About a week ago, I took a trip and had to go through airport security. When I fly, as long as I have the time, I always try to “opt out” of the backscatter x-ray and go for a manual pat-down instead. There’s no pressing reason why I can’t go through the backscatter, but I have the right not to, and so I exercise it. In part, this is because “the right to say no” is not a right if it only exists hypothetically; the right to say no becomes real if and only if there are examples of people actually saying no successfully. I “opt out” at TSA screenings so that if there is someone watching who does have a strong desire not to be x-rayed, their ability to say “no” is strengthened by watching me say “no” and come to no harm. I acquired this ability by watching friends of mine “opt out” in front of me numerous times for the same reason. And I was incredibly nervous the first few times I did it, especially considering some of the horror stories about abusive TSA agents. But I have never come to any harm.
The other reason I opt out is that, by and large, performing a pat-down makes TSA agents uncomfortable. I don’t really have a personal beef with TSA agents as individuals; they are like the mildest form of cops. Some are seriously abusive power-tripping assholes, but most of them are young working-class people, often people of color, just trying to pay their bills — and at least they decided to pay their bills by becoming airport security, not actual cops. I don’t enjoy their discomfort. I’m not trying to “stick it to the man” by requesting that some nervous 23 year old woman with a job she hates come stick her fingers in my waistband and touch my ass. But, compared to the alternative scenario — where I am herded into a giant metal tube and some bored 23 year old (usually a dude), fully clothed, hits a button and blithely gazes at my naked bod — it at least humanizes the experience when both people involved acknowledge that it’s fucking awkward for a stranger in uniform to be touching my ass.
I have never gone through an airport x-ray machine and felt that the person behind the x-ray screen thought twice about what they were doing. But in almost every case, even though they never verbalize the word “sorry”, I have had TSA agents apologize for having to pat me down. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
TSA screenings are non-consensual. Sure, I didn’t have to go to the airport; I could’ve driven halfway across the country instead of flying; I could’ve paid $100 for TSA Pre; blah blah blah. But I would hope anybody reading this has a nuanced enough sensibility about consent to understand that TSA screenings are non-consensual. And that TSA pat-downs are non-consensual touch.
The reason this is important, and super relevant to conversations about consent as a felt sense within a culture of compulsory sexuality, as well as conversations about complicating the victim/abuser binary, is because touching passengers non-consensually is part of a TSA agent’s job. And some people really need those jobs. Including people who really don’t like touching others non-consensually. So, paying attention to how TSA agents (particularly young women and other people who may have a somatic understanding of what it feels like to have their own boundaries violated) negotiate a situation in which they, themselves, are being non-consensually forced (by threat of starvation) to non-consensually touch another person’s body — and are not allowed to verbally acknowledge that’s what’s going on — is a powerful microcosm of understanding the mechanisms by which we somatically navigate consent.
When I went through the TSA checkpoint last Sunday, the agent assigned to pat me down was a young white woman, probably in her early to mid-twenties, with a friendly smile and a speech impediment that suggested a disability. Already, we have a complicated power dynamic here. Because of the ways that our overall positionalities and our specific institutional positions within this situation intersect, each of us is both powerful and vulnerable. As a TSA agent, she officially has the power to make me miss my plane and, in an extreme scenario, to accuse me of “terrorism” and possibly detain me. As a “customer” I have the power to get her in trouble with her supervisor and, in an extreme scenario, possibly get her fired if I claim that she touched or talked to me inappropriately. If she is a person with a disability, the threat of losing her job is likely even more dire than it would be for most young people trying to work in this economy. We are each entering this encounter in some ways afraid of the other. But bracketing off larger institutional and social contexts, for the purposes of the “scene” in which I am being patted down by a security guard, the security guard is the “top.”
There is a verbal script that agents have to follow when they pat you down, and she follows it meticulously. (Not all agents do.) The TSA knows very well that this interaction is non-consensual and has high potential to feel like an intimate violation, and so they cover their asses by requiring the passenger to give verbal permission twice for each touch. She begins by describing exactly where she’s going to touch me, in what order, and with her hands in what position. “When I touch your inner thigh, I will use the back of my hand. Okay?” I nod. She asks if I would prefer to be screened in a private room. I would not. “I’m going to touch your back now, ma’am.” “I’m going to put my fingers inside your waistband, ma’am.” “Ma’am, please spread your legs apart.” (How rolequeer is a scenario in which the person topping you repeatedly calls you “Ma’am”.) She uses clinical, distancing language to describe my body. “Touching your buttocks, ma’am.” Whatever she is doing, she is certainly not “putting her hand on my ass.”
