Archive for the ‘violence’ Category

I’ve been so serious these past two weeks, it’s time to take a brief break to gloat. As my long-time readers know, neither of those modes is my usual. I’m not typically a single-minded terrier, and I try not to be too smug. But sometimes The Kitty just has to pounce on an injustice when it’s fresh and new and potentially reversible. The TSA debacle pushed all of my buttons: Possible harm to my kids? Check. Sexualized violence? Check. Creating novel forms of bodily experience? Ugh – check. Trampling the rule of law? Checkmate!

So let this be my “Moment of Smug,” to paraphrase Colbert. Over the past few days, my post debunking the right-wing meme of TSA favoritism toward Muslim women drew thousands of hits – with this result:

In case you can’t quite read the graphic – and even if you can (because hey, I’m gloating!) – my post, “Not Exempt,” is the first listed on Google after the breaking news links. The first. Number one. Nummer eins. Woo hoo!

Starting tomorrow, instead of all-TSA all-the-time, I’ll be going back to a broader mix of posts. But for a few sweet moments, I’m going to savor my ascendancy over Fox News. Yes, I realize my post floated to the top of Google mainly because 100,000 other posts all regurgitated the same right-wing distortion, while I offered a fresh view. In spite of this, I know many readers merely sought to confirm their wingnutty views. (From my comment spam folder: a commenter with the clever handle “fuck you” tells me to “get fucked.”)

Never mind the haters. I’m still tickled that my information rose above the scum of Islamophobic disinformation. I guess I assumed disinformation always wins because it never fights fair. Some of us feel an inconvenient obligation to the truth, which hobbles you in the fight. It’s lovely to see that sometimes the truth does rise to the top. I’m happier yet that my post might have planted a few seeds of awareness in the minds of people who were sincerely questioning.

Thanks to my readers – old and new – for hanging with me! I’m not dropping the TSA story. You can expect updates when I feel moved to provide them, but they’ll be jumbled in with my usual mishmash of sex, feminism, parenting, kittehs, and any stuff that catches my fancy or pisses me off. For those playing along at home, I’ve put together a list of my TSA posts to date:

Also, if you’re not reading Cogitamus, do pop over there. Lisa Simeone has been covering the abuses of the security state in depth for years. Her co-bloggers are excellent too – among them litbrit, who like me wants Sarah Palin to explain her “wild ride.”

It remains to be seen if the TSA will really be forced to revamp their policies. So far, they seem terrified of losing face. In the meantime, though:

(Smug kitteh from ICHC?)

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Am I the only person struck by the Orwellian weirdness of calling a grope-down an “enhanced” pat-down? The term seems to originate with the TSA. Their pusillanimous shill, “Blogger Bob” at the official TSA blog, ran a post titled “Enhanced Pat-downs” back on August 27. The language is theirs. (Weirdly but typically, in that post Bob never defined what the “enhancements” would entail. Now we know.)

Has anyone else made the connection between “enhanced” pat-downs and “enhanced” interrogation techniques? I haven’t seen anything on the terminological connection, neither in the mainstream media nor the blogs I follow. My husband and I each independently saw a connection. What do you think?

While chipping away at different facets of the TSA debacle, I’ve been haunted by bigger questions – ones much harder to answer than how safe the scanners are or whether the grope-downs constitute “sexual assault.” These are existential questions for the United States, for democracy, for our basic decency and humanity: How did we come to this pass? How is it possible for my country to commit acts that in any other context would be deemed sexual assault? How can Americans allow our government to commit them in our name?

We – the American people – haven’t just become more fearful since 9/11. We’ve become more callous, too. From Afghanistan to Guantanamo, we have tolerated torture that promises to “keep us safe.” No wonder a silent majority appears prepared to tolerate virtual strip-searches and government-sponsored groping. As Adam Serwer argues eloquently at TAPPED, many of those livid at the TSA abuses supported the PATRIOT Act and every subsequent grotesquerie aimed at Muslims and foreigners. These folks are only angry now that we’re feeling the reach – nay, the grab – of the security state on our own flesh.

I have to wonder if Abu Ghraib, in particular, lowered the bar for sexual abuse. The differences between the sexualized torment inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the new TSA procedures are important, of course. President Bush never publicly affirmed the Abu Ghraib abuses, while President Obama has publicly defended the TSA. The torment inflicted on the Abu Ghraib prisoners was considerably more severe, including the outright rape of children, according to Seymour Hersh, who first broke the scandal.

However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Abu Ghraib coarsened us – that it put sexual abuse on the menu of techniques routinely employed by the security state. Sure, Lynndie England went to jail for her deeds, but her commanding general, Janis Karpinski, was merely relieved of her duties. Donald Rumsfeld, who Karpinski said authorized the abuses (and I believe her), lives the comfortable life of a retired war criminal. Rummie’s former boss is currently profiting handsomely from a partially-plagiarized memoir.

At the same time, it’s probably an oversimplification to say the new TSA policies are a direct descendant of Abu Ghraib. It seems equally likely that they sprang from the same source – a willingness to allow democracy, the rule of law, and basic human rights to be abrogated after 9/11.

The post-9/11 climate, in turn, has deeper roots. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a symposium on “Islamophobia” at my university. One speaker said that the hatreds that took hold after 9/11 violate America’s greatest values. Another speaker contended that our paranoid responses are very American indeed, reaching back to the xenophobia of the so-called Progressive Era and beyond.

They were both right.

The United States has a tradition of championing justice and equality, liberty and privacy. It also has a tradition of racism, inequality, xenophobia, and willingness to jettison the rule of law in wartime. Unfortunately the gap between the two traditions has often been a gulf between ideals (the first tradition) and practice (the second).

At that forum, we watched an ABC Primetime segment that tested Americans’ willingness to stand up for a Muslim woman being refused service in a shop:

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

If you tear up at the clip – well, I did too. And then I asked myself why civil courage should seem so exceptional and so deeply touching.

I’m beginning to think the public outcry over naked body scanners and grope-downs might just force a change at the TSA. Today, John Pistole finally admitted that the agency went too far in one case where a screener reached inside a woman’s underwear. As these stories multiply, the pressure on Pistole, Napolitano, and Obama will continue to mount.

Let’s say we win the struggle against TSA abuses. Let’s say they agree to keep their hands off our genitals and to reserve the naked-body scanners only for cases where there’s probable cause. What next? What would it take to dismantle the out-of-control security state that spies on its own citizens and kills and tortures brown people overseas, all in the name of freedom? Which tradition will we choose – that of liberty and justice for all, or safety at any price? As a nation, will we continue to be the six people who perpetuated abuse or the twenty-two who stood by silently? Or will we have the courage to become the thirteen who spoke up?

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It’s become a cottage industry, this business of coming up with new phrases to fit the acronym TSA. Read the two following stories and see if you can come up with a better title.

Story 1: Multiple breast cancer survivors have reported TSA harassment due to wearing a breast prosthesis. A Charlotte-based flight attendant, Cathy Bossi, underwent an “enhanced” patdown because as a survivor, she worried about radiation exposure from the naked scanners. MSNBC reports:

The TSA screener “put her full hand on my breast and said, ‘What is this?’ ” Bossi told the station. “And I said, ‘It’s my prosthesis because I’ve had breast cancer.’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ll need to show me that.’ “

Bossi said she removed the prosthetic from her bra. She did not take the name of the agent, she said, “because it was just so horrific of an experience, I couldn’t believe someone had done that to me. I’m a flight attendant. I was just trying to get to work.”

This is just one reason why exempting the pilots from screening solves nothing (apart from relieving the government from worrying about the pilots walking out on their jobs). (Bossi gives additional detail on her experience here.)

But there’s more. MSNBC continues:

Marlene McCarthy of Rhode Island said she went through the body scanner and was told by a TSA agent to step aside. In “full view of everyone,” McCarthy said in an e-mail, the agent “immediately put the back of her hand on my right side chest and I explained I wore a prosthesis.

“Then, she put her full hands … one on top and one on the bottom of my ‘breast’ and moved the prosthesis left, right, up, down and said ‘OK.’ I was so humiliated.

And the stories just go on: a woman with a pacemaker, another breast cancer survivor, a man who uses crutches, a woman whose hip replacement hardware trips all the red flags, now more than ever … and that’s just in this one brief MSNBC report.

Story 2: At Detroit’s airport, Thomas Sawyer, a retired special-ed teacher, was selected for secondary screening after his urostomy bag showed up on the naked scanner. A bladder-cancer survivor, he needs to wear this bag to collect urine, since he had to surgically trade in his bladder for more years of life. Here’s how MSNBC reports the rest of his experience:

Due to his medical condition, Sawyer asked to be screened in private. “One officer looked at another, rolled his eyes and said that they really didn’t have any place to take me,” said Sawyer. “After I said again that I’d like privacy, they took me to an office.”

Sawyer wears pants two sizes too large in order to accommodate the medical equipment he wears. He’d taken off his belt to go through the scanner and once in the office with security personnel, his pants fell down around his ankles. “I had to ask twice if it was OK to pull up my shorts,” said Sawyer, “And every time I tried to tell them about my medical condition, they said they didn’t need to know about that.”

Before starting the enhanced pat-down procedure, a security officer did tell him what they were going to do and how they were going to it, but Sawyer said it wasn’t until they asked him to remove his sweatshirt and saw his urostomy bag that they asked any questions about his medical condition.

“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.”

Humiliated, upset and wet, Sawyer said he had to walk through the airport soaked in urine, board his plane and wait until after takeoff before he could clean up.

(Read the whole story here.)

There are so many layers of horror in these stories, I hardly know where to begin.

Anyone who has survived the pain, indignity, and fear of cancer and its treatment deserves nothing but kindness and compassion. I know that first-hand, having seen my spouse and my sister suffer. The same is true for every other disease and disability. People suffer enough from nature’s ravages; why add human callousness to the mix?

Passengers deserve to be heard, not ignored, when they try to explain their medical situation. As far as I can see, the TSA response is repeatedly, hey, we’re just doing our job, so get out of our way. (Subtext: STFU.)

No one – regardless of their physical ability – deserves humiliation. The TSA may appear to be applying policies “consistently” by not exempting passengers with disability or medical conditions, but the ultimate effect is profoundly discriminatory. If you wear a prosthesis or an ostomy bag, your choice is to face humiliation – or remain grounded, regardless of how far away you live from loved ones. The ableist impact of the TSA procedures is yet another instance of ostensibly “same” treatment resulting in gross inequalities.

And how ’bout that vaunted TSA professionalism? There’s no private space available when Mr. Sawyer asks for it. The officer responds with an eye roll. Neither of the two agents have the basic human decency (never mind professionalism!) to apologize.

As for a “private” screening being a right? Mr. Sawyer had to fight for it. Ms. Bossi was given it. Ms. McCarthy never even had a chance to demand it; her humiliation occurred in full public view.

Mr. Sawyer’s experience wasn’t as clearly sexualized as that of the breast cancer survivors, but all of these people are being harmed by the confluence of the rampaging security state with ableism and contempt for bodily autonomy.

One other factor is in play, too: the obviously woeful training of TSA officers. Badtux explains just how perfunctory his own training was when he once began a similar government job. Badtux views the inconsistency of TSA grope-searches results largely from half-assed training. Obviously the erraticness becomes even more egregious as soon as TSA officer lay hands on non-normative bodies: children, gender-variant folks, and people with disabilities.

