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  • Deanna Wilken

Branded Victims: Helping Survivors Move On


Human trafficking is a disease that steals lives away. These victims are forced into domestic servitude, hard labor, and prostitution, and are often abused both physically and mentally. Yet the majority of victims are from sex trafficking, a multi-billion dollar industry in just the United States alone. Although reliable statistics are rare, those in the field estimate hundreds of thousands of women and girls – the majority of whom are U.S. citizens – are sold for sexual exploitation in the U.S. What’s worse is that these women and children are branded like cattle to ensure their pimp’s ownership over their bodies.

The brands victims receive are often their pimp’s name, a sexual reference, or a money symbol—like a bar code or dollar sign—which aims to exert the pimp’s dominance and control. While not all prostitutes are in a sex trafficking situation, a brand is a likely giveaway as to who is being forced into this profession and who is not. For example, a survivor named Jennifer claims that many of the tattoo artists would be in residence, swapping tattoos for drugs and branding women as they came in between jobs.

Even after victims like Jennifer escape or are rescued from sex trafficking, these brands stay with them, reminding them of that horrific life and the pimp who forced it upon them. Fortunately, there have been many tattoo artists and shops providing their services to these women for free. Organizations like Survivor’s Ink are helping women get their tattoos covered up or removed in an effort to help free the survivors of their tragic past. Further, medical centers like San Jose’s Valley Medical Center are using a machine typically used to remove gang tattoos for branded human trafficking victims.

Escaping sex trafficking is only half of the battle. Many survivors will still face the challenges of reintegrating into society, yet there still remains hope for those haunted daily by their brands. And although tattoo cover ups and removals don’t heal the soul fully, they are but another tool in recovery.


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