January 30, 2012 11:00 AM   Subscribe

Going on a trip, yay! Girlfriend is INCREDIBLY leery of TSA/naked scanners.... help?

So, we get to go on an expense paid trip in May, to South America. However, to get there, it looks like we will have to go through some fairly intense security at the International terminal. My girlfriend is VERY worried and upset about the scanners and or patdowns. At this point, she is NOT going to go on said trip if she has to get naked scanned or have her private bits touched by the TSA. Do we have any options? (the websites she reads are not exactly helping) Or is she stuck and going to stay here? She is ok with the metal detector + magnetic wand thingy, but is quite firm (and vocal) on the NO NAKED SCANNERS or GROPE PATDOWN. Help? Please?
posted by Jacen to Travel & Transportation (61 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Nope, no guaranteed way around that. Sometimes an airport will only have the scanner on one line and you can choose another line, but that's the luck of the draw.

FWIW, the patdown is in public, and it's not that "intimate."
posted by ignignokt at 11:02 AM on January 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm afraid the situation is not good.

The best you can hope for is to have her private bits touched by the TSA in a private room.

Also beware that (at least at SFO) they are making the groping particularly invasive, presumably to encourage people to use the scanner.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:04 AM on January 30, 2012

I opt out of the naked scan and get a pat down every time. Despite the handful of horror stories that have emerged, no TSA employee has touched my genitals. I'd say it's slightly *less* extreme than the "you set off a metal detector with your underwire bra" pat downs of the immediately post 9-11 era.

Some airports are using an alternative technology that bounces sound waves off your body to identify whether you have metal under your clothes -- Portland International Airport does this, for example. I, personally, am more comfortable with those scanners. Could you talk to your girlfriend about how she feels about that option? Perhaps you can determine your departure city based, in part, on the screening used there?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:05 AM on January 30, 2012 [8 favorites]

(same goes for DFW)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:06 AM on January 30, 2012

Flying out of JFK, there was no scanner or grope a few months back. Flying from SEA back to JFK there was scanner/grope, it was invasive, and the TSA people were arrogant pricks about it.
posted by kellyblah at 11:06 AM on January 30, 2012

If an anecdotal data point helps: I flew to London about a year ago and didn't have either. It seems to be a random thing. My father also said he had the body scanner a couple years ago and it was honestly not a big deal

This may also sound like "don't think of a white elephant" advice, but if you're at the airport and she's nervous about getting selected for a full-body scan, the agents may be that much more likely to pick her out for one because "what's she nervous about? Let's take a look."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:07 AM on January 30, 2012

When I see a scanner, there's usually a choice (if not explicit) that you can be on the line for a scanner, or you can be on an ordinary line.
posted by entropone at 11:08 AM on January 30, 2012

I always opt out of the scanner, and I've been patted down a lot. I've never had an experience anywhere near what I've read online. I don't doubt those stories are true, but they're kind of in the same category as "terrible stories about police abuse"--the worst things are most likely to be publicized, and the large percentage of people who have completely unremarkable experiences are kind of invisible.

For what it's worth, the patdowns I've gotten from TSA are significantly less vigorous than the patdowns I've received in South American airports (though maybe that's not helpful to share with your girlfriend.) Also, I've found that the anxiety I have about the process of having to opt out (will the TSA agent argue with me? what if they refuse and call the police? what if the people behind me yell?) is much, much worse than the actual patdown. I suspect this will be true for your girlfriend as well, and one thing that may be useful to point out to her is that the longer she avoids flying in order to avoid patdowns, the worse the anxiety will be, and if she is ever in a situation where she NEEDS to fly--to visit ailing family, to interview for a new job--she's going to be in a much worse situation.

My sympathies. Keep her away from the websites, see if you can find any friends who have been patted down and can share their experience with her, and encourage to think about whether she's willing to have the inane TSA rules keep her from traveling to exotic locales. Oh, and offer to roleplay the TSA opt-out interaction--having a script and the confidence about using it will probably help immensely with the anxiety.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:09 AM on January 30, 2012 [8 favorites]

When I flew out of JFK to Minnesota, it was just a plain ole metal detector. Flying back, they had the Naked Scanners and I definitely got a patdown considerably more ...thorough... than any club bouncer has given me (although that was because they thought they had detected some traces of god-knows-what on me.)

You may want to check with your individual airport, however even that isn't a guarantee for not having a "random" behind-closed-doors screening.
posted by griphus at 11:10 AM on January 30, 2012

My wife opts out of the millimeter wave scanners every time, and she always gets a pat down. Also sometimes the TSA people yell "REFUSAL! REFUSAL! FEMALE ASSIST" as a way of getting someone over to do a pat down, which draws a lot of attention to you.

Sometimes the pat down is pretty minimalist, but other times the TSA agent has, in my wife's words, "put her hand on my leg and gone...all the way up." There's not anyway to tell which it will be.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:10 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

nthing that there is no way to guarantee this. It's relatively random, so she might just be metal detectored, but there's no way to know ahead of time. I've been in airports where they weren't using any scanners, and where you could pick one line or the other if you had good eyes, or where every single person was being scanned

If she's selected for the body scanner she will have 3 options: do the body scanner, get the pat-down, or leave, there won't be a fourth option.
posted by brainmouse at 11:10 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some airports are using an alternative technology that bounces sound waves off your body to identify whether you have metal under your clothes -- Portland International Airport does this, for example.

