Branding: The Harsh Reality of Sex Trafficking

Livestock branding is a technique for marking livestock so as to identify the owner. It’s an old practice that with the advent of technology can be done in more humane ways. In the past livestock farmers used burning irons to put their brand on their cattle, now there are less painful ways to do so.

Throughout history we have seen the stain of slavery come onto the world stage. The treatment of slaves during the trans-Atlantic slave trade was well documented as being gruesome and inhumane. Since the slaves were viewed as no more than a piece of property, and many times less valuable, you can imagine how horrific their treatment must have been. Just as livestock owners would brand their cattle or horses, they would also brand their slaves to identify who owned them and to remind them of their enslavement.

In Betty Wood’s book, Slavery in Colonial America, she writes about the branding of slaves,

“The use of branding iron was making an unmistakable statement of the slave owners, who asserted complete possession by disfiguring the body. It was an explicit attempt to deny the humanity of people of African origin. Women and men were branded on the chest, the shoulder, or cheek; sometimes, in an explicitly sexual statement of ownership, women were branded on the breast. Owners used the same, or similar, branding irons to stamp their mark of ownership on their cattle and horses as well as to ensure their return should they stray. In effect, the branding of newly enslaved people was intended to serve precisely the same purposes. The brand mark was a visible statement, both to them and the world at large, that they were considered of no more and no less worth than any other beasts of burden” (emphasis mine)

When we reflect on such heinous acts we may think this form of dehumanization is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

The trafficking of people for commercial sex and/or labor exploitation is an issue garnering more attention and more action in communities across the United States and the globe. Sex trafficking in particluar takes place in every state and country in the world. No country is an exception. Pimps control victims of trafficking through threats and acts of violence. There are additional means that aim at the complete degradation of the victimized person. In order to maintain this control abusers will employ brutal tactics to bring shame and guilt on their victims. It’s a harsh reality I wish none of us needed to write about.

One trend seen in sex trafficking is the branding of women and girls by their pimp. Branding is commonly done through the tattooing of the pimp or gangs name in a prominent place on the persons body.

As Nicholas Kristof writes in a New York Times article,

“Taz, a 16-year-old girl here in New York City, told me that her pimp had branded three other girls with tattoos bearing his name. When she refused the tattoo, she said, he held her down and carved his name on her back with a safety pin.”

We have seen how this affects a trafficking victim. It’s a permanent reminder of the harsh treatment they endured. And frequently the public is under the impression that if we can only “rescue” someone from trafficking or slavery that they will be okay, not accounting for the physical and psychological harm done to them.

The days, weeks, months, and years following exploitation take time and healing to see a person restored. I certainly wish that rescue was a one time thing, but the process of being rescued is a process of healing, processing trauma, and overcoming multiple obstacles. Fortunately, those victimized by trafficking and slavery are both courageous and resilient, and, a key ingredient to them moving forward is the context of a healthy community.

That is you and I, creating spaces in the community where those victimized by the brutality of slavery can feel welcomed and accepted. Acceptance and belonging, isn’t that something we all yearn for?