Be that as it may, the TSA is still in violation of its own policies. Here’s what its website says about “assistive devices and mobility aids”:

  • Security Officers will need to see and touch your prosthetic device, cast or support brace as part of the screening process.
  • Security Officers will not ask nor require you to remove your prosthetic device, cast, or support brace.
  • During the screening process, please do not remove or offer to remove your prosthetic device.
  • You have the option of requesting a private screening at any time during the screening of your prosthetic device, cast or support brace.
  • You have the right to refuse the offer of a private screening; however, you will need to allow the screening to be conducted publicly if you wish to proceed beyond the security checkpoint.

The TSA has clearly violated the second point. Also, re: point one, there’s a difference between touching the device (a breast prosthesis, say) and moving it around in a way that draws public attention to the fact that it is indeed a prosthesis. The TSA also violated the fourth point in these stories.

In the face of the TSA breaking its own rules and violating basic human rights, Obama says only this (again via MSNBC):

“I understand people’s frustrations, and what I’ve said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety. And you also have to think through are there other ways of doing it that are less intrusive,” Obama said.

“But at this point, TSA in consultation with counterterrorism experts have indicated to me that the procedures that they have been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing.”

In other words: underpants bomber! underpants bomber!

Maybe it’s hard to imagine now, President Obama, but someday you too will likely live with a disability. This is not just an issue that affects a few unlucky elderly people. Many people living with disability are young or in their middle years. Disability is in all of our futures, unless we die young and violently. It will touch all of us, whether we’re now temporarily able-bodied, partially disabled, or living with disability 24/7.

There’s got to be a more compassionate course. How ’bout we start with some well-trained bomb-sniffing beagles, serious security for cargo, and real checks of employees working behind-the-scenes at airport? That might keep the TSA so busy, they’d have no time to mess with ostomy bags and prosthetic breasts.

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I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe during this explanation of the new TSA policies:

(Go here if you can’t see the clip.)

It perfectly sums up the Homeland Security response:

Q: So why do I have to go through all of this?

A: 9/11.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

(But hey, what’s with all the questions? Don’t you know loyal Americans just do as they’re told? Have we gone soft since the heyday of that great American, Joe McCarthy?)

This snippet from Colbert includes some of those moments when Colbert’s parody is uncomfortably close to actual bigotry, and you wonder if the audience is laughing with or at homophobia. Ditto for Colbert’s use of “hermaphrodite,” which is exactly the term his character would use, but – ugh.

(Click here if you can’t see the clip.)

Kudos to Colbert for raising a question that’s been bugging me too: What genius came up with the name “Rapiscan”?

Dave Barry complains in this NPR interview about finding out from the TSA that he’s got a dire physical condition: a blurred groin. Less jokingly, when host Melissa Block repeats the TSA line about the grope searches not being punishment for folks who opt out, Barry replies:

Well, I would say whoever wrote that it’s not punitive was not having his or her groin fondled at the time.

Jessi at The Sexademic has some satirical ideas on how to protest the searches.

Badtux the Snarky Penguin offers some darkly accurate new slogans for the TSA.

And finally, Daniel Solove at the legal blog Concurring Opinions shows us the fun to be had with a TSA Playmobile kit!

Sadly, the TSA Playmo set is no longer sold in stores, so you’ll just have to check out the rest of Solove’s wickedly wonderful post.

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Who owns liberty? Republicans or Democrats? Tea Partiers or the ACLU?

Legislators in New Jersey this week came up with a novel response: All of the above. This video makes me want to stand up and cheer. Republicans and Democrats – and even an ACLU rep – all came together in opposing TSA abuses.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

Privacy and liberty are basic American values. Nobody holds a monopoly on them. We all have a stake. We all have common ground here, irrespective of our other differences.

That’s why I’m dismayed when I see journalists, bloggers, and commenters pinning the TSA abuses on

You can see that the blaming is almost a Rorschach test for people’s pet fears and favorite enemies.

So far, I don’t see the left playing the blame game with quite such zeal as the right. This is partly because Bush is off whacking shrubs somewhere and is no longer a convenient target, while our guy is now in office. It’s also due to the left having been slow to discover this story, while the Ron Paul faction of the Republican Party has been all over it for weeks and months, to their credit. The left simply hasn’t made much of a snail trail yet.

Look, there’s oodles of blame to go around. In addition to this administration and the last, our congresscritters are not crowning themselves with glory. Unlike the legislators in New Jersey, they are mostly kowtowing to the new procedures. Despite Claire McGaskill’s incredibly tone-deaf characterization of the grope-search as “love pats,” craven capitulation to the security state is a bipartisan failing. And then there’s Joe Lieberman, who has earned himself a daily grope-search for eternity in whatever afterlife awaits him.

This is where the creeping path toward fascism must end. Let’s make common cause until the TSA buckles. While the TSA has caved to the pilots’ demands, we ordinary passengers are going to have to be a lot more persistent. (Unions do have their advantages, y’know!) We need to get along – right, left, and center – until this TSA debacle is history. Once this incursion on liberty has been beaten back, we can go back to our regularly scheduled spats.

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I’m deeply troubled by some of the memes surfacing in the right-wing discussion of the TSA invasion of privacy. The worst is the claim that Muslim women are exempt. That simply is not true.

What is the truth? Well, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has issued some recommendations for Muslim women:

  • If you are selected for secondary screening after you go through the metal detector and it does not go off, and “sss” is not written on your boarding pass, ask the TSA officer if the reason you are being selected is because of your head scarf.
  • In this situation, you may be asked to submit to a pat-down or to go through a full body scanner. If you are selected for the scanner, you may ask to go through a pat-down instead.
  • Before you are patted down, you should remind the TSA officer that they are only supposed to pat down the area in question, in this scenario, your head and neck. They SHOULD NOT subject you to a full-body or partial-body pat-down.
  • You may ask to be taken to a private room for the pat-down procedure.
  • Instead of the pat-down, you can always request to pat down your own scarf, including head and neck area, and have the officers perform a chemical swipe of your hands.

Note that these are recommendations for how Muslim women should respond! I have copied them verbatim. They are not phrased as policy demands on the TSA, and CAIR is most assuredly not a major Beltway player. The recommendations focus solely on how individual women can respond, and they’re almost painfully polite: “you may ask” and “you can always request.” Even Miss Manners would be more assertive! (In fact, Miss Manners has a keen sense of social justice. She would surely note that “a private room” is actually a right that already exists under TSA rules.)

And yet, the headlines at right-wing sites announce “CAIR: TSA Can’t Pat Down Muslim Women” (that’s Fox News, not the extreme fringe).

How is the TSA actually responding? Here’s how Janet Napolitano answered when a reporter asked whether Muslim women would be exempt:

(Click here if you can’t view the video.)

Napolitano’s key quote from the video:

Adjustments will be made where they need to be made. With respect to that particular issue [the sensitivities of Muslim women], I think there will be more to come.

That’s a far cry from announcing an exemption.

Meanwhile, during yesterday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearings, TSA chief John Pistole clearly stated that no one would be exempted from the new screening protocols on religious grounds.

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN (R-NEVADA): Are you going to, you know, allow certain groups to be exempted from that because of, you know, religious beliefs?

PISTOLE: Senator, we try to be sensitive to each individual and in groups that have particular sensitivities as to whether it’s head-wear or certain garb or sensitivities about being viewed or touched and everything. So we try to be sensitive to those issues. At the same time, the bottom line is we have to ensure that each person getting on each flight has been properly screened. And so we have options such as, if somebody does not want to go through the advanced imaging technology, it is optional. They would just do the walk- through metal detector and then–and have a pat-down that would identify any possible items.

They can request private screenings. So if they don’t want to be screened in public, they can go to a private area, have a witness with them.

And so we try to address those concerns in every way possible, recognizing, again, in the final analysis, everybody on that flight wants to be assured with the highest level of confidence that everybody else on that flight has been properly screened, and including me and you and everybody.

ENSIGN: I realize this is a difficult question for you, but–so are you going to make no exceptions, then?

PISTOLE: Everybody…


ENSIGN: No, no, I–let me–maybe not (inaudible) my question. If somebody is–a random screening. I just got randomly screened at the airport. For whatever reason, my number seems to come up quite often.

But if that, you know, happens and either the imaging, OK, was one of the options or, you know, the pat down–let’s just say I don’t–I don’t want either of them because of religious–because of religious reasons. What happens to me?

PISTOLE: So while I respect and we respect that person’s beliefs, that person’s not going to get on an airplane.

ENSIGN: OK. And there will be no exceptions because of religion.

(I trimmed this for length; see the uncut transcript here.)

Despite the fact that Ensign has trouble spitting out the question, Pistole’s response is clear: Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, no one gets to opt out of both the strip-search scanner and the grope-down.

The right-wing outcry over Muslim women even asking for religious sensitivity is ironic, given the way Muslim women are treated when flying. Consider this incident, which happened to a native-born American citizen before the new protocol was implemented:

Nadia Hassan, 40, a suburban Washington, D.C., real estate agent, says she was traveling from Dulles International Airport to California on Jan. 5 when she was ordered to remove herhijab before going through a metal detector. She refused and a security officer conducted a full-body search in view of other passengers, even though she had not set off the metal detector. She says another officer told her she had to go through the added security because of her scarf.

“To target women in head scarves blindly, it’s ignorance,” she says.

(Source: USA Today)

Of course, the TSA denies it does this (see the article just linked). The TSA denies pretty much everything. (And did you know they’re just trying to keep up safe?)

The new policies spread the humiliation Hassan endured to all Muslim women. CAIR reports:

CAIR offices have already received complaints, particularly from female travelers who wear hijab, about being subjected to the new pat-down procedure. …

One traveler wearing hijab, a 56-year-old Muslim flying out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, told CAIR the TSA screener patted-down her entire upper body, including, head, neck, chest, and hips, with the backs of her hands. The Muslim woman said she had “no idea” how invasive the procedure would be and would otherwise have opted for a private room or demanded to know why she was selected for secondary screening.

[NOTE: The woman had been referred to secondary screening even though the metal detector did not go off, a phenomenon reported frequently to CAIR by female Muslim travelers.]

Bear in mind, that Islam calls all believers to modesty, men as well as women. Not all Muslim women choose to wear hijab as expression of modesty and piety. However, even those women with bare heads still regard modesty as a virtue. The new procedures trample on all Muslims’ religious sensibilities, along with their basic human right to privacy.

Update 11/18/10, 4:30 p.m.: This should already be clear from my comment policy in the sidebar, but any comments hating on Muslims, women, or anyone else will not be permitted. Let’s keep it civil. Also, comments that are grossly ignorant of Islam won’t be approved, either, because they amount to anti-Islamic propaganda even if that’s not the author’s intent.

Update 11/22/10, 9:50 p.m.: If you liked this post, you might want to check out my other commentary on TSA violations of basic rights to privacy, dignity, and bodily autonomy.

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When the TSA is questioned on its procedures, its first go-to excuse is that they’re keeping us safe. If you press harder, a favorite second-line rationale is that they need to treat everyone the same – even toddlers and the elderly – because the alternative would be “racial profiling.”

