Content warning: This story contains details about violence and sexual assault.
Along a busy interstate near southeast Texas is a strip club, its neon sign lighting up the freeway. It sits windowless and vacant-looking during the day, another nondescript building near another fast-food joint near another used-car lot. It’s easy to pass by and forget, maybe not even notice—unless you’re one of the women being quietly trafficked within it.
“That’s where I was,” says Kathy, 31. She wears a fuzzy gray sweater, her makeup pristine, her nails manicured. You wouldn’t guess that at one point in time, she was the victim of sex trafficking or that her days were once a loop of rape and repeat. You wouldn’t know that beneath her sweater is a three-inch-tall tattoo of her pimp’s nickname branded across her lower back, its thick black lines following her, moving with her, every single day.
It’s estimated that almost 5 million people globally are forced into sexual slavery each year. It’s a horrible reality that’s only been made harder by groups like QAnon, whose connection to recent conspiracies (think: Pizzagate and #SaveTheChildren) have hijacked the human-trafficking narrative and detracted from actual victims who need help.
We need to pay attention. These are real numbers, real people, and real bodies. Almost all of these victims carry brands like Kathy’s, inked across their necks, arms, inner thighs, breasts, sometimes even their face or lips. The tattoos take the form of flowers, names, barcodes, and gang affiliations. Some of them say “slut” or “fuck” or “daddy’s girl.” But they all mean the same thing: ownership.
Even when victims manage to get out and establish new lives, new identities, their traumas are still etched into their skin, leeching into their relationships, self-worth, and sense of normalcy. In early 2020, Cosmopolitan followed three of these branded survivors on their journeys to remove their ink and finally untether themselves from their past. These women chose not only to share their stories but also to show their faces and tattoos in an effort to raise awareness and advocate for others.
This is the actual narrative—this is what it looks like to reclaim your body.
I was hungry the night my trafficker had me branded. But I was always hungry then—skinny girls sold better, so Billy* fed me only cheese and cigarettes. “I don’t want another man’s name on you,” he said looking at my old tattoo, the brand from my first trafficker. He promised my new ink would be small, but I didn’t care—we both knew I didn’t have a say over my body anymore.
I was sold to Billy by another pimp when I was 18, although I didn’t really know it. I had never heard of human trafficking before. I grew up poor in an abusive home—my childhood had a lot of domestic crime and sexual assault, but I didn’t know those things had names. I didn’t even learn that I had been trafficked until nine months after I was rescued. I just assumed I was another street girl.
Billy’s word was law. The first time I talked back to him, he broke my nose and cracked my ribs. I thought he was going to kill me. From then on, I was Billy’s doll: He dressed me in tiny clothes and forced me to wear pink lipstick and platinum hair extensions. He shipped me across the U.S. for different men to abuse me. He beat me. He branded me. He called me Peaches.
And he also lied. Billy had me branded in a damp garage that reeked of stale urine and ash. I sat in a metal chair while a man with a tattoo gun freehanded a rose under my clavicle. All of Billy’s girls had flowers, I later learned—I was just another in his collection.
As the needle bit into my flesh, Billy sat nearby on his phone, his hand resting lightly on his gun. With each pass of the needle, the tattoo grew—a flood of uneven stars snaking up my chest, dollar signs and exclamation marks edging over my nipple. It wasn’t small. Five hours later, Billy paid for the tattoo with me. The man raped me where he had branded me, my tattoo bleeding against the cement while Billy watched from his chair.
I couldn’t look in the mirror afterward. Even after escaping three years later, I wasn’t really free—Billy was always there. Whenever I saw my reflection or took off my clothes or caught sight of my brand, I felt him there, dominating my body. I tried to hide the tattoo under turtlenecks and T-shirts, but it always peeked through. “That’s beautiful,” a stranger once complimented, asking what it meant. Bile rose in my throat. Each time someone commented on my tattoo, each time I mumbled a throwaway response or snapped back about the realities of human trafficking, I felt tired and broken, like my body had been permanently ruined.
