Why I like being groped by the TSA

Gee, I don’t know…do you think it’s invasive? (and are those her shin bones that I see???!)

Erik and I fly very rarely, preferring Amtrak to the Theater of the Absurd otherwise known as TSA security. This week, though, I had to fly, and for the first time I couldn’t opt for the metal detector, so I requested the grope both on the way out and on the way home. I am here to say it wasn’t bad at all. In fact, I kind of liked it, and I’m opting for the grope from here on out.

Why do I object to the scanners? It’s just wrong. The whole thing. For so many reasons. I figure you’ve got your opinion on them already, so I’m not going to belabor my reasons. I’m not here to change your mind, just to offer an alternative.

Why do I like the grope? Ah. Now that’s more interesting. I’ve been thinking about my groping a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it was perfectly logical for me to opt for the groping, considering my other lifestyle choices. It’s organic, if you will. Sustainable and locally sourced security!  But seriously, when you choose to lead a more considered life, one closer to the ground, you often trade speed and convenience for what I can only call authenticity of experience. Sometimes that authenticity is messy or frustrating or slow, but it’s solid and tactile and often unforgettable. When you’re in it, you know you’re alive. It’s the difference between struggling to light a fire in the wind and watching one of those survivor shows. It’s the difference from picking up take-out chicken for dinner and holding a hen in your arms as she dies.

Human touch is always charged. Always important. During my first pat down, I stood there, arms outstretched, thinking about how the TSA officer’s energy and mine were combined at that moment. I wondered what secret communications were passing between our bodies–communications which would never rise to the level of the conscious. TSA Lady and I were in relationship. Human to human. And it’s hard to articulate this, but that seemed important. It brought meaning my day, meaning and interest which I’d not have experienced otherwise.

I walked away from the grope smiling, skin still tingling a little from contact. I’d escaped the dehumanizing scanner technology and found a more meaningful, low-tech way to pass through airport security and I’d had an experience I could chew on for a while. I was satisfied. In the halls of Security Theater, you take what you can get.

The second search on the way home was almost identical to the first, equally positive. An odd moment of interest or intensity in an otherwise routine airport experience.

Though more than a week has passed since my last trip through security, I still remember both of the TSA officers who conducted my pat downs: their faces, their bored but professional voices and the gentle touch of their blue-gloved hands.

Of course, if the body search is done against your will or disrespectfully, it’s going to be a really bad experience. And there’s no denying that people have had plenty of bad experiences with the TSA since the Theater came to town. Perhaps next time I fly, I’ll draw a mean spirited TSA officer and change my tune. But until then, I’m going to go to the airport a half hour earlier than I would otherwise, with my heart full of serenity, and I’m going to say, all bright and cheerful, “I’d like to opt for alternate screening, please.”

After the break, a description of the pat-down, for those of you who might want to give it a try:

I think it benefits the TSA when we are terrified of the pat down. “Alternate Screenings” take time and personnel. They want you to just give up and walk through the scanner. Media reports help them by sensationalizing bad security encounters. Don’t let any of that put you off. If you’re cooperative and they’re following their own guidelines, it’s going to go smooth.

In terms of procedure, this is how you get yourself groped:

You take off your belt and shoes and coat send all your stuff through the x-ray as usual, but at the point  you stop and say to whichever officer is closest that you’d prefer “alternate screening.”

At this point they’ll call for an “assist” from an employee who matches your gender. You stand to the side until this person can be produced. Both times I waited only a minute.

The screener arrives and asks you to point out your belongings on the conveyer belt, and they pick them up. You don’t handle any of your stuff until the screening is over–they’re touchy about this–but they take it to the screening area with you so you can keep an eye on it while you’re being patted down.

So you pad over to the side of the screening area in your stocking feet, following the agent who has all your precious goods. I believe you can opt for a private room if you like–I was offered that option the second time–but there’s no way I’d ever opt for that. Transparency is a good thing.

