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TSA Sexually Assaults Mom Traveling With Infant

By Sierra Black |

Is the TSA taking things too far with their new searches?

Is the TSA taking things too far with their new searches?

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.

Photo: redjar

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About Sierra Black

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Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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40 thoughts on “TSA Sexually Assaults Mom Traveling With Infant

  1. John Rengold says:

    The problem is not what you think its what is legal
    Unlawful sexual contact
    A person is guilty of unlawful sexual contact if the actor intentionally subjects another person to any sexual contact

    Unlawful Viewing
    Any person who knowingly observes or takes a photograph of another person’s intimate parts without that person’s consent

  2. starrsitter says:

    “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.”

    That. Exactly.

  3. vika says:

    I am as appalled as you, and also disinterested in misery Olympics. If someone doesn’t want to call it sexual assault, let’s call it sexual harrassment; also prosecutable, and I think undeniable.

    One corrective note: the fact that TSA describes what they intend to do to you in no way invites refusal. It assumes consent. I don’t know what happens when consent is explicitly not given; I guess one could always leave the airport and not fly, but even that failed to work for at least one person who proceeded to write about it on the internet. I can’t find the link.

    As a friend said in conversation, the whole thing is just *gross*.

  4. Michele says:

    Technically, Erin DID give her consent when she purchased her plane ticket. Had she read the fine print, she’d know that when she checked the box indicating that she agreed to the terms and conditions of purchase, she was agreeing to abide by and adhere to the TSA’s security measures, whatever they might be.

    I’m really just beyond sick of this entire debate.

  5. JUBBO says:

    Yes each and every ticket does state that your genitals and breasts will be touched because everyone knows that the nipples and outside of the vagina are the most used areas for smuggling contraband and weapons.

  6. Diera says:

    I’m beginning to think the only solution is going to be not to fly for a while. Basically, by buying a ticket and entering the airport, you’re consenting to *whatever* they want to do to you; X-ray you, pat you down, hold you on a plane against your will, whatever. I would really, really hate to do that because I have family members who live in California and it would mean not seeing them, but – how else is one to indicate that these practices cross the line? I always thought taking away my nail clippers and shampoo was stupid, but at least it wasn’t a total invasion of my privacy.

  7. starrsitter says:

    Not flying is all well and good IF that is an option for you. There are so many people who fly for reasons other than pleasure. My husband has to travel for his job, as do many others, and now is certainly not the time to look for a new job. Many people fly for necessary medical treatment at facilities better equipped to handle their medical needs. People die in places other than where their family lives. The list goes on.

    Boarding a plane is not reasonable grounds for an invasive search. We are treating everyone who flies through this country worse than we treat criminals. People who defend this on the technicality of your purchase being implicit consent are totally missing the point.

  8. Diera says:

    @Starsitter – I totally agree with you, and I’m not trying to shift the blame to those who still fly. I’m just not sure what else to do. I don’t really want to cut out even my discretionary flying, and I understand many aren’t doing it for truly elective reasons, but since our representatives in the government seem committed to allowing ANY level of nonsense as long as they can claim it makes us .0002% safer, the only way to vote with our feet and dollars is to stay at home or drive as much as we can.

  9. starrsitter says:

    I didn’t think of what you were saying as blaming. That first sentence is in a totally neutral tone, really. For me, for the most part, it IS an option. I can drive to most of my family if, heaven forbid, anything happens. I live in the epicenter of three (drive-able)cities with great medical centers (and our smallish city doesn’t totally drop the ball).

    My greatest concern is that we continue to allow our liberty and dignity to be diminished for what is a total farce. Those who do find it necessary to fly need to give louder voice to their concerns before it goes any farther.

  10. Bec says:

    Would you support putting the TSA agents on the sexual offenders registry? Because calling it sexual assault is calling the people who did it predators, and I do think that’s inaccurate.
    My favourite thing about this anti-security brouhaha all over the web is how people keep saying things like: “Asking people who aren’t terrorists to submit …” and “unnecessary when you look at who is receiving a good portion of these advanced searches…” Because we all know that terrorists are clearly recognizable on sight, right?

  11. mommy michael says:

    I’m about to fly from Chicago to Seattle, with a 4yr old, 3yr old, and a 10mo old. I am scared to death. I am a rape survivor. Regardless of me buying a ticket and understanding the ins and outs of what comes with it – I’m still scared of losing the rights to my bodily autonomy. What happened to the pat downs that did NOT include my breasts and genitals?

