Sexism at the border: A personal account

| April 1, 2013
Sexism at the border: A personal account

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.

First I was held by Vermont border guards for two hours in the middle of the night on my way to visit Nashville. They searched my bags at least five times. I could not help but notice how often my lingerie and “sexy underwear” were mentioned, how often the condoms they found were looked upon scathingly, and how most of the four male officers’ questions pertained to both. I was baffled as to why this was any of their business and unsure of what their objective was, other than fondling lady’s undergarments. In the end, having nothing to go on, they gave me a limited stay visa of two weeks and let me go – at 3am in the middle of nowhere. I missed my bus and my plane, had to pay for a $90 taxi to the nearest airport and then book a new flight the next morning.

The next time it happened was two weeks later in Montreal's airport. After scanning my passport, without being asked a single question, I was immediately led to a back waiting room. When I was summoned into an office, the officer cut to the chase: "How much is he paying you to go on this trip?" He was referring to the man I was travelling with.

Confused, I just stared back at him for a few beats.

"N-nothing?"

 The next question was whether this man was married or not. The answer, unfortunately for me, was yes. He asked whether I was planning on sharing a hotel bed with this man. I'm not one to sugar coat things and decided that now would not be a particularly good time to be found lying. Again, I answered yes. Righteous, the officer demanded what exactly I was doing in a bed with a married man.

 "That's actually none of your business."

I had kicked the hornet's nest. Inflamed, he raised his voice at me that it was his business and that adultery was a crime in America -- a crime that he could deny me entry for. He made me tell him my partner's name and date of birth and threatened to detain him, too. I pointed out that we would be in Miami for a total of forty minutes to catch our next flight to Aruba; hardly enough time to run to our gate, let alone commit adultery. The next thing I knew he was searching my bags, pulling out condoms and waving them in my face.

"I could have you charged with being a working girl! The proof is right here!"

 All I could do is shake my head. This can't be real.

"This is absurd," I murmured. But he was on a roll.

"You want me to call his wife? I'll tell her!"

I raised an eyebrow at him.

"She knows."

He stormed off again, leaving me shaking. When he finally emerged from an office, he held my passport and tickets in hand. He told me he was letting me go "this time" because I had told the truth. But that I was an educated woman and should change my life to reflect that. I blinked at him.

"What?"

He looked at me meaningfully and repeated himself. I nodded, eyes downcast as if I was taking his moralizing into serious consideration, and took my documents. I was afraid that he would change his mind otherwise. Later, after a very short internet search, I found that adultery isn’t illegal in Florida, and even if I had been paid for the trip, mixing sexual and non-sexual activities constitutes a relationship and therefore makes any money exchanged a very legal gift under the law. Traveling together to Aruba to get away from cold Montreal, I would think, signals a non-sexual activity.

A few days in the sun later, it was time to face the same routine but in the Aruban airport. Again, I would be spending all of an hour in Miami’s international airport and then carrying on to my home in Montreal. This time I had left the condoms behind. But it was too late – there was a detailed profile of me, in which my nefarious condom-carrying behaviour was noted. Again, I was told to sit and wait for further questioning.

I watched as my entire flight's passengers whizzed through customs in front of me. I was shaking. By the time someone got around to questioning me, I was told my flight was leaving.

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.

I was with the U.S. officials for six hours. After two more hours put through the wringer with Aruban immigration, I was finally let go back into Aruba. I was told that if I even so much as approached the U.S. border again without a waiver I would be banned from the country for five years. My partner and I, both shaken, had to book a new flight to Canada that didn’t pass through the U.S. (approximately $900) and a hotel for an extra two days until that flight.

For me, carrying my own condoms (in purses, wallets, camera bags; everywhere) is a routine act towards safer sex. For someone else with the power to not only deny passage but judge, moralize and intimidate, it has become enough evidence to put a woman through hell. My story has brought a number of women out of the woodwork stating that they have had similar experiences.

Whether border guards are copying police in New York and their condoms-as-evidence-of-prostitution model, or are simply so stuck in their gender stereotyping that a woman with condoms can’t be a good person (“We’ve been told that there’s nothing good about you,” said one Aruban official), I’m also not sure.

I do know I won’t be travelling for some time, until my name is cleared. Or until the puritanical, power-tripping, slut-shaming witch hunt is over. I won’t hold my breath for either. 

