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.

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Emma McMurphy is Mad, disabled, and proud of it. She is passionate about creating spaces in which people can express their true thoughts, feelings, and lived experiences without fear of judgment. The views and perspectives presented in her blog posts do not represent any school, workplace, or organization that she is affiliated with.

7 responses to “Is Strip-Searching a Form of Sexual Abuse?

  1. The comment dated March 2 at 11:50 below is offensive and being published only after consultation with the author of the original post who demonstrated courage in sharing her feelings in her post and again in directing that the comment be published. The all upper case words and phrases in the comment are the keyboard equivalent of getting in the face of someone and yelling at the top of your lungs I am right and you are wrong. It is an attempt at shaming that is at the root of why so many don’t want to share their experiences.

  2. The fact that you don’t realize that making a threat of harm against yourself is grounds for psychiatric admission against your will makes this a poor example of maltreatment. It makes your other statements unreliable. But, assuming what you are saying is accurate, using restraints on someone not actively trying to harm is inappropriate. A strip search is not sexual abuse as long as it is done by someone of the same gender. And the argument that someone may have just gotten that job for sexual gratification takes away from the real issues that happen in psych facilities.

    At least in my area, the crisis units are no more than human warehouses. Their only goal is to turn people into zombies with drugs and send them on their way. There is widespread neglect and emotional abuse. But, having known a person who is seriously mentally ill and a serious threat who has managed to hurt herself while hospitalized, it is necessary to make sure no one has anything they can hurt themselves or others with. What if another patient smuggled in a knife and used it to attack you? Ray Combs, a host of Family Feud committed suicide in a psych hospital.

    At least in this case, they did have cause for involuntary admission. There have been bizarre cases that qualify as kidnapping and false imprisonment. In one case, a young adult (college age) had the flu and was agitated from the physical illness, they admitted her to a psych ward and coerced her into taking anti psychotic meds rather than treating the flu. In another case, an abusive male decided to retaliate against a female by falsely accusing her of making a threat. The alleged professionals took his word that she sent a letter making a threat…refused to read the letter themselves….and locked her up until the male admitted he was just mad and lied. A few years ago, I came across this website of stories of psychiatric abuse. There are many more.

    Not to mention, assault involves physical contact.

    1. I forget to mention. The letter written to the abusive male said she wouldn’t let him hurt her anymore. He called the authorities and said she threatened to her herself to retaliate.

    2. “the real issues that happen in psych facilities.” The very fact that you came here just to invalidate her experiences and feelings about them, is exactly one of the things that has lead to so much abuse and maltreatment by “psychiatric” care, all over the U.S.

      A lot of the problems people in mental hospitals Have, to Begin with, are a result of abuse and neglect in the Home, by the Family they live with, and they often use these problems as Weapons to Further abuse people who are already hurting so much, they can’t even think straight at times.

      I have been in and out of mental hospitals since I was 14 years old.

      The very first time, I was raped for 2 months by a Psychiatrist. I’m 46 years old now, and Still have problems around men because of that, and because of the times I was Raped by my Stepfather, before that.

      That’s why I was in that first hospital, because I became suicidal, because of that abuse, and more, since I was 2-3 years old, that I can still remember.

      I can speak for myself now, after a decade of hospitalizations that resulted from trying to escape a decade long abusive marriage, many years of therapy, individual and in groups, and also via internet support groups, and I had No problem identifying with what she said.

      That you even Posted that comment the way you did cuts All of us down who have been victims of the system we have.

      Not everyone can speak for themselves, and you may feel you did well, trying to speak for some that way, by invalidating Her experience to promote your own, but you Could have done that Same post in a Supportive way, rather than the way you did.

      1. THE VERY FACT is to effect change, there needs to be credible stories. When someone insists they had no reason to involuntarily admit her, that DISCREDITS her story. The FACT is they had every legal and ethical right to admit her. Her failure to recognize that indicates she is not thinking clearly.

        Had she simply accepted they were right to admit her, her other arguments would be more valid.

        I am not saying HER FEELINGS regarding the situation are not valid, but her her lack of understanding of the situation hurts her argument that it is inappropriate.

        AND just because a person is uncomfortable with invasive medical care does not mean it is abusive.