  12. michelle says:

    Exactly, starrsitter. Also, just because you currently technically consent by buying a ticket doesn’t mean we have to live with that situation forever and can’t do something to change it. Plus, the “consent” you give is not blanket and irrevocable consent.

  13. Andromeda says:

    @Bec: No, terrorists aren’t recognizable on sight. But we are all, in theory, presumed to be innocent — and therefore not terrorists — until proven guilty. The presumption should be that we are not terrorists; the TSA is, instead, presuming that we are. All of us. Even our children.

  14. ACB says:

    One question – how do you identify a terrorist? Suppose the TSA only pats down males between the ages of 20 and 45 (average ages of the 9/11 hijackers)? Furthermore, let’s only single out males of middle eastern/Pakistani descent. What about Jihad Jane? The white, middle-aged, female US Citizen who converted to Islam and traveled to Europe to kill a cartoonist in the name of Islam? What about the two female Chechen Suicide bombers (who looked like average Russian females) who killed over 40 people in Russia (May 2010)? Point is, as long as there are terrorists in the world, we will need to protect critical infrastructure. I do propose an alternative to the current security situation…Have two lines at the airport; one line with the current security procedures and another with no security whatsoever, allowing anyone who purchases a ticket to board. Then watch who flies on what airline. People want security but do not want to be subjected to security measures. It’s not fair. Blame terrorism. Blame fundamentalism religious radicals who feel killing civilians is justified. Remember, terrorists have a goal to instill fear and terror into the population of the target country. I think they are succeeding.

  15. James Really says:

    Comments
    As to body scanners- so few of us, at this point, are worth a good look once, much less, a second one. The media has caused us to objectify eachother and, appearently, ourselves! Sometimes a scan looking for untoward and dangerous items is just that. As to the pat down, Every single one of us has been to a clothing store and had our inseam measured, bust size taken, etc, etc. Sorry, but, I missed the shocking healines after that was done. Now, we did not get all up in arms as we wanted a good fit. Well, I think another good fit is really “knowing” that a flight is secure to the best of people & technology’s ability. If I want to be involved in security “Theatre” I can see about introducing it to the next iteration of “Tony & Tina’s Weding!” The pat downs, as they were, did not get the job done. Last Christmas does not need a repeat of the “Underwear bomber” or other “They don’t check there” attempt. The reality is we can no longer trust appearences and guage eachother’s intent. Instead, we need to be screened for potential and capability. That, at this point, is a good fit!

  16. SarahW says:

    Comments
    Michele, that’s just idiotic. Buying a ticket is not carte blanche “touch me where you will whenever you want the way you want” permission. An unwanted touch is a battery, and, absent any real suspicion, have a right to refuse the touch, even if there is a penalty attached for doing so.

    You have a right to refuse a medical procedure or continuance of sexual activity you previously gave consent to.

    She should have been allowed to know what was going to happen and to revoke any consent, and to leave.

  17. Mark says:

    Don’t just “opt out” of naked scanners only to be sexually molested/assaulted, instead. Boycott Flying COMPLETELY, until sanity returns! Please join us: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Boycott-Flying/126801010710392

  18. Channing says:

    I need to clarify one, crucial thing in this debate: the health issues with the X-ray machines are separate from the privacy issues of the pseudo-naked photograph.

    This isn’t an academic distinction: there are two types of body scanners, both of which produce a similar image. The health concerns with the other type, the millimeter-wave scanners, are substantially less. Thus they May provide a less-offensive option for some travellers.

    I don’t say this to dismiss any of the issues at hand. I don’t have an issue myself with the millimeter-wave images, but I recognize that some of my friends do and that it’s a touchy subject for the public at large. And I fully agree that even a normal pat down could be triggering or just overly invasive for some travelers.

    I’m very curious to see how this whole thing shakes out. Will the American public’s obsession with the privacy of their own naked bodies trump our fear of terrorism? Will we decide that, in the one small isolated case of backscatter X-rays, the Precautionary Principle trumps business and state interests?

  19. Gretchen Powers says:

    I didn’t find her account to be grounded or moving. I found it to be ridiculous. Making hysterical accusations is not really an effective way to combat things, if you really feel they are so wrong. It just makes people look foolish. People need to get over themselves with their fear of the scanners for revealing their bodies (the radiation thing I can see, maybe) and their thinking that low-wage working stiffs of the same gender are getting off on patting them down.