 

Clay Nikiforuk is a recent Creative Writing graduate from UBC and lives in Montreal. She is currently writing her first book exploring and critiquing the sociology of sexual assault. When not reading, writing or getting into vehement debates with strangers, she is dancing, taking pictures, and an avid potluck-attendee. To help fund her book you can go to http://www.gofundme.com/jenniesbook

 

 

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Comments

amazing story, one i hear far too often from women trying to cross into the US. maybe this will show abolitionists and anti trafficking fear mongerers how their rhetoric is affecting not only sex workers but mainstream community women as well.

i am sorry this happened to you but maybe writing about it here will help others understnad how anti trafficking policy based on myths and unethical data is creating opportunities for violence and discrimination against women in general....

incidently, if you had been a sex worker and admited it in the face of "evidence" you would have been charged with prostitution as has happened to some workers in recent times....

enabling police violence!! i wonder if that's what the anti trafficking community hoped for...

susan davis

I am really sorry this happened to you, it's interesting that you have had this experience because I have far more problems with Canadian boarder services than I do the US. Luckily for me, I am a dual citizen and cannot be denied entry into either country, and due to the problems I have with both sides, I simply do not engage with them anymore - if you want to ask me a question, you have to allow my lawyer to be present, you don't allow lawyers to be present then I am not answering anything.

I will tell you what I am bringing into the country, but nothing about myself other than what's on my passport. 

I encourage anyone who can to do the same. 

I make a point to look as ugly and unappealing as possible so bored security staff don't bother me.

that sucks nadein....sorry you have to do that....but good advice i guess in light of the way things are...and good advice too teamcoltra.....

If you were stopped three times in a row I'd be very interested is seeing what was entered in your file. I wonder if you couldn't request to see these contents under the Acces to Information act or something.

And I thought my detainment at the U.S. border, where I had to explain for hours the diffence between a software engineer and a programmer was bad enough. Because as I was told (with a straight face) software enginneers are aloud under my visa and simple programmers are not!


What ever happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?

That is truly unjust. It's a shame that some border patrol officers will abuse their power.

On the US customs declaration card, it states that "if selected for a secondary inspection, you will be treated with dignity, courtesy and respect". Similar statements are made in various other US customs documents. Clearly, this did not happen.

Also, if you feel that you're being treated unfairly, you do have the right to speak to a supervisor. That is also stated in US customs documents. If at an airport, they pledge to help expediate the process so that you don't miss flight, unless cause has been developed. There's many other promises and pledges on the US customs website. I encourage everyone to take a look.

I know that in a court of law, leading questions are not allowed unless it's about a very objective matter (ie. "you're 21, right?" or "this is your bag, right?"). "How much is he paying you?", assuming that there's only one bed in the hotel room (more often than not, I am given a room with two beds if I am traveling alone) and coming to the conclusion that you're a "working girl" based on finding condoms in your luggage are all very presumptuous, unethical and unprofessional.

I too have been mistreated at the US border, denied entry once due to being matched with an unprofessional officer and am now on their list too. I could write a whole article on my experience and commenting on this one but I'd rather keep my post brief.

That is truly unjust. It's a shame that some border patrol officers will abuse their power.

On the US customs declaration card, it states that "if selected for a secondary inspection, you will be treated with dignity, courtesy and respect". Similar statements are made in various other US customs documents. Clearly, this did not happen.

Also, if you feel that you're being treated unfairly, you do have the right to speak to a supervisor. That is also stated in US customs documents. If at an airport, they pledge to help expediate the process so that you don't miss flight, unless cause has been developed. There's many other promises and pledges on the US customs website. I encourage everyone to take a look.

I know that in a court of law, leading questions are not allowed unless it's about a very objective matter (ie. "you're 21, right?" or "this is your bag, right?"). "How much is he paying you?", assuming that there's only one bed in the hotel room (more often than not, I am given a room with two beds if I am traveling alone) and coming to the conclusion that you're a "working girl" based on finding condoms in your luggage are all very presumptuous, unethical and unprofessional.

I too have been mistreated at the US border, denied entry once due to being matched with an unprofessional officer and am now on their list too. I could write a whole article on my experience and commenting on this one but I'd rather keep my post brief.

 

What an awful story. The question is, can you ever get the negative information expunged permanently from the Border Services computer system?