This is extremely detailed, ongoing, verbal communication about consent. It is not exactly “enthusiastic,” but I’m pretty certain that if any point I said, “Stop. I’m just going to go through the x-ray machine,” she would withdraw her touch instantly. I’m sure that, legally, this script exists to keep the TSA from getting in trouble for making agents stick their hands in peoples’ crotches. But some agents also genuinely use it as a way to communicate with the person they’re touching; to check in, comfort them, share information with them, and give them space to ask questions or say “no.” Others do not. Some smile, and shrug, and make little jokes, and express co-conspiratorial amusement at the awkwardness of the situation, and gently convey apology through their body language and tone of voice; some try to make smalltalk in an effort to initiate a casual, friendly, normal, chatty, human-connection layer alongside the weird “I am wearing rubber gloves and rolling up your pants to look for a weapon” layer; some try to create a feeling of safety by taking on an extremely intentional, professional, detached, almost doctor-like persona that brooks no possibility of intimacy or innuendo; different people have different ways of trying to communicate non-verbally that they, too, feel it’s weird they’re having to do this to you and that they hope you’re okay. Others do not. Some act bored or irritated or distracted or pushy, like it’s “just their job” to violate my consent and that if I have any problems with that, I’m a nuisance, a troublemaker, an annoying customer who’s fucking up their day. And some, although I’ve fortunately never been a victim of this so far (in part, probably, because I have almost always been patted down by women) take advantage of the situation to make themselves feel powerful, and to intentionally touch passengers in ways that make them uncomfortable and violated and that they cannot reasonably say “no” to if they want to make their plane.
And this is my point. Even though every TSA agent uses the exact same words and touches the passenger in the exact same places, some of those encounters feel more consensual than others. According to a legalistic definition of consent as permission, every encounter I have had with the TSA pat-down has been identical in terms of consent. But there is absolutely no question in my mind that this is not the case. “Consent” is an experience much more nuanced and rich and complex than a simple question of whether I said “yes” or “no.”
So, what got me thinking about that on this trip was that the woman who patted me down last Sunday was so good at making the encounter feel consensual — or more consensual than usual, or perhaps “minimally non-consensual”, anyway. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was she did, how she moved, how she inflected her voice and when and where she made eye-contact specifically, to inject a sense of non-violation into the situation. But it was something about her own gently expressed awkwardness in combination with her unquestionable competence and professionalism that did the trick. She made me feel like we were both humans stuck in a bad situation that neither one of us was happy about, but that it was also sort of funny in a sad way, and that it was a worse situation for me than it was for her, but we were agreed on the point that we mostly just both wanted to get it over with and get on with our lives without either one of us causing the other undue hardship. And my response to this, to my felt sense of consenting, was to be respectful of the fact that she was working and try and interact with her in ways that made her job easier, too. I smiled, and was friendly, and followed directions quickly without intentionally playing dumb (which I sometimes do), or asking annoying questions about the procedure that I already know the answers to (which I sometimes do), or exuding a petulant aura of pissed-off “this is some bullshit and I don’t want to be here and you should be ashamed of your participation in this security theater” (which, tbh, I sometimes do also). I anticipated her needs and moved my body in ways that would give her easier access, so that she wouldn’t have do more uncomfortable things like ask me to spread my legs further.
Basically, I was a hella good “bottom”, because she was a hella good “top”. What made her a good top was that she wasn’t trying to control me; she was just trying to get me through Security — in a situation where she’d been given control over me, and knew it, whether she wanted it or not. And the effort she put in to respect my consent actually made the encounter feel more consensual, which made me want to actively participate and collaborate with her.
Now, sure, we can have a whole ‘nother conversation about how it’s not actually a good thing for there to be nice, competent, professional cops (or TSA agents) out there, because that deludes people into believing that cops always have the capacity to respect peoples’ consent — and they don’t. Violating consent is a cop’s job. Cops don’t violate peoples’ consent because they could’ve been nice but the person did something wrong and deserved to get beaten up; cops violate peoples’ consent because that is their job. But, like I said, that’s a whole different essay.
I just wanted to use this one to talk about my experience with consent as a felt sense in a non-erotic touch context. Because I hoped it might resonate with others who have similar examples of having diverse experiences of embodied consensuality within a relatively narrow range of permission-states. (For example, with different medical professionals. Or maybe, for athletes, in different sporting or training scenarios.) And I feel like talking about those experiences in ways that don’t always involve sex is important. Because all of this can be extrapolated back to erotic intimacy. But the sex conversation is so complicated, and peoples’ relationships to their own sexualities are often so messy, it sometimes kind of obscures the felt part of the consent equation, because sex involves feeling so much other stuff besides just your own consent.
But, ultimately, the way this particular TSA agent touched me is the way I want people I play with to top me, or people with more institutional power than myself to fuck me (and the way I want to top and/or fuck people who are in more vulnerable positions than me): With an acknowledgement like, “It sucks that we can’t negotiate perfect consent because we’re trapped in a system that’s institutionally pressuring and threatening both of us in different ways right now, and that legitimately makes both of us a little scared of each other. But, on some meaningful level, we’re both choosing to be here anyway. I realize that what’s happening is complicated and I’d like to work together to get through that in the least traumatizing, most humanizing, most consensual way possible. And since you’re the more vulnerable party in this particular context, let’s focus on making sure you feel as okay as you can about what’s happening. But I want to feel okay about it, too.”