  20. Sierra Black says:

    @Channing: personally, I thought the TSA jumped the shark when they made me take the booties off my 6-month-infant because everyone has to take their shoes off.

  21. Alyson says:

    Last summer I was flying home over 4th of July weekend and was subjected to one of those horrid full-body scans. I was especially upset because I had read about this, strongly disagreed with them in the abstract, and then when it came to my real life, I didn’t even realize what was going on until AFTER the scan was finished. No one informed me of what this scan was actually doing (taking pictures of my naked body), and I felt violated. It doesn’t matter if I saw the results or not, and it doesn’t matter if anyone touched me or not. I’m not comfortable with people looking at pictures of my naked body in the airport, and I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to our public safety. It was also upsetting to know that I had absolutely no real choice in the matter — if I had refused the scan, my other choice was a full-body pat down? No, thanks. It was a very ironic Independence Day, to say the least. So much for American freedoms.

  22. Alyson says:

    @Channing “Will the American public’s obsession with the privacy of their own naked bodies trump our fear of terrorism?”
    I think it’s funny that you chose to call our desire for personal privacy an “obsession” in that particular sentence. I would sooner call our fear of terrorism an “obsession.” Our worry over terrorist attacks and safety on public transportation is seriously overblown. In terms of real numbers, very few people in this country have been injured or killed in terrorist attacks — before or after we went nuts over TSA regulations. It’s a numbers issue, and I just don’t think it’s worth it to subject every single person to ridiculous and often invasive safety precautions just to feel better about our actually very small risk of death or injury.

  23. Suzanne says:

    I am married to Colombian and fly between the U.S. and Colombia frequently. Getting onto an international flight out of Colombia to a developed country is an ordeal involving several extra security screenings because of its reputation in the drug trade. So yes, I have gotten the full-body pat down several times by airport security in Colombia. Was it ever invasive in this way? No. Full-body screenings for assumed non-criminals to not need to involve body parts that are, in all other healthy social situations, private.

  24. Michele says:

    I know a lot of these security measures seem extreme and unnecessary (and they probably are), but ultimately, they HAVE to be applied across the board, regardless of age, sex, race, religion or any other identifier. Why? Because terrorists play upon whatever weakness might exist in the system. In 2001, they knew full well that box cutters were allowed on planes and that cockpits were not protected and they planned their attacks around those specific weaknesses in our existing security system.
    It might seem ridiculous to subject a 3 year old to an enhanced pat down, or to remove an infant’s booties, but NOT doing those things could very well result in the use of a very young child to execute the next terrorist plot, because THAT will be the weakness that is exploited.

  25. Diera says:

    @Michele: So what exactly can be hidden in an infant’s socks that could pose a threat to the flying public?

  26. Gretchen Powers says:

    If she knew, she’d be a terrorist! But, maybe the baby could have had its feet cut off and have prosthetic feet with plastique in them or something. Those crazy terrorists are both crafty and sick bastards, you know…
    Anyway, you folks complain about profiling, then you complain about across the board inspections. So again, what do you propose?

  27. Diera says:

    What I propose is that we take a step back and realize that although terrorists could attack planes again, they’re not limited to that. It’s never going to work again to threaten pilots in order to gain control of planes and fly them into buildings; no pilot would ever surrender post 9/11, so a plane-directed attack would kill only the people on the actual plane. Timothy McVeigh killed roughly the same number of people on a commercial jet with a very low-tech bomb constructed out of basic materials, and he was just a lone nut job, not a guy with a network and funding. Why wouldn’t terrorists on US soil choose to target shopping malls, or movie theaters, or other busy buildings crammed with people? Blowing up planes is certainly dramatic, which is why I think they get chosen as targets, but even if we manage to make planes safe from every conceivable danger (babies with exploding prosthetic feet? honestly?) by allowing cavity searches and making everyone fly naked and shackled, all that means is that any terrorists will divert their attention from there to other targets. How are we ever going to make every square inch of the US perfectly safe? Are we eventually going to need to get felt up to go to the supermarket? Seriously, once you accept that safety is so important that you will allow literally anything that reduces your risk by the smallest amount, no matter what, where does it stop?

  28. jennifer says:

    I guess I will need to go and read what is new about the pat down procedures?? Of course they are being used more frequently now, it seems, in relation to revised procedures and people opting out of the full body scan, but reading Erin’s account sounds very similar to what my mom as a flyer with a pacemaker and myself as the unlucky one that always seems to get called out for extra screening have been subjected to for years. The touches are light and quick, and those around sensitive areas are typically done with the side of the hand (not sure is that is TSA procedure or just how people choose to do it). I won’t argue the use of these procedures and if they actually curb terrorism, but if this is what they think is best for now, with a little extra instruction at the beginning about what to expect, it really shouldn’t be that big of deal for folks that aren’t looking to become overnight celebrities on the internet.

