(Editor’s note: Potential trigger warning for issues including sexual assault)
I caught the woman’s eye as the hand grazed under her breast. I turned away, feeling ashamed at not giving her modesty – but when I glanced back she was still looking at me. I felt indignant on her behalf and when it showed on my face, her hard eyes flickered and her clenched jaw nodded ever so slightly. An acknowledgment of her internal fury. It was maybe two seconds, but that tiny connection has stayed with me ever since. I slid my boots on and when I turned around, she was gone.
San Francisco International Airport has two full body scanners in the Terminal 1 security line I used; scanners that they seem to delight in using. I had heard the comments regarding the rock and hard place of American airport security. But it wasn’t until I was standing in line, removing my sweater on request, exposing parts of my body I would prefer not to, that I really understood it. Nonchalant Facebook updates of new TSA “boyfriends” had lulled me into complacency. But standing on the cold floor, half-naked with the possibility of being groped by a woman that I did not know nor trust simply because she has similar genitals as mine, brought it all home with a bang.
It is too much. We are not safer. This is the Animal Farm. As I prepared to walk through the X-ray, my mind blurred much the same way it does when men on the street start following me. A sort of shocked panic that I can never expect nor anticipate.
I breathed a sigh of relief as the guard waved me on. But as I was collecting my things, I saw the woman behind me was not so lucky. Every woman I know, every single one, has lived through somebody touching her inappropriately, against her will, when she did not want them to. Whether it was in her dorm when she was too afraid to say no, by the overly-affectionate choir teacher, her uncle, her classmates, or her boss. We all know that feeling. The one of intrusion and skin-crawling revulsion.
You can look at these pat-downs/nudie pics as one more heap on that pile. Won’t kill us, right? It will only stay with you for a while. That cupping of your crotch, that grazing of your nipple. It’s just another thing to smile through. Don’t you dare acknowledge that it is truly damaging, lest you look hysterical and weak. Don’t overreact. After all, neverminding that plenty of us were abused sexually by women, it’s just a woman doing it. Surely a stranger’s hand prodding your mons pubis in a glass room in front of everybody shouldn’t leave any lasting emotional scars.
This, mind you, is not even accounting for the amount of young men molested by other men who have found no other choice but to bury that shit so deep inside them, so much as a complaint at being fondled may feel like a confession of victimization. Just laugh it off, just swallow it. You’ll be fine.
I cannot imagine flying in the U.S. again, and for some time, I will have that privilege. But thanks to the country’s inability to get their railway act together, for millions, there is no other choice. To get to meetings, to see their lovers, to go to school and to be with family. They must take that trip.
Ink has been spilled on this issue, and I do not have the answers to sate. I just have a feeling. One of deep injustice, of real sorrow and of genuine disgust. I have the remnants of a single moment shared, with a woman in great distress, who had to submit to a stranger’s wandering hands as the world, casually, strode on by.