If you are talking about a millimeter wave scanner, it is not sound waves—it is radio waves. But it is non-ionizing radiation unlike the backscatter X-ray machines (I note that the TSA is now often leaving off the scary "X-ray" part in their description of these machines). I always opt out of the backscatter X-ray machines, but I'll go through a millimeter wave scanner.
posted by grouse at 11:12 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

After you show your ticket, ask which lane is the conventional metal detector lane. Ask politely and firmly to be directed to the conventional metal detector lane. If that TSA agent refuses to do so, or cannot do so, ask the one standing next to her. Report any TSA officer who does not answer your question politely. As of six weeks ago, at O'Hare, this still gets you directed to the conventional metal detectors. Remember to be polite, calm, and simply repeat your question "which lane is the conventional metal detector?" You can usually spot them, but (in O'Hare, at least), many lanes have both and it's not always easy to tell which is in use. I'm flying tomorrow and already steeling myself for this interaction.

Then write your congressmen about the humiliation of dealing with the TSA and how you object to the cost and inefficiency of the TSA/security theatre nonsense, and political patronage of the whole-body scanner boondoggle, as well as the affront to your civil liberties.

If it helps her anxiety, she's not alone.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:17 AM on January 30, 2012 [12 favorites]

I'm sorry your girlfriend is going through this. From what I understand, there is no way around this. The scanner at least reduces physical contact and public viewing. However, it's still invasive.

It's important not to shrug off your girlfriend's feelings. For some people, these screening processes are upsetting, humiliating and triggering. They may bring up past trauma or may, for some people, be traumatic in and of themselves. It may be helpful for your girlfriend to go for therapy if it is interfering with her desire to travel. You might also look at whether driving across the border and flying from Mexico might be worthwhile. (I assume you are in Texas, per your profile.)
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:17 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Flying out of JFK, I've never been asked to go through the scanners. Flying back, I was asked once and refused -- the pat-down was very simple and not particularly invasive.

However, this kind of thing is why I now arrive at the airport as early as possible. Some airports have terrible security employees.

If your girlfriend is worried that they're going to be sexually groping her? Well, that's not going to happen. A woman will do a quick, back-of-the-hands pat-down that takes less than a minute.

If she's just incredibly self-conscious and dreads having other passengers staring at her/attention called to her, then that's going to be a bigger problem.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:20 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

My math is that if I'm going to participate in privacy-invading security theater, I'd rather that the person doing the nonsense look me in the eye and be in the awkward moment with me. I am not going to roll over and be obedient to The Man just so I don't have to have some lady touch my boobs with the sides of her hands. I don't like getting patted down, but I feel like it's a price I'm willing to pay to a) avoid the scanners and b) be a minor roadbump to total fascism.

I am very polite at the airport. I don't get into fights with people. But if someone wants to pat me down in public, or make me wait in the plastic cube while they get a lady officer, and that makes them somehow feel uncomfortable, or like I am "holding up the line", that is fundamentally their problem. I am not going to feel shame or anxiety over something that isn't my fault and is totally dumb in general.

As to the patdowns, mine have not been that bad. They are a little awkward (but again, I feel a certain contrary satisfaction to putting the awkwardness out in public, because I'm a jerk) but they are not ultra invasive. Nobody gropes your crotch, and I think they use the backs/sides of their hands around your boobs.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:21 AM on January 30, 2012 [32 favorites]

Lots of airports don't have the backscatter X-ray scanners yet. You could try routing your flights through places that don't have them. Or fly privately from a smaller, local airport – it might not be terribly expensive to charter a jet if there are many of you.

In the U.S., I always ask for a pat-down and no private bits of mine have ever been touched - they don't check anywhere near my crotch up the legs. Also, in my experience the TSA employees have always been courteous and friendly, and I fly a ton – she shouldn't have a problem with arrogance unless she is being a jerk to them.
posted by halogen at 11:22 AM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

The pat down is no big deal. (I mean it's a big deal, but going through it is not a personal big deal). They will run their hand up your leg, put their fingers inside your waistband but it's not at all gropey or upsetting. I ask for it every time, because fuck a scanner.

I think I've had three or four pat-downs. Every single time I've been treated respectfully and professionally. I've gotten eye rolls from the people manning the scanner, but the person doing the pat-down has been pleasant every time.

Not to say that there aren't asshole TSA agents, but I would suggest going into it with the mentality that it's no big deal and you are dealing with adults. I all-but guarantee you a pleasant outcome.

Take your beef to your government representatives, don't be a dick to the TSA agent -- even if they're being rude, it won't get you anywhere.
posted by wrok at 11:22 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The best you can hope for is to have her private bits touched by the TSA in a private room.

Don't go in a private room. Get the pat-down in public. You really want as many eyes on you as possible, NOT fewer. (Both because people should be made aware of the silly hoops you're required to jump through, and so that there's no impropriety/more witnesses).

