- "Pussy in a Can"Containing Feminization and Disposability in The Wire
Sexual trafficking may be a fact of neoliberal globalization, but it also serves as one of its most dramatic figures. Over the past twenty- five years, sexual trafficking has functioned as a metaphor for the exploitation globalization can inflict and the fears about vulnerability it provokes. Images and narratives of women trafficked across oceans and borders and then sold for the raw materials of their bodies have become condensed figures for whole populations pushed to the underside of globalization and seeking refuge from neoliberal economic forces that render people disposable.1 While both men and women find themselves on the underside of globalization, the desperation associated with surviving it connects to a helplessness most often feminized and readily associated with women. This is to say that people who are, in the words of Stuart Hall, "seeking by whatever means—legal or illegal—to escape the consequences of globalization" become figuratively linked to what Saskia Sassen identifies as the "feminization of survival" (35; 23).2
An effect and emblem of a postsocialist world, sexual trafficking became an intense point of focus in US law, scholarship, and media in the early 1990s. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, put into place by the Clinton administration in 2000, helped to make sexual trafficking a salient crime and a discernible human rights violation. The Bush Administration's 2005 version of TVPA created conditions for separating human trafficking from trafficking for the purposes of prostitution. Though technically this legislation recognizes that people can be trafficked for an array of exploitive labor conditions, not just sex work, the legislation gave rise to antitrafficking campaigns that are really, in the words of Denise Brennan, "antiprostitution platform[s]" (62). These platforms occlude the role trafficking plays in other labor practices. [End Page 90] With legal sanction, sexual trafficking became a flashpoint for Christian evangelical groups and mainstream feminisms alike. The abolitionist campaigns these groups created capitalize on the strong feelings sexual trafficking provokes about the forms of victimization most readily associated with women.
Extending from the campaigns devoted to eradicating sexual trafficking are the many televisual and cinematic representations of the subject.3 These representations center upon a young, innocent, and most often white woman or girl who finds herself at the mercy of criminally evil netherworlds.4 Echoing what Carole S. Vance identifies as "nineteenth-century stories of sexual danger and rescue," these portrayals are most often premised upon the assumption that the realities of sexual trafficking need to be exposed and that viewers should be shocked into awareness (2011, 138). To press this necessity, the televisual and cinematic depictions of sexual trafficking that have appeared on American screens since the early 2000s rely upon the pornographic grammars of sexual violence.5 In these representations, erotic arousal is smuggled in through moral outrage, and the economic conditions that give rise to trafficking are not part of the story.6 By ignoring the frame of neoliberal globalization, these depictions reinforce the figurative connections among feminization, disposability, and the modes of survival demanded by a global economy of capitalism unbound.
There are, however, singular exceptions to this general rule. The second season of the HBO television series The Wire is one. The representation of sexual trafficking in The Wire's second season is unique in that it does not seek to document or expose the reality of sexual trafficking, nor does it rely upon the visual grammars of pornography to make a moral appeal. Exemplifying the narrative complexity offered by the premium subscription-based television channels that gained prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, the second season of The Wire places the phenomenon of sexual trafficking within the larger frame of neoliberal economic policies that have fostered a globalized economy.7 By framing sexual trafficking as a symptom of capitalist globalization, the show draws attention to the logic of disposability and human waste-making that are central to capitalist production and that neoliberalism has exacerbated and normalized.8 And, distinct from more sensationalized representations of sexual trafficking, which unreflectively rely [End Page 91] upon sexual trafficking as a metaphor for economic exploitation and vulnerability, the second...