Patdown Assault Trauma Syndrome: fear, shaking, sleeplessness, nightmares, and flashbacks

by Sommer Gentry on September 11, 2012


As one reads the letters from victims of TSA patdowns released last week, strong patterns emerge. Nearly every letter uses one of these turns of phrase: demeaning, degrading, dehumanizing, humiliating, violated, traumatized, sexually assaulted.

I want to focus on the travelers who described what happened afterwards: how did being coerced into letting TSA employees handle their genitals affect the victims? Many people cried and dissolved into shaking or nausea.

“I stood there holding my baby in shock. I did not move for almost a minute. I stood there, an American citizen, a mom traveling with a baby with special needs formula, sexually assaulted by a government official. I began shaking and felt completely violated, abused and assaulted by the TSA agent. I shook for several hours, and woke up the next day shaking.”

“It is now over a week since I endured the following incident at Denver airport and I am still in total shock and intensely sickened that a situation like this can occur at any U.S. airport. I have NEVER been treated with such lack of respect in all the many miles I have traveled here and internationally. Additionally, in my clinical practice I cannot imagine treating a patient in this manner! It was dehumanizing.

“I cannot emphasize enough that I was totally, but totally, shell-shocked. Nothing like this had ever happened in my life before and I felt like I was in a totalitarian dictatorship. No rights, belongings, no personal worth, nothing. I was nauseated to the extreme and could barely think. Of course by this time my flight had departed.”

“This thorough patdown was horrifying. (Please forgive this most graphic and embarrassing description.) She ran her hand and patted (more like groped) every part of my body, all around and over my breasts, up my legs, and literally patted every inch of my groin – front and then back. I felt like crying, hitting her, curling up in a ball, and screaming all at once. I have never felt like I had been sexually assaulted before this incident. I was shaking and infuriated for hours.”

“They touched my genitals four times and then my breasts. I was sobbing by the end of it. I am sentenced to this violation again tomorrow and every time I fly. I am an abuse survivor and this is traumatic to require this violation. I must fly home tomorrow and I don’t know how I’ll get through it.”

“I have a history of physical as well as sexual abuse, and I experienced the rough touching as violating. My PTSD kicked in and I began to cry. I was asked again if I would like a private screening, but to a person who has been violated, there is less security in a private area than being in a public area. By now there were 4-5 TSA workers gathered around me and focusing the attention of other travelers on me. I again began to cry and shake.

“I am a strong person. I know all the coping techniques for handling a trauma-inducing situation and my techniques failed me. I want to be free to travel by air and enjoy my professional as well as personal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Others assaulted by the TSA reported sleep disturbances, nightmares, and flashbacks to the experience.

“I spent many a sleepless night since this experience wondering what I did wrong to deserve this type of treatment by my government.”

“On November 2, 2010 I arrived at SeaTac airport where, unbeknownst to me, the intrusive patdown protocol had been instituted. I really could not have imagined that some stranger would put her hand up my legs to my groin, down my buttocks, and across my breasts that were not even encased in a bra – and all this was done with hundreds of people milling around to watch the ‘show’.  My initial reaction was to scream or to use my hands to protect myself. At the gate and on the plane, out of total frustration and anger I fought back tears. For the next four days while I was attending a major international scientific meeting I had difficulty falling asleep as I relived the awful experience. I had nightmares about it and wondered if I would have to travel across the country by train to get home. The difficulty falling asleep has persisted and the process of writing this letter has only worsened the insomnia.

“I was powerless. Some strange woman was going to put her hands on my breasts and groin and I had absolutely no recourse. When I returned to Seattle I resigned from [a group] which meets in Washington DC, because I refuse to travel by air until this process is corrected.”

“She was subjected to the most intimidating and humiliating sexual molestation I have ever witnessed. As a former rape victim in college, she was forced to relive this horrific event as she was reduced to tears and trembling. Numerous women who fly daily experience similar trauma, many quietly, as our government uses these highly sexual and intrusive measures to ‘protect’ us. My wife’s horrific experience has caused this million-mile flyer subsequent nightmares, sleeplessness, and a genuine fear of flying.”

Still others described ongoing emotional symptoms: powerlessness, rage, fear, and depression.

“The further humiliation and violation of the patdown is more than I can tolerate. I wish to make a formal complaint of sexual abuse and harassment. No one should have to endure having their body felt up three times in a 30-day period. I feel violated and depressed and disconsolate about what has happened to me and I am very fearful about what I will endure when I travel again. What can I do to be completely assured that no TSA person will put their hands on my body? I can not stress enough to you how outraged and upset I am. I think that if another TSA person touches me again, I may strike them.”

“The patdown was very deliberate and invasive causing soreness in my groin area for several hours. I believe the patdown was an invasion of privacy as well as an assault, in addition to being embarrassing, physically painful, and causing me long term emotional distress. I can not physically or mentally withstand the same experience again. [Must] I discontinue flying until some sanity has returned to your organization?”

“Your agent manipulated my breasts – pushing her hand under and in between them. Then she proceeded to tell me she was going to check my inner thighs, starting at the juncture of my upper leg. However, your agent was either so ignorant of human anatomy or simply a sexual pervert hiding behind a badge because she rammed – and I emphasize the word rammed – her hand up in between my labia until it hit my pelvic bone. Then she spread my labia and felt all the way down my leg for whatever she felt I must have been hiding. I thought at first that this was a clumsy and insensitive move on her part but she repeated the same procedure when ‘investigating’ the left-hand side of my labia and inner leg. I burst into tears at this demeaning and dehumanizing invasion of my privacy and could not think or see clearly.

“I have no choice but to fly every week, so I must subject myself to the physical, invasive torture every single time I trip the metal detector, which will be every time because of my metal implants in my hips. I love my job and desperately need the work but I may have to quit because I am becoming depressed and moody. To be honest, I feel that I am suffering from stress that is typical of victims of sexual assault. I feel hopeless and helpless. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, and I am finding it difficult to do my job. I know full well that [TSA agents] have the power and authority to deny me access to the plane that I need to board to go to work or to return to what little sanctity I have left in my home.”

As the latter letter-writer notes, the symptoms that all these victims describe are the same as those associated with sexual assault trauma – crying, shaking, and nausea in the moment; nightmares, insomnia, and lasting fear and depression as the trauma is processed. It matters little whether TSA’s search procedures are legally classified as sexual assault or not – for a significant population, the impact of a patdown and sexual trauma will be similar, and profound.

What’s heartbreaking is how worthless and pointless all of this pain is. How many ceramic knives or weapons of mass destruction has the TSA ever found in between the folds of a woman’s labia? How exactly could having strangers spreading open the skin at the entrance to a teenage girl’s vagina against her will make her ‘safe’?

TSA Administrator John Pistole has said of patdowns and body scanners, “Yeah, it’s inconvenient.” Compare that to what the Supreme Court had to say about bodily integrity in UNION PAC. RY. CO. v. BOTSFORD, 141 U.S. 250 (1891):

The inviolability of the person is as much invaded by a compulsory stripping and exposure as by a blow. To compel any one, and especially a woman, to lay bare the body, or to submit it to the touch of a stranger, without lawful authority, is an indignity, an assault, and a trespass; and no order of process, commanding such an exposure or submission, was ever known to the common law in the administration of justice between individuals.

The excerpts above are drawn from just one sample of TSA complaint letters from the months of November and December 2010. Many thousands of others have similar tales to tell. How many more men, women, and children will suffer before someone with even a trace of compassion intervenes to set things right at the TSA?

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Phil Bartle)

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