National Opt-Out Day: Groping vs. Radiation

Since the first of this month, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has implemented new controversial full-body airport security scanners in which security agents essentially see your naked body to make sure you’re not carrying any weapons or other contraband. These new machines utilize radiation and many people are questioning their safety, especially for frequent fliers. The TSA responded to these concerns by claiming the machines only omit negligible amounts of radiation, and by giving fliers the option of refusing to be scanned and to instead be privately pat-down. Talk about lesser of evils.

Well, an online campaign is growing in protest of the body-imaging scanners, urging people who are flying on November 24, the day before Thanksgiving and heaviest travel day of the year, to opt-out of being scanned and insist to be pat down. The idea is to not only protest the intrusive scanners but to slow down the checkpoints and show the TSA that enough people are against these new regulations. The New York Times reported that even some pilots are organizing separately to refuse the body scanners.

The jury is out on the safety of these scanners. They are apparently safe and only expose passengers to levels of radiation lower than a typical cell phone…that is, if the machines are properly set and monitored which involves keeping detailed records of radiation levels. That seems like a big “if” to me and a lot to expect from already overloaded TSA agents. It also notes that children, the elderly and pregnant women are more susceptible to the radiation as well as those who have ever had (or currently have) skin cancer or certain genes related to breast cancer. Instead you can opt for a pat-down which is done in a private room away from the main security checkpoint. This option is no more comforting because the pat-down will include some sort of touching of breasts and the genitalia of both sexes.

The machines also can detect sanitary napkins which according to the TSA may warrant further investigation. So on top of being seen naked, they will also know if you are menstruating and could use that as reason for a pat-down. I don’t know about you but that is not a time where I’m trying to have some stranger grope my body in the name of national security.

The “We Won’t Fly” campaign which is supporting the “National Opt-Out Day” aims to get people to stop flying altogether by hitting the airlines in their pockets with less ticket sales. I don’t see that as a realistic result but it is one way to get attention for these problematic regulations aimed at ensuring passenger safety. But do you think creating longer lines and wait times on the busiest travel day of the year is an effective way to change policy? Do travelers really want to draw extra attention to themselves at a security checkpoint? Is this going to make a difference to the TSA decision-makers or just piss off a bunch of TSA agents doing the dirty work?

Will you be participating in this? Have you flown and been subject to the machines and/or the pat down? I haven’t experienced them personally but I’m not excited by the prospect since getting through security is already enough of a pain in the ass. What are some other effective ways to protest?

Join the Conversation

  • spiffy-mcbang

    Don’t forget about the fact they’re supposed to delete all images, but, shock of shocks, U.S. Marshals in Florida have saved 35,000 of them.

    I think you’re right about not flying being no solution. It might get airline lobbyists to push for less restriction, but that’s a somewhat roundabout way of fixing the problem and by then the outrage alone will probably have grown to the point where changes will already have happened (if they’re going to happen at all).

  • jillian

    i didnt get into the child-free fight discussion – just seeing the title was enough to make me simultaneously anxious and angry. that said, the new regulations are reason enough, even when my kids are old enough to not instantly get nasty looks, it ever stops being cost-prohibitive or the two and a half average flight im most likely to take stops being a 10+ hour ordeal, for me to never get on a plane.

  • thedarkfae

    I recently flew with my family, and found myself pulled out of the line for the normal metal detector and made to use the body scanner. There was no cause for this, and it was probably random, but just the same. It felt invasive, intimidating, and I was scared out of my pants. I’m 14, for pete’s sake!! There was no need to put me in the effing body scanner! On top of that, the pregnant woman in front of me was scanned multiple times, and then patted down. Now really. Does that make ANY sense?

    • Jeff Kaufman

      Are you saying that fourteen year olds and pregnant women should be automatically cleared? That is, we should recognize that as a group these people are much less likely to commit acts of terrorism, and so we should instead screen people who are more likely to do so? This sounds like an argument for racial/ethnic profiling,, which I suspect you don’t support.

  • Mollie

    This is legitimately scary. I can’t believe this is real. I’m so disturbed. Look like I’ll be taking the train/bus everywhere from now on …

  • S. goch

    I have gone through this kind of scanner twice so far; logistically speaking, I would say it only took five-ten seconds more — you have to pause inside the scanner with your hands over your head instead of walking straight through.

    I can’t remember if I was using pads or not during these two checks (I think I might have been during the first time), but I wasn’t stopped for extra pat-downs.

    Admittedly, I am a short white female, so I probably have had fewer problems with profiling than some might (based on anecdotal evidence.) The airport I fly into/out of most frequently is also a small, non-international one, which has always seemed to translate into less harrowing security.

    I’m definitely not enthusiastic about these images potentially being saved somewhere, and I’m also not particularly confident that more detailed surveillance is going to lead to safer airports (again, based on anecdotal evidence, but I haven’t heard of anyone doing studies on how frequently and what dangerous objects are allowed through airport security nowadays.)