  29. Gretchen Powers says:

    I agree with jennifer. I am glad you know so much about what the terrorists will or won’t do, Diera, have you considered a career with DHS? Or maybe even the CIA?

  30. Melissa says:

    I went through the new procedure this weekend. I went through the backscatter machine, but was still pulled over for a patdown because “they didn’t get a clear image.”

    The pat down is extremely intrusive. It’s done with the fingers and front of the hands (not the side or the back as used to be done). My breasts were squeezed. Two fingers were blatantly run right down the center of my crotch. It was extensive and took several minutes. I was in tears at the end of it. Was it sexual molestation? Absolutely.

    The TSA is lying – it’s not same-gender checks across the board. I was given a patdown by a man and when I asked to wait for a woman, I was told “we don’t have enough women here. Get over here.”

    I will not be flying until this changes. I accept the remote risk of terrorism on a plane when I fly. I do not accept that I am going to be sexually groped every single TIME I fly.

  31. Knitted in the Womb says:

    “James Really,” no, I’ve never had my inner thigh or breasts measured by anyone other than ME for the purpose of fitting clothing. And I’ve certainly never had anyone stick their hand into my crack to fit clothing for me.

    “Dierra,” you get a standing ovation!

  32. erika o says:

    I think it is ridiculous what the TSA is doing and I don’t think it is making passengers any safer. Why don’t we take a look over at Israel and see what they do to make their airports safer? They have a completely different approach to security than we do in the USA, without the need to grope people. They don’t use the new body scanners either. They have invested in really training personnel to LOOK at people. There are several layers of security, all involving highly trained personnel that can spot a possible threat. They’ve had very good results and have not seen the need to sexually harrass their citizens or potentially harm them through scanning machines that have not been proven to be safe. It really makes me sick that women and children in Afghanistan (some who belong tothe Taliban) have more rights than us. US military is not allowed to search them because it is “considered an extreme violation of acceptable cultural practice.” Unbelievable!!!
    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/11/body-searching-children-no-for-the-us-army-yes-for-the-tsa/66535/

  33. Abhishek says:

    Stay in home is best way to save your self from TSA scanning

  34. Marj says:

    Also a firm government can rule its people more easily if it is very difficult for those people to leave the country.

  35. Manjari says:

    Good point, Diera. Melissa, that sounds awful. :(

  36. Dan says:

    TSA has gone too far with the invasive x-rays and pat downs. The should be going after the terroists in proactive mode not being reactive which doesn’t work. They’re doing just what the terrorists or our enemies want which is dumb down the American people, make us sheep, and cripple our economy. This is hurting our people and business. I say stay true to our roots, niche, constitution, and founding fathers vision and take back America. It’s the people that stop terrorists, so give power to the people.

  37. Mike says:

    I spent 35 in aviation; I’m retired. I DO NOT fly because I DO NOT believe in Homeland Security nor its pet dog, the TSA. I refuse to be subjected to ANY scrutiny by morons. Homeland Security and the TSA are a political body not created by the aviation industry. My not flying hurts the industry, not the political body. When someone figures out how to hurt or eliminate the useless, out of control political body, let me know, I’m on board. Until then, we’re sheeple; get used to it and stop your whining and chest pounding!

  38. Tom says:

    CommentsTSA TRUTHS doc Hi, making sure you got this link info,here is the whys and hows to deny consent to TSA. WE can beat TSA, one passenger at a time. Please let me know you got it ok and how you can help get this out to families, take care, never surrender, Tom,

    https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1NKPsi1ofhiMmavI5hi3z_zYOEeWM9b4JSiSfeL64pd0

  39. Savannah says:

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”~Benjamin Franklin

  40. Jane says:

    Thats awful…I travel all the time and there is always some issue with the TSA people. The last time I had to fly we were all asked to have our shoes taken off. What a delay..it was raining that day so you can imagine the floors. Needless to say I felt disgusted walking around the security line without shoes. Besides being fondled by male inspectors i had to put up with slippery dirty floors. Last month I flew to Ny but was ready with these booties

    http://www.directsafetysupplies.com/TSA-Approved-Booties

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