You’ve probably learned by now that in order to fly in this country, you will be forced to choose between having your naked body x-rayed, with all the health concerns and privacy issues that raises, or having your genitals groped in public by a stranger.
You may have seen the video of a three-year-old girl being subjected to an “enhanced patdown” while she cried and begged the TSA agent to stop.
Sadly, Erin of Our Little Chatterboxes found out firsthand what kind of abuses can take place when a government agency has the power to invade your body like this. She was sexually assaulted by a TSA agent while traveling alone with her young baby.
Erin writes a grounded, moving account of her assault, in which a TSA agent touched her breasts and genitals without her consent. That’s what sexual assault is: someone touching you sexually without your consent.
I’m grateful to Erin for having the presence of mind and strength of will to not only blog about this publically, but to have immediately involved the TSA management and the police.
Of course, not everyone believes Erin was assaulted. I haven’t seen anyone question the veracity of her story, but in posts like this powerful one on BlogHer, by writer Sarah Oriel, the case is being made that this isn’t sexual assault, just bad government. Sarah is an assault survivor, as am I. She says that while what the TSA is doing is terrible, it’s not sexual assault. That sentiment echoes my own initial reaction to the phrase “birth rape”. It’s a violation and a crime, but not rape, I said.
Sarah feels that calling the TSA searches sexual assaults belittles and demeans the experiences of those of us who’ve survived violent sexual crimes. I’m not interested in playing misery poker. Trauma is trauma.
I’ve apologized on my own blog for my hasty dismissal of the term “birth rape”. Clearly, for some women, it’s the most appropriate term to describe the violation they experienced giving birth. More importantly, there’s nothing to be gained by arguing over what counts as “real sexual assault”, either for women’s safety on a broad social scale or for individuals in conversation. I’m not about to tell any woman who feels traumatized by an unwanted touch that her trauma was somehow less “real” than mine. As I said at the time:
Ultimately, it turns out I am not equipped to argue with someone saying she was raped. Pretty much ever. Not only does that devalue the perspective of the woman speaking about her experience, it’s a pointless and divisive exercise. Every single woman who speaks up about violence done to her body has to fight against a widely held cultural belief that women are liars, and are especially prone to lying about being victims of violence. As if.
Being assaulted by strangers intent on non-consensual sex is a very different experience from being subject to an unwanted medical procedure or an invasive, poorly communicated search process. But there are important similarities, and they may matter more than the differences. Reading Erin’s account of her assault by the TSA officer brought back chilling memories of the morning after my own assault, shaking violently in the shower till the water ran cold.
The argument that the TSA groping passengers or doctors violating patients isn’t sexual assault rests on ideas about the intentions of the assailant.That for a sexual assault to be a sex crime, the attacker has to be motivated by a desire to harm their victim, or at least to have sex with the victim without regard for consent.
To quote Sarah:
The common denominator? Motivation. Intent. And that is what is lacking in these situations with the TSA. What someone who is truly sexually assaulting you is intending and or trying to accomplish and what the TSA agents are doing, are not even in the same ballpark.
One assumes that in most cases, the TSA agents are acting without malice, or sexual intent. They don’t want to have sex with you. They probably don’t even want to hurt you. They’re just doing their jobs. Ditto obstetricians who force vaginal exams or other medical procedures on unwilling patients.
Rape isn’t really about sex, though. It’s not even about malice. It’s about abuse of power.
I’ve been assaulted by strangers who clearly intended to harm me, and by a date who didn’t understand what he’d done wrong. Malicious intent isn’t a prerequisite for trauma: assaults can occur when people are simply careless & self-involved to the point where they don’t care that the person they’re touching does not want to be touched.
The TSA is abusing their power by directing their agents to touch air travelers in totally invasive ways. Shakesville’s Mellissa makes a clear case for the abuse of power going on here:
Asking people who aren’t terrorists to submit themselves to invasive (and unproven) security procedures to prove they aren’t terrorists doesn’t make them “partners” in combating terrorism. It just makes them victims of an unfettered police state where the appearance of “doing something” is more important than the actual efficacy of what you’re doing.
The fact that this mom wasn’t warned about what might happen to her, and therefore not given the chance to consent or refuse, makes it an assault. Whether that happened because of malice or simple incompetence doesn’t really matter.
It’s not a safe situation to say no, in either. People refusing these invasive searches have also been arrested, threatened with lawsuits, and one case handcuffed to a chair and not allowed to leave the airport. This is a huge systemic problem, not just one bad employee.
I hope that Erin gets the justice she’s seeking, and that her bravery speaking out about this practice will help bring a swift end to it. We can’t allow her experience to become a run-of-the-mill nuisance, on par with long lines at the DMV. It’s a violation of one’s privacy and one’s body to be touched sexually without consent.