It's not like you take your clothes off, they just touch the exterior of your clothed body.
posted by wrok at 11:29 AM on January 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

I can understand being worried or upset, but in the four months between now and your trip, your girlfriend has time to work on these issues, assuming that she actually wants to go on the trip and this isn't general travel anxiety, not wanting to travel with you, etc. If she wants to, she can work on these issues. If she doesn't, don't force her.

The annoying thing - well, one of the annoying things - about air travel is that you have to cede a lot of control in the process. It's scary, but honestly, leaving the country presents more unknowns than the process of going through airport security.

If I were her, I would opt for the patdown. It's a bit awkward, but it's brief and they don't touch your "private bits." But I understand that it can be traumatic for some people, so it's not a perfect option. It may be a terrible option for her. None of us here know why she's so firm in objecting to a patdown or body scan, and I don't want to judge her reasons.

Present it to her this way: She can deal with her anxiety about airport security, or she doesn't go on the trip. There's no way around it. It's a black and white issue, but you will support her either way.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 11:32 AM on January 30, 2012

I know you said that your girlfriend is at the point where she doesn't want to do a pat-down, but if she changes her mind here are some concrete tips that I personally think makes the experience easier:

1. Mentally prepare myself by acknowledging I have a 100% chance of being patted down, because I will not go through the scanner. Uncertainty is much worse than preparing for an unpleasant outcome. I consciously focus on something very similar to hmsbeagle's reasoning, which makes me realize that I'm not a passive victim in this episode of security theater but rather someone making a conscious choice within the limited set available to me.

2. I wear relatively form-fitting jeans. Loose-fitting pants, or even worse skirts, are going to make the patdown feel worse because there's much more of a sensation of someone moving cloth aside to touch your crotch. Jeans, on the other hand, provide quite a sensory barrier (especially on the seam) and if they are at all form-fitting it will feel like someone sliding the back of the hand up the seam, which is to say, not terrible at all.

3. Make sure my travel partner goes through the line first and is prepared to sit next to / keep an eye on my stuff while I wait for a female TSA agent to be fetched. They will pull your stuff over into a separate area to test for residue once the TSA agent finds you, but if you're a woman that can take a while and it's stressful to have your stuff just sitting there on the other side of the metal detector where anyone could walk away with it.

4. Run through my knowledge of the steps of the pat-down while it's happening, as a way to distract myself ("okay, now the part where she asks if I have any sensitive areas on my body, now she's using the back of her hand to run along my arms and bra underwire, now she's checking my socks (!!) to make sure nothing is tucked in, now she's feeling about an inch inside my waistband to make sure I haven't tucked anything in there") and keep track of how much more there is to go. Anyone that has gone through a few patdowns can probably SHOW you exactly what will happen, and being prepared makes such a difference mentally.

5. Seriously, JEANS.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:36 AM on January 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

After tripping the scanners both trips on my last set of flights, I got a patdown. It was brief and non-invasive. My husband tripped one (left the metallic wrapper of cold medicine gelcaps in his back pocket by mistake), and had to get a non-invasive patdown as well as stick his hands into some kind of residue detecting machine.

I've flown 3 trips in the last 18 months and that was the most strictly they've adhered to their scanner/patdown policy. The other times, the terminals didn't even have the scanners yet, and when they did they didn't have them turned on. I've gone through security at four different airports in the last 18 months in different parts of the country, and the SOP seems wildly inconsistent. There is no guaranteed method of avoiding uncomfortable and pointless security theater. If you still have time to book the tickets, research which airports and terminals have the least objectionable anecdata and try to fly those routes.

Otherwise, your SO should probably opt for the straight patdown if she really wants to go on this trip. Be polite and non-confrontational; chances are she won't likely have one of the offensively "gropey" ones. They aren't supposed to actually touch any private areas. I tend to think the horror stories are few and far between.
posted by asciident at 11:36 AM on January 30, 2012

Here's something to tell your girlfriend: nobody runs to the internet to tell everyone about the completely boring security experience they just had.

On the other hand: I had to hold my arms above my head and have my underwire touched by security when flying out of Mexico City earlier this year. I don't want to be all "suck it up", but when you travel internationally and particularly to/near/through politically/economically/narcotically unstable areas you may cross paths with security policies that are about drugs and bombs and zero bullshit. You must comply with those procedures, or you can transfer your anxieties to foreign jails. Or stay home.

It is sad that security is fucked up these days, but it is also sad to never go anywhere because you might get frisked or have a vaguely amorphous blob image of yourself viewed by someone who probably isn't paying enough attention to notice if you had a bazooka clenched between your cheeks - or to be taken away and x-rayed for a stomach full of heroin condoms by people who are *very* interested. It is a risk flyers choose to take.

There is therapy for managing her fear, if she wants it. But if traveling in dumb but comparatively benign US airports is too terrifying for her, you should probably take someone else to South America.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:47 AM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I agree with others that the patdowns are no big deal. They do NOT grope your private bits, and they are quite respectful. They tell you what they are going to do before they do it. They use the back of their hands to touch the sides of your boobs.

As a type 1 diabetic, I get patted down a lot. Not because I wear an insulin pump, or have some backup syringes -- they could care less. But because I often travel with a precautionary, sealed juicebox. Because, you know, it's more likely that I could hijack a plane with Juicy Juice than by injecting someone with insulin.
posted by kestrel251 at 11:48 AM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am a little confused as to why your girlfriend is so vehement about this to the point that she is not willing to go on the trip. This seems like such a minor thing compared to a free trip to South America.

