For Survivors of Sexual Assault, New TSA Screenings Represent a Threat

Passengers have found a variety of reasons to object to the Transportation Safety Administration’s new screening policies, a combination of advanced-imaging technology scans and pat-down searches, which went into effect Oct. 29. Some see the full-body scans as a radiation risk. Some say the measures violate civil liberties, And for some, like John Tyner, a San Diego software engineer, the new screening measures represented something more immediately terrifying: the specter of sexual menace. Tyner is being investigated for an $11,000 fine after he walked away from a screening he considered “sexual assault.”

 

The TSA, on the other hand, argues that these screenings are not only safe, they’re necessary. In an era of plastics-based explosives, metal detectors aren’t sufficient, says Nick Kimball, a spokesperson for the TSA, and the new body scanners are the best available option. The body scan creates a digital snapshot of passengers underneath their clothing, allowing screeners to see any hidden contraband. Passengers who decline the scan are subject to a pat-down to achieve that same goal. It’s a pat-down that many travelers say may be more thorough, but is also more invasive and humiliating than previous security frisks. “It was a horrifying experience. I was touched in my private parts, in my genital area, without consent and without warning,” says Erin Chase, an Ohio woman who flies several times a month. (TSA says that all airline officials should tell passengers what’s going to happen prior to a pat-down.)

 

For women and men who have already been sexually assaulted, the new screening rules—or just the threat of these rules—present a very real danger. They can be triggering events, setting off a posttraumatic-stress reaction. “I started crying. It was so intimate, so horrible. I feel like I was being raped,” an anonymous rape survivor recounted on a Minnesota blog. Melissa Gibbs, a spokeswoman for We Won’t Fly, a group protesting the new regulations, says that a rape survivor she spoke to had a panic attack as an agent began touching her leg.

 

“After a sexual assault, it seems that many survivors have difficulty having their bodies touched by other people,” says Shannon Lambert, founder of the Pandora Project, a nonprofit organization that provides support and information to survivors of rape and sexual abuse. This fear of contact even extends to partners and, often, medical professionals. “A lot of survivors do not want to be in positions where they’re vulnerable. They put up defenses so that they can be in control of their body. In cases like this, it seems like some of that control is going away.”

 

If that sense of control is violated, it can lead to more than hurt feelings. There’s a physical reaction associated with a triggering incident, and the response can vary from person to person. “It could lead to a person shutting down and becoming noncommunicative, it could result in a person becoming emotionally upset, it could trigger flashbacks, not just the thoughts and feelings they experienced, but perhaps other sensory experiences,” says Jennifer Marsh, director of the National Sexual Assault Hotline for the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).

 

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