Sure, the TSA may be treating everyone the same. That doesn’t mean they’re being treated equally, however. Some people are more vulnerable than others. I’ve already touched on the likelihood that a grope search would trigger a rape survivor’s trauma. Newsweek has a good in-depth analysis of this issue.

I’d argue that children are also vulnerable to being traumatized. Two nights ago, in response to an adult conversation that in retrospect I wish I’d postponed until after the kids were in bed, my eleven-year-old son, the Bear, said: “Do you remember when the security guy searched inside my waistband in Belgium? Are they going to do that to me again?” His eyes welled up. Granted, he cries easily – a trait he inherited from his mother – but he seemed deeply upset at the prospect of a replay.

Now, imagine a child who’s actually been sexually abused. How will she or he react to being groped, no matter how officially and “professionally?”

Today, TSA head John Pistole (is that a pistole in your pocket? … oh never mind) told an NPR interviewer that children twelve and under would be exempted from the enhanced pat-down:

We did not do frankly a very good job of communicating initially that there would be an exemption, if you will, from the thorough pat-down for children 12 and under.  That was under review when the policy came out, and so we have clarified that.  It does not apply to children 12 and under.

(You can hear the interview at NPR.)

Frankly, I don’t think that this exemption existed until today. Goldblog cites an incident about ten days ago where an eight-year-old boy was selected for secondary screening after he went through the metal detector. Yes, the boy’s genitals were checked, and his father was appalled. I suspect Pistole’s volte-face (or flip-flop, for the Francophobes still out there!) is a reaction to the public anger about subjecting children to intrusive groping. I think he and Janet Napolitano realized that anything smacking of pedophilia could doom their program. Hence the age of thirteen, when, apparently, children are no longer children. But pray tell how, exactly, a thirteen-year-old will process the experience differently than a twelve-year-old?

While there’s been an upswell in outrage about children being groped, there’s been almost no public attention to another group that will suffer disproportionately: people who are trans or intersex, or who for whatever reason don’t conform to sex/gender expectations. A couple of days ago, GallingGalla left a comment here that vividly highlighted the real dangers and humiliations awaiting her:

Apparently, TSA considers us to be terrorists simply by our existence, as they have issued directives indicating that people dressing in what they, the TSA, perceives to be the “wrong” clothing are more likely to be terrorists. I guess, since they think that trans women are “really men”, we must be hiding bad things in our lady clothes.

Along with that, I shudder to think about the harassment and sexual assault that is *sure* to follow the discovery of “non-standard” genitals.

It is because of back-scatter machines and pat-downs that I do not fly. I don’t have the privilege to “opt-out”; I simply *cannot* fly, as my very person will be in danger.

How long will it be before photos of people stripped naked by back-scatter machines wind up on 4chan or local “she-male” porn sites?

(I quoted most of it; the whole comment is here.)

Of course, the TSA policy both taps into and reinforces the trope of the “deceptive” trans person. It sets trans passengers up for public humiliation and violence. TSA personnel are not even trained to search a child with sensitivity. What are the odds that they will react calmly and reasonably to non-standard genitals?

Trans men are worried too, as evidenced by this anonymous comment at BoingBoing:

I’m a trans man (FtM transsexual), and I’ve NEVER packed when I go to the airport b/c I’m sure my dick would show up looking like plastic explosive in my pants. My home airport only has the n00dscanners, so now I am not entirely sure what I should do. Either way, it looks like I’m destined for molestation at the airport. Pack, and be singled out for a pat-down based on what shows up on the scanner, or not pack and have the TSO end up concerned/confused when the “enhanced” pat-down turns up the fact that I don’t have any balls for “resistance”.

I have a flight planned in January. I’m pretty nervous about it.

Those are pretty terrible choices. And in case anyone was reassured by the blurriness of the naked-scanner images that had been stored at a Florida courthouse and leaked yesterday by Gizmodo? The resolution on those is much lower than the machines are capable of delivering. The TSA has told the New York Times that the machines are able to image a sanitary pad. They weren’t able to say, however, whether the pad would trigger an enhanced pat-down.

Update 11/17/10, 11:10 p.m.: Edited above to add the material from Goldblog, where he notes that the war on terror is colliding with the war on pedophilia – and so far, terror is winning.

Update 11/22/10, 10:40 a.m.: See also this post by Rebecca at The Thang Blog on how the new procedures have effectively grounded her as a trans woman.

Update 11/22/10, 3:30 p.m.: … and similarly, this piece by Bridgette P. LaVictoire at Lezget Real, who stresses the humiliation and danger to which she’ll be exposed. The mainstream media remains (predictably) silent.

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I’ve been posting up a storm about why the new TSA body scanners are unethical and arguably illegal (and I’m not done yet). If you agree that the TSA has violated a line that should not be crossed in a democratic country that ostensibly values human rights, here are a few things you can do.

Right now, you can complain (politely) to the chair of the Senate transportation committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (WV), at 202-224-6472. The committee is holding an oversight meeting on the TSA tomorrow morning (Wed., Nov. 17) at 10 a.m. I just called and they were very nice to me, even though I’m not a West Virginia constituent. You can also go to the National Opt-Out Day website and see if your state has a senator on the committee. The site provides contact info for all committee members. I’ll probably call at least a couple of the senators from the states where I’ve got a personal history (North Dakota and California).

I just mentioned National Opt-Out Day in passing. This is a concerted effort to get passengers who are outraged about the TSA’s procedures to opt out on November 24. I don’t know the fellow behind National Opt-Out Day, Brian Sodegren, but he appears to be just one guy, not an organization, which makes me tend to think he’s just a fed-up citizen and not a minion of the Freepers, for instance. His website doesn’t sound any obvious right-wing dog-whistles, and a quick Google search doesn’t flag Sodegren as any flavor of extremist. Even if he were a Freeper, though, I’d be happy to make common cause on this issue, because civil liberties don’t belong to any particular political constituency. I’m staying home for Thanksgiving, but if I were traveling, I’d definitely join in. I hope the protest will call attention to TSA abuses and wake up some Americans who up until now simply trusted that everything the TSA does should make us safer.

Some people are choosing to boycott flying until the new policies are rescinded. I can’t do that because I need to visit family on the other side of the country, but if you want to join them – or even if you just want to follow breaking news on these issues – check out their Facebook page, We Won’t Fly. I agree with commenter Mark (who brought the page to my attention) that we need to act on a number of fronts. The intent of this tactic is to put pressure on the airlines and other branches of the travel industry, which will then put pressure on the government.

When I fly on December 2, I plan to opt out. I’ll politely but firmly state that I do not consent to having my breasts or genitals touched, I’m merely not resisting. I’ll also decline my “right” to be hand-screened in a private space, which only removes accountability. We have the right to a witness in private screening, but I’m flying alone, and I don’t consider a second TSA screener an impartial witness. Let the world see what the TSA is doing! The violation is in the invasive touching, not in the view that onlookers will get. If I’m subjected to invasive screening, I will document it. I’ll ask to lodge a complaint with the TSA. I’ll register it with the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s incident reports. (EPIC is suing to have the scanners removed from service). I’ll also report it to the ACLU. I’ll call my senator, Sherrod Brown. And of course I’ll blog about it!

I also thought about wearing only a swimsuit under my coat the next time I fly. This would underscore the ludicrousness of patting someone down when every curve and bump is visible. But overt protest actions only make sense if you can get them filmed, and I’m unfortunately traveling solo. (Also, I really do need to get to California, so getting kicked off the flight is not an option.) It turns out that one of Germany’s fringe political parties, the Pirates, beat me to the idea.

If you’ve got more ideas, leave them in comments, and I’ll do a follow-up post.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

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When the TSA first announced its rollout of body-scanners, my first thought was: What about privacy? My second: Are they safe?

While privacy is obviously and inarguably a massive issue, the facts aren’t quite as evident on the question of safety. Back in January, Lindsay Beyerstein made the point that one of the two types of scanner – the “backscatter” technology – uses x-rays, yet the machines are not subject to the sort of rigorous testing expected of medical equipment. Even CT scanning equipment, which is operated by trained medical personnel, has resulted in a distressing number of overdoses from wrongly calibrated machines, some of which were uncovered only after the FDA and the New York Times launched an investigation starting in late 2009.

TSA employees have no medical training – none! – and we have no reason to believe that they are prepared to recognized machine malfunctions. Indeed, they are so unprepared that one TSA employee told a pregnant traveler that the machines emit less radiation than do sonograms – a stunningly ignorant statement, given that ultrasound doesn’t rely on x-rays at all. (The pregnant woman was subsequently bullied into the body-scanners by repeatedly refusing her a pat-down.)

Lindsay also raised the question of cumulative radiation. How much is safe? I would argue that no matter how small the dose of x-rays, it is only justified if it will save lives, and if safer techniques would not produce the same results. The Israelis manage to make it work without routine body scans, primarily through painstaking intelligence on potential terrorists – no x-rays needed. (Link via the excellent overview of issues at Sister Sage.)

My husband has had cancer twice. It was treated with radiation the first time around. He’s had lots of CTs – too many – and caught some of the fall-out from Chernobyl back in 1986. He does not need any extra x-rays. My kids don’t need any extra x-rays. Nor do you or I, dear reader.

If I were a TSA employee on the front lines, I’d also want to know how much of an occupational risk I was running. On the one hand, the intensity of the radiation is purported orders of magnitude less than used in medical x-rays. On the other hand, what’s to keep the x-rays contained? The name “backscatter” is not reassuring on this score. TSA operators are spending entire workdays in close proximity to these devices.

The other type of strip-scanner does not use ionizing radiation. It relies on millimeter waves. Some questions have been raised as to the safety of terahertz waves, which may have the potential to essentially “unzip” DNA, but terahertz waves are not identical to millimeter waves, just adjacent to them in the spectrum. (Two abstracts on terahertz waves are here and here. My main takeaway is that their safety is not yet well researched.)

On its website, the TSA simply asserts that millimeter-wave technology is safe; it does not supply any data or link to any studies. I just ran a PubMed search on “millimeter waves” and “safety,” which turned up only six hits, only one of which seemed relevant. A review article in Health Physics from 2000 raised the question of whether occupational exposure (that is, of the sort some TSA employees experience) could result in hazards such as burns or cancer; I can’t access the full text, so I don’t know what they concluded.

It is striking, in any event, that PubMed yielded so little information on the safety of millimeter-wave scans. Business Week reports that their health effects are “largely unknown,” and that the president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements favors conducting a study that would assess their safety. Much of the information on the web conflates millimeter waves with the terahertz spectrum and thus appears less than trustworthy.

In short, the TSA may be correct that the low intensity of the energy from both types of scanners makes them unlikely to create a real health threat. If I were a frequent flyer or a flight crew member, I would still wonder why there’s so little hard information on their safety.

More importantly, I worry about a the lack of medical/technical oversight. Largely uneducuated low-level employees are operating these scanners. If a scanner were wrongly calibrated and delivered much higher doses, who would know?

