broadsideblog

Slut-shamed at the American border

In behavior, blogging, culture, immigration, journalism, life, love, Media, men, travel, US on April 27, 2013 at 2:55 pm
Welcome to the United States of America

Welcome to the United States of America (Photo credit: Kai Strandskov)

By Caitlin Kelly

This is one hell of a post, by University of British Columbia student Clay Nikiforuk, from rabble.ca:

What do you do when you’re detained by powerful officials, everything you say is presumed deceptive, arbitrary “evidence” is held against you, and you’re treated like a moral deviant? And what if its 2013, you’re a woman, and the “evidence” is that you possess condoms? It happened three times in two weeks — being detained by U.S. border officials on my way to or through the States…

I was detained, yelled at, patted down, fingerprinted, interrogated, searched, moved from room to room and person to person without food, water or being told what was going on for what seemed like forever. Just as I thought they were tiring of me and going to refuse me entry but at least let me back into Aruba, a ‘Bad Cop’ type took me to a distant, isolated office and yelled at me that I was full of shit. He had found information online that in the last couple of years I had been modelling and acting. This, he concluded, was special code for sex work, and I was never going to enter the U.S.A. ever again. I tried not to laugh and cry at the same time. I told him I’m currently writing a book on the sociology of sexual assault.

“Are you looking to be sexually assaulted?”

I blinked at him. I couldn’t breathe.

“Was that meant to be funny?”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Ah, no. I’m definitely not.”

“Well, it sure seems like you are.”

“… How so?”

He wouldn’t elaborate.

This post raises a whole host of questions about power, sexuality, female agency and abuse of power. I also had my own issues with it because she admits — brave? foolish? — that she was traveling with her lover, a married man. Not my thing. I hate adulterers, frankly; my first husband was one, as was his partner (now his second wife.)

She had initially entered the country by bus. Bad choice!

But the larger point remains: whose fucking business is it, when women cross the U.S. border, who we’re fucking, when and why?

Are young, unmarried men subjected to the same sort of interrogation?

I’m betting that’s a “no.”

ARIZONA BORDERS AND CITIZEN SAFETY...

ARIZONA BORDERS AND CITIZEN SAFETY… (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter)

I’ve also lived through a much milder version of this, as a young, single Canadian regularly crossing the American border for a year or so to visit my then beau, (later first husband), an American I had met when he was at med school in Montreal and who was then doing his residency in New Hampshire.

I did not then know how to drive, at 30, nor did I own a car. I did not understand that, in the United States, traveling anywhere by bus shrieks — at least to border officials — of poverty, desperation and an apparent lack of any economic choice.

To me, as I’m sure it was to Clay, also a well-educated Canadian woman, it was just a damn bus, an affordable, efficient mode of transportation, with no coded message implied.

Wrong!

The offices of The Gazette newspaper on Saint ...

The offices of The Gazette newspaper on Saint Catherine Street, Montreal, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was also making, for a young journo, a healthy wage as a staff reporter at the Montreal Gazette, a large regional newspaper. I had a laminated press pass with my photo on it. No matter!

Every single time I crossed the U.S. border and showed it to prove my full-time, staff job in Canada I was subjected to nasty and aggressive interrogation by U.S. border officials — surely the only reason I was dating an American man was to marry him, rightaway so I could escape my hideous, unemployed life in Canada.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiight.

I climbed back into the bus every time shaken, crying, humiliated and angry. This bullshit was sexist, ugly and routine, and — luckily — something I’d not been subjected to before.

This was the country I’d be moving to to marry? Jesus!

Like Clay, I was young, single, female. These interrogations scared the shit out of me. How could they not? Would I lose the right to see my sweetie? Lose the privilege of crossing that border then, or forever? What records were they keeping and how could they affect me?

I moved to the United States, with a green card as a permanent legal resident, in July 1988 — after submitting to an AIDS test.

And yes, I learned how to drive and bought my first car, stat. The hell with the bus.

Have you ever faced this sort of experience?

  1. Your post and Clay’s make me very grateful for my fairly uneventful border crossings. We forget that travel is really not a right, and that various powers of the FAA and the Patriot Act have allowed us to be subjected to immense invasions of our privacy. We also forget that when we travel to other countries, we are at their mercy, and they may not have the same expectations either of civil rights or decency that we are used to.

    I can have a very androgynous appearance, especially when I was younger. My favorite experience at the airport had to do with being patted down–this used to be done at every airport I passed through anywhere in the world–and they were obviously confused about who to have search me. So they asked me how old I was. Since I wasn’t 15, I guess they figured I must be a girl.

