[Note: On the way to Washington DC to attend a conference, I received the TSA pat down. I wrote this right after it happened:]

I am currently at San Francisco International Airport, otherwise known as SFO. I’m traveling with my friend Marcia Simmons from San Francisco to Washington DC to attend the AWP writer’s conference.

SFO has installed millimeter wavelength scanners. As you probably know, not only does walking through these scanners expose you to a dose of radiation, it allows the TSA agent to see you naked. Here is a sample image from the machine:

joy lanzendorfer what the tsa pat down it like

[Image source.]

I don’t feel there is any reason a TSA agent should see me naked, so I opted out of the scanner. Marcia also opted out. When you do this, you have to undergo the new TSA pat down where the agent touches private areas of your body, including between your breasts and along the inside of the waistband of your pants. For men, they also cup your balls.

Although Marcia and I both received the pat down, Marcia had a very different experience than I had. Here’s what happened:

Marcia went first. The TSA agent asked her why she was opting out of the scanner, wrote her answer down in an official-looking binder, took her to a partitioned area, and began the pat down.

I went second. My TSA agent’s name was Crystal. She asked me why I was opting out of the scanner. I said, “Because I don’t want TSA agents to see me naked.” Crystal said, “Fair enough. Come with me.” She did not write my reason in the binder like the other agent did for Marcia.

I was led to a partitioned area across from Marcia. I said, “I am willing to be patted down, but I don’t want you to touch any sensitive areas, like near my breasts.” Crystal said that I had no choice, I had to be patted down. She added that she would show me what she was going to do to me on her own body. While gesturing to herself, Crystal explained that she was going to run her hand over my arms, my legs, inner thighs, pelvic area, butt, stomach, and between the breasts. In addition, she said she was going to run her hand around my waistband, which would require her putting her fingers inside my pants, next to my skin.

When she finished, I said, “I’m not comfortable with what you’re telling me. I don’t want you to touch me intimately like that.”

Crystal bristled at this word, intimate. “I’m not going to be touching you intimately, ma’am,” she said.

“It sounds intimate to me,” I said. “I’m sorry, I’m just not comfortable. I don’t want you to touch between my breasts or inside my pants.”

Crystal didn’t know what to do so she went to get her supervisor. Meanwhile, Marcia had finished up and was gathering her things. I called her over and she told me that her TSA agent hadn’t touched her like Crystal was describing. While much of the pat down was the same, the agent had not touched the front of Marcia’s pelvis, between her breasts, or the inside of her waistband. Instead, the agent had pinched the waistband of Marcia’s pants and jiggled it, without touching her skin.

Meanwhile, Crystal came back with her supervisor. I again explained that I didn’t want private areas of my body touched because it is a violation of my rights and privacy.

“Well, would you like to go to a private room for the pat down?” the supervisor said. “Because it IS going to happen.”

I didn’t see the point of going to a private room. If they were going to do something to me, I wanted it to be in public, with witnesses around.

“No,” I said. “Like I said, I’m willing to be patted down. I understand that you have to do your job. I just don’t want anyone to touch me on a private area.”

“This is how we do the pat down, ma’am,” the supervisor said. “Everyone has to go through this.”

“My friend didn’t,” I said. “She was not touched between the breasts or inside the waistband of her pants.”

The supervisor didn’t believe me about that at first, but then she asked Marcia and confirmed that I was telling the truth. However, then the supervisor told me that I did not have the same options Marcia had. While Marcia was not touched intimately, I still had to be.

At this point, I could tell I wasn’t going to win. I thought I would be strong and withstand the bullying, but in the situation, I felt intimidated and afraid. I was also confused because Marcia had received such a mild version of the pat down that I was still hoping, somewhat irrationally, that it wouldn’t be that bad.

So Crystal gave me the pat down while her supervisor watched. Here is exactly what she did:

    * First, she ran her hand over the top and bottom of my arms.
    * Then she ran it down my sides and outer thighs.
    * Then she ran her hand over my butt.
    * Then she took her finger, inserted it in the back waistband of my pants next to my skin, and ran it around the back.
    * Then she took her hands, cupped them around my leg, and ran them from my upper inner thigh to my foot. In doing so, her finger grazed my vagina. I’m not sure if that was an accident or part of the pat down.
    * She did the same on the other leg.
    * Then she took her hand and inserted it between my breasts.
    * Then she took her hand and ran it down the front of my pelvis, from the waistband of my pants down to my vagina.
    * She took her hand and ran it from the bottom of my breasts down my stomach.
    * Finally, she took her finger, inserted it in the front of the waistband next to my skin, and ran it all the way around the front of my body.

When she was done, she had touched every part of my body except the front and sides of my breasts, my face, neck, and the bottom of my feet.

By now, I was so upset I was almost crying. But they were not done with me yet. Crystal told me that she had to get some kind of chemical test on her gloves before I could leave. So I stood there like a criminal with my feet planted on the mat while the supervisor watched me. I asked her if I could put on my shoes, but she would not allow me to do so. She told me that I had to stand there until Crystal finished the test.

Finally, Crystal returned and said I checked out. I am not a terrorist or a drug smuggler.