Personally, I opt for the porno scanner everytime. The scan time is minimal and the image is minimal. I would show more in a bathing suit in public than would appear on the image screen.

Further random anecdote: I was flying from Nashville back home and ended up in the security line behind a man and woman who were traveling together. Not only did they have all kinds of bizarre things in their bags (batteries, metal equipment, etc), the woman insisted - INSISTED - on having a pat down rather than go through the scanner. Since there was no female TSA agent at that lane, it was effective shut down for about 10 minutes while one was located. She was getting a lot of dirty looks both from passengers and the TSA agents, none of whom were eager to pat her down.

The point of the story is not that your girlfriend should feel pressured to accept one over the other to appease other passengers, it's that most of the time, people get through security with minimal intrusiveness, either in the form of a scan or a search.
posted by Leezie at 11:50 AM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've had the pat-down twice. Once at SFO after opting out of the x-ray machine and once overseas (Finland - very invasive). The SFO one was thorough, but I got no direct genital touching. The part that made me most uncomfortable was that they made me take off all of my layered clothing, so that I just had pants and a shirt left. That felt a bit odd to me, for personal reasons. There was the usual back of the gloved hand brush over my body and some pressing around my bra. The chances that you'll get into a x-ray line are random. I was moved into a line that had the machines through what appeared to be a normal 'distribute the crowd' maneuver by the TSA line agents. I only was put into the line with the machines 1 time out of 4 trips.

I'd recommend a few things. First, allow yourself extra time to get through it all. The TSA agents I saw were somewhat passive aggressive about the choice to not go through the x-ray machine. I got eyerolling, yelling out for a female agent to come check me, and I had to wait around for awhile for her to arrive, while my personal belongings were left mostly unattended at the conveyer (they won't let you get your things until you're finished with screening). All of this can make you late for your plane unless you've allowed extra time for it.

Second, knowing that they'll strip you down to your bottom layer of clothes, make sure the ones you wear are not more revealing than you'd like. Sweaters, hoodies, overshirts, etc will all have to come off. I'd go with jeans and a long sleeve shirt that's form-fitting, but made of a heavier fabric.

Third, women have some extra opportunities to wear things that will create another barrier. If I were very concerned about being touched on my breasts and genitals, I'd wear a very padded bra and a large, overnight-style maxi pad. That way, if you do get touched in those areas, there's a thick barrier between your body and the agent.

For some, going into the private screening area is comforting as it allows for more privacy, but I, personally, prefer the public area because I don't want an agent to feel like they have more of an opportunity to be invasive because of the lack of an audience.
This process can be very triggering for anyone who has a history of assault or abuse. I have a lot of sympathy for people with those issues or health issues that make the current TSA theater painful and humiliating.
posted by quince at 11:53 AM on January 30, 2012

ask which lane is the conventional metal detector lane

?? Many airports do not have separate lanes, or offer you a choice. I have flown through many airports that only use body scanners now. Your "choice" is: body scanner or patdown.

Now, I suppose if you told us specific airports, Mefites might be able to cobble together enough knowledge to tell you whether she could in principle get through just via metal detector. This might even guide your choice of plane tickets.
posted by kestrel251 at 11:54 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

If she wears rather form-fitting clothes, the patdown may be quicker. When I wear long skirts or sweatpants, the patdowns are always more invasive because they're actually looking for something. With skinny jeans or leggings, they can pretty much tell that you're not hiding anything, so it's much more cursory. Same goes for tops.

I also believe that since you have plenty of time, you should work on overcoming this fear via role-play or whatever. It's not just this trip, it's every trip for the rest of her life!
posted by acidic at 11:57 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I thought they changed the display on the scanners. It was my understanding that the scanners now show detected anomalies on a generic human silhouette. Also, the TSA agent will view the scans in plain sight since the screens no longer show sensitive images.

I paid attention to this issue for a while, but haven't been following it for some time. My apologies if I'm misremembering something, but if I'm right it may be worth your time to confirm it.
posted by stuart_s at 12:00 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Could you contact the airport you're flying out of and ask if they have a line that is just a metal detector? Or just go to the airport and check it out? About half the times I've flown in the past two years I've been prepared to ask for a patdown and found out that they weren't using the scanners that day, or they were out of commission. But that may have just been luck.
The times I've opted for a patdown I've been treated courteously and almost apologetically, but I understand that if this is triggering for your gf then even a courteous patdown will be too invasive.

Where in South America are you going? Some airports are stricter than others - and some even require that you go through security twice when boarding a flight back to the US. But a lot of them still do metal detector wand patdowns.
posted by ke rose ne at 12:00 PM on January 30, 2012

At this point, she is NOT going to go on said trip if she has to get naked scanned or have her private bits touched by the TSA. Do we have any options?

Unless she accepts one or the other kind of assault, she's not going on this trip... or any trip ever leaving the USA by air. It's not going to get better anytime soon.

I say your option is to be kind with her, and ask if she is really committed to an entire lifetime without ever going anywhere?

