Editor’s Note: These are snippets from the life of a young girl named Adriana. She was 13 when she entered what she calls “the life” filled with pimps, customers, money, guns, and drugs.
It’s like a drug. It picks you up and then it smashes you on the ground. While you’re into it, everything is skewed.
You are told your life is going to be special. You are told you will live the high life filled with beauty and glamor, money and more admiration than you can stomach. It is exciting.
You are introduced to women who are older than you, and they are pretty. They wear bright, pretty clothes, their hair is perfect, their mani-pedis sparkle. They seem delightful. They are all having fun in Los Angeles.
You want to be them. Confident, assured, and they tell you they’re making big money. This is the life, you think to yourself. No rules. Just fun.
Then you begin. It’s a little scary at first. This isn’t your average job. Sometimes it involves men who are drunk and dirty. Sometimes they scare you. Sometimes they threaten to kill you. Sometimes they hold knives to your belly. Sometimes it’s a gun to the head.
You learn how to calm them down even when you are terrified. You are only 13. But you are told everyone who isn’t in your line of work is lying to themselves.
The people society deems as normal are slaves, too, they just don’t know it. They are “squares” that don’t get it. They’ll never get you. Before you know it, you believe in that.
You believe you will never fit into a normal life as a wife with a caring husband. You can’t imagine that even exists. You decide this life is better. It is more exciting. You get to do what you want.
Well, except when your trafficker doesn’t get the money he has demanded. Then you get beaten and berated. You decide you will be the best there ever was at this. You will work 24 hours a day if you have to to make his quota. You are doing it. You are praised for your hard work. You are rewarded with visits to the salon.
This is the life you have chosen, you tell yourself.
Sometimes he treats you like a daughter. Sometimes a lover. Sometimes an object. Depends on his mood. He always wants you to prove your loyalty, prove your worth, prove your love. You are now 14.
He says the best way to prove all of that is to put something permanent on your body to let everyone know you are his. It’s kind of like a wedding ring, he tells you.
It’s his nickname, in black ink tattooed on your body. You aren’t the only girl who has been asked. At first all the girls say no. You do, too.
But then you decide you want to be his “bottom bitch,” the one who will do everything and anything for him. It means you can rule above his other girls. I’ll do it, you say. You want to be special.
You’re in a house. It is filthy. There is a mattress on the floor. The stench of sweat and sex fills the air. There’s a tattoo gun. Some ink. There’s a man sitting there. He’s your trafficker’s brother. Is the needle clean? You wonder. You don’t ask. You sit down.
He begins to poke away at your skin. It takes a while. Your skin is hot and swollen. The letters “CREAM” blare from your chest. They have a meaning. “Cash Rule Everything Around Me.”
That’s what your boss goes by. That is what has just been tattooed on your chest. You beam with pride. Someone claims you. This is your new family. You belong. He looks at you differently now, you think. It’s true he does. He has just marked his property. Now everyone will know you are his.
Four years later, you are still doing the same thing. You are not free. You are not filled with joy. You are not living the glamorous life you were promised. Not yet. It will happen, you tell yourself.
One day you meet someone who used to be like you but 20 years older. Her teeth are knocked out. Her fingernails are dirty. Her hair disheveled. The younger girls call her dirty whore and crack head, but not you. On this day, you decide to stop and talk to her because business is slow.
You ask who she is. She tells you her life story, at least the most dramatic parts. She was pretty, just like you, back in the day. She was the apple of everyone’s eye on the strip. She could do no wrong. She could make more than any of the other girls.
But one day she got picked up by the wrong customer. He smashed her teeth out. Left her bruised and battered by the road. She felt ugly. She needed something to mask the hurt, the shame and the self-loathing.
She started taking drugs. The drugs started to rule her life. It didn’t take long until she couldn’t find her way out. The streets became her forever home. There was no going back.
You snap out of it. You stop believing in the dream you were promised four years ago when you were 13. You know you have to get out.
You don’t know how. You are still addicted to “the life,” but you aren’t addicted to drugs. Now you are not sure which one is worse.
The drugs are worse, you tell yourself. That is why you refuse to take them. But the emotional addiction to “the life” is also powerful.
Your withdrawals are just different. You feel the pain of loneliness, shame, doubt and disjointedness, all at once some days.
You are so used to being on alert, from the dangerous guy, or the beatings by the man who is your new “father” on the streets. You can’t calm down long enough to feel safe no matter where you are.
You want to start your life over, but there are too many options. Which one do you pick? Will the world accept you as something else, someone else?
You have spent your teenage years selling yourself, proving your toughness, your beauty, your worth in dollars and cents. All you really want is love, but you didn’t know how to name it back then.
Your heart keeps getting broken, dozens of times. But it won’t stop breaking. You are in tiny pieces and decide that each piece will have a name. For each piece, you create a different persona. This is how you cope.
You pick yourself up, dry your eyes and go back out. Sometimes it happens in a car, sometimes in a hotel room, sometimes in an apartment. Sometimes it makes your skin crawl. Sometimes it’s OK because he’s nice. It pays well, sometimes.
Adriana says she chose “the life” because she was rebellious. She realizes now she was trafficked, but she does not want to be looked upon as a victim.
The marks of another life
She is strong and smart but even with her beautiful mind, she was tricked into a world she thought she could master, manipulated by men three times her age.
One after the other, they and the women who had come into the life just like her found the most vulnerable parts of her heart and used them to bend her mind.
She is not alone. We met her in a safe home where there were more than a dozen girls with similar stories, all trying to leave the life after being victims of sex trafficking.
Many of them wear the marks of that life.
In the past few years, police in the United States say they have noticed that traffickers are making their mark on the girls like never before.
It’s all part of the gang culture that has taken over the sex trade in the streets of America.
In a disgusting display of dehumanization, the traffickers brand or tattoo the girls to show they own them. The marks on the girls tell their story on the street.
Some girls have several different tattoos. Each time they are worked by a different trafficker, they are branded with different labels.
Sometimes it’s an old-fashioned money-bags image. Sometimes it’s diamonds. Sometimes it’s a trafficker’s name across the forehead. Sometimes it’s an ATM etched on the skin near their groin. We’ve even seen a barcode put on a girl’s wrist, like an item in a grocery store.
America has seen these marks before. Slave masters used branding as a way to mark the African American men, women, and children they bought and sold.
It’s 2015, and slavery is still alive. It’s just taken a different form.