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As the tears started to fall, I looked at the faces of the TSA agents gathered around me and considered my next move. Just a few moments earlier, the drape of my shirt activated the airport body scanner. Because of this, the agent told me, they would have to conduct a pat down search of the area, including my breast.
“Would it be possible to take the shirt off and be re-scanned?”
“No, once the machine is set off, we have to resolve the issue.”
“Please,” I pleaded. “I’m a sexual assault survivor and I would prefer not to have my breast touched by a stranger.”
Survivors are not an insignificant constituency: one in two women and one in five men experience sexual victimization in their lifetimes...
She met my gaze, and requested a manager. As we waited, she looked nervous. I told her I was an advocate, and needed to speak up for other survivors. She replied, “You’re doing the right thing.”
By the time the manager arrived, a crowd of agents gathered around. I repeated my request and the reason for it. The answer remained unchanged. Either I submit to an emotionally draining pat down search, or (ostensibly) miss my flight.
That’s when I started to cry. I felt helpless and vulnerable, my heart broken for the survivors who endured the same discomfort in silence.
Upon reflecting on this experience in the larger context of TSA security protocol for survivors, I began to see how survivor visibility might lead us to new ways of ensuring passenger safety without causing harm in the process.
After writing about the experience publicly, I spoke directly with the TSA where I learned that sexual violence survivors are considered through the lens of disability. This strikes me as a mixed bag.
To request accommodations through the disability framework, survivors hold the responsibility to advocate for themselves, and to do so publicly. One suggestion was to literally carry a card indicating I was a trauma survivor. While I smiled at the thought of being a card-carrying survivor, this isn’t a realistic option given how much shame survivors experience. Many struggle to tell close friends or family members, let alone a stranger at the airport.
Survivors are not an insignificant constituency: one in two women and one in five men experience sexual victimization in their lifetimes beyond what society defines as "rape." Yet we live in a culture that favors invisibility and comfort over addressing a pervasive challenge like sexual violence. As such, survivors — who have already been traumatized — are expected to change and adapt rather than requiring the systems themselves.
On the positive side, a disability framework allows survivors to request specific accommodations to make screening more tolerable — and builds a more trauma-informed culture at the TSA that allows for individual needs and circumstances to be accommodated. According to Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, “a trauma-informed policy allows for a set of choices publicized broadly and offered to any passenger who requests them without the need to declare why they are asking.”
For example, any passenger can request a support specialist or extra time for screening without stating the reason why. Additionally, there are special resources produced by organizations like the National Sexual Violence Resource Center that outline these options in detail — guidance that could likely be shared more broadly with the public to empower survivors to choose options that work.
The disability framework also allows for advocacy. If survivors want to influence TSA policy, they can be represented individually via focus groups or through survivor-focused coalitions. These groups advise the TSA on how to make policies, procedures and training more inclusive of a variety of experiences. (To learn more, contact the TSA's civil rights office.)
A more trauma-informed approach benefits everyone -- not just survivors.
A more trauma-informed approach benefits everyone -- not just survivors. Borrowing from another field, we can easily imagine how this might work. In the childbirth community, we can call on healthcare providers to employ techniques to empower patients around their choices, offer options to deal with common — or uncommon — triggers, and speak openly about sexual violence’s impact on childbirth. In the case of the TSA, all passengers benefit from informed choices on screening options, alternative accommodations, and an organization that speaks openly about the prevalence and implications of sexual violence on their work.
A single insight or individual has the power to change an entire system. With 60,000 employees, one can only imagine the ways in which the TSA could support survivors, recognize signs of trauma or abuse, and emerge as allies on sexual violence.
Sarah Beaulieu is working on a practical guide for men on supporting survivors of sexual violence.