  2. There are many factors that come into play when crossing borders — as I do usually 2-6 times a year back and forth from the States (where I live) to Canada (my passport nation.) One is the larger culture: I think (gross generalization) that Canadian women (and Clay’s post proves this point to me) grow up in a much more egalitarian and feminist culture than American women so we expect men, even those in authority (maybe especially so) to treat us with civility and respect. So it comes as an even greater affront when they do not, and their snap judgments of our character and motives (which may be 100% wrong) can affect our lives forever.

    • Some very interesting thoughts. I’m sure you’re right. I wonder if Canadians generally expect more civility and a greater adherence to rules and honoring of a sense of fair play than Americans do as well. (More gross generalizations.) Americans place a greater value sometimes on “getting the job done” than on civility or rules.

      But I also wonder if Clay’s post reflects a misguided and poorly conceived attempt to cut down on sex trafficking, as there are greater national and international pressures to do so.

      I admit that I am terrified every time I cross a border: I am intensely aware of my powerlessness and dependence on authority.

      • It’s worth reading her entire post — they did not like 1) she had so many condoms with her; 2) her traveling with a married man; 3) her work on sexual issues.

        None of which are their business!

        Sex trafficking is a serious issue, but this is not that, and the officers were accusing her of possibly being a prostitute, not pimping. i.e. her sexual choices were hers, not made or coerced by someone else.

      • I did read the original post, and it was quite interesting (as well as frightening).

        Clearly the approach would be the wrong one for preventing sex trafficking, but it’s not too hard to imagine a government agency taking the wrong approach to a serious issue.

  3. People who have excessive zeal for performing this kind of job should be disqualified. I’ve done security duties and politeness and courtesy were always top of any training I did. (In the RAF) If the person doesn’t co-operate, or becomes offensive. then you become more polite and less helpful. People going through security checks are nervous at the best of times, especially if you have a gun. So no need to make it worse. And these kind of people, using their position to intimidate and bully women, or anyone, should be publicly humiliated.

    Makes me so angry, I try to be as calm and helpful as possible now when I’m traveling. To not cause me any more trouble than I need, but to help speed things on as well.

    It cast a very poor light on your country that this happens, by “your” I mean any country that this occurs in. It shows poor training and management all the way up the chain of command.

    Jim

    • I suspect it’s worse since 9/11…and the Boston bombings (and recent arrest of 2 terrorism suspects in Ottawa) will only amplify this trend. I want to feel safe (even though we clearly are not!) but not in some thuggish manner.

      • Yes, thuggish is a good way to describe it. You don’t have to be rude to be strong and in control. Some people don’t understand that though. Especially dealing with the fair sex, who they don’t know how to deal with.

      • Oh, but they do! Making sure they remind us exactly who has the power can make some people feel very special indeed.

  4. No, but I was held up for having 5 pounds of wrapped, frozen hot dogs in my suitcase. I assume they suspected them of being drugs because they look like those drug bundles you see on Border Wars, and of course because they were frozen ice old, and smelled like pork. Cedar Rapids security-not so smart.

    And I made sure to thank them for scattering my underwear all over the table in the middle of the terminal.

    But I get it, it’s got to be one of the suckiest jobs in America right now. I mean, it doesn’t give you the right to be a dick, but a bigger question for me is what is the (Dept. of Homeland Insecurity (DHS) doing with these people? What exactly are our border patrol being trained to do? Certainly not think before acting.

    U.S. Border patrol is a joke. Our border-seal is about as tight as a volleyball net trying to hold back water. I’m not advocating a tighter seal (I think ‘walls’ are an insane waste of money and resources, and perpetuate prejudice), I just wonder if maybe the money spent building ineffective fences would be much better spent on better training for, and hiring of more ‘man’ power.

    I think the reason people are enduring such aggressive lunacy at our borders is because the lunacy at the purse strings has the media megaphone scaring the fuck out of everyone.

    The brown people are coming! The brown people are coming!

    Meanwhile our greatest population of incoming are refugees from Myanmar. (Oh, and those damn perky Canadians ;) [DHS, 2011]

    I want no walls at all, so we can stop looking weak and scared as a country. Isolationism isn’t a show of power, it’s a chickenshit move (Quick! Lock the windows and doors and cower behind the couch!).

    We need to stop squeezing our border patrol by the brains. They are overloaded, underworked, and not trained to:
    1, Understand the real, global enemies
    2. Recognize said enemies
    3. Not freak the hell out when someone looking like and enemy walks by

    They are trained to think EVERYONE is an enemy. They flash them some pictures of bad guys, then send them on their way with the instructions to be ever vigilant-but of what exactly? And once you get a suspect, what are the procedures for determining yea or nay on the detainee? Apparently you’re just supposed to act mean and scream a lot until they confess to something.