And once she budges a little, follow the advice above. Conventional line. Stay in public. And jeans jeans jeans.

Also... Xanax.
posted by rokusan at 12:17 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everybody else has the legalities and options covered but I wanted to put forth a vote that if I were your girlfriend, and reading these answers, I'd be freaking out and I'm sort of feeling a little freaked out even though I'm *not* going on a trip and I'm *not* going to be dealing with TSA security any time soon.

I wanted to suggest that she opt for the fastest means of getting out of the situation (probably the scanner) and I hope this doesn't veer too far away from your question, but that she embrace the value of denial and not think about it at all, or as little as possible, prior to the actual event and she forget about it as quickly as possible afterwards.

And as Rokusan said, Xanax, even though someone will invariably have a hard time with the recommendation. She can talk to her doctor about anti-anxiety meds.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:22 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

The only time I've been able to dependably get directed to a metal detector is when I have my child with me. Always when I'm alone I get the pat-down. SFO hasn't been all that bad lately. A few weeks ago, there was no loud shouting and the guy actually tried to be quick about it. As part of the standard spiel, they ask if you have any sensitive parts, and I said, "Just the usual one." He kinda smirked and it was clear he didn't want to be doing this any more than I did.

That said, I'm sure it's much different for a woman, but the past couple times the guys have seemed almost apologetic and not at all creepy.

Oh, and I hear Congress is trying to decide if all these scanners and stuff are worth it. There's hope things will change.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 12:26 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just realized -- you said she referred to it as "the naked scanner." I'm wondering if she still may not be inadvertently looking at misleading information about the scanners? I know for a while there was an image being put forth as "an actual image from a TSA scanner", and that image was quite detailed; however, someone else discovered that the image in question was ACTUALLY from a medical-encyclopedia CD.

I'm now suddenly wondering if the images she has in mind may be the "medical CD images." This article -- while it is a discussion of an agency that accidentally leaked a number of saved images -- does at least point out that the images actually aren't as "obviously naked" as she may fear.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:28 PM on January 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

Is the setup at your local airport such that you can easily watch people go through security? Perhaps you could go to airport and spend some time watching people - people of all different sizes, body types, and ages - go through the security process, and see that its (a) not that big a deal and (b) 'if those people can do it you can do it'?
posted by Kololo at 12:29 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

my husband and i have decided that we don't fly until something changes. it limits our choices, for sure, and if it were an absolute emergency, we'd probably suck it up, but for vacations, flying isn't an option for us.

i think some people really don't understand how triggering the process is for some people who were sexually abused. i don't know if this is your girlfriend's issue, but it it is, it's not a minor one. it's also one i'd not want to solve by doing xanax, but that probably just because one of my assaults involved xanax.
posted by nadawi at 12:30 PM on January 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

I spent a couple minutes googling and it seems like some airports are already equipped to scan travelers without displaying sensitive images. The new procedure is currently only available for the millimeter wave machines and many of those are probably not updated yet.

Obviously, this is highly dependent on your departure airports. It's possible that you could luck out, although the odds don't seem high. Do you have control over the departure airports?

For instance, my nearest major airport is updated. Googling also reveals that Paraguay's major international airport doesn't have Advanced Imaging machines, at least as of December.
posted by stuart_s at 12:35 PM on January 30, 2012

People's suggestions of checking out the airports etc. are nice and all, but what happens when she's in South America getting ready to go home and she needs to do one of these things to get there? I think you have to plan on being scanned or patted down to travel. It's more likely than not that it will happen.

The scanner is fast, and you don't feel the invasiveness of it that much because it just takes pictures of you. This might be a good option. That said, I don't know what your girlfriend's particular issues are with the TSA, so I'm not sure if the scanner is better or worse for her, just putting that out there.

I always do the pat-down. I've done it many, many times. I don't see a really description here of what it entails, but maybe I'm reading the thread wrong. Anyhow, here is mine. This might help your girlfriend make a decision about whether or not it's something she is willing to go through in order to travel, if she won't do the scanner.

1. You ask for a pat-down instead of the scanner. The agent asks you to step to the side, and then they yell or use their radio to ask for a female agent (in my case, and in hers) to do a pat-down. You wait for a minute.

2. The female agent comes and gets you. She asks where your stuff is. You point at it, tell her what bins are yours and which suitcases belong to you, and she picks them all up and brings them over to the pat-down station. The pat-down station is typically just a mat with two yellow footprints on it, located directly after the scanners.

3. She puts your stuff down where you can see it. She asks you if you've done this before. Your answer doesn't matter, because she'll tell you exactly what she is going to do even if you've done it before. They have a canned speech where she says, in part, "When I reach a sensitive area I will use the back of my hand" and "I will move up your leg until I meet resistance."

4. The pat-down takes place. They might ask you to take off a baggy sweater here (I don't know; I always wear tight clothing when I fly, partially to make this whole security thing easier - jeans are better than leggings). You stand with your feet on the yellow footprints with your arms out, palms facing up. They feel all along the side of your body. They feel under your breasts with the back of their hands. They also feel along the inside of your waistband with two fingers. They go up your legs with the back of their hands until they meet resistance, just like they say. They narrate the whole time, telling you what they're doing.

