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Holiday travel stokes sex crime victims' TSA pat-down fears

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Sexual assault victims may be traumatized by the TSA's enhanced pat-down procedure, advocacy groups say.
Sexual assault victims may be traumatized by the TSA's enhanced pat-down procedure, advocacy groups say.
  • Critics glibly refer to TSA pat downs as sexual assault, but it's more than hyperbole for some
  • Sexual assault survivor says she won't fly because it gives TSA control over her body
  • TSA worked with sexual assault victims to ensure pat downs don't raise concerns
  • Man tells advocacy group he nixed flight plans because he was molested at age 8

(CNN) -- It was days after her pat down that Marcia reacted.

Not that the enhanced frisk at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport wasn't unsettling at the time; she had just allowed her mind to take her elsewhere as the agent patted down her breasts, groin and buttocks.

But sitting at home days later, as she made restaurant reservations for a trip to Las Vegas, Marcia snapped.

"All of a sudden, I got this wave of anxiety," the 58-year-old said. "I was feeling just fear, powerlessness. I was nauseated and I wanted to throw up, and I cried, cried for hours."

Marcia, who asked that CNN use only her first name, was molested by her uncle for almost a decade until she was 12. Her airport experience, and that of others, has advocacy groups concerned that the Transportation Security Administration's pat-down procedures could traumatize some sex crime victims.

As the holiday travel season ramps up again, airports will see a spike in fliers passing through their security lanes. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, several critics of the pat-down procedures, including John Tyner of don't-touch-my-junk fame, used terms like "sexual assault" and "groping" to describe the pat downs.

For some sex crime victims, that's more than hyperbole.

Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said her organization takes calls on a variety of matters, from sex offender laws to the state's adult entertainment fee to Mike Tyson's boxing license.

Never, she said, has her group received the number of calls it has fielded over the issue of TSA pat downs and full-body scanners. She expects another bump in the number of concerns as more people undergo the latest security procedures.

Lowdown on pat downs
Several weeks ago, the TSA implemented new security procedures involving full-body scanning machines and "enhanced" pat-down procedures.

The TSA requires that anyone setting off a metal detector and then refusing to be screened in the scanner be searched manually by one of its agents. Refusing to do so can result in a fine of up to $11,000.

The full-body scanners penetrate a person's clothing and produce a digital image of the person's body. Some fliers find this to be intrusive, while others are concerned that radiation from the machines poses health risks, a claim the TSA has denied.

The TSA instructs its agents to tell passengers opting for a pat down that the agent will be running her or his hands over the passenger's body.

In a recent op-ed, TSA Administrator John Pistole wrote that only 3% of passengers are patted down. The procedure, he said, helps the TSA find explosives, chemical weapons and other dangerous items that might go undetected without the new procedures.

The complaints that the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault has fielded range from being photographed or touched by a stranger to feeling powerless as TSA agents take control in a procedure involving a person's body, she said.

Though the TSA estimates that only 3 percent of passengers are subjected to pat downs -- and then, only after they have set off a metal detector or declined to step into a full-body scanner -- Burrhus-Clay said the mere prospect has some people scared to fly.

"They were afraid to even take the chance of this happening, of falling apart, getting hysterical, starting to cry," she said.

It's not only the pat downs, she said. Victims of child pornography may feel traumatized knowing a photograph of their body was taken by one of the scanner machines, Burrhus-Clay said. They may have doubts that the system is secure, despite the TSA's assurances that the photos will never be disseminated.

Though exact numbers vary depending on the organization, millions of Americans have experienced some form of sexual abuse. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network says one in six women and one in 33 men are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.

An average of almost 2 million people daily boarded planes in 2009, according to Federal Aviation Administration.

The TSA's new screening procedures pose a Catch-22 for sex crime victims because the body scanners and enhanced pat downs are integral to ferreting out plastic explosives. The agency cannot make exceptions without jeopardizing passenger safety, it says.

"We are sensitive to the concerns of all passengers and work to balance those concerns with the very real threat that our adversaries will attempt to use explosives to carry out attacks on planes," TSA spokesman Greg Soule said in an e-mail.

