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  • Anti-Violence Iconographies of the CageDiasporan Crossings and the (Un)Tethering of Subjectivities
  • Annie Isabel Fukushima (bio)

In 2000 the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (tvpa), reinforcing national commitments to prevent human trafficking through anti-trafficking awareness efforts, provide legal relief for migrants and social services for all trafficking victims, and prosecute traffickers.1 The tvpa legislated human trafficking as a transnational crime and created a legal category for the trafficked and the traffickers. These legal maneuvers go handin-hand with local and transnational movements against human trafficking, colloquially described as “modern-day slavery.” While both international2 and US governmental bodies agree that exploitation occurs in the economies of sex, labor, slavery, servitude, and debt bondage, their competing interests determine the enforcement of trafficking.3 Drawing upon an extensive existing literature on transnational human trafficking,4 I define human trafficking as a sociopolitical process codified by local, national, and international law shaped by perceptions of labor and migration5 and embedded in indentured mobility.6 Human trafficking is also imbricated in normative understandings of gender, sexuality,7 and gendered violence.8 In the twenty-first-century global economic system, the circulation of trafficked people through imagery sustains a narrative about human trafficking: subjects are depicted as confined behind cage-like structures9 or physically restricted, as seen in images of their ankles or wrists bound by rope10 or shackled with chains. Such images reduce people to disembodied parts. Take, for example, the image of a person wearing a short skirt who leans into a car from the street corner11 where the only view of “her” is of her backside. Trafficked subjects encompass amorphous bodies such as stiletto-shod feet12 and eyes that look back at the viewer.13 The spectator knows the anonymous person only through a trafficking narrative. An image of a neon sign reading “Open” or “Massage Parlor”14 comes to signify a place of sexual trafficking. As these and other like images circulate, they become iconic emblems for the acts of trafficking. People’s lives beyond the [End Page 160] trafficking, however, are absent in popular representations.15 Those who fail to figure in such imaginaries are invisible and unrecognizable: caged behind these images. This article takes up the twofold functions of the cage: the cage as an iconic image in anti-trafficking discourse and practices that gives meaning to trafficking subjects, and also the subjectivities that are caged by these very images.

The circulating images of the cage are illustrative of the power of what I term anti-violence iconographies.16 Iconography means “image writing,” where the content and form are central to what circulates. Iconographies encompass singular images as well as signs that come to represent a “whole host of historical occurrences and processes.”17 The historical and cultural context of antitrafficking iconography emerges from the politics18 of anti-traffickers. Therefore, the language and practices of rescuing and restoring victims of human trafficking are accompanied by images that shape the legibility of trafficking subjects. While some scholars refer to anti-trafficking images as “abolition iconographies,”19 I find it useful to broaden the politics deployed through iconographies. Whereas “abolition” privileges individuals and collectives who are committed to ending all forms of slavery, not all individual actors or collectives are committed to the abolition of slavery in all its forms. Sex workers who call for the legalization and legitimization of sex as work20 differ from a radical feminist approach that sees sexual slavery as an expression of sexual violence against women.21 However, both utilize familiar motifs of the cage to comment on twenty-first-century sexuality and trafficking, albeit informed and shaped by polarized commitments surrounding sexual economies. Therefore, anti-violence iconographies encompass the image writing and practices where institutions, individuals, and collectives deploy images to address an array of concerns that encompass popular understandings of violence (i.e., domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual assault, and violence against women). Anti-violence iconographies of the cage are intentionally produced in media, political campaign materials, the legal system, and in social networks. The images reinforce popular and legal understandings about violence, leaving the viewer with specific impressions...


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pp. 160-192
Launched on MUSE
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