At the end of the day, I still think the best health-related objection to the strip-scanners comes from Revere of the now-dormant but wonderful blog, Effect Measure. Revere applied his skills as an epidemiologist. He noted that any machine purporting to catch every would-be terrorist will have a substantial number of “false positives” – people who are flagged though they’re innocent. Precisely that is now occurring, as evidenced by the story of passenger Christine Holland (who subjected to a grope-search after the scanner suggested she was carrying contraband). Revere calculated how many false alarms would be raised by a machine with only a 1 in 100,000 false positive rate:

According to the Department of Transportation, during the last year there were about 710 million enplanements (US carriers, October 2008 – September 2009; excludes all-cargo services, includes domestic and international). That would produce 7100 false alarms, about 20 a day. How many passengers carrying explosives would the technology pick up? Well, we’ve had exactly 2 since 2001 (Richard Reid the shoe bomber and the current underpants bomber), or .25/710,000,000 enplanements (it’s actually less because enplanements have decreased substantially since 2001). So the probability of an alarm being correct is about 1 in 30,000 or .000033.

(Read the whole thing here.)

I swear Revere argued at some point that screeners will eventually become inured to false positives and thus won’t be alert if a real threat were to appear. I can’t find where he said that, but it’s a key point, so I’ll make it anyway. Add to this the tremendous waste of resources that goes into checking for liquids and gels, printer cartridges, baby formula, and other innocuous items. Now add the diversion of TSA energies toward thoroughly frisking and groping everyone from Jeffrey Goldberg to little kids.

In other words, the biggest health risk from the scanners is that we’re actually less safe from terrorists than we were before. Anyone else feeling queasy yet?

[Variation on my usual "I'm not a lawyer" disclaimer: I'm also not an M.D., a physicist, or an epidemiologist.]

Update 11/14/10, 9:40 p.m.: According to Agence France Press, serious scientists have raised concerns about the x-ray machines. Michael Love, a scientist who runs an x-ray lab at the Johns Hopkins medical school, stated that “statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these X-rays.” In April, scientists at UCSF wrote the White House Office of Science and Technology, saying, “While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.”

Update 11/15/10, 11:10 p.m.: Here’s the full text of the letter (.pdf) from the UCSF scientists. The potential health risks it outlines are compelling enough that I’m not about to let my kids go through a backscatter machine. I’m also floored by how little study has been done on their safety.

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From where I live, it sure looks as though the body scanners – better termed “strip-search machines” – are in fact violating laws against child pornography. Ohio Revised Code section 2907.323 states:

(A) No person shall do any of the following:

(1) Photograph any minor who is not the person’s child or ward in a state of nudity, or create, direct, produce, or transfer any material or performance that shows the minor in a state of nudity, unless both of the following apply:

(a) The material or performance is, or is to be, sold, disseminated, displayed, possessed, controlled, brought or caused to be brought into this state, or presented for a bona fide artistic, medical, scientific, educational, religious, governmental, judicial, or other proper purpose, by or to a physician, psychologist, sociologist, scientist, teacher, person pursuing bona fide studies or research, librarian, member of the clergy, prosecutor, judge, or other person having a proper interest in the material or performance;

(b) The minor’s parents, guardian, or custodian consents in writing to the photographing of the minor, to the use of the minor in the material or performance, or to the transfer of the material and to the specific manner in which the material or performance is to be used.

In the case of body scanners, a photo is most definitely being taken. The TSA long maintained images weren’t being stored. Indeed, it repeatedly claimed images could not be stored.

That was a lie. Earlier this year, CNN documented the machines’ capacity to save and export images:

(Go here if you can’t see the clip.)

This week, the TSA’s false claims were further debunked at Alternet:

The U.S. Marshals Service admitted that just one courthouse checkpoint in Florida has stored tens of thousands of the images. And a report released last week revealed that the TSA demands all machines be equipped with the ability to record and transmit images for “testing, training, and evaluation purposes.”

So yes, the TSA is able to save and transmit pictures of children. The TSA insists that the “save” function is disabled before the strip-search machines are used on passengers. Blogger Bob – the friendly public face of the TSA – insists that “here is no fondling, squeezing, groping, or any sort of sexual assault taking place at airports.” Unfortunately for Blogger Bob, multiple witnesses report being groped. The TSA might be credible if it had a track record of truthfulness rather than truthiness.

Even if the “save” function is indeed disabled in the strip-search machines, we cannot know what transpires in the mind of the officer viewing the images. Some portion of the population gets off on pictures of naked children. The TSA has no mechanism to avoid hiring these people, other than rejecting applicants with a conviction for rape or aggravated sexual abuse less than ten years in the past. Applicants with older sexual assault convictions are fully eligible for hire. These regulations are silent on possession of child pornography. (Regulations via the travel blog Flying with Fish.) Last spring, a 44-year-old TSA employee at Logan Airport in Boston was arrested on “two counts of statutory rape, two counts of enticing a minor and one count of indecent assault and battery.” (The link is to Prison Planet, which mirrors the Boston Herald’s article – now partially behind a paywall.)

I imagine the TSA would cite a “governmental” purpose, as specified in paragraph (a) above. However – and this is a mammoth caveat – paragraph (b) further requires the written consent of the child’s parent of guardian.

Know any parents who would willingly sign off on this?

Otherwise, according to my reading of Ohio law, naked images of a child, whether transmitted or not, constitute child pornography. Creation of them is a second-degree felony.

(The usual disclaimer applies: I am not a lawyer, just a pissed-off mother. If are any real lawyers are willing to weigh in, I’d be grateful for your opinion!)

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(Trigger warning for descriptions of sexual violence and violations of bodily autonomy.)

In the face of TSA claims that the new “enhanced patdowns” don’t constitute groping, what do actual passengers have to say?

Predictably, most people are sheeple, and many apparently are willing to believe that losing our civil liberties are the price we have to pay for protecting our freedoms. But a few people – mostly women – have spoken publicly about feeling terribly violated. I’ve collected a variety of their voices. You’ll notice I’ve drawn on a wide variety of sources, including some you might consider fringy. Yet there’s no reason to discount these people’s stories. This post attempts to foreground their stories and voices rather than my analysis. We would do well to listen to them.

Rosemary Fitzpatrick, a CNN reporter, was subjected to a private grope screening after her underwire bra tripped the metal detector:

According to Fitzpatrick, a female screener ran her hands around her breasts, over her stomach, buttocks and her inner thighs, and briefly touched her crotch.

“I felt helpless, I felt violated, and I felt humiliated,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that she was reduced to tears at the checkpoint. She particularly objected to the fact that travelers were not warned about the new procedures.

Unsurprisingly, former victims of sexual assault are finding their trauma triggered by being violated in a place ostensibly devoted to their safety! Celeste, a survivor of rape, is quoted at the Pagan Newswire Collective:

“What they did to me, in full view of everyone else in line, was like being sexually assaulted all over again.  I was in shock.  I hate myself that I allowed them to do this to me.  I haven’t been able to stop crying since.” …

Coming back from Chicago, Celeste, like increasing numbers of travelers, was forced to make a difficult choice – either allow strangers to see her naked or allow strangers to touch and squeeze her breasts and groin in full view of other travels and TSA agents.  “This was a nightmare come to life,” Celeste says, “I said I didn’t want them to see me naked and the agent started yelling Opt out- we have an opt here.  Another agent took me aside and said they would have to pat me down.  He told me he was going to touch my genitals and asked if I wouldn’t rather just go through the scanner, that it would be less humiliating for me.  I was in shock.  I couldn’t believe this was happening.  I kept saying I don’t want any of this to happen.  I was whispering please don’t do this, please, please.”

Since Celeste didn’t agree to go through the scanner, the enhanced pat down began.  “He started at one leg and then ran his hand up to my crotch.  He cupped and patted my crotch with his palm.  Other flyers were watching this happen to me. At that point I closed my eyes and started praying to the Goddess for strength.  He also cupped and then squeezed my breasts.  That wasn’t the worst part.  He touched my face, he touched my hair, stroking me.  That’s when I started crying.  It was so intimate, so horrible.  I feel like I was being raped.  There’s no way I can fly again.  I can’t do it.”

But a history of sexual violence is not the only intersection with the TSA violations. Disability is also amplifying the trauma in some cases, as a 49-year-old woman wrote to libertarian blogger John W. Whitehead:

I was subjected to a TSA rub down in Pittsburgh in September. There is no patting happening. The officer ran her hands over every square inch of my body, firmly pressing into my flesh in every area when I declined to have myself irradiated. Being a recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome, I am extremely aware that my body needs protection from anything that is unnatural or unnecessary, and excess radiation is on my list of things to avoid. Unfortunately, the rub down elicited some trauma issues, and when I got upset and started crying, they started the “pat down” all over again.

Whitehead definitely has an anti-state, anti-Obama agenda, but I see no reason to doubt the first-person accounts he has collected; this issue seems to be rousing people who are right, left, and libertarian, while the mushy middle marches through the scanners without a peep. He also heard from a flight attendant:

They didn’t tell me it was a Full Body Scanner. I was not made aware that I even had an option to be patted down instead. After the scan, I was still patted down on my breast area because I was wearing my flight attendant wings. I truly felt molested. As a female traveler, I already have to deal with personal safety issues. In the past, when I have gone through the security line, I have experienced two of the TSA men standing staring at me, and I could overhear them deciding whether they thought I was attractive.

Understandably, flight attendants’ unions are urging them to insist on a private screening with a witness, and they report that a number of flight attendants are in contact with the ACLU, lodging complaints, and even preparing lawsuits. The leaders of two pilots’ unions, Mike Cleary and David Bates, have urged their members to avoid the radiation involved in body scanning, but each of them also noted the violation involved in the enhanced patdowns:

One pilot described his experience as “sexual molestation,” according to Cleary’s letter. Bates wrote, “There is absolutely no denying that the enhanced pat-down is a demeaning experience.”

We’ve also got oral interviews with a couple of women who’ve had bad experiences – one of whom submitted to the patdown, another of whom refused. The first comes from an interview by Alex Jones. Yes, he’s a Truther, but that doesn’t disqualify this woman’s testimony:

(Posted originally at Jones’ PrisonPlanet.)

Note that Michelle, this mother of two was not automatically given a same-sex screener, and she had to insist on having a woman screen her daughters, an 8-year-old and a young toddler. Her story starts at about 04:00: “They touched. And it was not back of hand. … It was a male officer that patted me down.” (Jones argues that this is sexual assault, for what it’s worth.)

A young libertarian gal, Meg McLain, had heard that the procedure routinely requires breasts be squeezed and twisted (“it hurts!”) and she refused to “let them touch me in ways that I’m not comfortable with.”

Around 2:15 on the clip, she says, “Its getting to the point where I feel more physically molested than if some random guy actually came up and molested me. It’s more intrusive than that.” Meg demands to see a manager, and within 30 seconds there are five or six TSA agents and a dozen cops. They wouldn’t let her touch her stuff. She kept posing questions, and one of the officials yelled at her whenever he doesn’t have an answer. They cuff Meg to a chair. One of the agents rips her airline ticket in half. She’s sobbing and can’t even reach her face to wipe it. They deliver a thirty-minute lecture on terrorism.

So maybe we should all just cave in to the strip-search machines? Well, it’s not so simple. Consider  this woman’s report of the groping she got after a TSA body scanner erroneously showed her carrying something (she never learned what) under her clothes. Yes, she docilely went through the scan and still wasn’t spared the humiliation of a full-on grope.

