Semi-Open Thread: TSA Agent’s Note

I know this is a little belated but I thought it would be enlightening if we share opinions on this story.

As many of you probably know already, a well-known feminist blogger found a note in her suitcase that had been left there by a TSA agent. The note referred to some kind of a sex toy the blogger had in her suitcase. Here it is:

When the story got out, the TSA agent was suspended.

I wouldn’t have decided to revive this story had I not discovered that one of the popular commenters on this blog ended up being banned from Feministe for discussing the incident in a way that the note’s recipient didn’t appreciate.

So what say you, people? How do you feel about the note and the entire incident?

I want this to be an open thread, so I’ll hold my peace on the subject for the moment. All I would like to mention for now is that when I blogged about the enhanced TSA security measures, I was told I was either a homophobe or a selfish individual unable to look past my own puny concerns when larger issues were involved. So if anybody tries to sell me the idea that this wave of outrage has anything to do with general annoyance people have developed against the invasive TSA measures, I’m not likely to buy it. I am firmly convinced that the entire hullabaloo was caused by the sexual innuendo in the note.


38 thoughts on “Semi-Open Thread: TSA Agent’s Note”

  1. First I have to admit to having been banned from Feministe (the feminist blogospheres version of Thunderdome). This was because I blamed Jill for causing the TSA agent involved to be fired.

    Her initial reaction was

    “Total violation of privacy, wildly inappropriate and clearly not ok, but I also just died laughing in my hotel room.”

    but later she said

    “I also imagine that whoever left the note assumed I’d be embarrassed about it, which makes the whole thing even worse — it’s not just a violation of privacy, it’s an attempt to humiliate a private citizen (luckily, I don’t find sexuality shameful, so it’s a little harder to humiliate me). But the fact that a TSA agent would leave a note like that is pretty offensive; it’s definitely inappropriate and unprofessional.”

    Whilst obviously this was an unprofessional act. It seems Jill cannot make her mind up if it was intended as a joke or to humiliate her.


    1. This is an interesting sentence structure: “I also imagine that whoever left the note assumed I’d be embarrassed about it”. I imagined that they assumed. Imagining other people’s assumptions is a very risky endeavor.

      One of the things I find disturbing about the entire story is that if I’d gotten the note in my suitcase, I would have posted it, too. I post everything and I know I wouldn’t have thought twice about posting this. And then I’d feel completely horrible that the person who simply tried to reach out and establish some form of human contact across the chasm generated by these TSA practices had their livelihood jeopardized because of my unthinking act.


      1. Their job is to screen the bags, not to “reach out”. Not all “reaching out” is always welcome.
        And agent’s livelihood was jeopardized by his/her own lack of a sense of appropriateness, not by Jill.


  2. Hm… And why was it wrong to fire a TSA agent because of such an incident? I find this firing absolutely appropriate, completely regardless of all the prehistory of TSA, Patriot Act, airline security and whatnot…
    P.s. And banning anybody from a blog for expressing his/her opinion is ridiculous as well.


    1. It is an over reaction. The TSA are aware they have a poor public image and this was an easy fix.

      Given that a leaflet needed to be left in the bag do you really think this was a sack-able offense?


  3. I don’t know if I would call it funny.

    The note itself is, but the thought about some stranger rummaging and through and commenting on my private stuff is an uncomfortable one.


      1. The thing is: strangers have absolutely no business fussing around with what is mine. I acknowledge that as a TSA agent, it is part of his or her job description and I understand why these are necessary. But that person took more than just professional interest. And thats where he crossed the line.

        I have no problem being scanned when it is meant to prevent me from bringing weapons or whatever else onto planes, but I sure as hell don’t want to be scanned for the amusement of the Customs officers.


    1. She would have had the thought about the stranger rummaging through her bag anyway as it is the agents job to leave a leaflet in each bag searched.


  4. I don’t actually think it matters how Jill felt about it – it’s an egregious example of lack of professional standards on the part of the screener and potentially indicative of a bad cultural attitude to privacy within the TSA.

    As it happens I put her laughter down to the sort of stunned incredulity that provokes hilarity because you have to laugh, because otherwise you’d cry, or break your teeth with gritting them.

    I think Clarissa’s correct that the reason the story got so much traction was because it involved sex; both due to the snigger factor, and due to the fact that many people still see sex as being a very private aspect of their lives and so it enhances the outrage people feel upon having their privacy invaded.