  • Nick Cohea

    I for one can’t wait to get groped by a TSA agent. I’ll give him a little wink when he feels up my ass.

    No, I don’t think the exercise is going to change anything. I do think it’s gonna piss of a LOT of travelers if this protest really gets going. People are going to miss flights over this. TSA agents are going to get pissed. And it’s going to make the news, and make me happy that we’re sticking it to The Man.

  • ADHD PhD

    Has there been any discussion yet about how this has been affecting people’s mental as well as physical health? Whether or not the amount of radiation is safe, I was wondering if for example, someone could find it triggering to have to go through such an invasive search. A lot of people are comparing the pat-downs to sexual assault, and I was wondering how other people feel about that?

    • honeybee

      Tough one, cause one could view it like a visit to the doctor’s. There is no intent to assault and thus technically it isn’t assault. But still I could see such passengers preferring the quick scan instead.

      • Sarah

        honeybee, it doesn’t matter if there is intent when it comes to sexual assault. a tsa person touching my breasts and ass, running hir hands up and down the insides of my thighs without my enthusiastic consent? that’s the very definition of sexual assault. can we really expect to use the presence or absence of intent when talking about sexual assault? [TW] “d00d, i didn’t mean to assault her, i just wanted to get some.” No. Absolutely not.

        • honeybee

          Intent is everything. That’s why if my dog jumps on me and touches my breasts I don’t get mad, or if my 8 month old son does it. Same with a doctor.

          I’m not saying this is all gravy because this sucks, i’m just saying intent matters.

      • alex

        It’s totally different from a doctor’s visit in my opinion. First, you can see a doctor a few times before you get a physical– so we can grow to trust and know a doctor. Second, doctors ask you if they can look at you, and you can say no. At the TSA line, one guy tried to just go home (and not get on his plane) so as to avoid being assaulted and they threatened that he would get charged $10,000 if he left without being molested first. They’re not giving us a choice!

        • honeybee

          Yes but the TSA in fact has no such authority. That person should be fired since there rules clearly state anyone can leave freely if they opt to not board the plane. That was a cause of abuse.

          We have to know our rights and demand they are respected.

      • Lissla Lissar

        I’m sure the men in my past who assaulted me didn’t see it as rape and thus didn’t “intent” an assault, but it was still rape. You’re skirting dangerous ground here.

        And no, it’s not like a visit to a doctor. A doctor is certified and is touching my body presumably for my own health. Being touched by a random TSA agent, however, would be extremely triggering to me and to many other women.

  • Anna

    The choice between scanner and patdown is really no choice at all. Either way, our privacy is being severely infringed upon. I don’t want to be exposed to radiation and I definitely don’t want a stranger patting down my body. What about people who have been sexually abused? I would imagine the pat-down in many instances could be a non-option. Frustration!!

  • jessica

    i would strongly caution against encouraging folks to insist on the pat-down. i have read several stories ( which indicate how incredibly triggering and re-traumatizing this procedure could be for sexual violence survivors. i know several sexual violence prevention organizations are currently structuring language for folks to use in the even that they are required to endure an aggressive pat-down; however, as indicated, passengers will need to decide which is the lesser of two evils.

  • honeybee

    I’m not clear on how delaying the lines is an act or protest or will change anything. The security staff aren’t the ones waiting in line so you aren’t inconviencing them. Just you and everyone else who is trying to get where they want to go.

  • sangetencre

    One of the better options, I think, is to stop flying, at all, if you possibly can. Corporations and lobbyists have their hands all over Washington. Annoying the TSA may make waves, but the threatening the airlines with an extreme loss of revenue will probably have more of an effect in getting them to go to bat for their customers.

    But I’m not sure if we could get enough people to do that. Some people must fly. And so many others I’ve heard express that they’re “o.k.” with this tripe.

    I am unbelievably pissed off about this. It’s the only freaking thing I can talk about lately. The idea that in order to effectively travel through the country in which I live and am a citizen, I have to either risk exposure to radiation–sure, they say it’s safe now; what’s going to show up on our cancer rates 10 years down the road?–or submit to a “pat-down” that is effectively sexual assault.

    I’m sure I’m not the only person who suddenly feels like a caged animal.

    I have the privilege of owning a car and having decent money (at the moment, at least, thanks to the economy), so I can find other ways to travel throughout the continental U.S. But if it came to a quick business trip? I’d be stuck; either I submit myself to these demands or I don’t work. If I needed to travel suddenly for an interview or to help a family member? I’m stuck. If I needed to go overseas? I’m effectively stuck unless I can afford to take a ship and afford the travel time that would take and the red tape that might be involved.

    It’s like being held hostage.