Next there’s some highly-scripted patter at that point in which they ask if you have any painful areas or medical devices, and tell you how and where they’re going to touch your “sensitive areas.” Being a perpetual adolescent, terminology like “sensitive areas” makes me snigger, and I had to bite my cheek in order to remain suitably sober and cooperative looking.

The search itself is far from a “drop ’em and spread ’em” kind of experience. I’ve been more aggressively searched on my way into concerts.

The screeners ran their hands up and down my legs and torso and made elegant sweeping gestures around my breasts, knuckles down–I guess to ascertain that I didn’t have a Glock tucked in my bra. They certainly wouldn’t have found anything smaller than a Glock. My “sensitive areas” were not unduly handled. They did run a finger around my waist band, but there was no exploration of my crotch. I’m not sure if gentlemen get more of a crotch grope or not.

After the search, they scan their gloves for traces of explosive dust or PCP or Leprechaun blood or whatever, then you’re free to go.

The whole search takes about five minutes. You do have to allow time to get a screener assigned to you at the start. As I said, that only took a minute for me, but during holidays you’d want to count on more of a wait.

Both times I was searched, only one other person was also opting for the grope. (Commrades!) It’s not a popular decision, to say the least.  But I think it’s a good one.

ETA: It’s occurred to me to mention dress. You can choose your wardrobe to make this go more smoothly. Ladies–if you have a choice, I wouldn’t opt for a skirt.  Or as one of the commenters said, her overall-clad boyfriend got a serious crotch grab. Baggy is suspicious to them. Form fitting clothes are best. I wore narrow jeans and a tank top, figuring the less excuse they had to go delving, the better.

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  1. How I learned to love the… grope?

    Well, if you get scanned, you might still also get groped, so I guess if you opt for the grope, you only get it one way instead of both.

    I’m ticklish. If I ever have to break my boycott and fly, or if they bring scan/grope to a street corner near me, I hope they’re ready to hear a ticklish “EEEEEEEEEEEE” or “GAAAAAAAAWK”. I hope I don’t haul off and hit them out of reflex.

  2. I know when I fly I will chose to be grouped too. That sounds weird huh? Choosing to be grouped. What a weird world we live in now. Why? Because I believe we should limit our exposure to radiation as much as possible. TSA people who are exposed to the scanners often have higher levels of cancer

    Also the images captured from the scanners can be inverted and show your naked body in full. Not cool, I’d rather play it safe.

  3. Very, very interesting. I prefer not to fly, but should I have to anytime soon I will keep your thoughts in mind. Your described experience really does seem preferable to the body scanner for a variety of reasons that I too will not go it to. Still, I’ll just try to keep skipping that whole ball of wax and just take the train/bus.

  4. You’re lucky it only took a minute to get an agent to help you, all the times I’ve asked for a patdown it’s taken them a minumim of 10-15 minutes to get someone which made me from being comfortably on time to my flight to being the last person to run on board the plane. It’s probably just coincidence that this happens, but I could see how it might change someone’s mind about whisking through the scanner next time. Or in my case, get to the airport *extra* early. 😛 The patdown itself is pretty harmless and not invasive or humiliating at all. Since I have really long hair they also pass my ponytail their their hands. I think my bf might’ve had a rougher experience around his sensitive areas, but he was kinda setting himself up for it by wearing pretty baggy overalls (he farms).

  5. I have found that if you wear skirts while travelling, you will always get the patdown, in addition to the x-ray, so you might as well opt for it from the beginning. If the x-ray machine can’t see through a skirt, wtf is the point of it anyway?

    I was travelling with a friend who has breast augmentation a couple of weeks ago, and it registered on the x-ray machine as a “frontal torso anomaly”. We’re still sniggering about that one like junior high kids.

  6. If they offered me a chance to walk through the metal detector nude, I’d take it. My children would die of embarassment, but I want the Lady Godiva moment.