Michelle’s 8-year-old gets the last word: “Mom, why did they do that?”

Update, 11/17/10, 12:20 p.m.: Here’s another story of groping, this one from a young mother who was traveling with her baby. I’d say if the agent can feel your individual labia, they’ve definitely gone beyond any definition of a “reasonable” search.

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On the surface, government-authorized TSA groping seems like it falls on the spectrum of sexual assault. Ethically, it definitely violates consent. Legally, the situation is murkier.

In my jurisdiction (Ohio), “sexual imposition” (Ohio Revised Code 2907.06) seems applicable, if you read it in isolation from the rest of the code. Its definition begins:

(A) No person shall have sexual contact with another, not the spouse of the offender; cause another, not the spouse of the offender, to have sexual contact with the offender; or cause two or more other persons to have sexual contact when any of the following applies:

(1) The offender knows that the sexual contact is offensive to the other person, or one of the other persons, or is reckless in that regard.

I think it’s hard to argue that the TSA and its officers are not acting recklessly. It should be obvious to any sentient person that groping of breasts and genitals is will be experienced as offensive.

Furthermore, you can’t really make the case that no assault is occurring because passengers freely consent to the procedures. The only way I can travel from Ohio to California to visit my family next month is by air – period. I need to see my dad. The TSA is presenting people with a “choice” of being stripped naked by the body-scan machines, or undergoing an “enhanced patdown,” which amounts to groping by a stranger – or not getting on the plane. That is no choice at all. Moreover, as of October 21, signs at the security checkpoints in the Columbus airport said nothing about what alternative screening would entail. They most certainly did not warn passengers that their genitals would be touched. Passengers are being taken completely by surprise when that occurs. Thus, ORC 2907.06 (A) (3) would apparently apply:

(3) The offender knows that the other person, or one of the other persons, submits because of being unaware of the sexual contact.

But here’s a wrinkle. Ohio law defines “sexual contact” in pretty narrow terms:

ORC 2907.01(B): “Sexual contact” means any touching of an erogenous zone of another, including without limitation the thigh, genitals, buttock, pubic region, or, if the person is a female, a breast, for the purpose of sexually arousing or gratifying either person. [my emphasis]

In other words, the law has a mens rea requirement that limits it to cases where the perpetrator is getting off on the touching.

The TSA will of course argue that there’s no sexual intent or arousal and thus the procedure doesn’t amount to sexual assault. In fact, that’s exactly what TSA minion “Blogger Bob” has been asserting at the official TSA blog:

Also, there is no fondling, squeezing, groping, or any sort of sexual assault taking place at airports. You have a professional workforce carrying out procedures they were trained to perform to keep aviation security safe.

No “groping”? That’s an outright lie.

Does professionalism and training eliminate the possibility that at least some TSA employees will get a sexual kick from their groping? Of course not. Problem is, we can’t know who’s secretly getting some jollies and who isn’t. Unless a TSA officer makes crude comments in front of witnesses, you’ve got no case under Ohio law.

But here’s another wrinkle. Federal law takes a broader view of “sexual contact.” Here’s how U.S. Code Chapter 190A, dealing with “sexual abuse,” defines it in Section 2246 (3):

the term “sexual contact” means the intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person

Note that humiliation, harassment, and degradation all fall within the law’s definition. As Jeffrey Goldberg reports, the intent of the TSA is that “enhanced patdowns” will humiliate and harass flyers so that we’ll all march docilely through the body-scanners:

I asked him [the TSA officer] if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. “Nobody’s going to do it,” he said, “once they find out that we’re going to do.”

In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? “That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re trying to get everyone into the machine.” He called over a colleague. “Tell him what you call the back-scatter,” he said. “The Dick-Measuring Device,” I said. “That’s the truth,” the other officer responded.

So the intent to humiliate, harass, and degrade is definitely present – as a matter of policy! The problem here is that (as far as I understand it) federal law only applies to certain highly-circumscribed locations, including an airplane in flight or federal prisons. Even though the TSA is a federal agency, it wouldn’t necessarily be subject to this definition.

But why don’t state laws take on this broader definition? I’d love to see it adopted in every state. We can all think of instances where it’s not clear whether a groper is getting a sexual buzz or is just power-tripping. Your average public-transit groper might fall into this gray area. (And while we’re at it, some cases of medical assault – in childbirth or otherwise – could fall under this expanded definition, too, as long as they involve intent to humiliate or degrade.)

Broadening the definition to include “an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, and degrade” wouldn’t eliminate a mens rea requirement. It would simply update the law to acknowledge that the motives behind sexual assault are a muddy mixture of power and sex.

In short, I don’t think we can make a case, legally, to try TSA officials (be they policymakers or lackeys) on sexual assault. We can make an excellent case for reforming definitions of sexual assault.

So do we have any legal recourse when it comes to TSA groping?

Well, I’d argue that routine molestation of passengers is unconstitutional. To me, it’s blindingly obvious that “enhanced patdowns” violate the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

There’s no probable cause. No warrants have been issued. I guess some people might consider groping a “reasonable” response to terrorism. If so, why not permit cavity searches as well? Surely they’d be more likely to catch the next would-be bomber.

I really hope the ACLU will take this on. So far, they’re just considering possible action.

[Standard disclaimer: I am not trained as a lawyer! This above represents my best understanding as a layperson.]

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When I flew out of Columbus a few weeks ago, I was stunned to see the new machines arrayed at the checkpoint. Ours is a relatively podunk airport, and I’d hoped the body scanners would come either late or never. I eyed the machines queasily, calculated how much time I had to squander on security, and decided that I wouldn’t miss my flight if I stood on principle.

When I got to the front of  the line, I bravely announced to the TSA personnel that I chose to opt out of the body scanners. I walked through the metal detector. “Now where do I go?”


“I don’t want to go through the scanners. I’m opting out. That sign over there says I’m allowed to. So where should I go?”

“You just went through the metal detector, right?”

“Yes, but … don’t you want to pat me down?”

“No, you’re done.”

I grabbed my computer, wiggled into my shoes, and hightailed it for the gate before anyone changed their mind.

But that’s not how every airport is handling the opter-outers. Indeed, Columbus may have to change its policies. Here’s what happened when, faced with the new body-scanners at Baltimore-Washington International, Jeffrey Goldberg opted for a pat-down instead.

When I made this request, a number of TSA officers, to my surprise, began laughing. I asked why. One of them — the one who would eventually conduct my pat-down — said that the rules were changing shortly, and that I would soon understand why the back-scatter was preferable to the manual search. I asked him if the new guidelines included a cavity search. “No way. You think Congress would allow that?”

I answered, “If you’re a terrorist, you’re going to hide your weapons in your anus or your vagina.” He blushed when I said “vagina.”

“Yes, but starting tomorrow, we’re going to start searching your crotchal area” — this is the word he used, “crotchal” — and you’re not going to like it.”

“What am I not going to like?” I asked.

“We have to search up your thighs and between your legs until we meet resistance,” he explained.

“Resistance?” I asked.

“Your testicles,” he explained.

‘That’s funny,” I said, “because ‘The Resistance’ is the actual name I’ve given to my testicles.”

He answered, “Like ‘The Situation,’ that guy from ‘Jersey Shore?’”

Yes, exactly, I said. (I used to call my testicles “The Insurgency,” but those assholes in Iraq ruined the term.)

(Read the whole thing. It’s trenchant, highly entertaining, and right – as in “correct,” not “neocon right,” although that’s Goldberg’s usual beat.)

Whoa. I have never linked to Jeffrey Goldberg, and I may never do it again. But sometimes, even proponents of bombing Iran write something that’s so eminently sensible – and so funny – that it deserves a nonpartisan audience.

All of this leaves me wondering what my husband and I should do the next time we fly with our kids. Up ’til now, I thought the answer was obvious: opt out with the kids and spare them indoctrination into the creeping-fascist security state (not to mention exposure to superfluous radiation). Now, I’m not so sure. I picture them in a future therapists’ office: “Mama? Oh, she wasn’t all bad. Sure, she had her impatient moments, but we always knew she loved us. If she just hadn’t let the TSA molest us …”

(This is one of those occasions where I resort to sarcasm because the alternative is molten rage. Most of parenting consists of moments lost in the surging river of time. One moment that is still present and razor-sharp for me? When a Belgian airport security official subjected my Bear – then aged 9 – to a search that involved reaching inside the elastic of his sweat pants.)

I’m starting to wonder if we should all opt out of “the Dick-Measuring Device,” as Goldberg terms it. What would happen if we filmed the ensuing searches and put them on YouTube? Could we completely overwhelm the system if even a third of us opted out? (Yes, we’d all miss our planes, which is why this would probably never work.) What if apparently harmless moms like me started to yell, “Get your paws of my ladyparts!” when TSA agents failed to meet, um, Resistance?

Or we could take a page from Goldberg and just repeat “vagina” until TSA officials give up out of sheer embarrassment. I have no problem talking about the “crotchal area” (best whacko neologism since “refudiate”!) until the proto-fascist security state waves us through. For good measure, I think a carry-on full of sex toys might amplify the guards horror. But don’t worry – I won’t try that if the kids are flying with me.

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The New York Times reports that anti-bullying programs are already under fire from opponents who fear our wee children will catch The Gay if teachers present LGBT folks as, well, fellow human beings:

Some districts, especially in larger cities, have adopted tolerance lessons with minimal dissent. But in suburban districts in California, Illinois and Minnesota, as well as here in Helena [Montana], the programs have unleashed fierce opposition.

“Of course we’re all against bullying,” Mr. DeMato, one of numerous pastors who opposed the plan, said in an interview. “But the Bible says very clearly that homosexuality is wrong, and Christians don’t want the schools to teach subjects that are repulsive to their values.”

The divided Helena school board, after four months of turmoil, recently adopted a revised plan for teaching about health, sex and diversity. Much of the explicit language about sexuality and gay families was removed or replaced with vague phrases, like a call for young children to “understand that family structures differ.” The superintendent who has ardently pushed the new curriculum, Bruce K. Messinger, agreed to let parents remove their children from lessons they find objectionable.

(Read it all here.)

Message sent: We’re all against bullying, except when it comes to kids who are gay, or might be gay, or dress up as Daphne on Halloween even though they’re male. (If that last story doesn’t ring a bell, follow the link, stat!)

Opponents of bullying-prevention spew predictable condemnations of people who have “chosen the gay lifestyle.” I know a few lesbian parents in my town, and believe me, they are leading the “mom lifestyle.” Yes, it can be twisted, but they have chosen it! We see each other at music lessons and soccer. When it comes to carpools and practices, though, there’s not a heap of “choice” involved. (So sorry to disappoint the homophobes). Non-hetero moms and dad are supervising homework  just as painfully as the rest of us parents.

So go right ahead, you sanctimonious Christianists. Let us who’ve chosen the “mom lifestyle” hear just how depraved we are – just how repulsive! We can take it.

Just leave our beloved children out of it. My elder son’s favorite color was purple up until about second grade. I don’t think either of my kids are actually gay, but if they were – so what? So fucking what?

No kid deserves bullying, period. As long as wingnuts and ignoramuses act like gayness is a communicable disease and marriage equality is the death-knell of Western Civilization, kids who step outside the norm will continue to be bullied. Some will despair. Some will take their lives in their despair.

