How My Sexual Assault Has Affected My Life As A Traveler
By Bianca Lambert
Hartfield-Jackson Airport is my favorite airport. It’s my hometown airport. Hartfield is where I took my first flight to Los Angeles with my high school marching band to play in the Rose Bowl Parade at the age of 15. It also marks the place where I met the man who sexually assaulted me.
Meeting him at the airport was a little too fantastical for the cynic in me, but the hopeless romantic in me thought “why not give him a shot?” He was well-dressed, handsome, educated, successful, polite, and even had a hint of an accent that I later found out was Brtish. As we got to know each other, I felt excited about our budding relationship, but that fairytale quickly turned into a nightmare on December 29, 2018. I physically walked away from a man who thought there were no rules when it came to my body. I had always thought about sexual assault as rape, not realizing it could also take the form of sexual coercion, unwanted touching, and attempted rape.
After my experience, I felt a lot of things I wasn’t able to put into words. So I contacted RAINN and spoke with a counselor. She explained to me that what I had endured was sexual assault and if I felt empowered to, I should and could report the incident to the police — to which I declined. Walking away from that person was enough for me, and to be honest, I didn’t want to go over the details with an officer who could potentially make me feel worse by victim blaming me.
I’m not ready to share the intimate details of what happened (and likely never will), but I want to talk about the aftermath and how it has affected my daily life as a woman and a traveler. Shortly after my assault, I packed my bags and headed back to Los Angeles. It was time to get back to work and put what happened behind me. I thought a change of scenery and getting back into my old routine would be the cure.
At 6:00 am in the morning, I hugged my dad and headed to security. The first thing I thought about was him as I walked through S2 to check my luggage at the Delta counter. I immediately tried to push the flashbacks out of my mind. I made it through the maze of stations before handing my passport and boarding pass to the officer. I placed my items in the bins and walked through the detector, and was asked to step to the side to have my hoodie patted down. This is a normal occurrence for me since I always travel in that hoodie, which usually causes an extra pat down.
But this time, having my hood and back patted down triggered unexpected emotions in me. I couldn’t place the feeling. Was I just tired because I only had 2 hours of sleep? Maybe I was just sad about leaving my hometown? I wasn’t groped. I wasn’t touched inappropriately. Not to mention, the TSA agents were in great spirits, especially for people not being paid. I took a mental note and let it pass, but I knew I felt different.
Shortly, after getting through TSA, I made it to my gate. A few moments later, I made my way to 19E — the dreaded middle seat. The middle seat is the worst for a few reasons: there is generally a passive aggressive attempt to let the two people to the left and right of you know the armrests are yours, you have to ask to be let out to go to the lavatory and it is impossible to sleep. Where do you put your head?
Aside from all of those things, I was lodged in between two men that were manspreaders. Their legs were touching mine, their elbows made their way into my seat, and I was just stuck there. Each time the gentlemen to my right tried to engage with me, I felt myself cower — this was new for me. Me cower? Never. Well, I did. I also couldn’t muster up enough courage as I usually would ask both men to get their elbows and legs out of personal space or even physically nudge them, which I am accustomed to doing daily.
You might be reading this and thinking what the big deal is. As I’m writing this, I am asking myself the same question out of judgment, but I understand that triggers can come in many forms. Manspreaders are something I deal with daily, but interacting with men is now difficult for me. If a man looks my way, I look down. If a man accidentally touches me, I cower. On top of that, I’m barely sleeping, and when I do, I dream about him. I am working on getting back to my confident self, but I understand that this will take time.
As a woman that travels solo, I am always asked, “Aren’t you afraid to travel alone?” My answer is and always has been no. An intimate partner sexually assaulted me, and I’m not alone – 51.1 percent of female victims report being assaulted by an intimate partner and one in three women in the U.S. experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime.
Sexual assault can happen to anyone anywhere at any time. It can happen to those of us that are perceived as fearless, strong, and world travelers. I have been a long time advocate of abuse survivors, and never thought I’d become one of them. I am still having trouble processing that fact. I’d also never have guessed that something as simple as a routine TSA pat down, everyday manspreaders, or my beloved hometown airport would become triggers for me.
I know that it is going to take a little time for me to process what happened to me, but there is one thing I know for sure. I won’t let this experience stop me from seeing the world. If you or someone you love is having a difficult time dealing with sexual trauma, RAINN has been an invaluable resource — it is also essential that they feel supported by those around them and know their assault wasn’t their fault.
As a sexual assault survivor, you do have options when going through airport security. You can fill out a notification card that lets TSA agents know you have anxiety when being touched, you can request a private screening, and you can request a TSA Passenger Support Specialist in advance to accompany you through the screening process 72 hours before your flight by calling the TSA Cares hotline at 855.787.2227.