ACA Blog

Stephanie Adams
Nov 23, 2010

TSA Guidelines and Re-traumatization

The subject I’m about to write on has been under much debate lately for many reasons, but as a practitioner of mental health care, I have significant concerns about how it will affect a certain group of clients. We all should.

I’m talking about the new TSA security guidelines. We’ve all heard the horror stories. One that struck me in particular was about a breast cancer survivor (and flight attendant, no less) who was forced to remove her breast prosthesis in public after a thorough pat-down. She ended up having to do the physical search because she was afraid to expose herself to the radiation of the other new security method: full body scans.

As competent helping professionals, we’ve all heard of re-traumatization, or re-victimization. A person who has experienced a trauma in the past, if exposed to a triggering situation, can be traumatized again. Exposing everything under your clothes, or being groped by a person in a position of power over you sounds very much like sexual abuse. I understand the logic behind it as far as our national security, but were a person an abuse survivor, it would be difficult for them to get past that emotionally.

There are good reasons for health professionals to be aware of past sexual abuse. Counseling professionals, for example, are warned not to touch or hug an abuse victim, even a comforting hand on their shoulder, because it carries with it the possibility of reminding them of their previous abuse. A nurse practitioner shared with me how she once was cited by her place of work when she performed a normal exam on a woman; she later discovered that the woman had been sexually abused but it wasn’t on the intake papers. If she had known, she said, she would have handled the exam very differently. It seems that now it would be worthwhile for airport security to be aware of these sensitivities as well.

Sexual abuse survivors just require a lot of extra care. They’ve been through one of the worst experiences a human being can survive. And what will they take from the experience of the invasive security procedures they will undergo simply trying to get on a plane? It concerns me that children who are currently victims could now have even less reason to trust authority figures, as they could easily transfer the experience with their abuser to the uniformed security guard. If people in uniforms are perpetuating the inappropriate touching, why would a child’s mind think that these are the people that are safe to report to?

I am concerned that we will see more phobias about plane travel if these measures become standard. For those who are required to travel as a result of their job and thus cannot avoid the situation, I anticipate new ways of adult survivors acting out as their powerlessness is emphasized on a regular basis. Substance abuse to escape the experience may become common, or outbursts of anger to feel like they are retaining some level of control.

An article in the British Journal of Midwifery in 2004 suggested different ways that midwives could reduce re-traumatization of women they work with that have been abused in the past. One suggestion was to reduce the power differential: don’t be brusque or commanding when asking a woman to take off her clothes. Ask, don’t demand. TSA workers could make use of this idea by being careful with their tone, and waiting for a response before going forward with the search. This I’m sure would not be popular for rushed airport workers, but shouldn’t the potential for re-traumatization at least warrant a discussion?

Another option the article suggests is to “ensure absolute privacy”. The story of the flight attendant seemed to indicate she was required to display her breast prosthesis in front of anyone who could see it. Couldn’t better measures, such as screens, be utilized in order to make a traveler feel less victimized?

My area of expertise is not national security. I don’t have the authority to say these methods are not justified, perhaps they are and perhaps they aren’t. But shouldn’t it be necessary that those who are innocent not be subjected to further trauma? Sexual abuse victims need to feel safe, and like they have some measure of dignity and control. I am begging you, TSA, in a nation where every two minutes a person is sexually assaulted, protect victims from being re-exploited. Get a qualified psychologist or counselor on staff and implement thoughtful standards of care. Even for those who have not been abused, such measures would show a little respect for those of us that, after all, you are trying to protect.

Barlow, J. , & Birch, L. (2004). Midwifery practice and sexual abuse. British Journal of Midwifery, 12(2), 72-75.

Stephanie Ann Adams is a counselor who believes in the ability of the mind to understand and change behaviors, and in each person’s power to create the life they want. Her blog can be found at

Contact Name

Contact Title

Contact Email

Contact Phone

Related Info


  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
    Toolbar's wrapper 
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.
Join Now

  • Learn more about your specialty—join a division
  • Maximize your Professional Development
  • Stay ahead of the educational learning curve
  • Advocate for the counseling care of tomorrow
  • Expand your networking connections
  • More Member Benefits