The system with border guards is very hierarchical. Be aware of that when you try to push problems up to a supervisor level. I have not had any problems but my favourite story in the one about the husband of my wife's friend who was going to work there and dealt with some young guard who probably had a grade 9 education. This fellow kept his cool and kept quiet while this young guard looked over his paperwork and asked out loud: Why do we have to bring in Doctors of Philosophy from Canada? Don't we have Americans for these jobs? This young guard did not even understand how to read a degree. Eventually, one of his superiors directed him to the subject of the degree and things settled down and they travelled on.

Keep in mind that in the entrepreneurial USA, being a civil servant is not a high status job. Therefore, it is difficult to get good people. The USA also has a very militaristic culture, what with armed forces, armed forces reserves, National Guards. People attracted to that culture tend to be socially conservative and fundamentalist Christian. Tread carefully and try to be unfailingly polite.

 

Ms. Nikiforuk, I'm sorry this happened to you and I think it raises a poignant issue in the ever increasing acceptability for sexism and misogyny in North American society. Women are indeed seeing a drastic regression with hard won changes within the social tapestry. Stories like yours are becoming much more common but still have such a loopy air to them, people refuse to believe them to be true. Which is what happened in my case when I shared your story on Facebook. Instead of being met with outrage or indignation, I received a swarm of responses, from women, that your story cannot possibly be true, that you made it up to eschew future book sales. It was daunting. And I could not rebuff them about the truth of your story, since I could not find further reference to it elsewhere. These cases need to be documented in an official capacity. They must, so when opportunity to cite examples of our degrading social status in parliament and in forums, we can say, "Yes! Yes this did happen. It happened there and has been documented here." Did you make a formal complaint to border security, law enforcement, or a women's civil right group? Other than Rabble, is there other media outlets that have taken up your story? Think of Canadian women as a single body. Then consider the behaviour of many as one body represented as an abuser. Using law enforcement procedure, as a guide for action, most successful cases against an abuser are the ones with well documented pattern of abuse. To effect forward change, and take back our lost ground, Canadian women need to first legitimize the growing issues in the eyes of society. To do that, we need firm documentation of the problem to cite the pattern of abuse. UPDATE: Answered part of my own question: http://metronews.ca/news/vancouver/618762/ubc-student-accused-of-sex-wor...

I just wanted to say I am so sorry that our border guards said all that crazy, stupid crap to you, and that they harassed you in that manner. Seems like US border guards have always included more than their share of petty tyrants and assholes with too much time on their hands. But since 9/11 it has gotten way worse. I hope there is some way for you to clear your record with them. Damn.

As a rape victim who has been accused of adultery (the rapist was married and people said that I had provoked him into sex), and who was made to feel guilty about not having been able to prevent a married man from raping a woman (I was virgin), I can not take an author seriously who stands for adultery but writes a book about sexual assault.  

But I do wonder why the border police would only question her. If they are suspecting prostitution or abuse, they could and should also question the man.  

" I can not take an author seriously who stands for adultery but writes a book about sexual assault. "

One, she's not "standing for adultery," and two, adultery is not sexual assault.  

 

"If they are suspecting prostitution or abuse, they could and should also question the man.  "

 

"Eve's sin." /facetious

It's always the woman's fault, of course.  

"As a rape victim who has been accused of adultery (the rapist was married and people said that I had provoked him into sex), and who was made to feel guilty about not having been able to prevent a married man from raping a woman (I was virgin), I can not take an author seriously who stands for adultery but writes a book about sexual assault.  "

 

What confused nonsense.

 

I think it's very good that CBS is trying to stop trafficking, I'm all for it, but they seem to put the worst people in positions they are ill equipped  and trained for. This stuff is very sensitive and a good many individuals seem to be as thick as a plank, couldn't detect a trafficker if his life depended on it. So we need to get on their back and show them up when they pull a caper like this.

