How this human trafficking survivor is turning victim brands into art

For those of you that think human trafficking is only a problem that plagues third world countries, you are horribly mistaken

Every 30 seconds, someone becomes a victim of human trafficking.

On October 5th, Jennifer Kempton, a survivor of human trafficking, came to speak to a Criminology class at Ohio State. After years of slavery, Jennifer founded Survivor’s Ink, an organization that supports trafficking survivors by replacing their slavery brands with tattoos.

Globally, the cost of a slave is $90.00.

When Jennifer was twelve-years-old, she moved to a small, rural town. She, like most kids, was ecstatic to move and attend a new school. She was raised in an abusive home and moving gave her the opportunity to start over. She was eager to fit in and involved at this new school.

Jennifer quickly formed new friendships. One evening, one of her new friends invited her over for a sleepover. Soon after she arrived, Jennifer realized why she had been invited. The girls’ eighteen-year-old brother proceeded to rape Jennifer.

The police were notified of the incident. After being threatened by the rapist and his friends, Jennifer lied to the police and told them she had consented. When the police left, she cried to her mother and told her what actually occurred. Her mother responded, “That is not what you told them,” and walked away.

From then on, Jennifer remained interested in older boys. At the age of sixteen, she had her first child. She remained in and out of abusive relationships until she met her trafficker.

She had another child who her trafficker originally supported financially even though this child did not belong to him. Shortly after this relationship began, he introduced Jennifer to heroin. Eventually he approached Jennifer and demanded that she generate some form of revenue. It occurred to Jennifer that she should place the care of her child in the hands of her parents, regardless of the terms that she was on with them. She knew that the place that she was heading was not somewhere she wanted to take her child.

Jennifer’s boyfriend exploited her into working at various strip clubs by using their relationship and her addiction as leverage. She had to make enough money to support both her and her boyfriend, but no matter how much she made, it was never enough to satisfy his demands.

Later, her boyfriend approached her with a woman who offered her work fulfilling massage ads on Craig’s List. The woman insisted on handling all of Jennifer’s affairs claiming to “have done this before.” She suggested taking and posting seductive pictures for the advertisements in order to ensure a larger profit. Jennifer obliged. Anything that Jennifer and her boyfriend needed, the woman provided to them. Jennifer’s assumed labor for the woman’s work and favors created debt bondage.

Her boyfriend was not giving the woman her fair share of the profit. In order to settle the debt, Jennifer was driven to a hotel where she was told to enter and not come back until she had completed whatever she task she was asked to do to get the money. This was the first time she performed sexual favors for money.

Afterward, her boyfriend took her to West Side of Columbus and sold her on the street. Jennifer was kidnapped for a week and a half. While abducted, she was gang banged. Despite this, she had to remain in her captors good graces.

Jennifer became impregnated by her boyfriend. Once she started showing, she stopped making enough money. In order to make more money, he took her to a home of small time drug dealers where he exchanged her for money and narcotics. The drug dealers planned to move her to Cincinnati because she was not a regular in that territory, and traffickers thrived off of “the new flavors.” Jennifer overheard this discussion and plotted her escape.

She had no clothing, so she asked the pimps if they would take her to her home so that she could gather some before they relocated her. She told them that she knew they had guns and would shoot her if she tried to escape and promised not to run. However, she also knew the men would drop her off at a distance from the home in order to avoid being seen, and when they did, she ran, reluctantly, back into the arms of her boyfriend.

During her third pregnancy and a particularly cold evening on the job, a man found Jennifer and invited her into his home. Jennifer accepted his offer and fell asleep on his couch. When she awoke, she discovered her clothes had been removed. When she stood up to leave, her water broke. She gave birth to the baby on the floor of the strangers home. Eventually the stranger called the ambulance. When the paramedics arrived, the baby had to be swaddled in foil and attended to immediately. Jennifer and the baby were transported to the hospital in critical condition. The baby was born addicted and Jennifer had to be placed in a medically induced coma. When she came-to, Jennifer did the only thing she had been conditioned to do to: mask the pain and leave the hospital to turn a trick to get high. She knew that the life she was living was not one suited for a newborn, so she put the child up for adoption.

The low-life drug dealers found out that she had a child and gave her back to her boyfriend. Jennifer was numb. When her boyfriend hit her, she hit back. Her boyfriend decided to teach her a lesson. She was sold to the most violent gang in Columbus, Ohio.

One slow night, she met a man who was talkative and charismatic. She went against the rules: do not go with anyone on foot. Deceptively, he lured her into a house and coerced her into performing sexual acts at knife point. He was not satisfied during this gruesome rape, even while sodomizing her. He raped her with a butcher knife. She was bleeding profusely. Thankfully she had disconnected with her body during the rape. For even whimpering resulted in a blow to the head. Jennifer recalled him “holding his hand out to help my beaten, bloody, body off of the ground.” She ran downstairs, threw on her shorts and her bra, and ran out the door. She sought help. She passed three men on the street who refused to help her, acting as if she had gotten what she deserved for being a “whore.”

After some time, she returned to her home. When she arrived, she asked for $10.00 worth of dope. Instead they handed her three paper towels and told her to go clean up. She went to the basement and flipped over a bucket that was frequently used to sit on while getting high, tied a rope around her neck, and threw it over one of the rafters on the ceiling. Then she stood on top of the bucket and kicked it over. Slowly, she felt the pain and misery leave her body – from her head to her knees – relief washed over her.

She said, “It was the one time to this day that I ever remember being pain free.” But once the feeling reached her knees, the rope snapped and she fell to the ground on her knees. She was angry. She could not even die to get out of this misery.

In the midst of the anger, she realized she had a purpose — and it was not to die in a crack house. Jennifer stood in front of the bathroom mirror and reminded herself of the violence she had suffered. She decided to have a conversation with God. If His plan was for her to stay, she needed a sign.

She had to risk everything in order to escape this life. She told her traffickers that she was leaving to make money. Instead, she went to a suicide intervention center. Because she had rope burns around her neck, they admitted her. She began the healing process and her long journey to recovery.

Eight months out of her old life, she earned enough money to cover her first brand. To cover the brand, she tattooed a cross and the Bible verse Corinthians 4:13.

Jennifer eventually returned to a familiar tattoo parlor. Though she had very little money ($200.00), she offered all she had for the artist to turn her slavery brand into a new tattoo. She explained to the man what a favor he would be doing her and that if he removed her brand, the constant reminders of her horrific abuse would dematerialize. She told the man that she would no longer be her traffickers property, but a child of God. He agreed to cover, not one, but all of her brands for the money she had.

Up to this point, she had questioned her purpose and worth. She asked her higher power what the plan was. She fell asleep during the first of her cover-ups. While she was asleep, God put her back in the dope houses and reminded her how many people on the streets were just like her – Jennifer refers to them as her sisters. It was then that she decided to pay forward the freedom and liberation that had been given to her.

Jennifer Kempton is a survivor of human trafficking who uses her experience to promote awareness, advocate for social change, and teach prevention education in schools. By covering her tattoos, she broke the chains that bound her to her time on the streets and her abusers. The liberation she experienced through covering her brands inspired her to found Survivor’s Ink. Through her organization, she strives to help other survivors cover reminders of their enslavement.

All photos courtesy of and Almudena Toral.

Ohio State