    And why does it always take at least 7 officers (on the taxpayer dime) to handle a detainee who came willingly? Even the real criminals they do catch, they don’t usually spazz out and try to blow up the terminal, or stab everyone Hollywood-terrorist style. They usually just walk to the interrogation room. Same with law enforcement all over the US. 2 cops handle the crime, 10 show up to stand around.

    I told my brother than I I’d lived in Boston during the bombing, I’d have gone across town and robbed the shit our of everything because the police that would have caught me were too busy standing around the finish line. Seriously-and efficient use of the man power we have would go a lot farther to protecting our borders than union-wage gawkers discussing football scores.

    And why are DEA and ATF agents at the borders tearing cars apart? This puts pressure on the other agents working the line to have to watch twice as much. Just hire mechanics at half the price you stupid shits. Plenty down there need work right now-deputize a couple and get your patrol back to patrolling.

    Take the pressure off our patrol, hire more (we’ve got military vets totally trained on what an enemy looks like from being with the enemy for 12 freaking years. Why are they collecting unemployment and not watching Grand Central? People want guns ion schools, but no one gives a damn about LAX? Hello?

    So, while I do not excuse the customs officials’ behaviors in either yours or Nikiforuk’s story, I do think it has less to do with gender than it does with the type of crazy that comes from working paranoid, day in and day out, with poor training and poor support.

    We have a way bigger problem than just gender-sensitivity training for our man-guards. We want all of our officers to be tough and scary as hell,that’s their job; but they also need to be helpful and smart,that’s their superior’s job to teach them and give them the resources to do it.

    • All of which is valid — none of which addresses, still, my original issue that attacking and shaming women, who have freely made that choice, for being sexual is often inane. Especially when done by people with badges and power who can, and do, really affect our lives for years or decades to come…I doubt they are trained to moralize women on their sexual behavior.

      If so, really?

  5. Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
    HORRIFIC! Ashamed this woman endured this….

  6. Yes it does, Miss smarty pants. The issue at its basest level has nothing to do with gender. Like rape-not a sex thing.

    It’s power. Or rather, it’s weakness and insecurity wrapped in aggression, and mislabeled power.

    And I think all this indignant denying of whoredom by women, to combat their accusers, kinda makes whores feel bad. Not empowering.

    Let me ask you this, does crying about it give US power, or our aggressors power?

    Stop me at the border and get up in my shit about my vagina, and I’m just gonna sit there for three hours and let you scream all you want. Your badge doesn’t mean shit to me, because I’m a US citizen and I haven’t done anything wrong. When we’re done with the dog and pony show, I’m gonna sue the shit out of your department, have your badge, then have your supervisor’s badge for not training you to do your job, and letting you act like a fucking ape.

    I win, bitch.

    Now stamp my passport, I’ve got a plane to catch.

  7. Well, well. Talk about being uncivil. I pass through Border Patrol south of Tucson a few times a year – I am usually with my husband, but not always and have never had a problem. They seem to know who and what to look for. Crossing from the States into Canada and back is a nightmare from what I have heard from my relatives. It is so easy to make a woman feel helpless – not only does she have her own modesty to protect (which is impossible being patted down in public) but I think women are easily shamed. My experience with U.S. Border Guards has not been pleasant; I have been addressed as “Judy” in a sarcastic tone of voice by a guard young enough to be my son. A uniform and a gun is all you need to become an intimidating little man.

    • So true.

      My husband is Hispanic and, until recently, was being pulled over at every border stop (into Canada, ironically); he is a citizen but has a fairly common name and shared it with a wanted man. Gah.

  8. No, but the fact that it happened is insane. Perhaps you should do a full article about it and have it published in the Times. The waves that would occur would certainly at the very least cause an investigation.

    • I wonder. To be completely candid (so unlike I normally am?!), I was even nervous about posting this. When you live here with “only” a green card, as I do, you know life could change in a finger snap if ICE decides so. I am always, and utterly law-abiding, a little nervous going back and forth into the U.S.

      One time recently, the official said: “Caitlin (which was weird), have you become a U.S. citizen yet?” I have not and had never before been asked that question.

      • All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to stand aside and do nothing.
        Go ahead Caitlin, write the piece. And if anyone tries anything against you, it’s not as if they can stop you from posting about it on your blog. I’m sure you have enough devoted followers who will sound the alarm and cause a meme-wave of anger.

      • Your idealism is charming and refreshing.

        While the First Amendment offers me this freedom, I still feel a need to be prudent. This story by Clay has already gotten a VERY wide readership — picked up by Canadian media and posted on Huffington Post (which is how it came to my attention, through a friend’s FB posting.)

