Who Pats Down Your Privates?

The TSA's new body-scan policy has triggered howls of outrage. But does it matter who wields the wand? Conor Friedersdorf on the clash between gender and security.

11.19.10 9:57 PM ET

If you polled 100 women about the prospect of an intrusive airport security pat down, the vast majority would prefer that a female Transportation Security Administration agent perform the procedure. A poll of male air travelers would find many who would also prefer a female TSA agent, the American male being slightly homophobic and prone to promiscuous thoughts. Jonathan Last has written a satirical riff on this theme, suggesting that the backlash would die down if only TSA hired more attractive staffers and added a few Champagne rooms to airports.

But the subject is ripe for serious discussion, too.

Is the default system, whereby passengers are always patted down by a TSA agent of the same sex, the appropriate one? That depends partly on the reasoning behind the policy.

If the idea is to maximize the comfort level and minimize the intrusiveness to passengers, it seems that they should get to choose the gender of the person who pats them down, just as they're able to choose the gender of their physician, massage therapist, personal trainer, etc.

If the idea is to maximize the comfort level of the TSA employees, this is probably the correct default, though I certainly can't know that for sure. How uncomfortable would female TSA agents be patting down male passengers? How uncomfortable are male TSA agents patting down male passengers? Is it more arduous to feel around a guy's package or a woman's breasts? Only America's civil servants know the answer!

Is it more arduous to feel around a guy’s package or a woman’s breasts? Only America’s civil servants know the answer!

Thus far I've assumed heterosexuality, but of course there are gay TSA agents and gay passengers. If the idea is to avoid agents patting down the gender to which they're attracted—or else to avoid passengers being patted down by the gender to which they're attracted—then it's possible, for example, that lesbian women should be patted down by heterosexual women, straight men, or gay men, depending on the particular perversity Uncle Sam is most intent on preventing.

Gayness throws a wrench into the "comfort" standard, too. For example, I am sure there are straight men who are most comfortable with a TSA agent of the same sex—unless he is gay, in which case they'd prefer a woman. And probably there are women who'd prefer a gay man to a lesbian?

And what about bisexuals? And transsexuals? What to do, reader, about "questioning" air travelers?

Robert Poole: TSA, Don’t Touch My JunkExisting policy is likely crafted to minimize the impression that there is anything sexual about these pat-downs, because our norms are such that being sexually aroused by giving or receiving a pat-down at airport security is considered either criminal, perverted, or both. But there would be no need to have any default policy about gender if these pat-downs weren't so intrusive that there is potential for sexual pleasure being taken by one party, another, or both.

That it now makes sense to entertain these questions is itself a sign that this policy ought to be ended. But maybe I'm just uptight. Perhaps the future will be shown us by a Scandinavian airline that, forced to comply with America's overzealous security procedures, begins employing specially trained anti-terrorism sex workers at the airport, and affording passengers a bordello-style choice of who is going to check their genitals for explosives.

Suspicious passengers would be flagged for secondary screening by a dominatrix.

Laugh if you will.

Then ask yourself if 10 years ago you'd ever have imagined that boarding a flight would require everything save turning your head to cough.

And whether my imagined Scandinavian system doesn't sound less transgressive by comparison.

Conor Friedersdorf blogs at True/Slant and The American Scene. Follow him on Twitter at Conor64.