Up Close and Personal: Consent as a Felt Sense and the TSA

[…] The woman who patted me down last Sunday was so good at making the encounter feel consensual — or more consensual than usual, or perhaps “minimally non-consensual”, anyway. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was she did, how she moved, how she inflected her voice and when and where she made eye-contact specifically, to inject a sense of non-violation into the situation. But it was something about her own gently expressed awkwardness in combination with her unquestionable competence and professionalism that did the trick.

She made me feel like we were both humans stuck in a bad situation that neither one of us was happy about, but that it was also sort of funny in a sad way, and that it was a worse situation for me than it was for her, but we were agreed on the point that we mostly just both wanted to get it over with and get on with our lives without either one of us causing the other undue hardship.


And this is my point. Even though every TSA agent uses the exact same words and touches the passenger in the exact same places, some of those encounters feel more consensual than others. According to a legalistic definition of consent as permission, every encounter I have had with the TSA pat-down has been identical in terms of consent. But there is absolutely no question in my mind that this is not the case. “Consent” is an experience much more nuanced and rich and complex than a simple question of whether I said “yes” or “no.”
Link to the rest of Unquietpirate's essay

I love that you’re talking about this. And because I thought you’d find it interesting, I wanted to chime in with a story of my own.

I went through a security patdown in Europe that (temporarily) made me feel like I was inviolable. I’d been in a long distance, kinky relationship with a sub for several years, and I’d more or less gotten used to wearing a bandanna around my neck everywhere, as a makeshift collar.

I say more or less because there were still situations where that one scrap of cloth could still make me really uncomfortable, like when I was dealing with minimally closeted BDSMers who looked at me like “I’m 99% sure I know what that is” and seemed to think it meant I was owned by a man. Or when I got pictures taken with my extended family, and was thinking to myself “their descendants are going to be trotting out these photos of me a hundred years after I’m dead, like they’re doing with all these other deceased relatives. And I’m wearing a collar.”

All of that is background. I don’t know the protocols for German airport security. I don’t know if their agents are pushed to do more of a thorough spot-search under certain circumstances, what their standard red flags are, or how much discretion they have in the matter. But the lady who singled me out ran her fingers all around the inside of my bandanna. She didn’t ask me to take it off (which I would have been fine with doing). She just touched it, and my neck under it, as meticulously as if she were searching for a jewel hemmed into a piece of clothing.

The whole interaction felt like it took place in a psychological space that I know very well - I won’t let on that there’s anything out of the ordinary if you won’t. We weren’t in a private room. There were passengers everywhere, going through the metal detectors and retrieving their luggage, like I’d just done before she stopped me. I couldn’t tell if people were staring at us, because I was completely absorbed in the impromptu power game we were playing; putting all my effort into acting like I did this all the time and watching her intently. I was her entertainment, in some way, and she was mine.

I felt like maybe I should do something disruptive, because if she did this to collar-wearing people a lot she was bound to make some (most?) of them feel very violated. But I didn’t want to break the dynamic. It felt fraught, somehow, and like I was trying to have a whole, complicated conversation without words and had no way of knowing what was actually being communicated. I couldn’t tell if she was filling in “I’m okay with what you’re doing,” or something more along the lines of “my poker face is really practiced, but I’m holding still because I don’t know how to stop you.”

I guess what I’m trying to articulate is that I have no idea what her exact motivations were. And yet, they had no bearing on how I felt about her handling my collar in a really entitled, confident way. I tend to like people who try to push “you’re tolerating me because I’m in a position of authority” into something more like “I don’t want you to obey this uniform. I want you to obey ME,” because they’re breaking the rules. They’re making the system serve them, instead of the other way around. In the process, they’re showing me more about who they are and what they like than I’d otherwise have occasion to know. So running into someone, in airport security of all places, who was trying to do interesting things with her otherwise boring, forced-work job, was actually a lot of fun. Very … “I could hurt you. You could hurt me. We’re getting something intimate and inappropriate from each other in a setting that’s supposed to be anything but.” And the experience made me feel a lot more comfortable about wearing my collar in public, because the first person who ever made a big, overt, potentially sketchy deal about acknowledging that it was there did so in such a way that I rose to the challenge of acting like I was entirely okay with it and the attention it attracted.

It’s the sort of experience that I normally don’t share with anyone, because most people would freak out about how I don’t feel violated or feel like I’m invalidating the experience of women who do feel violated, when in fact my limits and consensual experiences have nothing to do with them.

It reminds me of this joke: A lady was getting dental work done. As the dentist leaned over her with the drill, she reached out and grabbed his testicles. The dentist started to object with “Ma’am …” but she cut him off with a steady gaze and the following words, “We’re not going to hurt each other. Are we, doctor?” The reason I love that particular joke is because it draws attention to the fact that, in general, anyone who’s close enough to be exercising power over you is close enough that you can hurt them. It breaks the illusion that they have all the moves and you’re powerless. It highlights the fact that sometimes your (socially indoctrinated) habit of following a social script, where submissive positions are vulnerable and dominant positions are not, is all that’s really keeping you from putting yourself on a more equal footing.

I feel relatively at ease with people overstepping the boundaries of what they’re supposed to be doing. I feel like, in the context of a system that doesn’t want its employees to have their own agendas and would punish them (for making the bigger authority structure that harbors this kind of abuse look bad), they’re asking me to keep a rather large secret on their behalf. In acknowledging that they want power over me, for themselves and not because they have an official excuse to do what they’re doing, they’re giving me back the choice of accepting or rejecting them. I don’t have that with someone who’s staying within the bounds of what society dictates they’re allowed to do.

I have it even less with someone who’s trying to be nice about something they’re supposed to be doing that I don’t want them to do, but can’t meaningfully opt out of. Like, you know, having to deal with airport security now that they’re supposed to be interacting with passengers all the time and looking involved and busy. I’ll generally accommodate people who telegraph that they’re feeling guilty for having a job that involves making life more unpleasant for other people. But I don’t like it when it feels like they want me to reassure them that what they’re doing is okay when it’s not. The whole vibe of being topped by someone who would rather be doing just about anything else and is ideologically uncomfortable with topping can make the whole experience a lot more awkward and stilted than it has to be. There are exceptions - gentle people who pull their self-presentation off in a way that makes their social rub feel very consensual, even when on some important level it isn’t. But overall I feel unsafe with people who think “meaning well” somehow diminishes their capacity to do abusive things in an inherently compromising-other-people’s-consent job.

Comparatively, I feel less unsafe with people who know they’re doing things that can do damage, and own up to the fact that they put themselves in a position of institutional power. Even and sometimes especially when they’re trying to have fun with it. That whole dynamic humanizes them in my eyes. And it maybe doesn’t make them a good person, but at least it makes them a person I can connect with honestly, without having to pretend that D/s is not happening, or if it is happening I’m absolving them of responsibility for it, or shit like that. It also brings “policy” and “institutions” back down to a level of specific people consciously exploiting systems, rather than systems mechanically (and interchangeably) controlling people. And, although this aspect doesn’t really apply to a situation where I’m going to meet someone once and never see them again, a person who’s willing to bend the rules for their own purposes is often willing to bend the rules for mine - the great structures that make society strong aren’t innately sacred to them, and that’s important to me. That’s an arrangement that can form if D/s creates rapport. Which, I think, is the other reason society gets all “abuse of power!!” and twitchy about its happening: you can sometimes persuade a person to betray the bigger interest they’re being paid to protect by making them feel powerful.

Tags: consent atomization respect