Human beings have used markings to denote ownership since before written language. They still use it on livestock, like a brand or a tag on cattle. Unfortunately, they have historically done this to other human beings as well — sometimes it’s in the form of brands or scarring, sometimes it’s in the form of tattoos. Ancient Romans would mark runaway slaves in this fashion; branding was also sometimes used to punish runaway slaves in early American history.

This practice persists today, among human trafficking victims and in the form of tattoos.

In the United States, this is a common practice to mark a trafficker’s “property” — a human being forced into the sex trade against their will, for example. These tattoos can come in all different forms and sizes, such as the name of the trafficker, their initials, a rose or a crown — it depends on the person marking their victims. Sometimes they have crude barcodes with numbers along the bottom to indicate ownership.

More recently, I covered a case where a human trafficking victim was forced to do all sorts of things for her “boyfriend.” After making a profit off of her time and time again, he told her that “it was about time [she] proved [her] loyalty.” In court, she called it a branding. She was not tattoo-free before this, but her others were colorful tattoos illustrating her faith or things she found pretty like a butterfly and a heart. However, when the trafficker forced her to get the new “branding,” it was a few plain black letters right above her vagina — his initials. After the ordeal was over, she had it covered up with another tattoo that had the life and vigor of her other ones.

However, this victim is just one example of many, and not all of them see it as a shameful brand. Many victims of trafficking have been tricked or convinced that a life like that is meaningful, or that it is an acceptable way of living, and that such a tattoo is more of an initiation into really being a part of the group. It’s this mentality that many traffickers seek to instill in their victims; what better way to keep someone from going to the cops if you convince them that you are on the same team? That the police are the enemy? Many of the traffickers make it feel like the victims are making these choices for themselves — there is nothing more deceiving than the illusion of freedom inside a prison.

Read more about trafficker’s methods of coercion here.

Note: Human trafficking is not limited to the sex trade — even in the United States labor trafficking thrives. The examples given, especially with branding in the U.S., just happen to be in regards to sex trafficking.

Ultimately, these “brands” can have many effects on the men, women, and children who bear the marks of their traffickers. Not only does it show others who “owns” the person, but psychologically it acts as a constant, physical reminder of the victim’s subservience to their trafficker.