Is Strip-Searching a Form of Sexual Abuse?

A pile of clothes - underwear, jeans, and a belt - on the floor.

This blog post is part of a series in partnership with the Disability Visibility Project® to bring attention to the omission of disability from larger conversations taking place within the #MeToo Movement.

Trigger warning: this post discusses institutionalization and sexual abuse.

There are no words to describe the horrifying realization that you can’t say no.

I am a victim of involuntary commitment. The night before my college graduation, I was experiencing severe emotional distress, primarily due to familial disappointment. I felt like a complete and utter failure for having decided to pursue a career in social work, which my family had deemed not prestigious enough for an Ivy League graduate. When I went to the emergency room to seek help, I did not know how to put my shame into any other words besides, “I wish I could get hit by a car or something.”

Immediately after saying those words, I was locked in a secluded psychiatric emergency room for over 10 hours. Despite my protests, sobbing, and explanation that I did not actually want to die, I was transported in restraints from the psychiatric emergency room to a local psychiatric hospital, where I was confined for 48 hours.

The entire experience was absolutely life-shattering for me. In one moment, I was a student about to graduate from an Ivy League college; the next moment, I was a voiceless, powerless, sub-human. The instant I was locked up, the whole world no longer felt safe to me: the very people that were supposed to help and protect me had suddenly become my abusers.

It has been almost three years since my first involuntary commitment. I still remember every second of what it felt like. Post-traumatic stress is real: the nightmares and flashbacks have not faded.

One moment that I re-experience again and again is my strip-search. It is the policy of many psychiatric institutions to strip-search all patients upon arrival. I don’t remember the exact details of the events preceding my strip-search, but here is the moment that intrudes over and over into my consciousness:

I am standing across from a mental health worker in the bathroom. She has her arms folded and a scowl on her face. “Take off your shirt,” she barks. I do.

“Take off your bra.” For just a second, everything inside me freezes. In any other circumstance, I would never agree to anything like this – I am very modest and have even gotten nervous about wearing bathing suits around other people. I feel my mouth moving, trying to say something. I want to articulate that I am not even suicidal, that they don’t have probable cause to search me. I try to think of some other way I could prove I’m not hiding any weapons or pills.  

But then it hits me that I don’t have a choice. I can’t protest or explain or do anything that could be construed as me fighting back. I had already seen what could happen just for expressing suicidal thoughts; who knows what could happen if I were seen as a patient who does not follow the rules? The terror of being forcibly injected, further restrained or secluded, or held at the hospital for even longer hits me all at once.

I don’t have a say. I don’t have a voice. It doesn’t matter what I want. My body no longer belongs to me. Whatever this mental health worker wants to happen to my body, that is what will happen.

I take off my bra.

Afterwards she commands me to take off my pants and my underwear, bend over, spread my butt cheeks, and cough. It is all so humiliating. Panicked thoughts speed through my mind.

I can’t say no. No is not an option here. There is no choice, no consent, no opt out. My body is not mine.

But of course, I can’t express panic. I can’t show the nausea and fear that has overtaken my body. Instead I just nod and obey her commands.

When I have tried to seek support for what happened to me, I have been told countless times that my experience does not count as sexual assault. I am constantly told that both my involuntary commitment and my strip-search were for my own good.

“You were in a state of mind that didn’t allow you to make decisions for yourself,” one family member told me. “I get that it wasn’t a fun experience, but you needed to be protected from yourself.”

One staff member at a local sexual violence prevention and response center I reached out to asked me if I was a Scientologist. Since Scientologists are often opposed to psychiatric treatment, my trauma was assumed to be a reflection of my religious beliefs, as opposed to a valid reaction to being deprived of my bodily autonomy.

Most hurtful of all have been the reactions of other activists speaking out about sexual violence. When I have tried to get involved with progressive groups, I have been told that the violence that occurs every day in psychiatric institutions is not worth addressing. “Criticizing the mental health system is going to make me sound like a conspiracy theorist,” one local activist said. “I don’t want to look like I’m anti-science.” These reactions have reinforced the idea that my voice does not matter.

The world needs to know that involuntary commitment is a form of violence, and strip-searches are a type of sexual assault. It is time for victims of medical and psychiatric abuse to be recognized and validated.

Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.