What kind of “family values” justify the lethal bullying of children? (Maybe Jerry Falwell will reach out from his grave and enlighten us?)

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The controversy about the term “birth rape” has ebbed in the blogosphere (which has a shorter attention span than my seven-year-old son). But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about it. Nor, it appears, have other people. A reader named Ann took the time today to disagree with me vehemently:

To me there is not the slightest smidgeren of doubt that the women who state that they were raped, indeed were raped. Rape is NOT, absolutely definitely NOT only about sexuality. It is mainly about power and dominance. You will find very few among the BDSM community who are not aware of this.

Rape can – also – occur in the total absence of a feeling of guilt of the perpetrator. Whether a nurse, midwife or doctor think their deeds are justified because they have a right to go home early, or that woman birthing is too dumb or distraught to know what she wants, or whether a pedophile reasons that the 5 year old boy “wants it” because he happened to leave his knickers off, or whether the husband holds his wife down, thinking she’ll eventually come around, it all does not matter. It still is rape.

(Read the whole comment here.)

I fully agree that rape is not just about sex but about power. However, by its very definition, rape is about sexualized power. The abuse of medical power has to do with power too, but it has little or nothing to do with sexuality. (An exception would be a doctor who subjects patients to sexual touching – which most definitely belongs on the continuum of sexual assault, and which happens with distressing frequency.)

A doctor who violates consent is not acting from the same motivations as the pedophile. He or she is supported by our cultural values in ways that a pedophile is not. Yes, we live in a rape culture, but you would find very few defenders of a pedophile. By contrast, medicine enjoys partial immunity from criticism because of assumptions that lay people cannot understand it, that medical personnel always hold humanitarian values, and that they will always act in the best interests of the patient.

Of course, this isn’t true. Consider another truly vile category of gynecological violation: forced sterilizations. Doctors in Nazi Germany sterilized about 400,000 women and men, the vast majority of them against their will. About half of the victims were women. The Nazi program was inspired by smaller-scale compulsory sterilization programs in the United States, whose legality the Supreme Court affirmed in its 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell. Compulsory sterilization declined after 1942 in the U.S., but poor women of color have still been subjected to it in the post-war era, most notably in Puerto Rico and on Indian reservations.

There seems to be a common conception that if declining to recognize a phenomenon as rape is the same as trivializing it. And yet, we don’t call forced sterilization “rape,” nor should we. Doing so would obscure its specific nature. It would draw attention to the particular values that legitimated it: the pseudoscience of eugenics, contempt for disabled people, and society’s exaggerated deference to medical authority.

In short: something can still be an atrocity if it’s not called rape.

Insisting on accurate naming is not “language policing,” contrary to what Cara argued at The Curvature:

I also thought that a big part of anti-rape activism was about broadening our definition of rape, not narrowing it — throwing out the stranger jumping from the bushes with a knife as the only model of rape, and recreating a model that encompasses a wide variety violent experiences and promotes affirmative, enthusiastic, meaningful consent as minimum standard of decency rather than a nice bonus if you can get it. I thought that anti-rape activism was about acknowledging that rape is not just one thing, that there is more than one way to violate a person and to be violated, and that whether consent was given was more important than how much force was used. Especially in this context, the posts in question come off as nothing more than language policing, against particularly marginalized populations, no less.

(The rest of the post is here.)

First, I think we should be able to discuss the applicability of “rape” to specific phenomena without shaming other feminists as rape apologists, or saying that they are acting as oppressors, or blaming their words for harming victims. That happened in both Cara’s post and the comments to it. Critique is good; disagreement is healthy. But shaming only leads to groupthink, as the comment thread to that post shows. Only one commenter deviated even slightly from Cara’s position.

I actually don’t think that anti-rape activism is “about broadening our definition of rape” – not if this means extending the term into entirely different realms of violence that are not basically sexual. Of course I strongly support recognizing acquaintance rape, or marital rape, and other instances of sexual violence as just as real, traumatizing, and illegal as the “stranger in the bushes.” But “rape” is not an infinitely elastic term, nor should it be.

Specific names for specific violations are politically and analytically important because they push us to understand the roots of different forms of violence. In cases of medicalized violence, we need to consider the values that enable a scenario like this one, described at the blog Forever in Hell:

The problem isn’t that women in labor are uniquely in a position to be victimized by medical professionals. The victims of such medical professionals are not uniquely women in labor. In other words, you don’t have to be a woman in labor to be victimized by a medical professional. You simply have to be in a room with certain medical professionals.

Case in point: a friend of mine needed a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) in order to tell if he had Multiple Sclerosis or Lyme Disease. These two diseases can cause similar symptoms and similar MRI results, but have vastly different treatments, so distinguishing between the two is necessary. My friend is a large man, so he needed to have the lumbar puncture done at the hospital by a doctor.

Before the procedure began, the nurse told the doctor that the needle they had was too large, they needed to get another. “Too bad,” snapped the doctor. He had a schedule to keep, he had a golf game to get to. Waiting for someone to get the correct needle would take too long, so, before my friend could object, doctor forced the needle into my friend’s spine. When I say “forced”, I mean forced.

I could hear him scream from down the hall.

Then, to add insult to injury, the doctor refused to draw enough cerebral spinal fluid to allow for two tests. “We’ve got enough to test for MS, what more do we need?” he said.

That’s right. This doctor tortured a man so as not delay a golf game and didn’t even get the damn test done.

(The whole post is here.)

I don’t agree that doctors are the only offenders (as this post goes on to argue). The potential for abuse is greater among those who are more powerful, but other medical personnel aren’t outside the value system that enables medical battery.

But this example does show that the problem really is primarily with the values that underlie medicine. Yes, we’ve come a long way from the days when a white coat commanded automatic obedience. We have the patients’ rights movement to thank for that, which was driven in large part by feminist critics of medicine. However, as long as medical personnel remain unaccountable for violations of consent, some practitioners will abuse their power.

If we want to stop battery of women in childbirth, we’re not going to make much headway by combating rape culture. We need to call for more humane and democratic medicine. We need to demand medical education that would weed out arrogant abusers and reinforce respect for the patient. We need to insist that doctors hold each other and their subordinates responsible – and if they can’t, or won’t, the law needs to intervene, with civil or criminal remedies as appropriate.

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I wrote this post quite a while ago, when an acquaintance’s experience in the Southeast Ohio Regional Jail gave me an inside peek at the American system of (in)justice. I didn’t publish it at the time because of privacy concerns. The case is now well in the past (and my friend is okay), but now one of my former students is facing serious charges, which I’m confident are either baseless or extremely trumped-up. I suspect his main offense is that he’s young, black, and poor. (I may write about his case if it becomes more public, as seems likely.)

Consider this a piece of fiction that is nonetheless entirely true.

* * * * * * *

You are arrested. It’s the middle of the night. Before you’re hauled off, you’re allowed to collect a few phone numbers from your cell phone. That’s it. You’re driven through the darkness to the jail in Nelsonville, the next town over, some miles from your home.

You are dumbstruck because you have no reason to believe you’ve broken any law.

Upon entering the jail, you are stripped of every thing you own. You’re not even allowed to have pen and paper.

The orange institutional clothing goes all the way down. You’re not even allowed to keep your own underwear. The standard-issue underwear are orange, too.

From inside the jail, you’re allowed more than the “one phone call” that TV cop shows. However, all calls must be placed collect. Cell phones can’t accept collect calls. You have a couple of phone number for lawyers who practice civil law. But it’s a weekend and answering machines aren’t so great at accepting collect calls either. You make an initial call in the wee hours just to alert a friend of your whereabouts.

You aren’t a hardened criminal, so you don’t know any attorneys who might represent you. Certainly you don’t have their phone numbers.

You wait, hoping for help.

Unbeknownst to you, your friends are trying to call you, cringing at the shame and, well, pollution they feel at dialing the jail. In fact, the jail isn’t even listed in the phone book, though there are numbers for the dog catcher and for the office that deals with numbering houses. They call the sheriff’s office, which has the jail’s number. They get through to the jail and are told that you’re not allowed to receive any messages. They ask if you can receive visitors, and they’re informed that visitations do occur on the weekend, but you’d have to make advance arrangements for that. They are left wondering if you were supposed to book visitors a day earlier, when you had no idea that you’d ever be arrested.

You call one of your friends. She’s uncertain and a little wooden on the phone, lacking even the vaguest idea of how to proceed or what to say. She says, Make sure you don’t say anything that could possibly incriminate yourself. You know she’s right, but her words widen the gulf between her comfortable world and the massive cell you share with 40 other prisoners. She says another friend wants to visit, and you should call him when you can. She makes reassuring noises about getting a lawyer, but you can hear that she really has no clue. You don’t break down, but nonetheless you sound defeated.

You pass a second night in the jail. With 40 men in the room, silence is a sweet fantasy. So is sleep. Maybe you think about the parallels between this 24-hour noise chamber and the intentional infliction of noise as an interrogation technique – or was that a torture technique? Maybe you don’t think about that, or anything coherent, because you’re scared and exhausted beyond words.

Next day, your friend visits. He tells you what he’s been able to learn about legal rights, based on his frantic googling. No, he’s not a lawyer, but he has excellent and dogged research skills. Not all of what he tells you is reassuring, because you seem to have fallen into a cleft in American law where the presumption of innocence is reversed and the normal rules of evidence don’t apply. You look ragged, worn, and demoralized, but he too looks visibly shocked at the jail’s surroundings: All these prisoners speaking through phones that crackle unto inaudibility. All these visitors who, like their locked-up men, look old far beyond their years. Every last visitor is female, apart from your friend. As for the prison personnel, they’re omnipresent through cameras (or so one must assume), but visible nowhere. This shabby regional jail is the ultimate faceless modern bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, your friends are trying to hunt down a lawyer. It’s surprisingly hard on a Sunday – surprisingly, because arrests don’t exactly plummet on weekends. A friend finally reaches a defense attorney who comes warmly recommended, and who thinks he doesn’t have a schedule conflict with the arraignment.

Again, this is all unbeknownst to you. A friend tries to call you Sunday evening and is first told that no messages can be conveyed to inmates. She shudders at thinking that you’re an inmate. But that is precisely what you are until the jail’s talons loosen their hold on your flesh and you’re dropped to earth like half-eaten roadkill. (At which point you’ll need a ride, because the law won’t transport you back to your hometown.) The line then goes briefly silent, and her heart leaps as she realizes she’s being put through to a supervisor. Oh, she’s good at reasoning with supervisors! So she mentions to the police officer who picks up that you really need to know that you can expect legal representation the next morning. After all, you’ve got a constitutional right to counsel. “That’s right, ma’am,” replies the officer. “He’s got a constitutional right to counsel. But he has no right to receive messages. That’s just policy.” He doesn’t say “sorry,” and his voice suggests he’s anything but.

Would you have felt better or worse, had you been able to overhear that conversation? It hardly matters, though, because you’re embarking on a third night of sleeplessness, and while your friends have heard from multiple sources that you’re likely to be released on your own recognizance, you’ve not heard that from anyone authoritative. All you can think of is the consequences of baseless charges for your family, career, and freedom. And without the distraction of a book or internet access, you’ve got infinite time to think and fret, for as long as you’re incarcerated.

