Going to board my flight back from a conference of sexologists in Seattle, I'm surprised to hear my carry-on sex-toy bag set off the airport's security metal detector. It usually does just fine as long as I leave my 8-inch solid brass dildo -- a Kegel-muscle exerciser that I affectionately call Robocop -- home, or remember to stash it in my checked luggage. But this time the machine is definitely beeping away, meaning the airport security people are going to go through my most personal effects trying to determine what the problem could be.
The stern, older woman watching the screen backs up the belt and stops my bag under the x-ray. She points at the screen, showing her young, blonde assistant what to look for. I'm in a good mood, not too close to flight time, and find myself smiling to a traveling companion who's taking the same flight, and looking forward to a little good theatrical fun.
"Is it all right if I look in this bag?" the attendant asks with measured politeness.
"Sure, if you really want to," I answer.
I watch her face as she digs through the cuffs, the latex straps, the blindfold, the ziplock bag with condoms, rubber gloves and lube, the ziplock bag with miscellaneous nipple clamps, butt plug, and so forth, Mark Chester's wonderful spandex full-body bondage bag (if you don't have one, you should, but that's another story), the wonderful soft leather scratch gloves with the sharp metal points scattered across the palm and fingers. Her face stays 100% deadpan throughout, an impressive show of professionalism.
Other departing passengers flow by, pick up their unoffending bags, taking various levels of note of the assorted toys the security guard has out on the little table. There was a time when I would have been unbearably embarrassed to have my personal sex toys -- my sexual taste -- laid out for anyone in the Seattle airport to see, but it happens that this has been a wonderful weekend and I'm feeling unusually good about myself, so I find that I'm not embarrassed at all, just wondering what it's like to be an airport security guard pawing through some stranger's bag of sexual equipment.
Finally she finds what she's looking for -- what I knew she would get to sooner or later -- my springy little whip with the 6" metal handle, the whip that no one knows seems to know how to categorize. (The closest that several people have come is to say, "Well, it's not a quirt....") She rather triumphantly lays my notaquirt on the carpeted little counter, delighted that her search has come to a successful conclusion. (At this the eyebrows on some of the passing passengers start to rise.) My companion shifts her weight from one foot to the other. I don't really know her very well and can't tell whether she's enjoying this little drama or feeling uncomfortable. I have my camera with me, but it's not until later that I realize I should have taken a minute to get a picture of the whole scene.
"You can't take this on the airplane," the security guard says definitively, looking me staunchly in the eye.
"Why not?" I ask in all innocence.
"It's a weapon," she informs me.
I roll my eyes for dramatic effect. "That's not a weapon," I object plaintively, "it's a toy."
She continues to look me in the eye, neither humored nor annoyed -- like I say, very professional. "Whatever it is, you can't take it on the plane."
I'm tempted to go one step further, but I realize that it's starting to get close to departure time. The reality principle intercedes. I don't say, "What are you afraid of? That I'll rush into the cockpit and tell the pilot to take the plane to Afghanistan or else I'll whip his butt?" I don't say, "Are you afraid that I'll attack one of the flight attendants and whip her/him into such a state of excitement that s/he'll beg to help me hijack the plane?"
I do say, "All right, what can I do with it then?"
I'm told that I can take the whip back to the ticket counter and ask them to check it through as a separate piece of baggage. "Sometimes they'll do that, sometimes they won't," the baggage inspector warns. I pick up the bag, then the whip. For the first time, her face softens. She really doesn't hold it against me that I'm traveling with a whip.
"Tell them that security said you couldn't take it on the plane," she offers. "That should help." I thank her for the advice.
Holding the whip in my hand so familiarly among hundreds of people in the middle of Seattle airport gives me a fair dose of cognitive dissonance. (Some of the other passengers' eyebrows definitely do go up now when they look at me.) I'm turned on in a Pavlovian sort of way, I'm in public, and I'm beginning to be worried about what to do if they won't check the whip. I remember Betty Dodson's story of when her Robocop similarly set off an airport metal detector. They called that a weapon too and confiscated it on the spot, an $80 loss.
I'm also beginning to wonder if I'm going to miss the flight. I put aside all conflicting feelings and force myself to get efficient. My friend says she'll go to the gate, save me a seat on the plane if I'm late for boarding. I fold the tails of the whip back along the handle so I can carry it to the ticket counter without frightening too many people along the way, and break into a slow trot.
There's a long line at the ticket counter but I go up to the front and interrupt, explaining that my plane is about to leave and that I need to check something that security won't let me take on the plane.
"What is it?" the ticket agent asks as she types someone else's flight information into her computer.
"It's a whip," I say matter-of-factly, holding it up to show her.
The ticket agent stops typing, looks at the whip, looks at me, looks back at the whip.
"I won't ask," she says, as if to herself.
"I'll tell you anything you want to know," I say with exaggerated solicitude.
"That's all right," she declines.
A college-age woman is at the counter, filling out a form. She has a warm (perhaps knowing) grin on her face, though she's pretending not to be paying attention to what's going on. I catch her eye and we exchange a comfortable (perhaps knowing) smile while the ticket agent goes to get a plastic baggage bag for my whip. Now that I know I won't lose the whip and won't miss my flight, I'm back to having fun.
I lay the whip down affectionately on the counter. It becomes a lovely black and silver still-life against the very white, lacquered counter background. Several people waiting on line are checking it out, more curious than disturbed. Theater has evolved into political education. A properly-dressed, politely-voiced, rather quiet-looking man is checking his whip. Call it normalization. The young woman finishes filling out her form. She scans the whip alertly, neutrally. I get the feeling this is not the first whip she's ever seen, but who knows.
I look at all the people around me and feel like the whole airport -- passengers, ticket agents, security guards -- are giving me the benefit of the doubt on this one, at least in part because I'm refusing to have it any other way. My lack of embarrassment, my lack of apology, is defining the moment and telling everyone how to respond. I feel exceptionally powerful. It is the liberation of one more level of coming out, of refusing to be made wrong for being different, for being sexually different.
When the agent comes back, she holds the plastic bag open for me, waiting for me to put the whip in. Maybe she doesn't want to touch the whip, maybe she doesn't want to risk damaging it. My sense is that she's letting me put the whip in myself because she gets it that this is something special, something personal. Political education morphs into minor ritual.
I tuck the whip into the bag with slightly exaggerated care, as if to say, yes, this is something I would indeed like to have treated with respect, thank you very much. Putting my name and address on the baggage tag she gives me itself becomes a ritual affirmation: This whip does indeed belong to me; this is my name; this is where I live.
The agent attaches the tag to the bag, pulls the drawstring closed, ties the string with several knots, as if to reassure me that it is secure and will not come open. She places the bag lightly on the moving conveyor belt behind her. I watch its weightlessness get carried away, out of sight.
"When you pick up your luggage, don't forget that this one is a plastic bag," she says as I start to leave.
I look at her and we both smile. "Don't worry," I say, "I won't forget."
© 2009 David Steinberg
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This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": www.sexuality.org/davids.html .
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