De-branding my body

The former sex slaves
transforming their tattoos

“It’s a flower blossoming into a butterfly, soaring into freedom. Because I feel free now.”

Hollie

Hollie's tattoo of a flower and a butterfly

Warning: Some readers may find some of these details upsetting


For 17 years, Hollie was forced to sleep with countless men by several pimps. Four years ago, she finally escaped from sex trafficking. 

One of her traffickers, she says, branded her with a tattoo which read “Love is Loyalty”. It’s what he did to most of the women who worked for him - either that or “Love is Royalty”.

“He wants to put his name on you. Like a keepsake - like you’re his possession. Everybody knows you’re his bitch,” she says. 

Hollie, 36, was sold into sex slavery at 15 years old, after a childhood of deprivation and abuse. 

“By the time I was 17 or 18 I had been raped more times than I can count”  
Hollie

Despite this difficult start in life, Hollie says she initially excelled in school.

“It was an escape from my reality. In first grade, there was a teacher with the same last name as me. I used to pretend she was my mother because I longed for a relationship with my [real] mother.”

Unable to cope, Hollie’s mother gave her to her own parents to be looked after.

“I remember being called ‘a hooker’, ‘a whore’, ‘a worthless piece of shit like my mother’, before I even knew what any of these things meant.”

Hollie says that from the age of 12 she was smoking marijuana every day at home, before quickly moving on to harder drugs. 

“It was my ‘normal’ - that was just what my life was like.” 

She says she was in and out of juvenile detention centres for misdemeanours like truancy and underage drinking, before finally running away from one at 15 to go back to live with her mother.

“It was one of the worst decisions of my life because within two weeks of being there, we were using drugs together. Within a month we were prostituting together.”

Hollie says that at a point at which she was vulnerable and tired of being exploited by her mother, she was targeted by a man who asked her to join his team of sex workers. 

“It looked glamorous - he had fancy jewellery, nice shoes, nice clothes, lots of money and women all around him. It looked like he took care of them and got drugs whenever they wanted it. So, I did it. I joined his team and I entered into hell.”

What followed, Hollie says, were years of violence, sexual abuse and death threats.  

“By the time I was 17 or 18 I had been raped more times than I can count. I’d been kidnapped. I’d been held hostage, stabbed and shot at.”  

The environment Hollie was working in was extremely violent, and rape is often used by gangs to exert control over their trafficking victims. 

So for Hollie, the tattoos forced upon her to show her loyalty to the gang became more than just undesirable adornments. They became symbols of years of trauma.

Hollie's finger tattoo - before and after

Hollies finger tattoo - before and after

After her escape, she heard about a charity called Survivor’s Ink - which covers branding tattoos of sex trafficking survivors for free.

She went along to choose a design to cover up the “Love is Loyalty” tattoo at the top of her back.

“It’s a flower blossoming into a butterfly, soaring into freedom. Because I feel free now. I have the choice to make decisions on my life and where I move next. I never had that before. Somebody was always controlling me like a puppet. And today, nobody controls me.”

Hollie's new back tattoo

Hollies new back tattoo

Hollie driving

Warning: Some readers may find some of these details upsetting


For 17 years, Hollie was forced to sleep with countless men by several pimps. Four years ago, she finally escaped from sex trafficking. 

One of her traffickers, she says, branded her with a tattoo which read “Love is Loyalty”. It’s what he did to most of the women who worked for him - either that or “Love is Royalty”.

“He wants to put his name on you. Like a keepsake - like you’re his possession. Everybody knows you’re his bitch,” she says. 

Hollie was sold into sex slavery at 15 years old, after a childhood of deprivation and abuse. 

Hollie driving

Despite this difficult start in life, Hollie says she initially excelled in school.

“It was an escape from my reality. I remember being in the first grade and the teacher had the same last name as me, and I used to pretend she was my mother because I longed for a relationship with my [real] mother”. 

Unable to cope, Hollie’s mother gave her to her own parents to be looked after.

“I remember being called ‘a hooker’, ‘a whore’, ‘a worthless piece of shit like my mother’, before I even knew what any of these things meant.”

Hollie says that from the age of 12 she was smoking marijuana every day at home, before quickly moving on to harder drugs. 

“It was my ‘normal’ - that was just what my life was like.” 

“By the time I was 17 or 18 I had been raped more times than I can count”  
Hollie

She says she was in and out of juvenile detention centres for misdemeanours like truancy and underage drinking, before finally running away from one at 15 to go back to live with her mother.

“It was one of the worst decisions of my life because within two weeks of being here, we were using drugs together. Within a month of being here, we were prostituting together.”

Hollie says that, at a point at which she was vulnerable and tired of being exploited by her mother, she was targeted by a man who asked her to join his team of sex workers. 

