During an art-therapy session, Naticia Leon once stitched together fabric dolls without faces. “That’s what it feels like to be trafficked,” she says. “You’re not your own person. You don’t have an identity.”
For eight years, Leon worked across the West Coast of the United States under a series of sex traffickers. Each had named and renamed her many times. “They would tell me that this is what they’re gonna call me,” she explains. “Sometimes it would be Hispanic like Marta or Jessica. That was the case with most Mexican women—especially Marta. There were a lot of those.”
When assuming each persona, “at first, I would shut my emotions off temporarily,” she says. “Then, over time, it became just who I was. I started being monotoned every day—like a robot being programmed. That’s how I react to things all the time now. I’m not happy. I’m not angry. I’m not sad.”
I met the 28-year-old for the first time earlier this year in the waiting room of Jerome Potozkin’s office in Danville, California. The plastic surgeon offers free tattoo removals for sex-trafficking survivors. Syneron Candela, the makers of the PicoWay tattoo-removal laser he uses, arranges their transportation.* Leon was undergoing a second round of treatment to obliterate a mark made on her by one of her pimps. The tattoo reads “Smitty,” the street name of a former trafficker, and a sign to other pimps that she was his property. Nearly all of the women Leon worked with had them. Like her, many survivors are seeking out an array of charitable tattoo cover-up and removal services.
It has been a year and a half since Leon escaped. During this time, she has lived in a communal home for former sex-trafficking victims with her young son, run by Love Never Fails, an NGO operating in the San Francisco Bay area. When we met in Potozkin’s office, she greeted me with a hug—something she never would have been capable of until recently. A year and a half ago, even a handshake would have been too much physical contact, she says. Her new capacity for touch was a sign of her rehabilitation.