When my daughter was born years later, I cradled her on my chest, amazed I’d created something so precious. Seeing her face made me realize I had never actually known what real, unmanipulated love felt like. A friend photographed the moment and sent me the picture. There was my baby, sweet and pure, lying in the center of my brand. It was horrible. I didn’t want her to associate me with this hateful piece of history as she grew up—I wanted it gone.
Tattoo artists told me they could cover it up with a black-and-white pattern, but I didn’t want to add another ugly thing to my skin, and I didn’t want more questions about my body. Eventually, Breaking the Chains, a survivor nonprofit, matched me with a salon offering free brand removal for survivors. My first session was unbelievably painful. The technician gave me topical numbing cream, but the laser still hurt worse than the years of cracked ribs and broken noses. Worse than my C-section. It felt like my chest was being doused in hot grease again and again, and as I tried to hold still, I kept thinking, Why do I have to go through this? Why did this happen to me?
Initially, the salon estimated I’d need 10 to 12 laser sessions, so I thought I’d be finished in a little over a year. That was three years ago. They say the ink that was used for my brand was poorly manufactured, which makes it even harder to remove. At this point, I’m looking at another one to two years of sessions until I’m finally done.
Even though my brand is still visible, I feel different, like a dimmer switch has been turned down. I used to be so afraid of wearing makeup or looking pretty, but I’ve slowly discovered that I actually have a love of bright lipstick and vintage clothes. I started volunteering with a vintage-wearing group of women that helps underserved communities. They’ve not only shown me that I have a lot to offer outside of being a survivor, but they’ve also helped me feel beautiful again.
I sometimes think of the other women who are out there right now, wearing flowers like mine. I wonder if they’ve gotten theirs covered up or lasered off, if they’re free, if they’re not. I’ve learned that my brand isn’t who I am or who I want to be, but even still, I’m looking forward to it being gone. I don’t want to stay covered up anymore.
I remember the first time I really wore makeup: I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to go where. I was a teenager, but a tomboy, who had grown up playing basketball and video games, not doing makeovers with friends. So when my exploiter gave me a bag of makeup and instructed me to put it on, I struggled. I knew enough from movies to figure out the mascara, but the rest of it was a puzzle. So he did it for me. He blended eyeshadow over my lids and painted my lips with gloss, making me presentable for the next man to rape me.
Women get to make small decisions about their appearance every single day, like how to do their eyebrows or whether to wear their hair up or down, but I didn’t have a choice in how I looked for almost a decade. I got trapped when I was 19, and I didn’t get out until I was 27. I had at least 10 exploiters during that time, each with their own agenda, their own routines, their own forms of torture. I had to buy specific brands of makeup, wear certain shades, and match my look to the outfits they picked out for me.
By the time I was forced to get branded, I was numb to it. It almost didn’t feel like my body anymore. A man came into the hotel room, grabbed my arm, and tattooed the nickname of one of my traffickers on it. He added a heart on top. I barely registered any of it. A few years ago, a coworker asked about my brand, and I didn’t know what to say. I hate being marked as someone’s possession. Smitty had wanted the tattoo in a place where it would always be visible when I was on the streets, and I’m still living with that reminder years later.
When I ended up pregnant by an exploiter, Smitty released me. He didn’t want the hassle. But I still wasn’t free. Local traffickers abducted my baby, refusing to return him until I made them enough money. Something in me knew then I had to get out, even if I had nowhere to go.
When I got my son back, a neighbor drove me to a safe house run by Love Never Fails. They helped me figure out how to live again—not just learning how to cook or get a driver’s license but learning how to shake a man’s hand and not feel afraid. Ninety-five percent of the time now, I don’t wear makeup; I don’t wear jewelry. I wear my hair in a bun, because I like my hair in a bun.
A few years ago, I started getting laser treatments through Jerome Potozkin, MD, a dermatologist who offered to remove my brand for free. The tattoo has faded a lot since then, but the visual effects still get to me. Some nights, I’ll see it and get flashbacks, and I’ll have to stop myself from calling the office because it’s 10 p.m. and the office is closed, and my mind is in a different place.
