Queens of the Underworld: Sex Workers Meditate Too
The dharma talk starts in five minutes but Romina Rosales is outside, sharing a cigarette with a homeless woman who wears a ratty oversized jacket. “We live in California, where you can go to college and be protected if you’re an immigrant,” the woman says to Rosales. “It’s never too late to go back to school.” Rosales thanks her and hugs her goodbye and says she has to go. “But one more question,” Rosales asks of the homeless woman. “How can I be of service to you?”
“You already gave me a cigarette,” the woman says, smiling. Once inside the sleek Hollywood area Buddhist center, Rosales tells Playboy, “I should probably be hanging near the door and making friends because this isn’t my regular meditation place but those are my people.” Rosales calls her people Queens of the Underworld–fellow sex workers, mostly not by choice but out of necessity, who find sanctuary when they practice breath work. The mission statement of her organization goes way beyond meditation–it aims to “provide community for woman-identifying and femme sex workers and serves as a resource for learning coping skills and self-care.”
She is determined to offer a “non-judgmental, non-denominational space to find understanding, compassion and healing for toxic work environments and associated trauma.” She is the first to say she’s neither a psychologist nor social worker, but rather a connector. “Do what you have to do,” she advises in one of her self-help-style videos, “but also work towards finding your purpose in life. Once I started realizing that I’m more than just a sex object or something to jack off over and started getting courage, my life started changing.”
Rosales inherited her kingdom last year while sitting on the toilet backstage between sets at a San Fernando Valley strip club in her seven-inch heels and leopard g-string at the age of 42, watching fellow dancer McDreamy kick back and dive into a Tolstoy novel. “I thought it a shame that the woman’s main goal in life was to become a tarot card reader,” Rosales says. “She was brilliant. It didn’t make sense. I was wondering why she never went to college.Then I looked at myself and asked ‘what am I doing here?’ I wondered how we all came to be in this place.I really wanted to know.”
A week later, Rosales created a Commercial Sex Worker questionnaire she handed out to every dancer, dominatrix and prostitute she knew. On it she asked about age, sex, ethnicity, education levels, “last job held before becoming a sex worker,” childhood, addiction, income, reasons for performing sex work, opinions on legalization and whether intercourse with clients was ever enjoyable.Some refused to fill out the survey, but to her surprise, the stories started pouring in and her research led to the CDC-Kaiser ACE study, “one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being.” She found what most social workers and therapists already know, that many sex workers experience abuse, neglect, and molestation in early childhood, which can lead to what are called “health-risk behaviors.”
Rosales wasn’t sure what to do with her findings, but she started a Facebook group, website and Instagram account crowned Queens of the Underworld. “I wanted to use the word ‘queen’ because we’re always called pieces of shit whores or whatever. We’ve never been built up before. We’ve been used and abused, sometimes even by other women,” she says. Besides meet-ups, she counsels her “Baby Queens” through social media, lending an ear for moral support and pointing them toward resources ranging from suicide and self-harm hotlines to mind-calming mudras and mantras. She also employs an assistant and mentors up to four women at any given time, checking in and offering advice via daily texts.
In the last year since starting QOTU, Rosales has organized a crown-making workshop for sex workers (which involved a day of crafting crowns and vision boards), an outreach event called Gifts for Queens which rallied ten volunteers to hand out hundreds of donations of toiletries and necessities to women on LA’s Skid Row last Christmas Eve, and most notably, teaching breath-work to women in Lynwood Jail–a place she’d been locked up for six months twelve years ago for grand theft larceny. “It’s not like what it sounds. I owed money on car repairs,” she laughs. “But I liked prison. It gave me structure, just like foster care did.”
Women on the street, in the clubs and in jails listen to her, likely because she speaks from a place of authenticity. Rosales was neglected and abused by her own immigrant parents, which she says turned her into a “chronic runaway.” She finished high school via continuation school while living in the Penny Lane Residential Program and first learned about trading sex for money from her 17-year-old best friend. The friend sent her to an older man’s home in North Hollywood and when Rosales realized he wanted sex, she offered to clean his bathtub instead. “He gave me $50, the cheap ass.” Drug addiction and work in strip clubs soon followed, and she attracted her first sugar daddy while reading Autobiography of a Yogi at a Denny’s on Sunset Boulevard at the age of 20. She’s been married twice and has a 20-year-old son. “I’m good at choosing sugar daddies, just not love,” she shares.
“You’re not gonna tell a hooker on Skid Row, ‘Hey, let’s do some yoga poses!’ But I will teach anyone how to take a second to breathe and calm the mind. That’s something you can do even while walking the streets.”
Things shifted when she got sober at the age of 35 through twelve-step programs. “I woke up one day, my son was looking at me, and I’m like, ‘I’m never gonna let him see me like this again,’” she says. “That’s it. I don’t know what it was, it was just that a-ha moment.” She had been going to yoga classes “high out of [my] mind” for years but nothing stuck until she discovered meditation classes at Ananda LA, part of the Self Realization Fellowship founded by Paramahansa Yogananda—the author of Autobiography of a Yogi. She has completed most of their Meditation Teacher Training and passes on the breathing exercises that have helped her so much to anyone who will listen. “You’re not gonna tell a hooker on Skid Row, ‘Hey, let’s do some yoga poses!’” she says. “But I will teach anyone how to take a second to breathe and calm the mind. That’s something you can do even while walking the streets.”
She is still trying to figure out how to monetize her outreach—whether it should be a legitimate business or a nonprofit. She worked as an aesthetician for a while but “it wasn’t enough, emotionally.” Rosales keeps a toe in sex industry by dancing and hustling up money from her “pay pigs,” but uplifting Queens is what brings her joy. “I think that the universe took me from those other things to guide me into this.”
She dreams of building a drop-in center one day, a place that provides immediate relief and a road for others to find their respective purposes. “I want to have meditation classes, maybe pole dance classes. I want to have in-house therapists and showers and a couch if someone is working the track and wants to just take a fucking 10-minute nap.”