Junk touching

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, November 23, 2010 14:52 EDT
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Due to traveling, I haven’t had much time to comment on the uproar over the TSA upping the game on security theater, to the point where people who are generally supportive of security theater—aka, conservatives—are getting upset. So upset, in fact, that some of the dumber ones were taunting me over Twitter, having convinced themselves that I support the pat downs, on the grounds that I’m obviously Satan. Of course, grown adults realize that someone like myself who wrote an entire chapter in my book denouncing security theater is unlikely to suddenly think that penis-fondling at the gate is great. My main objection to conservatives getting involved is that they’re mostly acting out of racism—they aren’t upset at junk touching, per se. They just think the junk fondled should be excused if it passes some modern paper bag test, except the paper bag should be super white.

Since I did my time in security lines this weekend, you may be wondering if I saw anything out of the ordinary. Answer: no. By the way, the choice between scanners and searches isn’t anything new. I was pulled for a random search in El Paso in August, and I chose the full body scan, because I’ve been patted down with the old procedures before, and if you’re a woman you still feel pretty molested by that. The shift that’s created all the anger is that the procedures have gotten invasive to the point where men might feel molested. Don’t fuck with the privileged, man. The procedures already had a heightened humiliation factor for women, which I’ve experienced myself*, but it took making white men feel like women and people of color often do for this to be pushed into the next zone of full blown anger.

This makes me want to join in the outrage, with concerns that the TSA is simply going to readjust the protocols to the standards set by conservatives flipping out—which is to say, if you do it to women and non-white men, okay, but leave the white guys alone. Of course, you could argue effectively that this is a good first step. If they simply introduce discrimination into the system, you can sue and then it brings a complete end to the assaulting searches. But what I worry about is that rarely do people introducing discrimination into the system do it in a straightforward manner that makes them vulnerable to lawsuit. Instead, a bunch of complex rules evolve that just so happen to have the desired results, where white guys get a pass but no one else does. Then they get to have their cake (creating unnecessary security theater to cow the populace) while eating it too (keeping the most privileged out of the loop so that the complaints go ignored by the mainstream media).

Early signs show my concerns are valid. For instance, the TSA allowed the pilot union to get an exemption for their staff, but disallowed this for the flight attendants. This creates a nifty system where a predominantly male group doesn’t have to have the pat downs, but a predominantly female group does. Now, I’m not saying women are being targeted because everyone enjoys groping women or anything. I’m annoyed by the people who are acting like your average TSA agent is dying to touch your junk. I’m saying that women are an easier target because they get less attention and empathy than men when they complain. The fact that “don’t touch my junk!” has become the rallying cry shows how much male privilege is wrapped up in people’s understanding of why this is wrong. Not that I’m saying junk-touching is good! I’m saying no one deserves to have junk touched, even if they have junk—as women do—that tends not to be called “junk”.

My understanding of the police state is such: it exists in order to increase government power and decrease civil liberties. Highly theatrical security theater in particular functions to increase people’s tolerance of privacy invasions. As such, it’s wise for those instituting a police state to prefer vulnerable victims over privileged ones. Their first instinct when they’ve gone too far is not to roll back the invasions of privacy, but to find a way to make sure the people whose voices are heard aren’t affected, and therefore the complaints stop. Notice that “keeping the public safe” plays no role in my understanding of this, because I seriously doubt that it does. Most of these searches are more about “sending a message” than anything else.

Of course, the pragmatic side of me says that even if the TSA just tries to rewrite the rules so that vulnerable people are getting the most invasive searches, you still have an opportunity to sue and bring the whole thing down. And there’s a possibility that the TSA can’t find a way to stop the searches of white men without stopping the searches of everyone else. (Yes, I’m aware many of the examples upsetting people are women. I’m glad for that, but wonder if the pile-on would be as all-encompassing if it was only women feeling horribly humiliated.) While I’m cynical that the outrage would stop the second the privileged decided that it was someone else’s problem, I’m super glad there is outrage. It’s a reminder that the objections to civil liberties violations are a matter far beyond the way conservatives portray those objections when it’s someone else’s liberties at stake—as some intellectual exercise instead of a serious humiliation for the targets.

And hey, there’s always a possibility that we can use the anger about these TSA searches and start directing it to all the other ways the highly invasive police state works in our culture. That would be awesome, even if it’s a long shot.

*Mainly because certain items of women’s clothing were more of a problem, plus they touched your boobs if they did the pat down. And my feeling in terms of the old leg pat down is they might as well have touched my junk on the outside of my pants, they got so close. Thank god I was wearing pants.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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