True story from a supposedly more innocent time: In October, during a honeymoon trip begun out of Boston’s Logan airport, I was stopped by security four times, courtesy of the decorative zippers on my J.Crew cargo pants and a bra that, as Transportation Security Administration agents confirmed as definitively as they could, was, yes, underwire. An agent in Chicago then rifled through my carry-on to inspect my prescriptions, tampons, and lingerie. My husband, meanwhile, breezed through all checkpoints carrying an illegally large can of aerosol shave cream, which he’d packed just because he figured he could.
Next time we fly together, though, it could well be different: With “enhanced pat-downs” the norm and 450 of the TSA’s advanced-imaging scanners set for rollout in U.S. airports by year’s end, we’ll be subjected to equal-opportunity harassment. Isn’t this, in a way, what feminists have been fighting for?
Polls show that most Americans still support the use of the scanners, with Gallup finding 41 percent of women and 26 percent of men disapproving. The latter number is surprising, given who’s leading the protests against what Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow described as the TSA’s “new ‘You choose: star in a porno shoot or let me squeeze your genitals’ policy.” San Diego software engineer John Tyner lit the fuse with his “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested” video. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg (a long-standing TSA critic) suggested holiday air travelers go commando, in kilts. The blogger who called for this Wednesday to be “National Opt-Out” Day, and Ron Paul, sponsor of the “American Traveler Dignity Act”: both also men.
Obviously, the new protocols are not without certain by-now well-documented problems. The scanners emit radiation—enough of it, say some doctors, to matter. Critics wonder if the machines actually work, noting that they won’t pick up powdered explosives; on CNN, Captain Sully derided them as “barely adequate.” There’s no excusing the overreaches, pardon the pun, of the TSA, such as the case of the Chattanooga 3-year-old stripped of her teddy bear and frisked after twice failing the metal detector, or the Minnesota rape survivor whose breasts were cupped and hair played with until she broke down.
But on a broader level, having images of our naked selves transmitted to airport screeners goes only a few clicks beyond what women deal with all the time. And just as invasion of privacy and objectification have long been issues for women, so has putting up with measures of questionable efficacy; turns out most of us don’t even need that annual Pap smear and might be better off going without mammograms. With some exceptions, men largely skate by on this sort of stuff.
Jen Phillips, writing at Mother Jones, summed it up well: “For years, women have complained about agents copping a feel … Now that a bunch of guys are crying foul, the media is suddenly all over it.” The media has also noted possible alternative safety steps, among them a fix promoted by one Ann Coulter. Racial and ethnic profiling, she argues, would be far more efficient and effective than this government-authorized ogling and/or molestation. It would restore white male travelers to their former privileged status. But so long as the days of barefoot-free security lines and unconfiscated tweezers are gone, the TSA’s chosen solution seems like the less-awful option.
The TSA, by the way, says that since scanners were deployed, more than 99 percent of passengers have chosen them over the pat-down. A friend of mine, a frequent business traveler, thinks he knows why. “There’s no patting,” he says. “They grab and squeeze your legs, your pockets. If you’re a well-endowed guy … ” It’s creepy, sure. But fellas? Welcome to the club.
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