Full-body scanners: Exposing issues of privacy, and body image

As holiday travel ramps up, so does controversy over body scanners and pat-downs at the nation's airports.
By Libby Copeland
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 10:13 PM

We are more naked, as a nation, than we've ever been. We are forever baring our souls, revealing the mundane and the sacred. We are naked in our curiosity about the semi-famous and the strange, we are naked in our aspirations (to be semi-famous, even for something strange), we are naked online - or, at least, considerably more exposed than we tend to realize.

All of which may help explain why most Americans seem unconcerned about those full-body airport scanners, the ones that see under your clothes. In an existential sense, we are used to this sort of thing. Go on, take a gander, we seem to be saying. We have nothing to hide.

Christmas is approaching, and with it travel and more opportunities for Americans to be asked to pass through what the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) calls "advanced imaging technology" and what critics call "pornoscanners." If past - and polls - are prologue, most holiday travelers who come face-to-face with the full-body scanners will simply step in and raise their hands, as they appeared to do just before Thanksgiving, on what was supposed to be the big protest of National Opt-Out Day.

To understand why so many of us opt in when confronted by full-body scanners - 99 percent, according to Sterling Payne, a TSA spokeswoman - first consider why a vocal minority opts out.

"I simply do not trust the TSA to keep those images private," says Boston area columnist and TV commentator Michele McPhee, who in November chose one of those enhanced pat-downs over a full-body scanner at Logan International Airport. "The last thing I want is my naked image all over the place in Boston."

The fear of being exposed is a theme that comes up constantly in interviews with those suspicious of full-body scanners.

That's not the only thing they talk about, of course; they talk about government intrusion and constitutional rights, about health concerns over scanner radiation, about the ways in which they see airport security as reactive, ineffective. They talk about the building indignities of airplane travel.

They talk about control and the sense of having to choose between two unhappy options, the scanner or the pat-down. (Regarding the latter: "You probably could've sold this on the Internet as soft porn," says McPhee, who, to be fair, is known for her bombast. "It could've definitely been on Skinemax.")

But most of all they talk about a sense of privacy squandered, a sense of being vulnerable in deeply personal terms. They use the word "humiliating" a lot, and the word "dignity." Exposure is an elemental fear, after all, as anyone who has sweated through a naked dream can attest.

Rolando Negrin is the trump card for opt-outers - a lesson in what can go wrong with full-body scanners, not to mention confirmation of some fliers' worst suspicions about the professionalism of airport screeners. A TSA worker at Miami International Airport, Negrin went through one of the full-body imaging machines during a training session, according to a subsequent arrest report.

Afterward, the report stated,, "co-workers made fun of him on a daily basis" about the size of his manhood. Eventually, the report said, Negrin "could not take the jokes anymore and lost his mind."

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