      • I didn’t know it was on HuffPost. At the very least, you can put your own spin on it, maybe unearth something nobody knew.
        Just a suggestion

      • Rami, I am swamped with other stuff == and heading off for vacation this week.

  9. What happened with you and Clay is really disheartening.
    I live in a country which disrespects its own female citizens. No need to cross borders for getting yourself insulted. Women here are not safe at all. Just a few days back, a five year old girl was raped by her neighbor. Its a hell for women. Thank God that I have been safe so far. I travel alone most of the time (across the country) and feel vulnerable all along the journey. The worst thing about the country where I live is that you can’t trust even the police. Forget the insult felt by being interrogated, here they may traumatize you for your entire life. Shit happens here everyday and the government doesn’t do anything. The general public is tired of protesting against rape and discrimination as crimes against women are at an all time high. Believe me, its the worst place for a girl/women to be born.

    • This comment breaks my heart.

      It also puts our lives here into much sharper relief. Thank you for sharing this.

      I am not sure I’d be eager to visit India given the rape culture, not out of personal fear, but out of disgust with it and solidarity (in whatever silly way that appears) with women and girls who live there. It is unimaginable — yet very real.

      • Yeah. I don’t want to create a bad image of my country, but I don’t even want to hide the truth. Maybe you can visit India if you can ensure your safety, i.e., if you don’t have plans of stepping out of your hotel (assuming that your hotel itself is safe enough).

      • I have been to only one country where, literally, I was told it was unsafe to leave the hotel. Venezuela. I was there for the 1998 landslide. Beyond terrifying.

  10. Wow – this post is shocking! I had no idea that this sort of behavior goes on at our borders. I am speechless. This is just horrifying. It makes me very grateful for the experience I encounter every time I enter New Zealand: a friendly face, a smile, and a “g’day mate.” :)

  11. Yes, only once – entering the US on a flight from London in 1973. Only a couple of hours, but unbelievably intimidating and frightening – mostly because you don’t know what you’ve done to be singled out like that. Turns out they suspected I was travelling on a stolen passport – which made me laugh because, despite being almost out of money, my friends and I had resisted the temptation to ‘sell’ our passports in Europe the year before. Would the treatment I received have been different if I’d been a man? I don’t know, but it was a rude welcome to America.

    Happy holiday – and good luck coming home again :)

  12. This is something I have never even thought about. I’m outraged.

    • Oh, there are many stories we non-citizens could share. Most are too scared to do so.

      • My dad was Canadian. Part of his ongoing battle with depression was his ongoing battle to repair his green card after joining a cult in the states at 18 and slipping away for 20 years. The cult was a haven for non-citizens since we had the ability to force severed ties with the outside world. Therefore, with south of the border members, we had to protect them from the periodic round ups by BP. They usually left the Caucasians alone. (No surprise there)

  13. I agree with modern idiots comment about ill-trained BP officials. She’s spot on, but the big picture is where are the standards? I can also see how human trafficking paranoia could play into this, but a woman that age, with her degree, and a Canadian Citizen should give insight. Why does it seem as if BP officials don’t have good judgment? As is, often? I think it is a lack of training.

    • I wish one could call it lack of training, but if you’re a guy with a badge and power and can say anything you want to someone, with total impunity — and know it — what would stop you from so doing? Not training.

      • When I flew to UK, I had left something in my bag that was not allowed in my carry-on. The agents doing the search were horribly inconsistent and took a very long time searching all of our bags, but since I was American, they took my word for it, and let me go after they tossed whatever it was. The Canadians and anyone who had an accent? Not so much. questions. lots of questions. In the same line, I observed people with American passports who had foreign accents being detained and questioned over laptops, and other things I couldn’t catch. I do think it is training. I think it is bias rooted in mainstream American root culture that somehow we are less suspicious if we fit a certain profile, and that needs to be trained out of the homeland security agents. Sexy strong outspoken females are more suspicious (and interesting) than moms with baby carriers and strollers, and businessmen in suit jackets.

        I interpret what happened as part sexual harassment. The rest is the uneducated mass produced low quality typical stupidity and paranoia. I know that sounds non-chalant, but I’ve come to expect ineptitude in government employees. It’s still awful.

      • Most Americans do not have a passport nor have they traveled beyond American borders. Diversity to them is just a word on a piece of paper.

      • That was my point. Very well stated.

  14. I’m the guys she was with – If they cared a whit about sex trafficking – why didn’t they stop me or even question me ? I sailed through ICE without a question, both directions.

  15. No, I haven’t had this type of experience, but I’m shaking just reading this. :(

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