“It looked glamorous - he had fancy jewellery, nice shoes, nice clothes, lots of money and women all around him. It looked like he took care of them and got drugs whenever they wanted it. So, I did it. I joined his team and I entered into hell.”

But what followed, Hollie says, were years of violence, sexual abuse and death threats.  

“By the time I was 17 or 18 I had been raped more times than I can count. I’d been kidnapped. I’d been held hostage, stabbed and shot at.”  

The environment Hollie was working in was extremely violent, and rape is often used by gangs to exert control over their trafficking victims. 

So for Hollie, the tattoos forced upon her to show her loyalty to the gang became more than just undesirable adornments. They became symbols of years of trauma.

Hollie's finger tattoo - before and after

Hollies finger tattoo - before and after

After her escape, she heard about a charity called Survivor’s Ink - which covers branding tattoos of sex trafficking survivors for free.

She went along to choose a design to cover up the “Love is Loyalty” tattoo at the top of her back.

“It’s a flower blossoming into a butterfly, soaring into freedom. Because I feel free now. I have the choice to make decisions on my life and where I move next. I never had that before. Somebody was always controlling me like a puppet. And today, nobody controls me.”

Hollie's new back tattoo

Hollies new back tattoo

The tattooist

Mike Prickett tattooing Jen

Mike Prickett, the tattoo artist who transformed Hollie’s “branding”, says he has been shocked by the number of times he’s been called on to carry out this type of work. 

“Human trafficking was one of those things that was never really on my radar. It was something that you saw on the news that happened in other countries - not in your backyard.”

He has also noticed a disturbing development. 

“Probably in the past year and a half to two years, [branding tattoos] have become a lot bigger. When I first started, the brandings were maybe a softball size. Now I get more stuff that takes up to five sessions [to cover] rather than just one.” 

Mike Prickett at work

Mike Prickett at work

Survivor’s Ink estimates that almost 90% of sex trafficking victims in the US are branded in this way. The charity has overseen the de-branding of about 200 women from Columbus - Ohio’s state capital - and the surrounding area alone.

While the most common are tattoos of crowns, dollar bags, gang signs or the words “property of” [followed by the gang name or gangmaster involved], many tattoos are unique to a trafficker-victim relationship.

“Its a demoralising mark to show ownership… a control mechanism”
Mary Fischer, Survivor’s Ink

Mary Fischer, who manages Survivor’s Ink, says the tattoos are an abuse tactic. 

“It’s a demoralising mark to show ownership, a control mechanism to try to convince the victim that their body is not their own: ‘I own your body, I can do whatever I want to your body.’

“I couldn’t believe how many people actually tattooed a name and ‘property’ underneath it. That was very shocking to me.”

She says in some cases the tattoos are forced on the women, but sometimes the women themselves want to get them done to prove their loyalty to their pimp, either to give them protection on the streets or as a means of retaining or regaining basic provisions from their gangmaster. 

“They [the pimps] start out by showing [the women in their gang] a bunch of love, and then they take it away and make them compete to be able to gain just a little bit of that attention back.”

Mike says the most upsetting tattoo he has transformed was one of two devils having sex across the lower back of another sex trafficking survivor called Jen. 

Jen had it replaced shortly after she escaped trafficking in 2015, with a vivid bouquet of flowers - a process that took four long agonising sessions.

Jen's new tattoo

Jen's new lower back tattoo

She says she assumes her trafficker thought the tattoo would help him make more money. 

“I guess he thought it would be funny, thought it would be cute.”

The sex offender

Jeffrey Bagley

For Jeffrey Bagley, a convicted sex trafficker at the Noble Correctional Institution in Ohio, money certainly seems to have been a motivator. 

Bagley would sell women for at least $125 (£97) a time – with some women meeting up to 12 clients per day. At one point, he was pimping out as many as 50 women. 

Bagley was convicted in April with another man, Curtis Gossett, for trafficking women and using drugs to control them. Gossett was sentenced to 13 years in jail, Bagley was given 10 years.

“Recruiting” women took place on the streets and in some cases directly from jail, Bagley says. He bought a publication at a local shop each week which listed new female prisoners and the offence they had been charged with. He says he would then visit those who had been convicted of soliciting for sex, offering to pay their bail if they agreed to work for him. 

“A lot of our clients were CEOs of big companies”
Jeffrey Bagley

The women would then be taken to a hairstylist, given make-up, body products, designer clothes and meals, he says, to make them look good for the photos that were then used to sell them. 

“We’d get them clothes from [lingerie shop] Victoria’s Secret or wherever. We had a certain house where they could just go sit for a few weeks and get healthy again and eat.

“And then after a few weeks, it was time to go to work,” says Bagley.  

He says that usually the women were advertised on Backpage.com - an online marketplace for selling and buying sex, which was shut down by the FBI in April 2018. 

