Erasing the Past

Author: Katherina Toews

I want you to imagine the worst day of your life. Do you have it in mind yet? It’s a hard thing to do because as humans we’re wired to forget the most painful parts of our lives because we don’t like to experience pain. Now I want you to imagine for a moment that you have a tattoo that will forever commemorate and remind you of that day. While this scenario is nothing more than an extremely uncomfortable exercise for most of us, for those exiting sexual exploitation, it is often a harsh reality.

Tattooing, or branding, is on the rise in the pockets of sexual exploitation rings across the globe. Pimps and traffickers will brand their girls as a way to display dominance, as well as to show other pimps that they belong to someone already, that they’re already someone’s property. Shared Hope International defines branding as a “tattoo or carving on a victim that indicated ownership by a trafficker/pimp/gang.” These tattoos can come in all shapes and sizes, ranging anywhere from the pimps name,, to barcodes. These brands not only show other pimps that the girls are taken, but they serve as a constant reminder to the women themselves that their identity is no longer their own.

In some cases, the girls choose to get the tattoos themselves, which may seem shocking to some people. However the reason behind it is quite simple, the pimps have stripped away their identity to the point that they want to belong to someone or something. They need to find their worth and identity in something other than themselves. While we can see it as another vestige of the cruel practice of slavery, child advocate Lois Lee (Children of the Night) says that the girls don’t see it that way, at least not at first, “They see it differently. They belong to somebody. It’s important to them. Someone has claimed me. Now I belong to a group.” But once they can leave the life of sexual exploitation behind them, they are forced to carry around a permanent reminder of the pain that they endured.

When we look at the tattoos that we’ve chosen to ink onto our skin, we are reminded of loved ones, meaningful moments, steps of faith, or moments of courage. When the women in our program look at their tattoos they are reminded of pain, struggles, addiction, bondage, of a past they’re trying so hard to leave behind. That’s where tattoo removal comes in, and we’re so thankful and blessed to be partnering with Restoration Wellness & Tattoo Removal to help the women in our program take back their bodies. Founder Delia says that “By removing ink we enable people to move forward with their lives, releasing them from a sometimes limiting tattoo or the memory attached to it.” She has already helped a few of our participants erase the painful reminders inked into their skin, and instead offer them a blank slate with endless possibilities.

One thing we are passionate about here at Next Step is showing the women in our programs that they don’t have to remain in bondage to their past. Instead, they can step forward into freedom and life. The tattoos on their bodies do not define them, and their identities are not wrapped up in belonging to another human being. We have seen freedom come into the lives of these women, and now we want to see them set free from painful reminders of the past as well. Wouldn’t you?