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.
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.
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.
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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