5. You have to remain standing there while they go test their gloves after the pat-down is complete.

6. They let you collect your belongings and leave, presuming they find nothing on the gloves.

This seems like such a minor thing compared to a free trip to South America. Well, one's civil liberties are being violated, which can cause some people -- not all -- to get a bit cranky.
posted by k8lin at 12:40 PM on January 30, 2012 [10 favorites]

Someone above mentioned trying to find which airports have which scanners where. There is an excellent flyertalk thread on this very subject, including US and many international airports. It seems like it may still be actively updated (if not, there must be another one).
posted by whatzit at 12:41 PM on January 30, 2012

Lots of great responses here, and I was going to write a longer one. But, seriously, what it boils down to is: even if you can guarantee that she goes through a metal detector, you cannot guarantee that she will not need a patdown. Some airports turn their detectors up so high that they alarm on medical implants.
posted by cabingirl at 12:42 PM on January 30, 2012

The so-called Naked Scanners are seriously not THAT naked. Would it make her feel better to know that the TSA people seriously look at the same thing over and over and over and over again every single day and her particular body to them will basically be meaningless unless she has a bomb on it somewhere? Kind of like how when you go to the doctor with a rash, you are all worried because to you the rash is gross, but the doctor sees rashes all the time and couldn't care less? What is One Freaky Event to her is something TSA does all the time.

But, yeah, DON'T wear a skirt. I've had the pat-down (in jeans, WITH kids, and not only with kids, with TWO kids, two LITTLE kids, so these things really vary) and I would say that I am pretty lackadaisical about these things but I was kind of weirded out by it. It's a bizarre experience, no doubt about it. But as with all things TSA, I didn't have a choice and I wanted to go where I was going, so I sucked it up. You know why I had the pat-down? I had a small folded piece of paper in the pocket of my jeans. Seriously. It was a Starbucks receipt. When they want you to empty your pockets, do it. (Note: this is the same flight where they didn't notice the matches I had forgotten to take out of my purse. Sigh.)

In the final analysis, saying you would skip a free vacation because you don't want to be a blip in the afternoon of a TSA agent seems like a bad trade to me. I suspect this will not be as bad as your girlfriend has imagined it to be, seriously. But if she is truly firm on NO "NAKED SCANNER" and no pat-down....maybe see if you have a buddy you would like to take instead.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:48 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I always opt for the pat down and not once did they touch my genitals. The last time I did so, I apologized to the TSA agent beforehand (they don't like doing it either), she said it was fine since I was an easy pat down: small and not wearing bulky clothing. I'm also female, so clearly not packing anything in my jeans.
Lots of people opt for the pat down. TSA doesn't usually make a big deal about it.

IMHO, she'll probably regret not going bc of this.
posted by Neekee at 12:50 PM on January 30, 2012

When I found that SFO and BOS's Virgin America gates don't have nude-o-scopes and went looking, I found TSA Status that's a good companion to the flyertalk thread.
posted by morganw at 1:04 PM on January 30, 2012

She is ok with the metal detector + magnetic wand thingy, but is quite firm (and vocal) on the NO NAKED SCANNERS or GROPE PATDOWN. Help? Please?

Go with a friend and turn the trip into a "buddy bonding vacation."

Getting your girlfriend to overcome a deeply-held issue of personal comfort/values at your behest is just going to result in resentment. She needs to come up with reasons to overcome her discomfort about this on her own (due to traveling for work or with girlfriends), not for you.

My instinct is, "she should just get over it," but in my experience, these issues/phobias/boundaries people have are deeply ingrained and very personal.
posted by deanc at 1:23 PM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've had a number of flights into and out of JFK, Laguardia, and Newark this year, and none of them has resulted in the body scanner or the invasive pat downs (unless I actually did experience the pat down and it wasn't anywhere near as invasive as I'd heard and didn't even really think twice about it.)

I don't believe that she has a single thing to be worried about. Unless she's against it on principle, in which case she'll just never leave the US again unless she drives to Canada and flies from there.
posted by fso at 1:49 PM on January 30, 2012

I don't like getting touched by strangers. I find it triggering, and can ruin my whole day, even if the patdown isn't that invasive. I'm not going to subject myself to that right before a vacation.

However, I don't mind naked pics of me.

I also don't fly often. The one time I flew and was given the scanner vs patdown option, I chose the scanner. It wasn't invasive at all, and I'd choose it again in a heartbeat. And while I think that both choices are atrocious and that the TSA basically doesn't know what they're doing, I'm grateful that there is at least a choice.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:55 PM on January 30, 2012

Mod note: Few comments removed - this is not your "fuck the TSA" thread. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:50 PM on January 30, 2012

I totally understand your girlfriend's upset. I love travel, but the TSA's policies sicken me, their imposed health risks and body-violating practices.

Here are some steps your girlfriend can take as laid out by the ACLU.

The violation of being seen naked is legitimate, and is a valid concern according to several articles I've read. What scared me the most is the potential health risks of the scanners, so I finally decided that long-term health was worth more to me than short-term violation.

The way I've made my peace with it is to decide that every encounter is going to be a small slowdown against such unconscionable tactics. I am courteous but firm. Make no mistake, they *want* you to go through the scanner. Even at risk to you.

