I really hate the body scanner machines at the airport. My introduction to them this year was extremely uncomfortable — a large male officer used a rather sharp tone with me and instructed me, repeatedly, not to look at him. “Why not?” I wondered. “Why does it matter where my eyes are when the machine can look right through me?”
It’s patchy, the use of scanners is; my first time through the body scanner was also my last. On all subsequent flights — and there have been many, nearly a dozen, through US and international airports — I’ve been sent through the metal detector, leading me to wonder why, if the metal detector is sufficient, I need to go through the screening machine at all.
On a recent flight to Salt Lake City, I arrived at Sea-Tac airport with plenty of time before my flight. I decided that if I had to go through the body scanner, I would opt out — after all, the signs say that going through the body scanner is optional, begging another question — if it’s optional, why are we using it at all? My hope was that by opting out of the scanner, I’d be put into a human interaction that required a bit more, oh, let’s say civility while my civil rights were being exploited.
The airport was quite busy, but I am a regular flier, I can deal with the ridiculousness of emptying my water bottle, having only three days worth of conditioner, and removing my shoes, thank you Shoe Bomber Richard Reed for giving the TSA one more way to be totally stupid. I sailed through the initial mess of undressing, stalled only by a woman with clear difficulties walking. She needed a cane, she didn’t want to use the body scanner… she eventually capitulated, only because it was more of a hassle for her to walk to the x-ray machine than it was to go through the scanner.
[An aside: A security agent in an airport in South American laughed and shook his head when my travel companion started removing her shoes. “We don’t do that here,” he said, patiently.
“You think we’re crazy, don’t you?” I asked him. He nodded and smiled.]
I reached the body scanner and informed the agent that I would like to opt out. He pulled me out of the line and had me stand next to him while my bags went through the x-ray machine.
“Female assist,” he shouted, several times. “FEMALE ASSIST.”
Nothing happened. My bags rolled out of site. “Excuse me,” I said, “I can’t see my bags. I don’t feel very good about that.”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about that right now,” he responded.
I stared at him, flabbergasted. My camera, my laptop, my wallet, all my valuables were now unattended. I didn’t like this one bit. “FEMALE ASSIST,” the agent shouted, again.
I looked towards my luggage and back at the agent. “My luggage…” I started to say.
“Hey, take her over THERE,” he instructed another male agent, “and take her stuff too.”
The agent asked me where my things were. I was not allowed to touch my belongings even though they had cleared the x-ray machine. He collected my things and placed them on a metal table. I was instructed to take a seat in the middle of a holding area surrounded by TSA agents. There was a chair and a mat with footprints on it. I felt very much on display, like people were staring at me. “FEMALE ASSIST!” About ten minutes had gone by. I was relieved that I was not running late. There were two women at the checkpoint, only, I counted 15 male agents while I stood there, trying to be patient.
After what seemed like a very long time, an agent appeared to conduct my screening. She was clearly having a bad day. She informed me of what the process would be and asked me some questions — did I have any medical devices, did I have any “sensitive areas”? She informed me that while she was patting down my “buttocks, the sides of the breasts, and between the legs” she would use the back of her hands. “Do you have any concerns?” she asked.
“I’d rather you not grab me,” I said.
“Did I say I was going to do that? Did I say anything about that?”
Well, not in so many words. Though she had described in great detail where and how she was going to touch me. I was offered a private screening, which I declined. “Oh, no,” I thought, “I’m not letting you put me in some closet where no one else can see how ridiculous this is.”
Part of my brain was making jokes about the pornographic nature of the whole thing, the rest was getting very, very angry. I had been separated from my belongings for enough time for them to be stolen. I had been placed on display in the middle of the checkpoint. I had been spoken to rather rudely by more than one agent at the checkpoint, including the agent conducting the screening. And because there was insufficient staff to conduct my screening, I was kept at the checkpoint considerably longer than necessary.
The remainder of the screening went without further incident. The pat-down? I was surprised at how thorough it was and at where the agent put her hands. After the process was complete, I was released into the airport. All told, my screening took about 20 minutes, much too long.
I opted out again, two weeks later, in Oakland. It went much better — there was an agent on hand and she was extremely pleasant. When she asked me that same odd question — “Do you have any sensitive areas?” I told her the truth.
“My entire body is sensitive when being felt up by a stranger.”
She laughed. I was not making a joke.
I told her about how, in Sea-Tac, I’d been forced to wait for what I felt was much too long. “Oh, that happens here, too,” she said. “You’re just lucky today.” My Oakland screening took about five minutes, total, only two or three minutes longer than using the body scanner.
Not okay, TSA. The process is bad enough without systemic sexism. I realize that this is purely anecdotal based on my experience, but here’s a Washington Post article from March, 2011 that states that Dulles airport has only 30% women screeners. A presentation I downloaded directly from the TSA includes a chart that shows that 33.8% of the TSA workforce is female; it does not specify what percentage work at the security checkpoints and are available for “female assist.”
It was with some trepidation that I contacted the TSA to complain. The response I received was woefully inadequate. I was not surprised.
The TSA form letter response is posted verbatim, below the jump.