June 4, 2010 -- Nobody enjoys taking off their shoes, removing all metal objects and making their way though airport security. But for some the process can be, well, a little more revealing and sometimes embarrassing.
Ann Lombardi was recently going through the Transportation Security Administration's checkpoint in Atlanta before catching a flight to Zurich when her carry-on bag started buzzing.
It wasn't a bomb or a terrorist weapon but a vibrating massager Lombardi was bringing to a friend in Switzerland who had said she -- seriously -- wanted to massage her sore thigh.
"Naturally I was flagged by TSA," said Lombardi, an Atlanta-based tour guide with The Trip Chicks. "When the male TSA agent pulled out the unwrapped device, it was in full view of a bunch of travelers, including a man of the cloth."
"I distinctly remember the scowl on the pastor's face and his wife glancing away self-consciously in the other direction. Of course several other people in line giggled," Lombardi added. "Just when I was recovering from total embarrassment and as I sat engrossed in my magazine at the gate area, two young guys next to me jokingly asked: 'Hey, aren't you that woman who just got buzzed at security?'"
Travelers pack all sorts of items in their bags from an extra T-shirt to that perfect beach novel. Some of those items however are a bit more private.
Monica Hurtado and her husband Edgar endured a similar embarrassment in October 2001 traveling from their home in Arlington, Texas, to Nueva Vallarta, Mexico, for their honeymoon.
"My bridesmaid decided to pack my luggage for me the night before and filled it with tons of lingerie. Being right after 9/11, when we got to Mexico they dumped out my suitcase on the table," Hurtado said. "I was mortified when the guy at the airport put a pencil thru one of the straps of my garments on the table and smiled and asked `honeymoon?' I was truly a blushing bride at that moment."
"Edgar just about fell over laughing, while I was almost in tears," said Hurtado, now expecting her first child in two weeks.
Airport Security Wanted to Inspect What?
The TSA said it "respects passengers' privacy and strives to treat the traveling public with respect and dignity. All passengers have the option to request screening in a private area."
But while TSA agents are trained to respect travelers' privacy, some passengers say that's not always the case.
Jennifer Kellas was once returning to Detroit after a trip to St. John. The TSA agent was going their her bag and for some reason stopped when he found a few condoms.
"He took them out," Kellas recalled, "and said `Oh, you went to St. John to party, huh? Was it fun?' It was embarrassing and rude."
While the embarrassment can be mortifying for the passenger, to airport authorities on high alert for security threats, a vibrating object at an airport can be easily confused with a bomb.
Back in 2004, Mackay airport in Queensland, Australia, was evacuated when a sex toy discarded in a cafe garbage can caused a terrorism alert.
"It was rather disconcerting when the rubbish bin started humming furiously," the cafe's manager, Lynne Bryant told media at the time. "We called security."
The police were about to call the bomb squad when a passenger admitted throwing the object away as he prepared to board his flight.
Of course, not every buzzing item is a sex toy.
Sandy Sandler from Nevada was once going through airport security when there was a buzzing noise.
"It sounded like a vibrator. Everyone was looking at me and smiling `knowingly.' I was so embarrassed because I knew what everyone thought, but, it was actually my sonic toothbrush," Sandler said. "I now travel with my toothbrush in two pieces to avoid such mishaps."
Traveling with Multiple Toys
While such searches might create an occasional nuisance for most travelers, Ethan Imboden gets looks weekly from TSA screeners.
Imboden is the founder of Jimmyjane, a San Francisco-based adult toy manufacturer.
"As you might imagine, in the course of my daily life I am often traveling with vibrators. Often more vibrators than one might ever imagine traveling with," he said.
After frequently bringing his products to various trade shows and to clients, Imboden has gotten to know the TSA agents at his hometown San Francisco International Airport.
"The general population out there can rest assured that I am breaking in the TSA agents around the country with my own travel habits," he said. "It raises a lot of eyebrows certainly and sometimes I get a chuckle, but they've come to know me. The TSA agents have seen pretty much everything and a lot of people travel with these products."
Tips for Traveling With Adult Toys
For those looking to avoid embarrassment, Imboden and Jimmyjane have some suggestions for travelers.
Packing items you want to keep private in your checked luggage is the simplest way to avoid mishaps in the security line, thought there's no guarantee that "your beloved companion" won't disappear from your suitcase, the company warns. Baggage screeners may not know what it is and remove it just to be safe. Their suggestion: travel light, and if you have to use a carry-on, make sure pack small equipment. For those who feel like they must travel with larger accessories, pack them but add a label identifying the items. And remember, the 3-ounce liquids rule also applies to lubricants.
Here are some other tips from Jimmyjane:
If Possible, Remove the Batteries: This is the surefire way to prevent a sex toy from accidentally turning on during transit and discharging all its battery power. Place your batteries in a plastic bag and store them separately.
Choose Products With a Lock Feature: If you're traveling with a rechargeable vibrating toy, or one with a battery can't be removed, check if it has a lock feature. This will prevent it from turning on, even if its buttons are accidentally pressed.
Pack Small/Discreetly Designed Products: Small toys are perfect for travel, as they can be stashed just about anywhere and are less likely to draw attention. Alternatively, a larger vibrator with a simple, understated design (e.g. no zebra stripes or glittery rabbit ears) can be an ideal option.
Pack It Between Other Items: Rather than let a sex toy roam freely in your carry-on or luggage, pack it in a carrying case or plastic bag and place it between layers of clothing. Should your bag get searched, this will buy you time to quietly explain that you're carrying a sex accessory and ask that your bag be searched in private.
If Questioned, Answer Honestly: While it may be tempting to insist your sex toy is really a pencil case/chew toy/marching band baton, lying could land you in hot water. Keep it brief when answering all questions and use straightforward, clinical terms. And relax -- security personnel have seen it all and have been trained to be sensitive in these matters. Once they realize what that curious little gadget is, they'll most likely send you on your merry way.
Traveling With Sex Toys
So why travel with your sex toys? Imboden said that for some, the products are an integrated part of their sex life so they must also make the journey. For others, who are traveling without their partner, the trip is a chance "to bring along a different sort of companion."
"Travel is sexy. People really associate it with getting away and with having more time to connect and to connect in different ways," Imboden said. "When we get our of our habitual patterns and get out of our same environment, we are open to many new things."
You can also pick up a toy at your final destination. Imboden notes that his products can be purchased from hotel mini bars at W Hotels, the Delano in Miami and the Metropolitan in London. He also said that often concierges will go and purchase such products locally for guests -- although if you are OK with making such a request, you probably wouldn't mind the TSA questioning you about your luggage.
Judy Kuriansky, a clinical psychologist who once had a call-in radio advice show called Love Phones and is the author of "The Complete Idiots Guide to Tantric Sex," said a lot of companies are now selling sex toys in travel sizes.
"Depending on the nature of the toy, you can say that it is a body massager and you have some sort of back problem but it depends on what the toy looks like," Kuriansky said.
But ideally, she said, travelers should privately speak to the screener and just tell them what you are carrying.
"I always think that's the best thing," she said.