Polls indicate the traveling American public largely approves of the body scanners but is markedly less tolerant of the pat downs.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, said from the House floor last month that legislators should see images of themselves on the body scanners and submit to pat downs to better understand what he and other critics call an invasion of privacy.

In summarizing his bill for the American Traveler Dignity Act, he told his fellow representatives, "It removes the immunity from anybody in the federal government that does anything that you or I can't do. If you can't grope another person and if you can't X-ray people and endanger them with possible X-ray, you can't take nude photographs of individuals, why do we allow the government to do it?"

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.

Soule says that the procedures are vital to security and that the TSA has worked with numerous groups, including victims of sexual assault, "to make sure our procedures take their concerns into account."

One victim says there are some concerns that can't be addressed as long as the pat downs are in place. Maggie, a 41-year-old Pittsburgh woman who requested that her real name not be used, said she will not be flying anytime soon because she cannot give a TSA agent that power.

Maggie said she was raped by her music teacher when she was 15 and 16, sometimes as often as two or three times a day, and the teacher threatened to kill her if she ever told her parents or authorities.

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"This type of very personal abuse, it just affects you deeply. Even going to the doctor can be tough," she said.

Maggie and her husband travel a lot for business and pleasure, and Maggie has two hip replacements, so she's accustomed to being searched after setting off metal detectors. She was patted down in August, before the new procedures were put in place, and "had to take a couple of deep breaths."

She and her husband have a vacation out West planned in January, and Maggie said they'll be driving because of the enhanced pat downs.

She's averse to the scanners at the airport because her hip surgeries have already subjected her to many X-rays, and the pat downs are too daunting to her. Plus, there's the matter of being helpless to tell the TSA agent no, she said, because refusing to be frisked can command an $11,000 fine.

"There's a power thing. It's not about rape. It's usually about power and control. It can bring all those feelings of helplessness back," she said.

Marcia, the molestation victim, said the control issue is why she was so disturbed by her frisk last month. Her uncle was a large, imposing man, and she always felt powerless when he abused her, she said.

"That's kind of how the TSA is," Marcia said. "You have to do what they say. They're going to punish you in some way for not submitting to what they're telling you."

Both women said they respect that the TSA needs to keep passengers safe, and they wonder if there is additional training that agents could undergo to address their concerns.

The TSA says it has already conferred with 70 groups representing a range of disabilities and medical conditions. The agency also requires that a person of the same gender perform the pat down, and the passenger has the right to request a private screening and a witness, the TSA says.

"Our officers are trained to treat all passengers with dignity and respect, and to fully communicate with each passenger to ensure they understand the process throughout screening," Soule said.

The same-sex pat down may not alleviate concerns among all sex crime survivors, said Delilah Rumburg, CEO for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Everybody's in a different place with their healing. ... We don't know for sure what percentage of people would react that way.
--Delilah Rumburg, National Sexual Violence Resource Center CEO

She recently received an e-mail from a man who had been molested by a church elder when he was 8 years old. He had canceled some upcoming travel plans for fear of being patted down.

"I'm not sure how I'd react if a man started touching me. The only person who can touch me is my wife," Rumburg said, paraphrasing his e-mail.

Rumburg is telling sex crime victims who must fly to steel themselves, tap their support systems and talk to their therapists ahead of time. At the same time, she hopes TSA agents receive training on what to do if someone shows signs of trauma during the search: trembling, crying, jerking away.

"Everybody's in a different place with their healing," she said. "We don't know for sure what percentage of people would react that way."

Returning Tuesday from their trip to Las Vegas, Marcia and her husband knew her artificial knees would set off the metal detector. They went through security at a different concourse so she would have the option of the full-body scanner, she said. She couldn't bear enduring what happened in Phoenix again.

After passing through security, she explained her dilemma to a TSA agent, who escorted her to a back corridor so she could reach her concourse, a 20-minute walk, Marcia estimates.

"I'd rather walk two miles than go through that pat-down procedure again."