I don’t necessarily dream of big things anymore. My goal is just to maintain independence for me and my son and to continue my success and pass it on to the next survivor. I didn’t think of a future when I was being exploited—all I wanted to do was get out alive. And now I have a one-bedroom apartment, a full-time job in network engineering, and, soon, a life that’ll be free of branding. I just want to embrace what I’ve been given and help somebody in the same way. That’s my dream now.
I was a college freshman when I started dating Sean*, the lead singer of a band in Texas at the time. Everything about him felt fun and glamorous—he had local celebrity hookups, he was charismatic, he had clout, and he had chosen me. So when he asked me to get a nickname tattooed on my lower back almost a year into our relationship—“so people know you’re mine”—I thought it was romantic.
And that’s what happens when you’re groomed by a trafficker: You don’t see the red flags. You let someone tattoo block letters onto your body in some dirty studio, because you’ve been manipulated into believing that’s what love is. Trafficking had always seemed to me like some faraway thing that only happened overseas. I didn’t know it could also happen—and does happen—to girls like me. I had a good upbringing filled with church and community service. I studied hard. I was in the ROTC. I was informed. I thought I was safe. Yet I was so under Sean’s control that I didn’t even realize I had just been branded to be sent out on the streets.
He asked me to go on a business trip with him in northern Texas, and when I walked into our hotel room and saw the strangers waiting to rape me, I knew my life had just irreversibly changed. The next nine months were lived through out-of-body experiences. Sean morphed from a charming man, a man I thought loved me, into someone who beat me, allowed men to choke me, rape me, abuse me. He said he’d hurt my family if I left. And I wasn’t alone—Sean had other girls with me, all wearing some version of his brand tattooed across their neck, chest, and breasts.
I want people to know that rescue is not an event—it’s a process. My brother managed to get me out one night, but it wasn’t really over. Sean still came after me, saying he owned me, and if I didn’t believe him, look in the mirror. “No one else is going to want you,” he’d say. “When they touch you, they’ll only see me.” My body felt foreign. I couldn’t get away from it, this permanent symbol of what he’d done to me, what he’d let strangers do to me. Men I dated would comment on the brand, saying they couldn’t believe I had a “tramp stamp.” I felt worthless for a very long time.
I paid a tattoo artist to ink a butterfly and “God’s Property” around the brand, but I still couldn’t look at my body in the mirror. No matter what I wore, or how much better my life got, I could still feel a piece of me tethered to the filth and abuse. I wanted it gone, not just covered up, but at $300 to $500 a session, laser removal wasn’t in my budget. And then I met Paul Friedman, MD, a local dermatologist who, after hearing about the severe trafficking problem in Texas, offered me free laser removal.
My first appointment was emotional. Each pass of the laser took me back to those days with Sean, my mind flashing through the abuse, the men, the pain. After the dermatologist bandaged me up, I walked out to my car and cried. I’ve had two sessions so far, and they’ve thankfully gotten easier. Sitting there and watching the ties to my past get physically severed has helped me heal. I’m not sure people realize how imprisoning a brand can be—it chains a piece of you to the darkness forever. But having those letters removed, seeing them slowly burn away and fade, has given me back my identity.
Last summer, I got married in a blush-pink wedding dress—custom-altered to hide my brand. My guests wore white to represent purity, and the room felt like it was suspended by angels. For a long time after being trafficked, I didn’t believe I was worthy of anyone’s love. But as I walked toward my husband that day, I felt like I was also walking away from my past. He promised that I could trust him and depend on him, vowing to never ever hurt me, and in that moment, as the months of abuse flooded through me, I felt like I was finally being released.
If you suspect human trafficking, please report it. The National Human Trafficking Hotline (888–373–7888) accepts confidential calls.
*Certain details, names, and events in these stories have been condensed and/or changed for clarity and anonymity.
Arien, Tish, and Kathy deeply want to thank the following doctors, dermatologists, and advocacy groups that made their brand removal possible:
Doctors and salons:
For more information on getting your brand removed or covered up or about helping this cause, please contact:
Photographs by Valerie Chiang. Produced by Raydene Hansen. Video by Janet Upadhye. Video editing by Heather Weyrick. Motion graphics and design by John Francis.