    Further, Karl Zeuuw over at Common Dreams put a nice little summation on this whole thing with regard to the power dynamic:

  • vassae

    The scanners are also terrifying a lot of my trans friends (as well as myself). I have friends who have been pulled aside by TSA agents after finding out that their contents varies from their packaging, and explicitly told that transwomen like them are a national security threat. We don’t really get the “choice,” either. It’s really more like have somebody scan you, find out you’re trans, then pat you down, or just have somebody pat you down. Both cases are incredibly uncomfortable (and involve a lot of breast wanding–because clearly, my chest MUST be full of C4, I couldn’t possibly have grown those myself).

  • Dan

    According to the TSA, “Advanced imaging technology cannot store, print, transmit or save the image”. They claim that this is a physical limitation of the model -they- get. (Which is allegedly different from the one that everyone else gets.) They do post a picture how they got this picture is unclear, since they claim that the system cannot store images.

    Personally, I am going to ensure that my employeer (a federal agency not under DHS) knows that sending me on offical travel throuh such an airport is sexual harrasment.

  • Gordon Cash

    I have not scheduled any travel on Nov. 24, but if I had, I would certainly participate in opt-out day. I hope it brings the nation’s airports to a standstill. I am sorry it has come to this, but TSA is totally out of control, and if this is what it takes to get Congress to rein it in, then so be it.

    I am a lifelong liberal and proud to say so, but if the conservatives are looking for a poster boy for intrusive government run by unelected, unaccountable beaurocrats, they could do no better than TSA Administrator John Pistole,.

  • Carolyn Dunne

    I flew yesterday morning out of an airport the just got its scanner. At 4:30 in the morning no one else was there, so everyone was being asked to go through it.

    I had read a few tales from other people, and had printed out a copy of a letter that some Ph. D’s had signed stating their worry about the somewhat unknown risk the scanner’s waves pose to someone to bring out if necessary. They wouldn’t let me just go through the metal detector, so I did the opt out and made sure to tell the person doing the search about the document in detail. Loudly. (I forgot to grab it from my bag before it went through that check.)

    She seemed suprised, and a few other employees were clearly listening to my reasoning for not just going through the scanner. And then they tested my contact solution on top of that.

    I don’t know, it was kind of awkward, but I was half asleep so I don’t think it really bothered me as much as it normally would. I was feeling nauseous about it when I was packing the night before, but since there’s a family history of cancer I decided to go wih the pat down instead.

  • Sheila

    Why are men TSA agents patting down women? Are there no women TSA agents to do it? In Canada I have always seen plenty of women security guards and I have never been patted by a man. Is it different in the US?

  • Steven Olson

    I can’t believe some people are still talking about the radiation safety concerns. Did you not read the link of the safety?

    There are two types of scanners, one that uses x-rays, and the other uses millimeter waves (aka, microwaves). The millimeter wave scanners have lower levels of radiation than a cell phone, and the x-rays used are much less intense than the ones you get at the dentist, and subject you to less radiation than the flight you are about to take. Anyone refusing the scan for health concerns should also be turning around and going home, as their flight is a much more serious health concern.

    The privacy concerns are legitimate, and its sad that people use untrue paranoia about their health to try and justify it. Call me a cynic though, but I don’t think the regulations are going to change. If you have to fly, to me the choice seems to be between being inappropriately touched vs being inappropriately looked at. My personal choice would be being inappropriately looked at. But certainly neither is that appealing of a choice.

    • Mary


      My concerns with radiation from the backscatter machines are less on an individual level than at a population level. While the cancer development risk to any one person is minimal (my calculation puts it at around 1/30,000,000 for adults – although the risk is increased from here in anyone under 30 and particularly in children), over the entire air traveling population, the added radiation from the scanners will cause at least a few excess cancers if one believes in the linear no-threshold model for cancer induction by radiation. That’s fairly close to the risk of dying in a terrorist attack on an airplane, so I find the risk/benefit analysis unacceptable. Also, this doesn’t account for people with medical histories that predispose them to developing cancers or those of us (like me) who already receive decent amounts occupational radiation exposure and would rather not have extra avoidable radiation tacked on, however slight it may be. Especially when the machines themselves are unproven to be any more effective from a security standpoint than non-ionizing radiation methods.

      But privacy is the dominant factor in my personal objections to the process.

  • Velderia

    This is the only time I will ever remotely like Ron Paul: If he, an anti-choicer, a dude I can’t ever vote for, can realize the negative emotional and physical effects of this, even realizing if the machines/pat-downs are effective at detected implanted bombs, why can’t the TSA?

  • Nicole

    I am so outraged by all of this. I had a godd*amn panic attack over a flight I was going to take and my options. I made a video here:

    I also made a follow up video calling out Michelle Obama here:

    you know the funny thing about this, Secretary Clinton said she wouldn’t want to go through the screening process that “us folks” are going through. WTF?