        AND claiming people get those jobs because they are perverts is a poor argument . Sure, it could be, but that is the exception. Using it as an argument against patient safety causes you to lose credibility.

        PEOPLE POSTING IRRATIONAL STORIES CUTS DOWN ON OTHERS. The fact that she refuses to accept she needed to be admitted makes the whole story sound irrational. That fact is indisputable.

        This person WAS NOT A VICTIM. Sure, she has a right to be uncomfortable about it, BUT SHE IS NOT A VICTIM.

        If a person were to give birth, should they cry assault if the doctor touches her? Should she insist the doctor not look?

        There is another blog where the person was agitated by medical care, BUT RECOGNIZED it was not victimization, only felt that way.

        This person may have felt victimized, but needs to recognized she was not..otherwise she will never heal.

        Feelings of victimization does not mean a violation of rights when there is not really victimization.

        RAPE by a psychiatrist is victimization, being stripped search after making a threat against your life is NOT.

  3. Absolutely it is. How do we know the motives aren’t sexual. Some people might go into the job because they get a kick out of doing that sort of thing. I think there is definitely a motive to degrade and exert power if nothing else. For me I feel nudity is sexual so to me the forcible removing of clothes or body scanning is a sexual violation. I would actually rather be raped or sexually assaulted just because if that happened I would at least get some legal redress and people would validate my feelings. When I had a mental health crisis last year I actually kept my suicidal thoughts to myself for fear that this sort of thing would happen. Doing this only exacerbated my crisis but the scary thing is I would do the same again because it was the lesser evil. I think being a criminal should not give authority figures the right to strip search – criminals are people too. I always find it quite ironic that they strip rape suspects, many of which are innocent anyway yet I think what they are doing is just as bad as the rape itself. Worse in a way because the victim will get no legal redress. I am still traumatised by being forced to strip and shower at school for communal showers and have also considered suicide because I have been separated from a close elderly relative in India who I feel to afraid to fly to see (she hasn’t been able to come to the UK for many years) because they force passengers through body scanners and invasive searches at airports these days. I tell my story in my WordPress blog “How Being Forced To Use Communal Changing Rooms At School Affected Me”.

    1. I’ve been raped repeatedly as a child. There is no legal redress for me, or many others.

      Don’t wish that. People with the “power of authority” like that often get away with it.

      but I can understand what you mean, if people were held accountable for what they do.

      I’ve just been sitting here flash-backing for about an hour after reading this, and as I write this.

      I almost forgot the communal showers in school. The pain is the same. To be mocked and laughed at for it, and even trying to avoid it, yelled at by the coach for doing so.

      Derealization and depersonalization and disassociation. They treat these things like a “disorder” and don’t care to address the things that actually Cause them, like the abuse I grew up with and even experienced as an adult.

      I often have kept my pain to myself, alone, because I knew how much it would hurt even more, to “get help” as my family has often told me, often with cruelty in the ways they say it. As if I don’t know that I need help, because of how much I’m already hurting, and am just asking them to be there, for me, for once.

      Often with cruelty, the ways they “get help” for me.

      3 times I have ended up in jail because of the ways my family treats me, calling the police to do “wellness checks” as if police hammering on my door is going to “help.”

      I once had two sheriffs come to my door, hands on their weapons ready to draw, because they were told I had guns. I didn’t.

      I once had a police officer crouched outside my door, ready to draw on me because they were told I might have weapons. I’ve still never had guns.

      I once had two officers Kick my door in as I was Trying to unlock and open it. One punched me in the chest, knocking me to the floor, and then I got punch in the back of the head several times, before they dragged me around and handcuffed me.

      I have gotten so used to being in and out of mental hospitals, that I just get so detached that I almost don’t notice it anymore, but I do.

      The pain in the back of my mind, at how unreal it is, to be treated that way by people that are supposed to “help” me, when I was already hurting that way, by being treated that way, usually by my own family.

      People who would rather just have me locked away, than treat me like a person, to just listen to me, and understand why I’m already hurting.

      They don’t want to see it. The ways they treat each other. They ways they treat me. Easier to just pretend I’m just “crazy” for “no reason” and that they’re “helping me” by Hurting me Even More than they would ever want to know.

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