Weapon or toy?

One seasoned sex explorer gets more than he expected from a run-in with airport security.

Published July 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On my way to board a 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 eight-inch-long
solid brass dildo -- a Kegel exerciser some people playfully call Robocop --
home, or remember to stash it in my checked luggage. But this time the
machine is definitely beeping away, meaning that the airport security people
are going to inspect my most personal possessions to find out why.

The stern, older black woman watching the screen backs up the belt and stops
my bag under the X-ray. She points at the screen, showing her young, blond
assistant what to look for. I'm in a good mood, not too close to flight time,
and find myself smiling at my companion and looking forward to a little 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 zip-lock bag with condoms, rubber gloves and lube, the zip-lock
bag with cock rings, the zip-lock bag with miscellaneous tit clamps, butt
plug and so forth, Mark Chester's wonderful Spandex full-body bondage bag,
the elegant soft leather scratch gloves with the sharp metal points
scattered all over
the palm and fingers. Her face stays 100 percent deadpan throughout, an impressive show of professionalism.

Other departing passengers flow by, grab their unoffending bags and take
various levels of note of the assorted toys spread out on the table. There
was a time when I would have been unbearably embarrassed to have my sexual proclivities laid out for anyone in the Seattle airport
to see. But this has been a wonderful weekend and I'm feeling unusually good about myself, so 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. I mean, she doesn't even have gloves on; how does she know if I've washed the latex dildo?

Finally she finds what she's looking for -- what I knew she would get to
sooner or later -- my springy little whip with the six-inch metal handle. She rather
triumphantly lays it 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 friend 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 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, 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 a
little 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 Havana or else I'll whip his naughty bare ass?" I don't say, "Are you afraid that I'll attack one of the flight attendants and whip her (or him) into such a state of excitement that s/he will beg to 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," she 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 the Seattle airport gives me a fair dose of cognitive dissonance.
Some of the passengers' eyebrows are definitely up now; 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 when
Betty Dodson, author of "Sex for One" and grand dame of masturbation,
attempted to take her Robocop on a plane and set off an airport metal
detector. The security guards called that a weapon, too, and confiscated it on the spot.

I'm also beginning to wonder if I'm going to miss the flight. I put aside
all the conflicting feelings and force myself to get efficient. My friend
says she'll go to the gate and save me a seat on the plane if I'm late for
boarding. I fold the tails of the whip along the handle so I can carry it to
the ticket counter without frightening too many people along the way.

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 smile while the ticket agent goes to get a plastic baggage bag for my whip.

I lay the whip down affectionately on the counter. It becomes a lovely black
and silver still-life against the white, lacquered background. Several people waiting in line are checking it out, more curious than disturbed.
Theater of the absurd has evolved into sex education: A properly dressed, polite-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 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 strangely powerful. It is the liberated feeling of coming out, of refusing to be made wrong.

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. Education morphs into 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. Putting my name and address on the baggage tag becomes an affirmation: This whip does
indeed belong to me; this is my name, this is my address. 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."

By David Steinberg

David Steinberg writes frequently about the culture and politics of sex. Readers who want to receive his writing regularly can send their names and e-mail addresses to him at eronat@aol.com.

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