TSA Screenings and Trauma Survivors

Tis the season when many people are thinking about flying.  In addition to all the usual travel stressors, the Transportation Safety Administration’s new screening policies have some very concerned.  Those troubled by the new developments may include (but are not limited to) transgender or gender variant people, those with disabilities or medical devices and trauma survivors.

TSA’s new security measures will give travelers the choice between going through  body scanners that show passengers unclothed or submitting to an “enhanced” pat-down technique.  On the one hand, many see the full-body scans as a radiation risk and intrusive in their own right. There is also concern about what happens to the images, though the TSA claims to destroy them. The physical pat down is no less intrusive, and for trauma survivors may indeed feel terribly reminiscent of a sexual assault. Any unwanted touch may be triggering for trauma survivors!

The New York Times reports the following passenger complaints:

Some offer graphic accounts of genital contact, others tell of agents gawking or making inappropriate comments, and many express a general sense of powerlessness and humiliation. In general passengers are saying they are surprised by the intimacy of a physical search usually reserved for police encounters.

Will this impact your travel plans? If you must fly, what can you do about this?

Preparing a coping plan is a good idea for survivors who will be flying under these conditions. You can think through which scenario seems most manageable to you. You have the right to opt out of the scanner by simply saying “I opt out”.  Arm yourself with the knowledge that you can ask for a supervisor or report anything that feels out of line. Practice and use your favorite grounding skills.

More information on filing complaints and protesting these measures:

FlyersRights.org operates a hotline for passenger complaints.

EFF provides other ways to file complaints.

The American Civil Liberties Union is conducting a survey regarding passenger profiling during airport security screenings through an online complaint form. They have already received over 400 complaints.

WeWontFly.com and OptOutDay.com are calling for passenger protests at security checkpoints next Wednesday, during the busy travel day before Thanksgiving.

Kathleen Young Psy.D.

This entry was posted in Abuse, Activism, Childhood Abuse, Mental Health, PTSD, Self-care, Sexual Abuse, Transgender, Trauma and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to TSA Screenings and Trauma Survivors

  1. Deb says:

    I always learn such important things when I visit here. I will link and follow suit with my social media. The TSA experience *is* traumatic and triggering for many.

  2. aSAsWife says:

    Very recently, there was a scene on the show, “Dexter,” in which a rape/torture survivor had to be patted down at the airport. The scene depicted the horror of a trauma experience so profoundly well. I hate the very idea that the TSA’s new security measures could be triggering so many. I hope they are stopped ASAP.

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  4. Shimc says:

    Great article- I don’t understand why they don’t have a private room to the side so a person can strip and be looked at instead of being touched-still rotten, but at least I wouldn’t be touched by strangers.
    What do we tell children after teaching them not to let strangers touch them?!

    On a happier note, you might find this article of a very innovative public school in NYC interesting(ignore the headline typo-probably should have said”..change life in..” or something):


  5. Survivor says:

    As a rape survivor, I will say this new airport screening has given me pause. It feels very invasive. I read on the TSA website that when you choose to fly, you “give up some of your rights.” That freaks me out. Which rights am I giving up? How far can this go??

    For now, I’m not flying. We were talking about a trip to disney in the spring, but I haven’t booked anything yet. We may just do something closer and drive.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Survivor.

      This is just the sort of thing I am concerned about, that trauma survivors will wind up feeling their lives are being curtailed or limited further by these policies.

      • Survivor says:

        Thank you. I will say, it does feel like a step backward in “taking my life back” to realize I’m restricting myself in this way. Thank goodness I don’t have to travel for work.

  6. Say says:

    I’m a CSA survivor, and I feel absolutely sick to my stomach when I think about having my body being viewed by one of those scanners (and they are in place in my home airport), and the “option” of a pat-down seems even worse. Also, as far as I can tell, it’s possible to go through the scanner and *still* get picked for a random pat-down on top of that.

    I live 15 hours (by car) from my family, and if I had known about this when I booked my flights, I honestly think I would have chosen to rent a car and drive the 15 hours (in spite of the fact that I’d be driving through the snow belt and into Northern New England in December; it still feels safer!). I’m still considering canceling my flights and driving. However, at some point I am going to have to face this, because I have to fly for my job. I plan to do a lot of preparation work with my therapist, but I’m still terrified and I’m *infuriated* that the TSA didn’t take into consideration how thoroughly damaging these new procedures might be for certain populations of people.

    • Yes, Say, it really does feel like a choice between two terrible options! Perhaps if enough people start opting for other travel arrangements it will have an impact.

      • Say says:

        I don’t know if you’re familiar with the site Pandora’s Aquarium, but they have come up with a tool to help sexual assault/abuse survivors get through the TSA screenings. They now have a quick info card to hand TSA screeners: http://pandys.org/quickinfocards.html

        It still bothers me, though, that a person would feel that he or she has to identify as an abuse survivor in order to be safe.

      • Thanks for sharing that resource!

        If a survivor does feel comfortable sharing that information and asking for appropriately sensitive treatment (which really should be given everyone) this is a simple way to do that. I imagine there may be survivors who do not feel comfortable disclosing their history.

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  8. Pingback: Transgender Travelers and New TSA Policies | Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Chicago

  9. My agoraphobia does not keep me confined to the house anymore, but travel is still difficult. I only travel far once every few years or so because it is all I can manage. I can tell you that I certainly will NOT be flying now. I have an insider who might get irate and get me kicked off the flight or something for getting loud and obnoxious in an airport if little ones feel threatened. The stories I have been reading from passengers are very upsetting and I’m sure that I would not be able to endure what it takes to board a plane these days. I remember (pre-911) when I could run for the gate with a carry-on right before take off. Those were the days! (And now I feel old.) If I did want to go somewhere that would normally require flight for me, it would be on continent anyway. I would just go by car. I absolutely will not put up with what goes down at airports now and I’m certainly glad I’m not in a position where I have to and my heart goes out to any survivors who are. What awful choices they must be facing!

  10. I saw the images of the body scans and find it hard to believe anyone thinks this is a good idea. We teach our children that our private parts are private. Even in a person who has not been abused, this situation is humiliating and feels like an assault. I can’t imagine going through it as an abuse victim. I don’t really see how both the pat down and the x-ray scan could not be a clear and flagrant violation of the 4th amendment. If terrorists cause us to undermine our own Constitution, have they not won?

    I have a letterpress printing business, and we’ve just taken a very unusual step for us. I normally steer wayyy clear of anything political, especially relating to my work, but we’ve just released 4th Amendment Cards for people to wear on their person as they travel through the airport. I sure hope someone puts a stop to the TSA very soon.

  11. Pingback: Airplane Screenings: What’s The Big Deal? | Health Articles

  12. janine groff says:

    i was groped by tsa while flying out of orlando airport,, i am a 55 year old woman and have never been so violated in all my life. My husband had to watch as the felt up his wife of 35 years. Two weeks later i am still having nightmares about being sexually molested by tsa. Cant seem to get over it I wish the had offered me some therapy to deal with the aftermath of what they did to me.

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