When I opted out from the backscatter at SFO (Sep. 2011), the guy first asked me my reasoning (I said health concerns), then yelled "Opt out! We've got an opt out!" The woman looking at my possessions through the X-ray actually giggled loudly! If your girlfriend chooses this route, have her prepared to sometimes be inappropriately ridiculed, as though she is paranoid and foolish. Remember that she isn't. Your support will be key in this.

Nthing tight-fitting clothes/jeans, and don't go into a private room where they could be more invasive. My experience with the patdown that time only used the backs of hands and did not touch genitals. Wasn't a grope, but I won't say it doesn't happen. You are allowed to have a person of your choice witness it (so you could stand there for moral support if she wants). They should tell you things like they are going to use the backs of hands, if they don't, she should state the policy and calmly ask for a manager.

If she decides to go through with this, prepare to be very supportive and listen to her thoughts afterward. She may be traumatized. The airports are traumatic these days because of the TSA's current policies.

Personally, I don't think she should let them stop her from any air travel. Then they don't have to consider that they are tormenting lots of innocent people like her, and stopping many from the opportunity to travel internationally. If no one speaks up, it will go on.

At the same time, it would be completely understandable if she decided not to go. In that case, bring a friend, or cancel the trip and drive or train somewhere cool in the U.S. Or take a cruise.
posted by iadacanavon at 3:06 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't believe that she has a single thing to be worried about. Unless she's against it on principle, in which case she'll just never leave the US again unless she drives to Canada and flies from there.

The chance of being groped at airport security in Canada may be less, but it is emphatically not zero.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 3:45 PM on January 30, 2012

And Canadian airports also have the body scanners.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 3:45 PM on January 30, 2012

(I'm not sure why several people have said she'll never be able to leave the country, as opposed to saying she'll never be able to fly period -- I've actually only been full-body scanned on domestic US flights, not on my flights to/from Canada or Europe. Which I'm sure is just a coincidence/fluke of where I flew out of and when I did it, but not being willing to do the pat down or a scan means no flying ever. Which is a decision she can make, but she shouldn't think that this only precludes international flights, because it in fact precludes flying altogether, especially as the scanners become more ubiquitous, so that's why I recommend she attempt to figure out why she objects, and if those objections are worth overcoming for the sake of travel. The answer might be no, but realistically those are the options).
posted by brainmouse at 4:11 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Even if she is OK with the scanner, there might be something that comes up with it where they still want to do some sort of pat-down type search. Twice I've had to step aside and have the tops of my socks patted down. I probably could have requested a female screener for that if I wanted, the male TSA agent was very polite about kneeling on the floor and inspecting my socks though.

Maybe she could travel by ship or boat? Or travel to central america and take a boat or plane from there? Take up adventure travel and cross the Darien Gap on foot?

If she doesn't want to go, let her bow out of the trip gracefully.
posted by yohko at 4:50 PM on January 30, 2012

TSA Status has already been mentioned, but I want to put it out there again. Since it merely collects voluntary reports from your fellow flyers, it is not 100% reliable; you could see status green on your airport and arrive to discover that it's the very first day they're putting "nude-o-scopes" into use. I used TSA Status to scope out the scanner situation in advance of a recent trip, and found the reports accurate; at one large airport, I was able to self-select into a walk-through metal detector lane by following advice from other travelers on TSA Status. In my experience, the smaller regional airports are least likely to have backscatter X-ray or millimeter wave body scanners installed, so you may be able to keep it a magnetometer-only flying experience by choosing your departure airport carefully.

That said, as others have already pointed out, there is no way to fly as a commercial passenger and be 100% sure that you won't be subjected to a body scan or pat-down. And although TSA Status can potentially help you choose your own metal-detector adventure in the U.S., you may not have such options abroad.

I thought they changed the display on the scanners. It was my understanding that the scanners now show detected anomalies on a generic human silhouette.

This is only true of the millimeter wave machines. The backscatter X-rays still display an image of your body to the operator. Personally, I am more comfortable with the millimeter wave machines, knowing that they now display "anomalies" on a "gingerbread outline" and no longer operate as "nude-o-scopes" or "pornoscanners." If your girlfriend thinks she would be OK with this too, then her best bet may be to go through the millimeter wave machine (if it's installed at your departure airport) and make sure she is not carrying anything on her that could show up as an "anomaly" on the machine. Keep clothing as simple and metal-free as possible, and make sure pockets are completely empty. (It's easy to recognize which kind of machine you're heading into: just look at the pictures on the TSA page I just linked to.)
posted by Orinda at 4:51 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

One point about the millimeter wave machines that might be reassuring for your friend: the only image they generate is displayed right outside the machine--and you get to see it. It's just a vague generic outline--like a chalk victim outline from an old cop show--with any areas requiring further investigation highlighted as little yellow boxes. It's not remotely revealing.

One thing though, if your friend does decide she can cope with facing the millimeter wave scan she should be extra, extra careful to wear nothing at all made of metal on her person when she goes through the scan (no bra underwire, no brooch, nothing). The machines are extremely sensitive and the agents have to pat you down in the area that shows up as anomalous on the scan.