Women were also moved across Ohio to be sold during major sporting events like the Kentucky Derby, Bagley says. Hotels near airports were also magnets, “because a lot of our clients were CEOs of big companies that would come in”. 

The only regret Bagley expresses is for getting caught. 

He claims the women who worked for him could have stopped whenever they wanted to but he provided them with “the best drugs”.

Jeffrey Bagley

Jeffrey Bagley

“I was pretty much in the same boat they were in. I was getting high just like they were. I did it for the drugs just like they did.” 

Some 83% of sex trafficking victims in the US are US citizens according to the country’s Department of Justice. The average age of a first-time victim in America is between 12 and 14 years old, according to ECPAT-USA, an NGO seeking to end the exploitation of children.

In the US, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as coercing or forcing people into offering commercial sex or recruiting any child under the age of 18 to do so. 

Polaris, a US project working to eradicate modern slavery, says its National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports of 34,700 sex trafficking cases within the country between 2007 and 2017.

“Nearly every prostitute we see was a child once
trafficked against her will”

Scott Arnold, Gracehaven safe house

Blurred lights

“Nearly every prostitute
we see was a child once
trafficked against her will”

Scott Arnold, Gracehaven safe house

Blurred lights

And approximately 3,000 under-age girls are at risk of being trafficked at any given time across Ohio, according to Scott Arnold, executive director of Gracehaven, a Columbus safe house for child victims of sex trafficking. 

“The first stage happens in their home,” he says. “It can be a mom who is drug addicted and needs to pay for her addiction. It can also be moms who bring men into their home, whether it’s the father - or more often than not a boyfriend - who begin to molest the child and then things go from there. 

“Another typical path would be a young person who is in relational strain with their family. There could be violence or just an unhappy home life. And so that kid is at risk [of grooming by] an older man who shows up in her life and begins to act and behave like he’s romantically interested. 

“These kids desperately need help now. Nearly every prostitute that we see was a child once that was trafficked against her will and manipulated into a life. When you see it that way, suddenly you’re horrified on a whole new level.”

He says that in countries like the US, because being a sex worker is mostly seen as a choice, there isn’t the sense of crisis about sex trafficking in the public sphere that there should be.

“They [the public and the authorities] see the movie Pretty Woman and they think, ‘Wow that’s just a life choice of a person who could choose to get out of at any time.’ That’s just not the way it is.”

“I felt like he took care of me even though he would beat me”
Hollie

Hollie says there is also a misguided notion that trafficking is a crime that only takes place across international borders, or as a result of abduction. 

Despite almost a lifetime of being abused, manipulated and traumatised, Hollie eventually managed to escape her final trafficker. Physically leaving, however, wasn’t the main challenge she says. “I never identified as a human trafficking victim.”

She instead describes feeling a “trauma bond” to her traffickers. She says [of one of the men involved]: “I felt like he took care of me even though he would beat me and I’d wake up to him raping me.” She says she even felt love for him at times. “He was there for so long and probably one of the very few people in my life that had been consistent.”

Charities tackling human trafficking say a number of trafficking victims display the symptoms of so-called Stockholm syndrome - a psychological condition in which kidnap victims form an emotional attachment to their captors.

“It was like the fog was removed from my eyes and I was able to make a choice”
Hollie

Hollie was in and out of jail nearly 50 times on charges of soliciting for sex and drug possession, and during her final spell in prison she began attending a counselling group.

She says it gave her a powerful insight into how she might be able to start her life again. 

“We were going through power, control and manipulation one day, and all these things that these abusers and traffickers are doing to their victims [and] I identified. It was like a light clicked on for me and the fog was removed from my eyes, and I was able to make a choice. I empowered myself.”

She heard about a programme in Columbus called Catch [Changing Actions to Change Habits] Court that helps sex trafficking survivors. 

“While I was sitting in jail I wrote to Catch and asked them if they could save my life.”

Therapy in court

Judge Herbert at Catch Court

Catch Court is a government-funded programme run by the Franklin County Court in Columbus. It redefines women jailed for prostitution or crimes committed for their trafficker as victims and offers them a voluntary path to healing and recovery.

That involves two years of intensive probation, requiring a sober home, medically-supported addiction treatment and trauma therapy. 

Catch Court was set up in 2009 by Judge Paul Herbert, after he noticed a trend in defendants on prostitution charges showing visible signs of abuse. 

Of over 1,000 women arrested for prostitution in Columbus, Judge Herbert found 92% of them qualified as trafficking victims. 

He says that while prostitution is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession, for him it’s “the world's oldest oppression of women and girls and vulnerable populations”.