I have a friend who is a Customs agent.  I had a "this can't even be true!" reaction, and asked him if he's seen this sort of thing happen in his work.  He was livid - not because he denied it, but because he tells me it does happen, even when the agency tries to curb it.  Please know that not all Customs agents are so backwards-thinking and obnoxious.  My friend said the first jerk probably put a note in your file, and the others assumed there was merit to it, and followed up.  He suggests the following regarding clearing the file:

"The CBP complaint system is called DHS-trip (http://www.dhs.gov/dhs-trip) and it's really the only way to get records like that addressed. Anyone who's in a situation like this should file a complaint through DHS-trip. It's as simple as writing and submitting the complaint, uploading a copy of your identity documents (usually just a passport) and then waiting. Unfortunately, as you undoubtedly know as well as I do, like any bureaucratic system, and especially in one as big as the federal government these things can take quite a while to process"

Rape victims often get told that the rapist must have been the lover and that she must have wanted the sex also.

If the police takes into consideration that the man might be abusing the woman - I find it good.

Except that the police then must take the man into custody.

 

 

 

Dear Plaguerat,

I too am a rape survivor and outside of extreme religious fundamentalist circles rape is not considered adultery. Adultery is an act of two consenting adults. Rape has no consent, it is an violent action of power and abuse. Unfortunately you have experienced the act of people protecting the rapist by passing blame to the victim. Do not let these people define how you see yourself, they are just hiding in the shadows pointing fingers. Please seek trauma counseling, it helped me after my attack and has help so many women in the struggle to heal.   

 

Comment withdrawn after seeing further related postings.

Dear Ms. Nikiforuk,

As you work to clear the flag(s) attached to your passport courtesy of US Customs, I'll draw your attention to the United States Public Bill 97-116 which repealed the "adultery" penalties in the US Immigation and Nationality Act, in December 1981.

Link to the Bill: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-95/pdf/STATUTE-95-Pg1611.pdf

Once again it is apparent that an individual customs officer with either a personal agenda or a lack of education undertook to damage an innocent Canadian traveler.

Best of luck.



This just happened to my friend in Calgary today!!  She was profiled and pulled out of line, and brought back to an office at the airport.  They went through her bag and found lingerie...and, then accused her of being a "call girl".  She was simply flying to visit me for a four day, three night weekend, and had made a similar trip just one month before.

Turns out that I'm 41 and she's 21, and wasn't carrying alot of cash.  She did have a round trip flight, with return just four days later.  So, because of the cash issue, and because she had lingerie, she was not allowed into the U.S.. 

She was actually packing extra lingerie because a friend of mine who does some photography was going to get some shots done because she has hopes of doing some modeling some day.  She told them this as a defense of not being a "call girl", and from that point, they went through her phone and found some sample photos.  The agent proceeded to hit on her...saying things like..."wow, you're very attractive"...and, making unprofessional facial expressions.  When she showed no interest in him, despite having to admit she's attracted to "older men", the interview took a turn for the worse.

She wasn't let in, and on top of that, she has to try to get all kinds of certified letter documentation if she ever wants to visit me again!  It includes needing to travel with $250 a day for the length of a visit?  Isn't that counter-intuitive?  The more money someone has, the more likely they would stay longer than expected, right?

She's not a prostitute, neither one of us is married.  Why can't she come visit me in the United States?  What kind of a country do I live in????

Can anyone offer any suggestions?

This just happened to my friend in Calgary today!!  She was profiled and pulled out of line, and brought back to an office at the airport.  They went through her bag and found lingerie...and, then accused her of being a "call girl".  She was simply flying to visit me for a four day, three night weekend, and had made a similar trip just one month before.

Turns out that I'm 41 and she's 21, and wasn't carrying alot of cash.  She did have a round trip flight, with return just four days later.  So, because of the cash issue, and because she had lingerie, she was not allowed into the U.S.. 

She was actually packing extra lingerie because a friend of mine who does some photography was going to get some shots done because she has hopes of doing some modeling some day.  She told them this as a defense of not being a "call girl", and from that point, they went through her phone and found some sample photos.  The agent proceeded to hit on her...saying things like..."wow, you're very attractive"...and, making unprofessional facial expressions.  When she showed no interest in him, despite having to admit she's attracted to "older men", the interview took a turn for the worse.

She wasn't let in, and on top of that, she has to try to get all kinds of certified letter documentation if she ever wants to visit me again!  It includes needing to travel with $250 a day for the length of a visit?  Isn't that counter-intuitive?  The more money someone has, the more likely they would stay longer than expected, right?

She's not a prostitute, neither one of us is married.  Why can't she come visit me in the United States?  What kind of a country do I live in????

Can anyone offer any suggestions?

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