    I might have banned you too, Llama tbh; blaming her for the consequences of someone else’s actions (both the TSA and the screener) is classic victim blaming, and maybe you didn’t mean it like that, but hey, their blog, their rules. If I dealt with the crap they do, I think my banhammer fingers would get twitchy too.


    1. I agree that everybody should be free to ban whomever they like for whatever reason from their own blog. I’m not sure who is the victim here, though and what they are the victim of. We all get our privacy invaded in airports. I wouldn’t say we are all victims of that. The practices themselves definitely need to be analyzed and criticized. probably they should even be protested. But I think that bringing the word “victim” into this context is taking the issue too far.


      1. Well, in principle, I agree with you about the word victim here – but in practice, I couldn’t think of a replacement word which was less culturally loaded. 🙂

        And I’m not always willing to give into cultural loading over dictionary usage anyway, which is perhaps a fault in me, but one which I’m willing to own.


    2. Jill is not to be held to any standards then? She says intended no harm. Then why post sufficient details for the note writer to be identified? If she had sufficiently obscured the identity of the individual the person would still have a job.


      1. Well, a) suspension does not equal firing, and b) no I am not willing to blame Jill for the actions of the screener, or the potential over reaction of the TSA.

        Apart from anything else, you don’t know if they’ve discovered anything else unprofessional that the screener may have done under the guise of, at best, ‘being funny’.


      2. “Apart from anything else, you don’t know if they’ve discovered anything else unprofessional that the screener may have done under the guise of, at best, ‘being funny’.”

        Thanks for the speculation, it gives me the perfect opportunity to make stuff up too….

        Possibly the suspension was so the female screeners boss could bring pressure on her so that she would engage in sex acts with him.


  5. bloggerclarissa :
    I’d feel completely horrible that the person who simply tried to reach out and establish some form of human contact across the chasm generated by these TSA practices had their livelihood jeopardized because of my unthinking act.

    Reaching out is exactly how I saw this note.


    1. I completely agree, the note strikes me of a more ‘you go girl!’ and almost a way to ease the discomfort that she would inevitably feel upon seeing the note (regardless of the written commentary).


  6. V :

    Their job is to screen the bags, not to “reach out”. Not all “reaching out” is always welcome.
    And agent’s livelihood was jeopardized by his/her own lack of a sense of appropriateness, not by Jill.

    Human beings are not robots. A TSA agent and I exchanged a couple of jokes when I was getting screened yesterday. What’s so wrong about that?


  7. You exchanged jokes about your “personal items”? 🙂 And the exchange was initiated by agent without your provocation?
    Compare apples with apples. 🙂


  8. I just remembered an experience I had at the customs many years ago. I was traveling on vacation and my friend and I had our handbags searched. This was done publicly, too.

    First, the agent took a box of tampons out of the bags. Then, a huge selection of condoms in all forms and sizes. Then, a pack of oral contraceptives. Then, some fairly dirty magazines. Then a kewpie doll with . . . erm. . . exaggerated male parts. Then a sexually suggestive lighter.

    The entire queue of people observing this was roaring with laughter at the end of the search.

    “I can see you are ready to have some fun!” the customs officer said. “Make sure there are no condoms left when you come back.”

    I think this was a reaction that was a lot more normal than if the customs officer had stared at the items with a blank face and handled the items robotically.

    I don’t remember where this happened or what the customs officer’s gender was.


    1. 🙂 :).
      I see several levels to this. On one hand, maybe it is indeed the best thing a passenger can do – be a good sport and laugh with everybody. On the other hand, however, if I’d be the agent’s supervisor, I would tell him/her to handle those things more discreetly in the future.
      Because the passenger does not have to be a good sport, the passenger has every right to complain. The passenger may choose not to complain, and choose to laugh, or to present the agent with a condom 🙂 for all I care, but there should be no such expectations on agent’s part – that they can do whatever they want without somebody getting upset..


