Branding is big business in the human trafficking world. Pimps often tattoo their name, a sexual reference, or a money symbol (like a bar code or dollar sign) on a trafficking victim’s body as a way to exert their dominance and control.
It’s something trafficking survivor Jennifer Kempton knew all to well. She was branded as a ‘trafficker’s “property” three times — on her neck, groin, and chest.
…every time I took a shower or tried to look at my body, I was reminded of the violence and exploitation I’d suffered. I was so grateful to be alive, but having to look at those scars, seeing those names on your body every day, just puts you in a state of depression. You begin to wonder whether you’ll ever be anything but the person those tattoos say you are.”
As quoted in the Guardian
After a broken childhood of abuse, Jennifer ended up in street prostitution in Ohio. Pimps sniffed out her vulnerability and exploited her for years, marking her body along the way. After Jennifer got away and completed 18 months of rehab, she wanted to help other survivors heal from their abuse. She started Survivor’s Ink, a charity that provides scholarships to fellow survivors that allows them to have their tattoos covered up or removed.
Trafficking survivors get to select or create their own design, and then a tattoo artist skillfully transforms the previous mark into a symbol of hope – a new beginning.
Tragically, Jennifer passed away from a suspected overdose last week. Friends have said that despite speaking all over the nation and advocating for trafficking victims, she fought her own demons daily. She couldn’t sleep at night, had nightmares, and was haunted by her past.
As a huge fan of Survivor’s Ink and all that Jennifer has accomplished, I mourn the loss of this brave, compassionate woman. I’m sad I never had the chance to meet her. Her death serves as a reminder that child abuse and human trafficking destroy life, and we must do everything we can to prevent exploitation. We also need to remember that people who have experienced trauma — even if they are living healthy lives and seem to be doing well — can have vulnerable and dark moments. Learning to discern those moments is something we can all work on.
The anti-trafficking community will feel this loss, but what an opportunity we have to focus on Jennifer’s legacy — to remake what is evil, ugly, and dark into something of beauty and purpose. I pray that the work that Jennifer had started will continue, and that thousands of survivors will have the opportunity to remove their brands and step into the fullness of who they were made to be.