For sexual crime victims, TSA pat-downs can be 're-traumatizing'

The TSA's latest efforts to increase airport security include 'enhanced' pat-downs that have been criticized as invasive. Rape counselors advise that victims know their rights to protect themselves.

By , Correspondent

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    A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) worker rubs her hands across a female traveler's chest during the 'enhanced' pat-down search at Denver International Airport Nov. 23. Passengers who have experienced sexual trauma may have difficulty with the TSA's new search protocols.
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As the outcry grows against the new security screenings at US airports, one population may face a special burden at TSA checkpoints: victims of rape or sexual assault who are now confronted with a procedure that they feel explicitly strips them of control over their bodies.

The experience “can be extremely re-traumatizing to someone who has already experienced an invasion of their privacy and their body,” says Amy Menna, a counselor and professor at the University of South Florida who has a decade’s experience researching and treating rape survivors.

Nationwide, an estimated 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, according to a consensus of figures compiled by the Department of Justice, FBI, and Centers for Disease control. About a quarter of a million people each year report a sexual assault.

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Dr. Menna recommends that people know their rights so that they can avoid the sense of powerlessness when going through a security check.

When Menna undertook her own Thanksgiving travel, she, like 98 percent of travelers, opted for the digital scanner, preferring the X-ray search to a physical one. She discovered, however, that her back brace makes her ineligible for the scanning machine, and therefore received the “enhanced” pat-down. The procedure, new as of Nov. 1, takes about 4 minutes and requires forceful contact with every portion of the body.

While most passengers report no problems with the scans, the pat-downs have received thousands of complaints. Even John Pistole, the TSA administrator, acknowledged in last week’s Senate hearings that when he received one, he found it “more invasive than I’m used to.”

“Any type of violation of physical boundaries can set back a rape survivor in their treatment, in their therapy, in their recovery,” says Menna.

“There’s a lack of sensitivity to individuals’ emotional states when undergoing this public violation,” she adds, citing the dismissive brusqueness of the procedure.

Many passengers don't know – and aren’t informed – ­that they have the right to a private screening, or to have another person present at that private screening.

“Know your rights,” Menna says, “and make sure they are not violated.”

There’s a detailed list of passenger rights during screenings available here, and Firedoglake.com has put together information – including a printable summary of your rights – here. “We wanted something people could download and bring to the airport, so they could look and see what their rights are,” says Jennifer Hamsher, creator of the website.

“I would recommend survivors request a private screening with at least two people present,” says Menna. “It can be empowering to ask for your needs to be met, and to ask for your privacy to be respected. It allows you to establish a measure of control over the situation."

“It’s about self-care: get there early enough to take care of yourself, so if a screening process takes longer, you’re not under the pressure – the duress – of having a plane to catch,” she advises.

Menna also recommends appealing to the compassion of the TSA agent performing the search. “Let them know you have a history of trauma, and ask them to be sensitive to the nature of the invasive procedure. You don’t need to say, ‘Oh, I was raped’ – you should say only as much as you want to say – but let them know you have a history of violation, and ask them to be sensitive to that.”

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, advises survivors who need help or support to access the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or access the online hotline at online.rainn.org.

Menna asks, "Is there an alternate solution to an invasive procedure that can be re-traumatizing?"

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