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Are Patdowns Sexual Harassment?

Patdowns include behaviors and treatment defined as sexual abuse.

Earlier this week, Congressional staffers averted their eyes, too embarrassed to watch Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff demonstrating a patdown. The new procedures shown at a specially convened briefing, used a young female TSA volunteer. "In front of a room of 200 people, they touched her breasts and her buttocks," a House staffer who attended the briefing told Politico. "People were averting their eyes. The TSA was trying to demonstrate 'this is not so bad,' but it made people so uncomfortable to watch."

Experiencing or even witnessing a patdown may be disturbing to healthy members of a community for good reason -- because this behavior is defined as sexual abuse by the legal and psychological professions; the "Encyclopedia of Forensic and Legal Medicine" lists as sexual abuse "fondling of breasts and genital areas."

This incident raises questions about why TSA personnel consider the patdowns "not too bad," while others are shocked. Does the TSA harbor a culture of denial around the invasiveness of these behaviors?

"Sex abusers' denial of their offenses poses serious problems for their victims, treatment providers, and researchers," researchers found in a 2007 study published in the Journal of Trauma Dissociation, which revealed that sex abuse victims are likely to dissociate -- i.e., tune out as sexual abuse takes place, and then later be prone to dissociation throughout their lives.

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Could viewing sexual fondling as "not too bad" be a symptom of that disassociation? If so, the subset of sexual abuse victims who grow up to become sex offenders might be uniquely qualified to perform patdowns, while others find them inappropriate."All sex offenders have a tendency to misread social cues by others and are poor at identifying emotions such as anger or fear in their victims," summarized a research team reviewing the literature.

Twenty-seven percent of females and sixteen percent of males in the U.S. are survivors of sexual abuse, according to a 1998 study. This population is more likely to appear on both the receiving and the perpetrating side of sexual abuse, Australian psychologists found in a 2002 study.

For abuse survivors on the receiving end, patdowns can reactivate post-traumatic stress by "triggering flashbacks, not just the thoughts and feelings they experienced, but perhaps other sensory experiences," Jennifer Marsh, director of the National Sexual Assault Hotline for the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) told Newsweek.

But on the perpetrating side, the TSA could be a dream job for sex offenders. A 1996 study found that the odds of becoming a molester were 5.42 times greater for adult male victims of childhood sexual abuse than for adult male non-victims. Moreover male sex offenders were found to be 3.5 times more likely to re-offend sexually if they had poor social skills. Thinking it's "not too bad" to fondle the private parts of thousands of people per week could indicate qualifications on both counts.

Obviously, many TSA personnel take the patdown job for economic reasons. However, since the TSA does not screen personnel to determine a history of sexual offense, and given the prevalence of abusers, it cannot be ruled out that a certain percentage of TSA personnel, are themselves sexual abuse victims, and potential sexual offenders. A high percentage of male abuse victims will not self-report as such.

It's also possible that these procedures pose other health risks both to TSA personnel and the general public.

"To have people submit to pornography, either through the x-ray or through being groped, is to undermine the mental and physical well being of an entire nation. Torture takes many forms, humiliation and violation is one of them," says Deena Metzger, poet and author of "Ruin and Beauty."

To take action, sign a petition here to investigate the TSA, or sign up for heath activism alerts, health and environmental insights, and radio at: www.healthjournalist.com

 

Health journalist Alison Rose Levy, MA serves as Media Director of Friends of Health.

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