  7. Wow my TSA patdown was nothing like yours. I was not told anything about where the woman would be touching me next and suddenly she shoved her hands up under my bra through my shirt in front and in back causing my breasts to fall out in front of thousands of holiday travelers. she then reached into my pants to feel inside the top band of my underpants.

    I was pretty shocked and was given no where private to go to put my breasts back into my bra and had to do it there in front of everyone.

    Now at LAX I try hard to get in the metal detector lines. I dont know what I would do if I had to opt for taking nude photos or having that kind of patdown again.

    I’d rather just take Amtrak. Although last time I took amtrak a policeman started touching my bags without asking my consent to “see if they were warm” Bizarre.

    • Omg, that is really unbelievable!! The patdowns I’ve gotten have been nothing more than just courteous (almost anemic? I could tell the agents weren’t too keen on doing it either – they were very gentle and brisk, no hands went up under clothes or down anywhere! They described everything they were about to do also, nothing was unexpected). I really hope you complained because that is really unacceptable. This was at LAX? that’s where I always get patdowns and they were nothing remotely close to what you went through.

  8. Oh, no! I won’t have a crotch exploration? Maybe I will insist on that…lol. Or,I could say, “This is going to be good. It’s been so long” and freak out the groper.

    I have a friend who would insist on a male groper. She wishes mammograms were conducted by men because she does not like women touching her body because it would be natural for a man to touch her. She would opt for the xray.Organic or natural is never her choice at all.

    Yes, I am going to insist on crotch exploration.

  9. @Lyssa: Ah! You remind me that I should have added that the way you dress is important. I was fine with them running their hands up my pant legs–I would have had more trouble with them feeling up under my skirt. Ew.

    And the scanner doesn’t work w. skirts? what the hell??

    @Anonymous: That’s horrible. I’m so sorry. And I don’t think that screener was following their rules, because they are only supposed to touch your breasts with the backs of their hands. If they’d been doing so, they wouldn’t have been able to dislodge your breasts like that.

  10. Interesting how many of the commenters here mention they avoid air travel–as Erik and I do. I know we’re a self-selecting crowd, here, but I wonder how many of our readers avoid flying for health and/or civil libertarian reasons and how many people at large avoid flying for the same reasons.

  11. Would you go by boat if you had to fly overseas? Because I am a mama of two little ones we usually get taken to the side. I carry the littlest one in a back pack style soft carrier and the toddler walks. They usually pat me down then ask to have the baby taken out of the carrier and they give her a light pat to see that I’m not hiding firearms in her cloth diapers! After that they scan my hands not sure what that is for. Then we are on our way. They don’t touch the toddler.

    • No, we fly when we have no other choice. We’ve talked about it would be fun to go overseas in a ship. Seems you can buy a really bare-bones berth on some shipping lines. Lots of time for reading crusty old Greek philosophers…

  12. I travel with a toddler (in a pull behind car seat), a dog in front in a carry on bag in a dog stroller – they INSIST I get the pat down – we all get the pat down. The dog cannot be x-rayed or “scanned” – he gets embarrassed. 🙂 It’s a total hassle when I do have to fly alone though. I know its going to take hours for us to get anywhere so I figure, why not get the pat down at the rate we go….we leave excessively early.

  13. I got groped the last time we flew, but then, I ALWAYS get searched. It doesn’t matter the circumstance. I do think I must be on some list marked terrorist or something. Of course, I had to make the lady who searched me laughed while I asked her all kinds of questions about her all-day groping.

    And I hate to say this, but I do think there is a racial profiling thing going on, as I always get searched, but my white partner never does.

  14. A credit to you, Mrs. Homegrown, for your courage!

    I never particularly liked flying, so I did it when there was no other way to get somewhere. I’m terribly nervous and panicky, especially with turbulence. I thought I might get better with experience, but each time I flew it was worse than the time before.

