularly if you were unprepared for it and that it was outside of your normal experience, would be traumatizing as you describe it.”
“The search is the price that you have to pay if you want to fly,” he added. “When someone pokes and prods your body, including areas recognized by society as private, you certainly could experience it as a sexual assault. That it was done in plain view of others may only make it worse. Therefore, your privacy appears to have been violated. The question is, was that justifiable, given your implied consent by entering the line at the airport? Since your experience was done under the color of law, i.e, necessitated by Congress in order to protect the public, the next question is, could it have been done in a less intrusive or less embarrassing manner? Your description of it indicates, yes.”
So can this officer just continue sexually assaulting people with impunity?
However, the bottom line is that we sacrifice some of our rights to fly.
Clark noted that there should be a TSA video record of the incident. But when I requested this from Koshetz, she simply sent me a link to the generic video about pat-downs from the TSA website.
After my search, the screeners also put my purse through the scanner on the belt a few times, because they said the coins in my wallet were hiding things. Before they started rooting through it, I remembered with horror that I had my “Stop Stigma Now” button from AATOD in there, with a pin—ludicrously, that is what I was worried about at that moment.
I warned the officers that it was there, and the two women said, “Oh don’t worry about it, it’s okay,” before examining my little jar of hand cream very closely.
I won’t describe how the stonewalling TSA responses to my complaints and questions may have compounded the trauma I experienced, because I just can’t process it right now.
But my whole point in writing this story was to get things changed. That doesn’t look likely.
So can this officer just continue sexually assaulting people with impunity?
TSA body scan image via Wikimedia Commons.