Nonsexual touch: TSA patdowns and the Human Carcass Wash

“I’ll take the patdown please.”

I was going to spend some time looking up the safety of the millimeter rays backscatter machine. How similar is it to stepping into a microwave oven? Milliwave oven? Hmm.

Then it occurred to me that without doing any research, there’s something I can be confident of: whether or not the machine is harmful or not, it’s definitely not good for me. Like it might be harmful, like an x-ray, or neutral, like a metal detector, but it’s not going to be good for my body. If it were, someone would be selling it as therapy.

But I have an option available that is good for my body: nonsexual touch.

“I’ll take the patdown please.”

I step over to the side area and start listening to the guy talk.

Back in January 2013, when I first moved to San Francisco and didn’t know anybody except my coworkers, I went several weeks experiencing almost no touch at all. A few handshakes, some high-fives, and some fist-bumps. Oh, and the patdown from the TSA agent on my way there.

“I’ll start with your back and shoulders. I’m going to touch you with the flat palms of my hands, and when I get to your crotch I’ll use the backs of my hands.”

Huh.

“Okay, now I’m going to move my hands up your legs and stop just before I reach your groin.”

I know this.

“Alright, and now the other side.”

This is called safeporting. It’s the process of telling someone what you’re going to do right before you do it to them, so that they aren’t startled by any of your actions. It can be really valuable during massage, or more personal intimate activities. A similar principle is also really valuable if you’re doing a cooperative physical act with someone (such as carrying a bulky object) to let them know what’s you’re about to do so that they can coordinate with you.

While asking for explicit consent is also an important thing, safeporting is different. It’s letting the other person know that you’re about to do something that they’ve already agreed to or that you’ve already done with them. And I think it does make for better consent because it gives the recipient a moment to say “wait don’t” and also because it trains people to talk explicitly about physical touch, a subskill of explicit consent.

This TSA agent is really good at safeporting. Not necessarily in any other context of his life, but in this particular moment, he’s doing a fantastic job of helping me feel safe with his touch.

The Human Carcass Wash

This physical experience of being touched reminded me of something else, too, which was an event that I went to at Polyparadise at Burning Man this year: The Human Carcass Wash. At a car wash, machines wash machines. At the human carcass wash, humans wash humans.

The event was designed to promote nonsexual touch, even in the presence of nudity. (It was also designed, of course, to clean people who have been wandering a dusty desert.) Everyone involved, including the organizers, was naked, and the process consisted of a brief conversation to make sure everyone was on the same/facilitators page and to explain things, followed by groups of four people moving through stages in reverse order, doing the washing, then moving back through in the correct order and being washed. You were encouraged to state boundaries if you had any—places for people not to touch because they are physically or psychologically sensitive, or for some other reason such as a temporary tattoo.

The stages were soap, scrub, rinse, and squeegee, the first and third involving spray-bottles of soapy and clean water respectively. The final stage, squeegee, involved simple downward strokes to get most of the excess water off, and it was this one that I was reminded of by the TSA agent. Gentle, attentive touch, to my whole body. Neither denying the existence of my genitals nor hyperfocused on them. Just washing me, of dirt or of suspicion.

So if you feel comfortable or meta-comfortable with the idea, I encourage you to try the patdown, especially if you’re feeling short on nonsexual touch in your life.

Disclaimer: I realize that some people have negative experiences with TSA agents. I suspect, though, that these are a vocal minority.

Other ways to apply the stuff in this post:

  • find a friend to massage and practice safeporting with them
  • propose trying out safeporting with an intimate partner for an evening
  • get a half-dozen people to wash each other…?

The last one sounds hard. But if you have the right group of people, I think it could be a cool thing to try!

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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