Speaking of Women's Rights: 10/16

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Unfriendly Skies

By Priya Walia

Trigger warning: violence, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child.

For people with a fear of flying, it is often reassuring to hear that planes are safer than cars. However, there are safety considerations other than crashing to consider. Travelers are exposed to an array of horrors at the hands of many different state and federal agencies—as well as other passengers—while flying.

The treatment of brown folks, like myself, and transgender people by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is atrocious, and I am sure that history will find it legally unsound. The lack of oversight for who is added to the terror watch list (also known as the no-fly list) is problematic at best and akin to government-mandated racial profiling at worst. Then there is the fear I experience at the hands of fellow passengers: Is someone going to report me for looking too suspicious? Too brown? Am I going to be seated next to a sexual predator?

That last concern may come as a bit of a surprise because, as many of us know, acquaintance sexual assault is far more common than the traditional archetype of the lurking stranger in an alleyway waiting to grab his unsuspecting victim. However, people are particularly vulnerable on planes because there is no way out. Add alcohol, jetlag, and sleeping medicine, and perpetrators of these heinous acts have the opportunity to strike with little to no detection.

In one reported incident, a reverend inappropriately touched a sleeping woman—touching that he considered “consensual because she did not reject his touches and he interpreted her silence, because she was asleep, as ‘coyness.’” The victim was not aware of the touching until she awoke with his hand on her thigh. He later admitted to FBI agents that he enjoyed “cozy flights” with women.

In another case, a man switched seats to sit next to a young unaccompanied minor. She was trapped next to him while he repeatedly sexually assaulted her for 30 minutes until a flight attendant saw her crying and caught him in the act. He was removed from his seat and arrested by the FBI upon landing.

While the FBI has jurisdiction over airlines and cases of sexual assault while flying, it does not track the number of sexual assaults on planes; neither does the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) or any other organization. According to Slate, in 2014 Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton proposed a bill that would have compelled the FAA to keep statistics on airplane sexual assault. This legislation never came to fruition. In 2015, the best estimate is that there were 170 assaults aboard domestic flights. But sex crimes are cited as one of the most underreported category of crime, so this estimate could likely misrepresent the problem.

Keeping track of these assaults alone will not solve the problem; we live in a rape-friendly culture that laughs at affirmative consent laws, rejects women from juries for being survivors of sexual assault, treats survivors as suspects, questions survivors for taking years to courageously come forward, and teaches survivors that abuse is their fault. Airlines must take a more proactive role in preventing these attacks and making potential perpetrators fear the consequence of their actions.

Currently, it is rare for airlines to release a statement beyond the pre-written boilerplate they have used in many of these cases. In response to the assault of an unaccompanied minor, American Airlines released a lackluster statement: "American cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for them. We take these matters very seriously…” Being sexually assaulted is not an unpleasant travel experience—it is criminal, dehumanizing, traumatizing, and utterly unacceptable.

So, what is the solution? As it stands, most flight attendants are trained to alert the pilot when a sexual assault occurs so the pilot can make the choice to land the plane immediately or continue to the final destination. The pilot is also in control of alerting the authorities on the ground or deciding that the behavior was simply rude but not criminal. Victims are left with no direct line to contact outside emergency personnel without filtering her assault through undertrained airline employees. The perpetrators of these acts may walk free as soon as the flight lands, making it difficult for authorities to track them down.

The problem is complex and the solution should be well thought out and intersectional. Rape culture—the environment that entitles men to women’s bodies—is to blame, but if airlines took steps to make their stance known that inappropriate and unwanted touching is not tolerated, maybe perpetrators would not feel so protected.

Perhaps airlines could treat sexual assault with the same seriousness as sitting in an exit row and require verbal consent.

Priya Walia is the Reproductive Justice Fellow for If/When/How serving both Legal Voice and Surge. She is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Law (’16) and West Virginia University (’13) and a proud dog mom. Tweet at her @PriyaJWalia