“I was branded like cattle,” she says, standing outside the Among the Living tattoo shop in Lancaster, Ohio – the place where she says she freed herself from a life of violence and slavery. “But coming here that first time, knowing that when I walked out the door I’d have replaced that sign of evil with something that was beautiful and full of life and hope: I knew I was going to set myself free, and man, that was a great feeling.”
Jennifer’s journey into the darkness of human trafficking started, like many of the women she worked alongside on the streets of downtown Columbus, with a chaotic and abusive childhood, a history of violent and destructive relationships and a downwards spiral into street prostitution and drug addiction.
A year and a half ago she was, in her own words, exhausted, starved, addicted and barely alive. Amid the horror of her existence, she put a noose around her neck in an attempt to end her life. The rope broke and she survived. Yet although she managed to escape the streets into sobriety and recovery, those tattoos remained.
Reliable statistics are rare, but those in the field estimate hundreds of thousands of women and girls – the majority of whom are US citizens – are sold for sexual exploitation in America’s $9.5bn human-trafficking industry. According to the US Department of Justice, 300,000 of those at risk are children.
Branding, whether by tattoo or intentional scarring, has become a disturbing characteristic of one particular subset of this thriving criminal operation. Pimp-led prostitution is widely considered one of the most brutal and violent of all forms of human trafficking found in the States. Brad Myles is chief executive of Polaris Project, an influential US anti-trafficking organisation. “When you look at this particular type of trafficking,” he says, “where you have thousands of self-labelled pimps selling hundreds of thousands of women and children for profit in every state across America, the branding is all part of the extreme nature of the ways they control and profit from this trade.”
Myles says his organisation has come across hundreds of women and children who have had their arms, backs, legs, faces, breasts and even eyelids and gums marked with pimp’s names and gang tags or with barcodes, sexual slang words or dollar signs.
Others, like Jennifer, have “property of” tattoos on their groins or foreheads. In recent years, trafficking tattoos have also started to be seen in other countries, such as Spain and Romania, and there is anecdotal evidence of it happening in the UK. But it is now systemic in America.