I asked to lodge a complaint about the pat down. I was given a form to fill out, which I did. Who knows where that will end up.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this pat down was a violation of my rights. Not only does the Fourth Amendment insure reasonable expectation of privacy, it says that citizens have a “right against unreasonable search and seizure.” The TSA pat down is an unreasonable search. When we arrest people in this country, we don’t give them invasive pat downs, yet here I had to undergo one, and for what? Am I a terrorist? Was I smuggling drugs? No, I was just a woman trying to get on her flight, and the US government treated me like a criminal.

What surprised me the most was how upset the pat down made me. I am not someone who is easily scared or shaken up, but afterwards, I felt disturbed and violated. If the pat down can make me feel like that, imagine what it must do to someone who has undergone physical trauma, such as rape or molestation. And what about young girls? [Note: In Washington DC, Marcia watched an 8-year-old girl go through the scanner.] Are fathers now going to have to choose between a TSA agent looking at their little girl naked or running her hands over the girl’s body? And yes, this is a non-sexual situation, but still, that’s what it is: someone running her hands all over your body.

The bottom line is, as a U.S. citizen, I shouldn’t have to endure being groped by a stranger just to get on a plane. It makes me wonder what we are becoming. If our rights are being taken away from us so blatantly, how can we truly continue to call ourselves a free nation?

8 thoughts on “What The TSA Pat Down Is Like

  1. Shawn Powers

    I’m really sorry you for forced to undergo such terrible rights violations. 🙁

  2. Katherine Druckman

    I am so glad I saw this. I am flying next week for the first time since August, and I think this may be my first run-in with the scanner/pat down dilemma.

    When the issue of the scanners first came up in the media, I was certain I would opt-out. Now, I am not so sure what I am going to do on Wednesday. I have seen so many disturbing reports of TSA bullying lately (seen this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHxy5GattLY), that it makes me not want to fly at all. However, I refuse to let this crap interfere with my life, so here I am back to the dilemma.

    Part of me wants to let my inner twelve year-old run the show and make inappropriate noises while being groped, but then I don’t know if I am really that brave, and also if I’ll just end up making things worse for myself when ultimately I just need to get to my destination.

    Whatever my decision, I appreciate you posting this. I feel like I can make a more informed decision now, but I am so sorry that it is at the expense of your privacy and basic human rights.

  3. Justin

    You may contact the External Compliance Division of TSA’s Office of Civil Rights and Liberties to file a complaint.

    Our mailing address is:
    Transportation Security Administration
    Office of Civil Rights and Liberties (TSA-6)
    External Compliance Division
    601 S. 12th Street
    Arlington, VA 20598
    Our email address is:

    From: Passenger Civil Rights

  4. Joy

    Thanks guys. It was not fun. Katherine, let me know what you end up doing. There’s a good chance they will let you walk right on through.

  5. Jane Smith

    It really isn´t the problem that some people make it out to be. Who cares that some stranger can identify gender on a screen. We all have one. Health is important. So, make the distiction between the two types of scanners because one uses harmful xrays and the other does not: the backscatter that uses xrays and the milimeter scanner that uses radiowaves. Only the milimeter scanner is safe on human tissue. This is the important issue for the public.

  6. Connie Peterson

    I went through a similar experience yesterday and I am still very upset. I went through the scanner — I figure nobody is going to get their jollies looking at my xray. But there was a “frontal anomaly” and so they patted that area (my breasts). Then they took a chemical test of my hands and my hands “alarmed.”

    So I had to go through “more” screening. I was taken by two female agents to a private room with a door. One of the agents described exactly what she was going to do which was identical to what the woman here described.

    What resonated to me about the person’s experience was how upset it made me. I stood with a wooden face going through this experience. I couldn’t meet the agent’s eyes– I just stared at the wall. I couldn’t keep from crying and I am not a person who cries easily.

    I am a middle aged woman who is retired from an executive level career where I felt I accomplished much. Just before my experience at the airport I addressed a group of donors as the chair of a $12M non-profit organization. I am not the picture of a terrorist or even a troublemaker of any sort. I haven’t even ever had a traffic ticket.

    There has to be a better way.

  7. Amanda

    I’m sure all the innocent “non terrorist” people on the planes that were flown right into the twin towers would have HAPPILY been patted down if it would have helped catch the ones who WERE terrorists. You can’t catch the bad guys if you aren’t allowed to monitor for them. I get that you don’t wanna be touched. But guess what. They touch people all day. Get over it.
    I don’t get how you people can bitch and moan about their attempts to protect you. If they do nothing, the country is free to terrorists. So they propose a way to help stop it and you guys cry and bitch about your “rights being taken away.” Okay maybe you guys can come up with a better way to keep people from blowing up your fucking plane.
    Protect yourselves then you ungrateful shitholes.

  8. Joy

    Amanda, I’m not sure why you think it’s okay to go around posting comments cursing at people on their blogs. You are obviously unable to have a real discussion, but what the heck, let’s waste time trying:

    Thanks to the TSA, our civil liberties have been eroded and millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on body scanners. The TSA has inflicted countless indignities on civilians that include patting down little children, pulling up the shirt and removing the bandages of a dying cancer patient, and removing the diaper of a 90-year-old woman in front of other passengers.

    Despite all this: the TSA has yet to foil a single terrorist plot.

    That’s right, Amanda. We’re not any safer than we were before 9-11.

    We’re giving up a lot and getting nothing in return.

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