Sex-trafficking survivors use new ink to reclaim their lives

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Story highlights

  • Traffickers brand women with tattoos
  • Survivor Jennifer Kempton started an organization to cover these tattoos
  • Getting rid of the "brands" can help heal psychological wounds, too

(CNN)Jennifer Kempton is a strong woman. She's seen -- and experienced -- the worst of people and broken free from a life of sexual slavery and addiction.

But, Kempton said, every time she looked in the mirror, she was reminded of her past.
That's because she had been branded by her former pimps. "Branding" is when a pimp tattoos a woman with a mark to signify she is his property -- like cattle.
Four tattoos on Kempton's body were a daily reminder of what she had been through.
Sex traffickers are branding their victims
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Like many victims of sex trafficking, Kempton's troubles began in childhood, where she was abused and neglected.
She said the tipping point was when she was raped by a friend's brother when she was 12. That led her down a dangerous path of forced prostitution and drug addiction in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Kempton spent more than five years on the streets. She endured repeated beatings and was forced to have sex with hundreds of men. In April 2013, after the most violent rape she had ever endured, Kempton decided she had had enough.
She put a noose around her neck, planning to end her life. The rope broke, and in that moment, she found a reason to live.
"God came to me and spoke to me and he said I have a purpose for you and it's not to die in the basement of a crack house," Kempton said.
Recovery from drug addiction has not been easy, and Kempton said she relapsed more than once. In part, the brandings were a constant reminder of what she had been through. She could not forget it.
Kempton finally earned enough money to get a new tattoo to cover one of her brandings.
"It was so liberating to take his name off of my body and have what I want there," Kempton said, "The love I had been seeking my whole life, I got it with that tattoo."
Kempton got her branding covered with a tattoo of an elaborate cross with the word "Love" and "1 Cor 13 4:13." The Biblical verse begins with the well-known quote, "Love is patient, love is kind," and ends with the line, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."
Kempton said the new ink changed the way she looked at herself, but she still had three other brandings. There was one on her neck, one on her back and one right above her groin that said "Property of Salem," a trafficker who played a major role in bringing Kempton into the life she had now left behind.
She told a human trafficking advocate about the "property of" tattoo. The advocate contacted a family member who agreed to pay for her to have the rest of her brandings covered.
This was the beginning of Survivor's Ink.
Kempton wanted other survivors to experience the freedom she had found, so she started a nonprofit organization that pays for trafficking survivors to have their branding tattoos covered by new tattoos of their choosing.
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"It very much so is a psychological form of bondage," Kempton said. "It ties you to those memories and it ties you to those feelings that you felt when you got that and to be able to be free of enslavement and then to make an active choice of, 'This is what I want on my body, not this man's name or this gang's symbol, I want my daughter's name, I want a beautiful flower, I want a religious scripture, I want a butterfly to show that I have wings, and I can fly.'"
As the physical scars go away, the psychological scars can heal, too.
"It started when I got the one on my neck covered up and the next morning when I looked at myself in the mirror and I wasn't reminded that I worked for gangs and I was a part of that kind of life, to have this beautiful flower opening and blooming, it was just, gave me a whole new breath of life," said Kempton.
Since starting Survivor's Ink in September 2014, Kempton has helped many women cover their brandings, including Angela Ritter.
Ritter compares her early life to June Cleaver, "You know, room-mom, team-mom, just involved in everything my kids did; really respected in my community," she said. But when she turned 30, her life took a dark turn and she wound up, in her words, "an addicted street walker."
Ritter spent 13 years under the control of traffickers. She was addicted to drugs and said she was forced to have sex with more men than she can count.
"I just reached a point where I felt death on me, I mean, literally felt death on me every single day," she said, "it's like God was just screaming at me that if I didn't get help and get out now, that I was going to die there."
Knowing her pimp wouldn't willingly let her leave, Ritter told him she was just going to the store, but she said as soon as she was out of sight from his window she ran.
Like Kempton, Ritter has reclaimed her life, and like Kempton, she has lived with a constant reminder of her former life: a brand by the gang that trafficked her for sex. She often wears a Band-Aid on her upper arm to cover what she calls "a big area of dark shame" on her body. The tattoo reads "Black's Beauty," with a dollar sign.
"Well that says I'm somebody's 'ho,'" Ritter said. She couldn't afford to have it covered up until she found out about Survivor's Ink.
"Who would have ever dreamed that there would be someone willing to dedicate their time, their materials, you know, to freeing us from a wretched, dark past, you know? But I thank God for Jen, I thank God for Survivor's Ink, I thank God for the chance to be that survivor," Ritter said.
Tattoo artist Mike Prickett donates his time to Survivor's Ink, and he has seen firsthand the impact the brands have on women.
"I think with anything, especially tattoos because they're so permanent, there are certain things that are going to hold you back from doing the things that you want or constant reminders of something negative that you did or that happened to you," he said, "Being able to wash that away and start fresh, I think that's a chance that everyone deserves."
Together, Ritter and Prickett came up with a meaningful design that Ritter will be proud to show off.
"Finally, I'm going to be me again. I'm not going to belong to anybody but God, and that's how it's supposed to be," Ritter said. "Not everybody gets a chance to be a survivor, and there are girls out there right now that don't even know that they're victims. ... But maybe, just maybe, they'll see one of us and they'll hear one of us and they'll know that there is help, there is hope and there is a way out."