    Back in the 90’s it was (almost) enjoyable to go somewhere on a plane, but since it was determined that We’re All Terrorists, I’ve decided to stay put. I realize I’m missing out on a lot, but between my nervousness and my struggle to prevent snarky comments from coming out of my mouth when faced with badly-behaving people in authority, I’m probably safest staying out of the system.

  15. My husband and I always opt for groping. The proceedures as well as the disclosure has improved in our experience over the past few years. Travel for work, I don’t like it but it’s money for us, so we go. Our doctor said if there is no way in this world you should go near those scanners, they are not calibrated like in a hospital, nor regulated like the medical device they should be regulated as.

    Last time I was groped I joked to the woman she should be a massage therapist. She laughed, it was good. Wear pants if you’re a woman, stuff that is easy for them to feel through.

  16. Agree that transparency is a good thing. When they patted down my then-9-month-old and wiped her down for explosive residue, they had offered to do it in private, which I declined. I’ll just stay here with all these witnesses, thanks. They were professional and warmed slightly when they saw that I didn’t want to make their lives harder. Sometimes you get someone who is on a power trip (all the more reason to avoid the dehumanizing scanner), but mostly just people for whom this a job and they really just want to get through this shift without incident or having their authority challenged (in the same way that new daycare workers are often terrified of kids).

  17. Your article almost sounds like a TSA advertisement for groping. I used to air travel every month and have cut my travel down to a couple times a year, if that.

    First, TSA has no powers what so ever and the people working for TSA barely have high school educations. The government outfits them now in “official” looking clothing giving them some sort of status, yet they cannot even make arrests. Its a sham from the outset.

    On a flight out of LAX we opted for the pat down/groping procedure. My wife knew about the scanners and didnt want them. What she went through was horrific. A woman fingered my wifes labia all over. This wasnt an “elegant gestures around my breasts” situation at all. My wife was pissed off to say the least. Wouldnt you be? They immediately surrounded her and started going through all of her bags as if she was in the wrong. We filed a complaint which has gone unanswered to date.

    Here is my beef… There are far less invasive means of dealing with passengers. The point of the TSA groping is to make you submit. If you can submit to this, they will continue to increase the groping. When will you say enough is enough? Seriously. Will an anal exam be elegant for you as well? Its funny to read this I know, but 20 years ago we all would have never fathomed vaginal touching in any way shape or form.

    Once on a Delta flight I was rerouted to an Israeli El Al flight back to LA (from Toronto). Here is how it went… I was sent to a room with 4 other people and questioned about my travels. Then to the next room that had sniffing dogs, then to the next room to check my documents. Then we were escorted to our plane by military personnel. While I would never pick to go on an El Al flight by choice, the procedure I just mentioned took only a couple minutes, absolutely no touching of any kind and offered a far greater sense of security then what a TSA agent could provide.

    I once had a friend working up in the main Seattle airport there as a baggage handler post 911. He told me all that was needed was an ID tag which he had and he could go through any doorway at the airport. He said it would be impossible to stop any “terrorist” if they wanted to do harm. TSA being a superficial entity doing a procedure that did nothing.

    We are being forced to accept something that isnt right.

    Condelezza Rice called SF mayor Willie Brown on Sept 10th telling him not to fly on 911. The media found out about this on the 12th but it has never been covered by the press at all. Why not? Historically, early morning flights from the east coast to west coast are almost always full with business people getting an extra 3 hours of work time, but on september 11th the downed flights only had a 28% capacity.

    None of this stuff ads up anymore. None of it.

    • 1916, I agree with you completely on the absurdity, insidiousness and ineffectiveness of TSA security. This is why I do not fly unless I absolutely have no other choice. This is why I’ve written all my congresspeople on the subject (and received nothing but the lamest replies imaginable).

      I also agree that it seems to be a steady escalation of indignities, for what exact purpose I can’t guess, but certainly to make us accustomed to forms of authoritarian control.