* * * * *

What’s changed since I first wrote this? Only the phone system. Now it’s impossible to reach a real person, however unfriendly. There’s only a convoluted automated answering system.

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My father has always kept guns. Like most men in North Dakota, he was a hunter. Indeed, during my 1960s and 1970s childhood there, you could hardly be a man if you didn’t own a gun. He shot deer, mostly to my mother’s dismay, as she recalls trying to deal with preparing the meat through the miasma of morning sickness. He shot duck and pheasant. We ate some of those. I remember having to pick out the beebees. My brother learned to hunt at his side. One of his early Halloween costumes was “hunter.” He was all cute pudginess and colorful shotgun shells. Even with my early pacifist stirring, I loved those colors!

Once our family moved out to California in 1979, hunting was relegated to a yearly trip back to North Dakota, usually timed so that the guys could partake of the annual community supper in Dad’s hometown. The guns remained. As time passed and we acclimated to a world where no one left their back door unlocked, Dad’s guns tended to gather dust even as his worries escalated. In this new, not-always-golden state, you had to fear crime – or so the media told us, relentlessly.

By the mid-1990s, my father kept a handgun in his nightstand. It was loaded. There were also murmurings about a loaded pistol under the driver’s seat of Dad’s car. When my first baby was born in 1999, these guns sounded like worse than a bad idea; they sounded potentially lethal.

‘Round about that time, my dad blew a hole in the carpet of his home office. He had taken a gun out of the locked cabinet (to clean it? just to hold it?) and pressed the trigger, certain it was empty. It wasn’t. Luckily for him, the carpet didn’t bleed.

This month, my brother will travel back to North Dakota with my dad, quite possibly for the last time. Their original plan was to hunt duck and pheasant. Then my dad started to skid away from reality; he started talking about shooting antelope (which don’t exist in central North Dakota). My brother decided he’d swap blanks for live ammo. Now, even that seems dicey, and he’s planning to plead a sore foot and avoid hunting altogether. Honestly, they’ll have far more fun just visiting people and eating buffalo meat with people my dad has known for decades.

As for the guns in his house, my brother spirited them away earlier this week, as I wrote yesterday. What I didn’t know until I spoke with my sis today: My father immediately noticed they were missing, before my brother had a chance to trot out the cover story about him “cleaning” the guns.

My dad called the police. He called the fucking police! They came to his house and took a report about breaking and entering and burgling.

This snafu will be straightened out. The police will learn that my dad is cognitively impaired before they pick up the “perp” (my dear brother, who may well have saved a life by removing those guns). They’ll have it in their records that my dad is non compos mentis.

What can’t be fixed: the fear. All these years, my father has stewed in it. Guns were his talisman.

It’s not true that the only thing we need fear is fear itself. We need to fear the combo of guns and fear. After a lifetime of relying on guns to keep the bad guys at bay, my father has no shield in the very moment when he feels most vulnerable. And yet, if he continues to have access to guns, odds are astronomical that someone will die.

I know plenty of people who are responsible gun owners. My dad was once one, too. But I think anyone who owns a gun would be wise to ask: What will happen as I age? Can I be sure I wouldn’t accidentally use the gun against someone I love?

Because that’s exactly the danger with my dad. He’s often confused enough that he doesn’t recognize his own wife. He could shoot her, or his beloved dog, or even his newly beloved cat. I know damn well he’s not the only aging gun-owner with too much exposure to Faux News and too little ability to cognitively filter real threats from those imagined.

Might we be wiser to find other ways while we’re still young to master our fears, however well founded they may be?

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I can easily imagine the impulse to chronicle one’s sex life in a diary. I can’t imagine turning it over to one’s friends. That’s what Karen Owen, a recent Duke grad did, except she framed her sex list as a mock honor’s thesis and sent it as a Powerpoint to three of her friends. One of them wasn’t much of a friend and forwarded it to, well, the whole world.

It’s amazing to me how an otherwise apparently intelligent person can still think that anything in electronic form is likely to stay private. Even I, who came of age when Facebook wasn’t capitalized and was a literal book, know this. Of course, it wasn’t just Owen’s privacy that was violated. Half of the baseball and lacrosse team had their privacy violated, too, through no fault of their own. She was utterly reckless with their privacy.

You can read all about it at Broadsheet and Jezebel, if you want the salacious details. I’m more interested in what’s not being discussed. First and foremost, Owen writes of an encounter (“Subject 5″) in which she was completely blacked out. This is normally considered to be sexual assault. Under North Carolina law, it appears to be second-degree rape:

A person is guilty of rape in the second degree if the person engages in vaginal intercourse with another person … Who is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless, and the person performing the act knows or should reasonably know the other person is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.

It’s odd that neither Broadsheet nor Jezebel is calling this rape. Broadsheet doesn’t even mention it. Jezebel breezes past it:

With one subject, the author blacked out and doesn’t remember having sex, but doesn’t seem troubled, by her own account.

Owen doesn’t have a duty to prosecute it. However, a feminist website surely ought to call it by its rightful name. A situation where one partner is blacked out isn’t some “gray” situation. It is not marginal or borderline. It is sexual assault, period. That doesn’t change just because Owen seems to boast that “I had somehow, in my black out state, still managed to crawl into bed with a Duke athlete.”

I’m also surprised (though I shouldn’t be) at how gender is affecting the way people interpret this incident. Imagine if the genders were reversed. There’d be more feminist outrage at how the “subjects” were exposed to shame, instead of Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet saying the guys were “pantsed.” There’d be less unfeminist outrage – as expressed on the Today Show – that a girl did this. There’d be a lot more shaming of the “subjects,” who would also be at higher risk for desperate acts. We’ve all heard of young women and gays who’ve committed suicide after their sex lives were broadcast without their will; I haven’t yet heard of a heterosexual male doing the same. That still doesn’t make it okay to treat a guy’s privacy like a dirty tissue. Not even if he’s an alpha male!

To be clear, I don’t want anyone to be shamed. I don’t want anyone’s privacy to be violated. I’m just struck by the hypocrisy, and how it’s toxic to everyone involved.

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Longtime readers of Kittywampus may recall that there are just a few things that viscerally scare me:

Almost all of these things enter into the story from Thursday night, through I don’t believe any wasps were involved. But honestly? I wouldn’t know; I was holed up with my kids. As I was cleaning up the dinner mess, I heard the scream of an emergency siren. I knew that the university was planning to test its emergency system – on Friday. So I flew out to my front porch, straining to hear the announcement through its bullhorn-distortions. All I picked up was “take shelter,” along with the oppressive air on my porch, and that was good enough for this North Dakotan-bred gal. I yelled upstairs, “Tornado warning!” The Tiger yelled, “Tornado warning!”

He and his brother, the Bear, tore down the stairs. I followed them into the basement, laptop and phone in hand. (Why, oh why, didn’t a flashlight even occur to me?) Minutes later, I chanced the upstairs again just long enough to rescue a few treasured stuffed animals and the cord for my laptop. I was alone with the kids. Mmy husband was at a meeting in the country, out of cell range, which was a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because he holds the theory that tornadoes never strike Athens, and that warning aren’t worth heeding. A curse, because I couldn’t be sure he was in safety.

For a good half hour, the biggest challenge was keeping the Tiger’s whine of “I’m bored!” from driving the rest of us around the bend. I let them watch a couple of silly YouTube clips (this one cracked them up again). I was hoping we could go back up once the warning expired at 7:15. The Bear would be about to go to his music practice, and we could try to track down their dad.

But then we heard the emergency siren again. And again. Soon sirens were wailing every minute or two. I still couldn’t catch the message, but I was certain it wasn’t “all clear.” I’d have guessed, oh, “prepare to die.” The next day, a friend said he’d heard “Tornadoes are surrounding Athens!” which I’m sure was close to the truth.

Here’s what it really said:

Looking around our basement hideaway, I started toting up the hazards. The small window. The bookshelves. My French horn (hey, that would be deadly if it went airborne.) I gave each kid an oversized pillow to shield their noggins and necks. At that, the Tiger’s boredom tipped over into terror. He would not be consoled by how silly it was to have a lumpy Winnie-the-Pooh chair over his head. I nixed YouTube so I could hear, and the LOLcats just weren’t cutting it as a distraction. Even the Bear was fighting tears. Heck, I was working hard to act brave. It didn’t help that the National Weather Service was starting to report multiple sightings of a twister touching down. Or that I was frantically hitting refresh on their page.

When we finally emerged from our secure underground location after an hour and a half (without ever sighting Cheney, I might add), we were all rattled. So were our neighbors and friends. We’d kept our power while most of the town and county had lost it. An acquaintance had actually seen the funnel cloud moving merrily down his road. Afterward, he had to take his chain saw to the large trees that had fallen across the road, trapping him and his family.

News filtered in only slowly. It seemed clear that Athens and its environs had been struck by at least one tornado. Rumors started to spread that the high school had been hit. One of the first reports noted that Pine-Aire Village had suffered damage and had to be evacuated due to a gas leak. The tornado had duked it out with the achingly poor mobile home park where I went canvassing in 2008. As usual, the tornado won. As usual, Pine-Aire Village lost. People who are trying their damnedest just to eke by now have new worries.

I haven’t taken a look at Pine-Aire because frankly, I’m still scared of the meth dealer and the vicious, unleashed dogs. But I did see how similar trailers were flipped and squished nearby in The Plains, the closest thing Athens has to a bedroom community. These mobile homes were located right next to Athens High School, which for bizarre reasons relating to government pork funds is located in the Plains.

This picture (and the next) was taken by my husband the next evening, as dusk was closing in. The woman next to the trailer is a Fox News local reporter. (They just lapped this up.)

Note how someone has scribbled “NOT SAFE” in big red letters. I’m not gonna argue.

The rumors about the high school turned out to be true. It was full with soccer and volleyball players and their families. The morning after the storm, a good friend of mine – the mother of the Bear’s best friend – responded to my worried email. She’d been working in the concession stand when some prescient soul yelled that a funnel cloud was approaching. She sprinted up the long steep hill to the high school and took shelter in the bunker-like locker rooms. Other adults, perhaps thinking they’d be safer sheltering in place (the hill is pretty daunting), remained in the concession stand. At least two of them were injured, though not seriously. One was taken to the hospital, the other treated on the scene.

That’s the inside of the concession stand.

That’s its exterior.

Meanwhile, the students on the field had sought shelter from the rain in the press box. Someone ushered them down to a locker room that’s located right on the edge of the field. Good thing. The press box blew clean off the top of the bleachers.

Cars were crushed as the press box collapsed behind the stands.

My friend had a bad half hour before she was reunited with her son. The fear of another strike hadn’t quite abated enough for everyone to be released. My friend was in cell contact with her son, but the wait was hard, especially as the smell of gas indicated leaks. When they were finally permitted to leave, they found a moonscape: mature trees snapped like sticks, debris everywhere, and a stadium that won’t host games anytime soon.

The scoreboard is whacked.

The football goals stand at jaunty new angles.

The wreckage in the foreground used to be a stadium light. (Those to the right and left remain standing, but their lamps have been turned 90 degrees.) The wreckage in the back – well, that was the visitors’ bleachers.

Structures to the right and left of the locker room were decimated. And yet, the kids sheltering there stayed safe.

