On getting Frisked

Left Hand- Pastel_HannahSinger“Left Hand,” by Hannah Singer, MD


I recently had the most thorough crotch pat-down of my life. It was, well, profound.

As a Middle Eastern bearded man with a shaved head, I am no stranger to the TSA. I’ve been patted down before at least five of my last eight flights.  This was different.

It began when a balding, bespeckled agent with a straw-colored mustache waved me into the body scanner, powder blue gloves punctuating the ends of his white forearms.  I put my feet on the marks and my hands above my head. 

“Oh boy,” he lamented, staring at a screen showing an unclothed man with yellow patches covering his groin and buttocks. 

It took me a second to realize that it was my ass and crotch lighting up the screen like a Christmas tree.  I was not sure if the scan picked up potential weapons or erogenous zones. Perhaps the distinction is superficial.

The TSA agent asked me to step aside.  I did so with a zombie-like compliance.

“I’m going to have to pat down your groin and buttocks with the back of my hands, is that alright?” he asked, sounding sad and defeated by our shared fate.

“Sure,” I responded. It was feigned consent.  He was going to touch me. Our desires were irrelevant.    

“Turn around, sir,” he said. I complied. With my back turned, I could not see what he was doing.  I was at his mercy.

“I’m going to pat down your buttocks with the back of my hands, sir,” he said. I felt his knuckles press down my butt cheeks and thighs. This was an interesting choice: the back of his hand.  The palm is such a devious thing, a liminal space where instrumentality could easily be confused with sexuality.        

“Hold up your pants like this, sir,” he told me as he grabbed the belt buckles on the side of my pants and pulled them up, the inseam pinching my inner thigh. I complied.  With both hands he formed a ring above my knee that went up my leg. I felt the side of his knuckle tap my undercarriage before he quickly withdrew.  A twinge of fear and excitement scurried up my spine.

“Turn around, sir,” he commanded.  I complied. We were face to face.  For a moment, we mirrored each other.  He was a middle-aged man with tired eyes and I was a younger, darker man with sad eyes. 

“Hold up your pants with these sir,” he told me, grabbing my belt buckles.  I tensed up in anticipation of his touch.

“I’m going to touch the front of your groin with the back of my hand.  Any sores?” he asked.

What a question!  On the surface he was trying to minimize my suffering.  Beneath, he was inquiring into whether I carried a sexually transmitted disease and into my potential to feel hurt by his touch. Far beneath this, he was avoiding a more insidious matter … pleasure. 

“No.” I replied in a calm monotone. 

The back of his knuckles pressed softly against my groin.  A diffuse excitement scattered through my body coupled with anxiety and a twinge of disgust. 

“Ok,” he said, as if avoiding a sigh. “Alright. All done.”

The pat-down felt like a physical.  A medical examination, however, promotes the patient’s health and takes place within a doctor-patient relationship.  He was touching me not to discover danger to mebut danger to others. He was not doctoring me.  He was policing me. 

An implicit message was that my brown, bearded, young body is the type of body that can pose a danger to society.  As a cerebral physician who has never even gotten into a shoving match, I resented this.

A doctor touches a patient per the standards of the medical profession as governed by state medical boards and federal agencies.  Similarly, the TSA agent’s touch is determined by rules of the Department of Homeland Security.  In both instances, real human bodies come into contact in accordance with the rules of abstract bureaucracies.   

For medicine or security, bodies can exchange pain but not pleasure. Physicians ask, “Does this hurt?” to discover disease. Eliciting pain is necessary, but eliciting pleasure is an absolute anathema. 

Imagine a doctor touching a patient, asking, “Does this feel good?” Gross. 

When the TSA officer touched me, we were both uncomfortable. He asked “any sores?” to minimize my pain.  Pain is tolerated if it is minimal.  Pleasure is absolutely avoided. Pleasure is dangerous.  Bureaucracies can condone the exchange of pain but not pleasure.  

The doctor and security officer are far more powerful than the patient or suspect. If their pleasure was permissible, they might abuse their power.  Avoiding pleasure in asymmetrical relationships is a means to avoid state-sanctioned rape or violence. 

Excitement, apprehension, and anxiety surged through my body when the security officer touched me.  As a cis, masculine-identifying man, feeling pleasure at the hands of a powerful man qualifies as queer and masochistic. Both are marginalized forms of pleasure in America. 

The pleasures that bureaucracies avoid are taboo, but my masochistic, queer pleasure does more than violate taboo. It is a political act.  It shifts my relationship with the security officer. Suddenly, he is no longer an agent of the state checking my body for weapons but another man with a body. 

According to the state, the officer is touching my body for public safety.  Yet my pleasure loudly proclaims otherwise! He is touching me to make me feel good. My pleasure competes with the state’s purposes and functions and the relationships it sanctions.   

Pleasure threatens to invert the power dynamic.  On the surface, he can control my body, but he is making me feel good even if he doesn’t want to.  Imagine if I moaned audibly.  Everyone around me would be uncomfortable, including the TSA agent. My discomfort in being frisked would become everyone’s discomfort.

My queer, masochistic, exhibitionistic pleasure undermines the function of the security line. Feeling frisky while getting frisked is a deeply subversive act, akin to civil disobedience.

Behdad Bozorgnia is a chief resident in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvaniaand co-editor-in-chief of The Penndulum.

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