Tattoos as Symbols of Healing for Sex-Trafficking Survivors


Tattoos are Symbols in the heart-wrenching realm of sex trafficking; survivors often bear the physical and emotional scars of their traumatic pasts in the form of tattoos. These indelible marks, typically imposed by their exploiters, serve as a dark reminder of the inhumane control tactics employed by traffickers. One survivor, Emily, not her real name, shares her story of resilience and redemption as she seeks to transform a haunting “7” on her left leg, a brand forced upon her by a pimp, into a new design symbolizing her journey towards healing.

As Emily eagerly awaits at a tattoo parlour in the southern US state of Florida, there is a palpable sense of anticipation. This tattoo parlour, run by three compassionate women, is an active participant in a program initiated by Selah Freedom. The program offers various services to survivors of sex trafficking, and one such initiative is the removal and covering up of tattoos that were once cruel imprints of exploitation.

Seated in a well-lit room adorned with a painting of butterflies, Emily, now 44, gazes at the “7” one last time. The skilled hands of tattoo artist Charity Pinegar delicately trace the outline of a heart and a cross, symbols Emily chose to replace the painful brand. It is a transformative moment, a step towards reclaiming her body and rewriting the narrative that her exploiters once dictated.

Stacey Efaw, executive director of anti-human trafficking organization Selah Freedom, in her office in Florida on June 29, 2023
Stacey Efaw, executive director of anti-human trafficking organization Selah Freedom, in her office in Florida on June 29, 2023 © CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP

Stacey Efaw, the director of Selah Freedom, sheds light on the dehumanizing nature of such tattoos. These marks are not merely inked on the skin; they represent a systematic effort to strip individuals of their identity, making them easier to manipulate and control. For Emily, the journey into the abyss of forced sex work began with a desperate longing for love, a yearning rooted in a childhood devoid of affection.

Emily’s descent into the dark world of sex trafficking unfolded when an exploitative boyfriend, posing as a romantic partner, revealed his true identity as a pimp. Dreams of love and a shared future quickly morphed into a nightmare of physical abuse and witnessing the coercion of other women into prostitution. This marked Emily’s initiation into “the life,” a term survivors use to describe the harsh and exploitative world of sex trafficking.

Despite managing to escape the clutches of her violent boyfriend with the support of her family, the inked “7” on her leg seemed to seal her fate. The trauma persisted, and Emily found herself trapped by other exploitative individuals who further pushed her into the harrowing depths of sex work. The supply of drugs became a temporary escape, and Emily, in her own words, became willing to do whatever was asked of her, caught in a cycle of abuse and addiction.

Sex trafficking survivor Breanna Cole shows a tattoo of a colorful lotus flower that covers a former branding tattoo that read “381”
Sex trafficking survivor Breanna Cole shows a tattoo of a colourful lotus flower that covers a former branding tattoo that read “381” © CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP.

The staggering global reality of sex trafficking is underscored by the statistics provided by the International Labor Organization. In 2021 alone, 6.3 million people fell victim to sexual exploitation, with an alarming four out of five being women or girls. While the United States lacks comprehensive figures, the national trafficking hotline received 7,500 calls reporting cases of abuse in the same year.

Since its establishment in 2011, Selah Freedom has been a beacon of hope for survivors, providing comprehensive support to 6,000 women through a two-year program addressing their physical, psychological, and emotional needs. The program includes psychological therapy, housing, job training, and a unique initiative: tattoo cover-ups.

Breanna Cole, a survivor who now works for Selah Freedom, shares her journey of abuse, homelessness, and exploitative relationships. Pushed by a difficult childhood and an absent father figure, she sought love in all the wrong places, falling victim to a violent boy at the tender age of 13. Her story reflects the cyclical nature of abuse and the profound impact it can have on an individual’s life.

The turning point came for Cole when she recognized her spiritual bankruptcy and the urgent need for change. Despite enduring abuse, she never considered herself a victim until therapy provided a new perspective. The realization that she deserved to be “saved” marked the beginning of her journey towards healing, ultimately leading her to a role where she could help other women on their paths to recovery.

Emily’s journey towards a new life required adaptation to drastic changes, including accepting love without ulterior motives. She has since married, started a family, and reconciled with her loved ones. However, the path to recovery is ongoing, and the tattoo removal initiative serves as a symbolic act of redemption.

The tattoo parlour, a space filled with compassion and understanding, becomes a place of metamorphosis. Skilled artists like Charity Pinegar carefully trace new outlines over the scars of exploitation, replacing haunting symbols with the survivors’ designs. Covering up these tattoos is not just a physical transformation; it represents the survivors reclaiming agency over their bodies and rewriting the narratives of victimization.

Pinegar, the tattoo artist, fills in the outlines with dark ink, each stroke symbolizing a step towards healing and empowerment. As she completes her work, survivors like Emily express a sense of rebirth. The new designs, chosen with agency and care, replace the haunting symbols of victimization. In Emily’s profound words, “I feel like I was dead, and now I’m alive.”

The initiative to cover up tattoos is a powerful metaphor for the broader mission of Selah Freedom and similar organizations. It is about more than removing visible scars; it is a holistic approach to healing that addresses the deep-rooted trauma experienced by survivors of sex trafficking. The tattoos once wielded as dehumanization instruments are transformed into symbols of resilience, strength, and the unwavering human spirit.

In conclusion, the journey of survivors like Emily exemplifies the profound impact of initiatives aimed at empowering victims of sex trafficking. Selah Freedom’s holistic program, encompassing psychological support, housing, job training, and tattoo cover-ups, is a testament to the transformative power of compassion and understanding. The tattoo parlour becomes a sanctuary where painful reminders are replaced with symbols of hope and agency. It is a step towards dismantling the chains of exploitation and allowing survivors to redefine their narratives, illustrating that healing is a complex yet achievable journey.

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