I was groped in Florida. Not only was I groped, but it was absolutely legal and, in fact, mandatory.
It happened as I was leaving the airport in Fort Myers on my way back to Calgary from a vacation last month. I was doing the usual security check – purse and carry-on bag on the conveyer belt, shoes off, walk through the metal detector – when suddenly a beep I had never heard before rang out. I was informed I had been randomly chosen for a full pat-down.
Interesting, I thought. I’d heard about all the fuss the dreaded pat-down had elicited, everything from angry passenger backlash to some women calling the ordeal worse than a gynecological examination. Now it was my turn to experience it firsthand and I’ll admit I was curious to see what it was like. That was until I saw the throng of people who had also been “chosen” waiting in line in front of me.
We were all told to step into an enclosure beside the metal detector to wait our turn. That’s when my anxiety started. Not because of the pat-down, but because I could see my things, valuables included, motoring along the security conveyer belt, through the screening process and out the other end without me there to reclaim them. I have always been afraid that airport security checks are the perfect place to have your purse stolen, and now my stuff was sitting out in the open just begging someone to take it.
Fortunately, I was travelling with a friend who was able to read my frantic gestures. She collected my stuff and then settled in a chair for what turned out to be a long wait.
Now that my belongings were safe, I turned my attention back to the pat-down situation. One person at a time was being taken further into the glass enclosure and given the official speech before being manhandled. Or in this case woman-handled, as all the staff were female.
I heard this speech several times before it was my turn. First people were asked if they wanted to be frisked right there or if they wanted to go into a private room at the other end of the security area. Then, if they were fine with the public space, the security agent put on a pair of blue latex gloves and explained they would be patting down the entire body, but they would use the backs of their hands for the breasts, buttocks and genital area.
After travellers acknowledged they understood the procedure, the pat-down began. It took all of a minute and a half and looked harmless enough to me. I am not squeamish about my body and have no issue with it being touched if this is what we need to do to ensure air safety. Frankly, I didn’t see what all the controversy was about.
I doubted that the older German woman in front of me felt the same way though. Halfway through her examination, the security agent asked her what was on her leg, and in halting English she said that it was a prosthetic. She was met with a loud, “Well ma’am, I’m terribly sorry but you’re going to have to remove the pant leg so we can examine it. Would you like to do that here or go into the private room?” Burning red with embarrassment, the woman walked in front of many watching eyes toward the privacy of the room.
Then I was up. The agent started going through the speech I had now heard at least eight times. I told her I knew the drill and just wanted to get on with it, but she said she had to explain the procedure to each individual to make sure they understood before proceeding. So I listened and voiced my understanding, then the groping began.
I stood in a T position and she started on my back. Pretty much the same frisking as always, only for half a second I felt something flat push against my behind. On my front, things got a little more intimate. Again I felt the flat back of her hands as she pressed them up against my breasts, but the genital touching surprised me. It happened as part of the leg frisking, but instead of stopping at the thigh, the hands go right up and push against the genitals for half a second. Not a big deal, but it did feel odd to have some stranger’s hands bump up against me that way.
The final part of the inspection was my head, more specifically my hair, which the agent started looking through and generally messing up. I’m not sure what it says about me that I was more upset by the hair tousling than the private-parts touching, but by then I’d had enough and just wanted to get out of there.
With the inspection over, the agent told me to wait while she peeled off her gloves and passed them through a chemical detector. I passed with flying colours and was told I could leave.
As I gathered my purse and bag from my friend, she asked me how it was. I had to stop to think. It wasn’t a simple answer. To me it was more an annoyance than anything. But for the woman in front of me, it was such a public humiliation that I couldn’t help but empathize with her. I found the breast and genital touching merely odd, but I could see how someone who had been sexually abused might find it upsetting. The hair thing was my own vanity, but what if someone were wearing a wig or had a toupée and the inspection did more than simply mess up their mane? I had to admit it – I was beginning to see how a fuss could be made.
But in the end, what I said to my friend was this: Flying is not a right, it’s a privilege, and if someone doesn’t want to run the risk of being patted down, they should find another mode of travel. Then I told her I needed to go to the ladies room to fix my hair.
Jessica Goldman lives in Calgary.