“A woman is using drugs to medicate her trauma and then she winds up having to sell her body to get the drugs to medicate the trauma” 
Judge Paul Herbert

Each week for Catch, the women on the programme must report to Courtroom 12C in Columbus to update Judge Herbert on their progress. It’s a day for affirmations, accountability, and celebrating breakthroughs - however small. 

Over lunch there is laughter and chatter – it’s clear new friendships are forged here. “We are going to love you until you love yourself,” is a phrase that is often passed between them. 

Women in Catch Court

Women in Catch Court

The proceedings are generally informal. Judge Herbert opts for pink shirts rather than his courtroom robe, motivational speakers attend, and he says he tends to “take a step back”. 

“By the time the handcuffs come off, we’re hoping that [the trafficking survivor] looks forward to coming to court and being part of that camaraderie,” he says. 

Catch Court says its recidivism rate is much lower than the national average. Judge Herbert attributes much of this to rigorous trauma therapy. 

“A woman is using drugs to medicate her trauma and then she winds up having to sell her body to get the drugs to medicate the trauma. We found that once you settle that trauma down, they don’t want to use drugs any more. The trauma is at the root of their drug addiction, rather than their drug addiction driving everything.” 

Women receive care packages from volunteers

Sex workers receive care packages

Hollie left prison in 2015 on Christmas Day. “It was my birthday, and it was the first day of my brand-new life. I haven’t looked back since I did intense trauma therapy and intense drug treatment. I did that for a year and focused only on getting my life together.”

Early on in her recovery, Hollie became involved in a non-profit organisation called Reaching for the Shining Starz, that hands out weekly care packages to possible victims of sex trafficking. She quickly became its executive director. 

“I felt like I caused this. I probably made it look really glamorous. I brought her into her own living hell” 
Hollie

The first time she went out with the group to volunteer, she noticed a young woman asleep on a street corner in the freezing cold. Handing her a care package, she realised with horror that it was her younger sister Rosie. 

“Tears just started flowing,” she says. “It was the first time I had seen her in a year and a half and it was the most horrifying thing. The last time I’d seen her, she was about 100 pounds heavier and looked so vibrant and beautiful. The woman in front of me had pock marks all over her face, track marks all over her arm, was soaking wet and had a black eye.

“I felt like I caused this because my mother brought me into the lifestyle, I was in the lifestyle, I probably made it look really glamorous and I brought her into the lifestyle. And I brought her into her own living hell.” 

Like Hollie, most of Rosie’s childhood had been one of abuse and being trafficked.

Hollie visited Rosie each week to hand her a care package. It took more than a year of gentle persuasion before Rosie decided to leave her destructive life behind. 

“I felt trapped and I honestly thought that I wasn’t going to make it out. I thought that I was going to die out here on these streets and that’s really what I believed. Today I'm just amazed with how far I’ve come,” Rosie says, smiling. 

Rosie and Hollie

Rosie and Hollie

Rosie, now 27, graduated from Catch Court in September and is working at Freedom a la Cart, a catering company that only employs survivors of sex trafficking.

The sisters have moved in together and spend time with each other most weekends.

“She’s my best friend and my little sister, and I missed not having her in my life for so long,” says Hollie.

“If I’ve made a difference in one person’s world, that’s all that matters to me”

Hollie

Hollie

“If I’ve made a difference
in one person’s world,
that’s all that matters to me”


Hollie

Hollie

Hollie secured a scholarship to study communications at Ohio State University and is now considering a law degree.  

For now she is back in court – not as a criminal but as a legal advocate for victims of domestic violence at the prosecutor’s office.

She describes it as her “greatest opportunity” and notes the irony. 

“Five years ago I was being prosecuted and sentenced to prison, and today I work for and with prosecutors,” she laughs. She also volunteers in Judge Herbert’s courtroom and continues to mingle with fellow survivors.

And she is planning another tattoo - a starfish.

She says it is a reference to a story, originally written by anthropologist and natural science writer Loren Eiseley, about a little boy on a beach where hundreds of starfish have washed ashore. As he picks them up and throws them back into the sea, an adult comes over to remind him that he can’t save them all.

“He picks up another and throws it back saying: ‘Well I just saved that one’.

“If I’ve made a difference in one person’s world - that’s all that matters to me. I can’t save the world. I’ll probably never end human trafficking, but my intention is to get plenty of people to rally around me so that I can make a dent.”


Watch the documentary: Surviving Sex Trafficking

Broadcast times on BBC World News:

Sat 7 Dec 2019 - 0910 GMT

Sun 8 Dec 2019 - 1510 GMT


Hollie is one of the BBC’s 100 Women of 2019.

See who else made the list.

BBC 100 Women logo


Credits

Author: Elaine Jung

Photography: BBC, Brian Caiazza

Visual effect designer: Jilla Dastmalchi

Online production: Paul Kerley

Editor: Sarah Buckley

Publication date: 26 October 2019