      The difference between us then is perhaps that I find the body scanners even more degrading and humiliating and most of all *dehumanizing* than a pat down. To me, marching through that machine and “assuming the position” is intolerable–past all my boundaries. I will not do it. For that reason, and that reason alone, I prefer the groping.

      It’s a fine distinction–and obviously no matter which we choose we’re being screwed– but as I said, I’d prefer my ritual humiliation to be organic. I’d rather deal with one individual, face to face.

      As I said, I know that the pat downs can easily be made degrading and humiliating. I’ve heard many stories. I’m so sorry your wife had to go through that experience. It was a criminal violation to touch her in that way.

      But even knowing that sort of violation was a real possibility, I still chose the groping, and I will continue to choose the groping, because that’s how I like to take my poison.

      I really hope this post is not taken for a big thumbs up for the TSA. All I wanted to say is that 1) I’d not been mistreated on those two trips and 2) good experiences can be drawn out of bad situations.

  18. Sorry. I may have come off as PO and I totally apologise… This topic hits a nerve. I might be more undeclared if I didnt travel. As someone else above said… we are being treated as guilty first which is MESSED UP. In order to travel I understand we all have to take some position and make a judgement in particular situations to fly. This is a sad state we are in IMO. There are benefits and bright sides to every story. If it wasnt for TSA I may never have taken a leisurely vacation on Amtrak. If it wasnt for GMO and Monsanto I would probably have never considered growing my own crops either.

  19. 2 more things: While trying to avoid flying, we learned it’s actually illegal to use a cruise ship as transportation (we were going to use one to get from one end of the West coast to the other). While attending a sit-n-stitch at the public library last week, THE big topic of discussion among all the senior citizens I was knitting with was tricks of the trade for getting your knitting needles past TSA. Both hilarious and sad.

  20. We recent took a family vacation and drove 3600 miles round trip because I REFUSE to fly and subject myself of my child to the ridiculousness of the TSA. I have seen too many examples of children being patted down by the TSA. I would not let that happen. Driving was a fantastic family adventure!
    Other’s have mentioned opting to travel by Amtrak and buses… I wonder how long it will be until there are TSA at all Amtrak and bus terminals. It has already happened at train station in Charlotte, N.C, and Savannah, GA.
    In my humble opinion none of the craziness that happens at airports in the name of “security” do NOT make us any safer. In fact, the precedent it sets in eroding our freedom is far more dangerous than what it pretends to protect.

  21. @1916: It’s all cool. I understand. And sorry I took so long to reply. We had a crazy week last week.

    @Anonymous: I’m glad you guys had a family adventure taking the slow road–I have many fond memories of long car trips myself, rolling around in the back of the station wagon with my brother and nary a seatbelt in sight! And of course I’ve been driving instead of flying, too. So I don’t mean to be judgmental when I say that I’ve been thinking about how many people are opting to drive instead of fly–and the fact that driving is statistically much more dangerous than flying. That is really not a good thing. TSA policies are discouraging people from using the safest means of long distance travel available.

    Of course it would be impossible to track how many people die in road accidents who might have flown had it not been for the TSA, but if we could…well, it would be sobering. How do you balance actual deaths against hypothetically prevented deaths?

    And oh no! Please god don’t let the TSA take over the train stations. I don’t know what I’d do.

    • @Mrs. Homegrown: Trust me I actually love to fly and know that it is much safer than driving. I will not however subject myself or my family to the TSA.
      As far as the TSA at train stations… it is happening now. They are also being used on the highways to inspect trucks and also subways. In fact, this was discussed on the floor of congress yesterday and today. If I told you a few years ago that TSA would be used on our highways, subways and trains no one would have believed me. Mark my words… before long this will be standard operating procedure. ***Google TSA VIPR TEAMS***
      The only way this will change is if WE THE PEOPLE demand a change!

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