School is called off until further notice. The high school suffered damage to some classrooms.

It also lost its two 1000-pound AC units, which blew off the roof.

It is a miracle that no one was killed. I heard one chopper take off Thursday night, and the next day a colleague confirmed that one person was injured badly enough to require transfer to Columbus. On the whole, though, injuries appear to be few and minor. Property damage is much more significant.

The tornado also touched down in Athens proper, leaving its main mark on Autotech, an automotive servicing and towing company at the edge of town. The only two buildings farther out along that road are the Super 8 Motel and the clinic where I had my colonoscopy. Those facilities survived with only minor damage (mostly missing shingles). Just a few yards away, Autotech was damaged beyond redemption.

The view from the highway.

Note the Coke machine encircled by corrugated metal. (I took this photo yesterday morning, and the machine was liberated by evening.) Note, too the wads of insulation. We saw them everywhere. All those years growing up in North Dakota, and I never imagined that the hallmark of a tornado could be oodles of rogue insulation.

Of course the impaired Coke dispenser adds credibility to the conspiracy theory …

… that this tornado was brought to us by Pepsi. (Photo from the high school.) Yes, I’m being flip. Black humor is one of the ways I deal with the world’s horrors.

I’m grateful that my family didn’t suffer any harm beyond the shock and fright. Today the Tiger has been playing with Lincoln Logs. Every once in a while a tornado comes and knocks them down. It’s spookily reminiscent of boys I knew who were 10 after the Twin Towers collapsed. They built mega-towers out of legos, which were level by terrorist flying planes. I shudder. Yet our kids seem to need these reenactments in order to come to grips with destruction that none of us can really fathom.

I’m grateful that all of the neighborhoods in Athens proper were spared, and that the elementary schools (except the Plains?) seem to be fine. (I still expect them to stay closed on Monday, given the track record of my boyfriend, the superintendent. We’ve now burned through a full third of our three calamity days.)

Ohio University got very lucky. It appears undamaged. Nor will the Darwin Award go to any of those students who went outdoors to watch the storm “cause I’ve never seen a tornado!”

Tonight, my thoughts are with the people of The Plains, the families of AHS students, and (further afield) the people who did succumb to the storm: a man in West Virginia as well as those killed in Queens in a separate, even freakier storm.

And I’m grateful for the rescuers, pictured here in an extraordinary photo by Spencer Heaps, taken the same evening as the storm:

Spencer Heaps has several other stunning photos at his blog. Please do pay him a visit.

The Athens News also has info on Athens County being declared a disaster area and on the confusing scene at the high school. They offer a photo gallery, too.

There’s no really good footage of the tornado itself, thankfully. (I don’t want people putting themselves in harm’s way!) The next closest thing is this clip, taken by college students living on a hill on the south side of town, which to my knowledge was not damaged.

Photos by me and my husband except as noted.

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In comments to my  post on “birth rape,” more than one person expressed surprise and shock that a feminist would say that intent matters in the definition of rape. This is a really complicated issue, and I’ve been reading about it on and off for nearly two years without fully understanding the nuances. I’m not a lawyer, and my (layperson’s) understanding of the issue is still evolving. I’ll be grateful for any input from people who know more about the law than I do.

With those caveats in mind, I would argue strongly that the motivations and awareness of someone who commits sexual assault do matter. Taking this position doesn’t amount to rape apologism. A perpetrator’s motivations matter for feminist reasons: as the example of “birth rape” shows, the possible remedies, penalties, and prevention strategies are different for rape than for other violations of bodily autonomy and integrity. They also matter for reasons of fairness: In the Anglo-American tradition, criminal law generally imposes different penalties depending on the moral culpability of the defendant.

First, let’s bear in mind that rape is not the same as sexual assault. Rape is one form of sexual assault – the most serious. Some states don’t use the term “rape” in their criminal code any more, preferring instead to designate various degrees of sexual assault. I’ve previously written about some of the various forms of sexual assault that the law recognizes. Having a spectrum of offenses is very important because even if a sexual assault doesn’t rise to the standard of “rape,” the law can – and in my view, should – provide additional recourse to a victim.

Generally speaking, in order to prove rape (or first degree sexual assault), the prosecution has to prove two things: that a crime occurred (or actus reas) and that the defendant committed it with a “guilty mind” (or mens rea). The principle of mens rea runs throughout our criminal code. It is especially important when it comes to the most serious crime. The most familiar example is homicide, where distinctions exist between first-degree murder (which is premeditated), second-degree murder (purposeful but not planned in advance), and quite a wide a variety of other forms of homicide and manslaughter, depending on how the killing occurred and how negligently or intentionally the killer acted. (Exact categories and definitions vary from state to state.) Without mens rea, all forms of killing would be considered equally culpable and equally blameworthy, and they’d be punished with roughly equal severity.

Mens rea is relevant to sexual assault law in most states in the U.S., though the standards vary from state to state, and they often aren’t specified very clearly. (Here’s an overview – it’s a Word file. Subsequent references to state laws rely on this chart unless otherwise noted.) Because of this fuzziness, it’s helpful to look at the American Law Institute Model Penal Code (MPC). The MPC isn’t binding on the various states, but it has been highly influential. The MPC delineates four levels of culpability, which I’d summarize as follows (exact wording is at the end of this post):

  1. Purposeful: The defendant intended to commit the crime and harm a specific victim.
  2. Knowing: The defendant might not have intended to harm the victim, but he/she had knowledge that such harm was certain or virtually certain.
  3. Reckless: The defendant knew the odds were high that his/her actions would harm the victim.
  4. Negligent: The defendant was not aware that he/she was likely to harm the victim, but he/she should have been realized it. (Note that the standards for negligence are higher for criminal cases than in civil court.)

As it turns out, state law is typically sloppy about specifying the mens rea required for a rape conviction. Often it’s just a matter of “general intent.” This leaves the door open for case law to further specify the mens rea needed to convict. On the whole, recklessness or worse is required. The MPC calls for recklessness at a minimum. (For an overview of this messy situation as of 2000, see David P. Dryden, “Redefining Rape” – full text and citation in this pdf. It runs to 163 pages, and I’m still trying to digest it.)

Here’s where things get sticky for feminists concerned with rape and other forms of sexual assault. Defendants exploit the mens rea requirement by arguing that they made an “honest mistake” and believed consent was given. This defense usually flies if the mistake is judged honest and also reasonable, though again jurisdictions vary, with some considering even unreasonable mistakes to be exculpatory.

Given that the mens rea requirement allows some rapists to game the system, shouldn’t a feminist just demand its abolition? For instance, statutory rape is typically a “strict liability” crime, which means if a defendant has sex with a very young person. In my state of Ohio, this applies when the victim is under 13, “whether or not the offender knows the age of the other person,” without any verbiage about reasonableness, recklessness, or negligence. The perpetrator can be found guilty of rape without any other consideration of his or her culpability. (In practice, though, most such cases in Ohio are prosecuted as a lesser offense, gross sexual imposition.)

However, I’m reluctant to abandon the basic principle of blameworthiness. Statutory rape is already a pretty extreme outlier. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no other equally serious crime that relies on strict liability. If we made all sexual assaults strict liability, how could we oppose the injustice of, say, a profoundly mentally retarded individual being convicted of rape and imprisoned for years on end? To me, it seems immoral to incarcerate people who are not in a position to recognize their own moral culpability. In case you don’t care for this argument: Wouldn’t juries be even less likely to convict if the law failed to distinguish degrees of blameworthiness?

Instead, I’d rather consider how we might redefine “reasonable” beliefs in consent. For instance, Catherine MacKinnon has advocated replacing a “reasonable man/person” standard with a “reasonable woman” one – an approach with both promise and problems, which I’m still weighing. Or we might introduce a category of sexual assault based on criminal negligence to ensure consent, which would carry substantially lower penalties than rape, but would offer a chance of conviction in acquaintance rape cases, which remain very difficult to prosecute. This isn’t unheard of; Ohio’s criminal code defines forcible rape as committed “purposely,” but the bar for sexual battery is only “knowingly.” Why not create a lower category of sexual assault that specifically addresses instances of recklessness and criminal negligence? I’m still thinking and learning about the possibilities, so I’m reluctant to commit to any particular legal model. (Maybe in a future post?) But given that the rules of evidence have already been changed substantially (e.g., rape shield laws) without much changing conviction rates for acquaintance rape, I think it’s crucial to consider other areas for potential reform.

Finally, I know some readers are wondering – as Melissa did in comments: Shouldn’t feminists have a definition of “rape” geared to women’s experiences? Well, only in some ways. Surely our desires for reform ought to be anchored in the experiences of victims (who, as feminists are increasingly realizing, are not always women). There are abusive situations that are currently legal, yet we may well want to see punished by law. If so, we should clarify our positions and work toward changing the law. We also need to continue criticizing the rape myths that allow juries to buy an “honest mistake” defense that’s obviously founded on misogyny. Laws need to change so that the typical defense doesn’t rely mainly on those myths. Rape myths negate women’s experiences and they prejudice juries against complainants.

On the other hand, we should not embrace a “social” or “psychological” definition of rape that’s disconnected from both the current law and the law as we’d like to see it. Rape is always irreducibly a legal category – a crime. I’m not willing to say, “Well, it’s up to every person to define for him- or herself whether an experience was rape.” In the feminist blogosphere, some folks are branding anything short of enthusiastic consent as rape. (That, too, would be another post.) Enthusiastic consent is a great cultural standard. I teach it, especially to beginning students, because I think it offers a chance to make real inroads against acquaintance rape. It is not embedded in the law, and I’m skeptical that it ever ought to be. As I’ve argued before, there are areas of sexual behavior where ethics are more appropriate than legal remedies. Frankly, just a cursory look at existing law shows that many states still retain a requirement to prove force (or the dire threat thereof), and some still require resistance.

There’s plenty of work to do. The most important reforms don’t require that we abolish “intent” – or mens rea – as a meaningful category. In fact, if we attend to mens rea, we can probably increase conviction rates, but more importantly, I think we can teach and write against rape more effectively than if we bracket out a perpetrator’s state of mind.

Appendix: Mens rea as defined by the Model Penal Code

2.02 General Requirements of Culpability.

(1) Minimum Requirements of Culpability. Except as provided in Section 2.05, a person is not guilty of an offense unless he acted purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently, as the law may require, with respect to each material element of the offense.

(2) Kinds of Culpability Defined.

(a) Purposely.

A person acts purposely with respect to a material element of an offense when:

(i) if the element involves the nature of his conduct or a result thereof, it is his conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result; and

(ii) if the element involves the attendant circumstances, he is aware of the existence of such circumstances or he believes or hopes that they exist.

(b) Knowingly.

A person acts knowingly with respect to a material element of an offense when:

(i) if the element involves the nature of his conduct or the attendant circumstances, he is aware that his conduct is of that nature or that such circumstances exist; and

(ii) if the element involves a result of his conduct, he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result.

(c) Recklessly.

A person acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and purpose of the actor’s conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a law-abiding person would observe in the actor’s situation.

(d) Negligently.

A person acts negligently with respect to a material element of an offense when he should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the actor’s failure to perceive it, considering the nature and purpose of his conduct and the circumstances known to him, involves a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.

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