Finally, I would also second earlier comments above to the effect that a lot of the more alarmist comments about both the "nakedness" of the images from backscatter scans and the "invasiveness" of the TSA patdowns that have been floating around the web are overblown. The actual images from backscatter scans do not look like naked photos of you; not even your SO could identify you from the blobby, blurry, ghostly image they generate. And the patdowns are brisk, professional and impersonal. Obviously someone with particular "trigger issues" in this area might find either intolerable and that's entirely their call, but for the vast majority of people they're really non-events.
posted by yoink at 5:35 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

You won't have to go through any MMW scanners in South America - I don't think they've been installed anywhere outside the US, Canada, and the UK. Note that in London, if you are selected for MMW, you DO NOT HAVE THE OPTION OF OPTING OUT (this may have recently changed due to the EU ruling).

I would recommend selecting a small, out-of-the-way airport to start the journey. here is a more up-to-date list of airports WITH the scanners. They cost upwards of a quarter of a mil - they aren't going to be appearing everywhere soon.

For those of you apologising for the scanners: keep in mind that the company who makes the most dominant model employs none other than Michael Chertoff as a lobbyist. Yes, the ex-DHS director. I'm sure there's no conflict there, I hear he is volunteering his time.
posted by scolbath at 6:42 PM on January 30, 2012

There is a lot of great feedback here. The only thing I noticed was your tags: groping and nakedscanners. I am not at all trying to diminish your girlfriend's very valid concerns and feelings, but I think it's important not to reflect this language back to her without thinking about it. (I think this might be doubly true if she finds the experience triggering, but I am not triggered by TSA so I don't want to assume.)

The patdown is not supposed to be groping, and the machines are not supposed to be naked scanners. It's important that you reserve the use of those words for when they describe what is actually happening so you can identify it and deal with it. To use them as blanket descriptors just gets you started off on the wrong foot in the first place.
posted by juliplease at 6:57 PM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

The patdown is less invasive than being fitted for a bespoke suit. I didn't feel the fellow doing either particularly cared for the fact that he had to run his hand along my inner thigh as part of his job.
posted by ead at 10:56 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not in the US, but Europe and South Africa. I deal with airport security by being very nice and friendly. This surprises them, and is rather disarming. Might not work in the US, I couldn't say. I've been gone for 14 years, and it isn't the America I loved.
posted by Goofyy at 12:38 AM on January 31, 2012

So as of this morning, you can no longer politely ask to go through metal detectors at O'Hare. The backscatter process is a clusterfuck of poor instructions and close to every third passenger getting parted down. My opt-out pat down was not invasive, but she did not follow protocols-she did not warn me before touching me, or grabbing my waistband; she did not inquire about sensitive areas, and left my belongings unattended.

I imagine it's wildly inconsistent across airports, agents & days. It made me angry on principle, but it was noninvasive & faster than the backscatter.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:21 AM on January 31, 2012

Wear clothing that makes it easier. Go to the airport with no metal on your body - no hairclip, jewelry, belt buckle, etc. Wear jeans or corduroys that add a thick barrier of seam/fabric at the crotch. Consider buying a pair of control-top panties that have heavy lycra; they make it obvious that there's no gun in your panties, and feel kind of bulletproof.

GF may benefit from learning some meditative techniques for dealing with stressful realities of life, like creating a safe place image in your mind, and going there.
posted by theora55 at 8:41 AM on January 31, 2012

I am a female girl woman person who hates the airport, and I always opt out of the scanner for a physical screening in public. I have flown out of six or seven different international airports around western Canada and the US, and have never had a rude agent (for my pat-down) or one that called attention to me or tried to shame me. If you can see that you're in a scanner aisle, you can even tell them in advance that you'll be opting out, and you won't have to wait so long for a female agent.

Failing the scan gets you a nude-o-gram AND a pat-down, so I prefer to control the choice. If your girlfriend has breasts large enough to fail the pencil test (or a droopy belly) there is a possibility that she will be asked for a secondary search based on their definition of whether or not parts of her body are obscuring areas they wish to scan. If she is wearing a padded bra or a large maxipad (as someone recommended above) that possibility is higher, depending what materials they are made of.

I see people above recommending not to wear a skirt, but if you choose carefully, a skirt can be a better (less invasive) choice than pants. I wear yoga shorts under a knee-length pencil skirt, a compression sports bra with no wire, and a tank top, with a light, short-sleeved shirt, buttoned and tucked in, on top. Tucking the shirt increases your chances of having it read as a blouse rather than a removable overlayer. A knee-length skirt means a visual search is sufficient for your lower legs.

The pat-down does NOT go up the skirt unless you're wearing a long or voluminous one. In my fly-day outfit, I have only ever been asked to take a stride-step forward with each foot so the agent can skim all surfaces of each leg outside the skirt. In a longer skirt, I have had my bare legs skimmed from ankle to mid thigh, where I was applying a little "resistance". They run a gloved finger around the inside of the skirt waistband, so I like to tuck my tank top into my yoga shorts.

I recommend the sports bra for anybody over a B cup so you can avoid being touched under the breasts. If they can see there's no "under" under there, the beneath-the-breast skim is just ribcage, quick and inoffensive. Also, with no wires, there is nothing to set off the wand and trigger a skim of the area between the breasts.
posted by Sallyfur at 11:58 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

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