    2. And that reminds me of a situation that is quite the opposite. One of my friends was serving in the U.S military in Germany when 9/11 happened, and heard that his unit was being transferred to Egypt as a response. When they got the news, his entire unit decided they were going to make money by buying nasty German porn and selling it for a mint to Egyptian soldiers, because pornography was banned in Egypt. So my buddy was assigned as the guy who would carry all of the porn in his bag, and it wasn’t just your usual selection, he got a considerable collection of heavy bondage, pissing, and bukkake films as well. When they were at the station in Egypt checking in, he nearly pissed himself at the realization that they were searching all of the bags, and he would most likely get caught with the porn and cause a huge stir if he got arrested. So he tried to play it cool, but he got so nervous that he dropped one of his bags, right onto the queue where they were being inspected. Fortunately, it was his “regular” bag with just his underwear, toothpaste, and spare uniform in it, and he got past with no trouble.
      He made close to five thousand dollars in Egypt by selling porn to Egyptian soldiers. He would have made more, but he gave away all of the gay porn for free, figuring that he would bring some small comfort to the life of a closeted soldier.


  9. It’s been ten years since the TSA was established, and I don’t think any of us feel safer because of them, but I do know I feel considerably more violated each time I fly.
    If I had been in Jill’s situation, I would have called the airport to complain. Whether or not it was intended as a “you go girl” message or as something more sinister, it was unprofessional, and definitely not in the job description of a TSA agent.
    Though that isn’t nearly as weird as the time a few of my fancier undergarments went missing and I had one of those cards in my bag.


  10. I found a funny story in the comments:

    About six months ago on a flight to NY I checked an old duffel and received a kind note from TSA informing me that the condoms in the bag had expired.Considering they were from circa 2004 I was not surprised, but I did keep the note as a reminder.

    And another person replied:

    Personally, I’d feel guilty as hell if I was a screener and didn’t leave a note upon noticing that something important (medications, condoms) was expired. Any sort of note is a creepy reminder that somebody’s rummaging through your stuff on behalf of the state, but the intent behind them can at least run the gamut from “golden rule benevolence” to “panty-sniffing creeper malevolence.”

    The problem is you can’t really judge intent from the note, imo. It may be as you said, but it may be the same agent who would do this:

    When I was about 22, I flew carry-on with “personal items” in my bag. The TSA screener running my things through the X-ray not only stared at the screen and openly giggled, but called his buddy over from another station to “get a load of this.” While I was standing there. It was intensely embarrassing, and made much worse by the implicit threat that if I protested they’d delay me and humiliate me more.

    I wouldn’t have done anything about the note (Jill haven’t either, btw), but the behavior from the above quote would get a complaint letter all right.


  11. Generally, I’m against the “right of the consumer to complain”, because I think the way society is structured, a lot of people store up a lot of grievances against their bosses, against the autocratic nature of the bondage and discipline of society as a whole, and then displace it onto employees. So, don’t vent; be creative about how you treat others who are as dis-empowered as you — that’s my motto.

    My weird experience was when I overstayed my visa in Zimbabwe last year and the custom’s officials explicitly asked me for a bribe in order to go home (and not to prison for several weeks — not savoury, a third world jail).

    Having given all my remaining money to the servants at my cousin’s house, I had only US $50 to take home with me. This the customs officials were unwilling to believe. After all, I looked relatively well off and was white.

    So, they made me stand there for about fifteen minutes, sweating it out. I needed $100 US to pay my fine for overstaying, but had half this amount. Eventually, I was able to borrow some money from a woman behind me. We exchanged contact details so I could send her back her $50.

    Then something happened. The overall supervising guy disappeared and it became very clear to those remaining behind the desk that I really did only have $50 and I wasn’t making that up.

    They said, “How about you bribe us with the 50 and we’ll let you go through anyway? You can give that other $50 back to that lady over there.”

    I thought that was a great idea. So, I gave them the 50 and ran after the other woman to return her note to her.

    “They let me bribe them!!!!” I screamed.

    Suddenly, the whole of the customs area was quiet and I thought I was back where I started, facing jail, again. But then everyone resumed their work as normal.


    1. So, don’t vent; be creative about how you treat others who are as dis-empowered as you — that’s my motto.

      I completely agree with this sentiment. Too often employees bear the brunt of anger meant for the employer.


      1. And that is why I hated customer service training. I’m fine with the idea of helping people; I absolutely loathed the idea of taking blame for someone else’s actions; or apologizing for someone else and being the designated human punching bag. No thanks.


  12. For example, if an agent wrote “Great book!” in a note upon finding a copy of a bestselling novel in a piece of luggage, maybe it would be a bit of an invasion of privacy, but I cannot see why it would bother anyone.


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