Her story reads like something out of an award-winning Hollywood movie, or perhaps a narrative that we would sooner associate with someone from across the world in an under-developed area. But Jennifer Kempton’s life of surviving the sex-trafficking trade hits a little closer to home.
She is from Ohio, and has suffered through horrific experiences none of us would wish on our worst enemies. An article on Thetab.com says at the age of 12, she moved to a rural town with her family, and was raped by a friend’s older brother at a sleepover one night. This was after already experiencing abuse in her family home.
When she told the police about the incident, the 18 year-old rapist and his friends threatened Jennifer, so she ended up telling the police she lied. When she told her mother what really transpired, she didn’t believe her. Such is the experience of numerous assault victims.
At the age of 16 Jennifer had her first child, and spent years in and out of abusive relationships. She got into a relationship with a man who she would end up staying with for years, and he started her on the road to becoming a sex trafficking victim.
This man got her hooked on drugs and her addiction became so bad she had to give her care of her child to her parents. After a while, her boyfriend began pressuring her to make money, and would take her to strip clubs, and perform sexual favors for people he found through Craigslist. But it wasn’t enough.
Her boyfriend eventually took her out on the streets to become a sex slave/prostitute to make more money from sexual exploitation. According to a report from Thompson Reuters, during this period, she was kidnapped by a group of armed men who locked her in a room for a week to have sex with a stream of men.
Jennifer eventually became pregnant again to her boyfriend/pimp, and as her body changed throughout pregnancy, her earnings decreased. Annoyed by this, her boyfriend sold her to a local gang in exchange for drugs and money. Jennifer escaped from this gang one night, and ended up hooking up with her boyfriend, who get her pregnant again.
During a cold night on the streets while she was pregnant, a stranger felt sorry for her and invited her to stay in his house. When she woke up, with all her clothes having been removed, she stood up and her water broke. She ended up having the baby at the stranger’s house, which was sadly born addicted.
Jennifer was taken to the hospital with her baby by paramedics, where she ended up giving it up for adoption. Her priority at the time was getting high, and she left the hospital to get back on the streets where she could earn money to buy more drugs.
The gang she was technically still “owned” by found out about the third baby she has, and gave her back to her boyfriend for good. This made him even more angry and violent, and he decided to teach her a lesson. Once again he decided to sell her, this time to the most violent gang in Columbus.
One night she was approached by a charismatic man who convinced her to come to his house. He became incredibly violence and brutally raped her and forced her to perform sexual acts at knife-point. He also raped her with a knife and left her bleeding profusely. Jennifer ran out of the house and tried to get help from passersby on the street, none of which offered to give her any aid.
Eventually, Jennifer found her way back to the house owned by the violent gang, and was told to clean herself up with paper towels. At this point, she was ready to end her life and went down to the basement to try and hang herself. Thinking this would be the only way to escape her life of misery and pain, the unexpected happened. The rope snapped.
In the midst of this despair, she recalls hearing a voice telling her she had a purpose in life, which wasn’t dying in the basement of a crack house. She says it was he voice of God speaking to her and it gave her the courage she needed to leave the violent life she was part of.
Jennifer told the gang of traffickers she was headed out to the streets to turn tricks for the day, but ended up finding a suicide intervention center who took her in. This is where she began her recovery process, and even started earning money in a way that didn’t involve exploitation of her body.
But her escape from a life of sex-trafficking was not yet complete. One of the marks of a victim is a tattoo or “branding” bearing the insignia or name of a pimp. Jennifer had a few of these tattoos and didn’t want to keep that daily reminder on her body anymore. She saved up money to get the tattoos covered over with other images, and although she only had $200, the tattoo artist took pity on her and decided to cover all of her brandings for the money she had.
Some of the images she now has include a rose and a bible verse from 1 Corinthian 13:4-13, a famous phrase that says “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Throughout the tattooing process, Jennifer started to feel freedom from her former life which kept her in the sex-trafficking world for 6 years. She also realized she was not the only victim going through what she had, and wanted to help others.
Today Jennifer promotes awareness about this horrific trade, gives talks in schools about prevention, and advocates for social change, especially in legislation. She told Thompson Reuters that she wants to see tougher penalties for pimps and traffickers, and better training for police to help identify victims. Just as crucial is her desire to see laws change to help prostitutes reform and rehabilitate their lives rather than criminalize them, and instead prosecute those who buy sex.
In recent years there has been a lot of investigation into discriminatory laws that can put women in jail for standing on a street corner with the intent to sell sex, whereas a person buying it has to be caught discussing payments for them to be arrested. Advocacy groups are now working with various state legislators and police departments to educate them on the need to view trafficked persons as sexual assault victims, not criminals. Many of these investigative reports look to other countries which have made this pivotal shift in their legislation around prostitution, and Jennifer also points to countries like Canada and some European in her interview with Reuters.
Statistics show there are an estimated 21 million people caught in the human trafficking trade worldwide, 4.5 million of which are specifically trafficked for sexual exploitation. It is an industry that generates $150 billion annually according to the International Labor Organization, making it the third largest criminal enterprise in the world.
In the US, an estimated 80% of women trafficked into prostitution are U.S.-born citizens, and 60% of child sex-trafficking victims come from the foster care system. Like Jennifer’s story, this is a criminal epidemic that is happening right around the corner from us.
It is often considered the modern day form of slavery, yet there are more human slaves today than at any other point in human history. One thing is does have in common with former slavery movements of the past, is the branding of victims, says Jennifer Kempton.
“Slaves have been branded for centuries and it’s just evolved into being tattooed. It’s happening all over the world,” she said. Because of her experience and the freedom she felt after having her branding tattoos covered up, she created an organization called Survivors Ink, which helps other victims and survivors have their brands covered up.
“It was very empowering for me so I wanted to pay forward that liberation to other girls in my area who had been branded like cattle, just like I was,” she said.
Jennifer’s story has become a ray of hope for many others, and it even became the subject of a music video narrative for British artist Scott McFarnon. For his song ‘Crazy Heart’, the video recounted the main aspects of Jennifer’s story as a sex slave, and shows her transformation from victim, to survivor, to advocate with her organization Survivor’s Ink.
We hope her story will continue to touch many more lives, and raise awareness about his shocking and pervasive evil around the world. You can watch Scott McFarnon’s ‘Crazy Heart’ below: