Romina Rosales didn’t find mindfulness through some crystallized, flash-of-God style moment.
“I used to go to Kundalini yoga high,” she laughs. “I went dutifully. I was always searching. I just knew there was something I had to do, but I could never figure it out. Little did I know that I was working toward it even going to yoga classes high as hell.”
Rosales was in the sex work industry for years, dancing and working with sugar daddies. That’s what she was doing when she started practicing mindfulness. Once she started, she realized she wanted to transition out of sex work and start teaching others. She took meditation training at Ananda Los Angeles, among other courses she’d been too afraid to take for years. Now, she operates a program called Queens of the Underworld, where she helps sex workers develop self-care and mindfulness skills. She does outreach on Skid Row in L.A., and sees clients in the U.S., Canada, and Europe through Instagram and FaceTime video sessions. Most of her clients are people doing survival sex work on the street, without much support. It’s not about denigrating the industry, for Rosales — it’s about providing safe, non-judgmental support to a group of workers whose needs are usually sidelined, ignored or invented by outsiders. She spoke to Sarah Ratchford.
Sarah Ratchford: Tell me a bit more about how you found your spiritual practice.
Romina Rosales: One day I was coming down off of drugs and I saw my son looking at me. And I was — about to turn 35? And he was about to turn 15, and I said to myself, ‘He’s never going to look at me this way again.’ And I just stopped. It was so weird. And then I enrolled myself in outpatient drug treatment to find out the why. Why did I do drugs? I was in the program for a long time and I learned how to live. I had to relearn everything. I wasn’t taught anything really, because I had been a chronic runaway, I was abused, I was trafficked, and I didn’t have food in the home… I was not taught fundamental things that you would expect a normal family to teach a young woman. So I put myself in outpatients and found out oh — I’m sad. [Laughs] I’m just really sad. And I’ve always been sad. And I’ve never felt like anyone ever loved me because I wasn’t shown love.
SR: That’s a lot to process.
RR: Oh my God! I was just this sad little girl who didn’t have a voice and got beaten and abused and neglected and all the things that happen to sad little girls. And so I put myself in therapy and I went diligently, and that’s when I was introduced to mindfulness. It felt immediate, and since I’m an addict, I want a… fast answer. So it’s kind of amazing. All I have to do [when I feel emotions welling up] is go and wash my face with cold water a couple of times to distract myself, and then I’ll feel some relief. Wow! When you get clean, everything is so overwhelming, plus you’ve got feelings now. It can be really debilitating.
SR: So how did you get to the point where you realized this was a chance for you to give back to your sex work community?
RR: After getting clean, it got harder to work because I was finding my true self. Dancing used to serve me, but it had stopped serving me. I was turning 40, and I was like I have to… do something. I still have to find my purpose. So I went to school and started an esthetician business. And I was clean and successful. I was doing well. And then I married an addict. He was in recovery and had clean time, but had no spirituality and hadn’t done any work on himself. So I was abused. I couldn’t give my energy to my clients. I started losing business, so I went back to doing what I do best and that’s being a stripper. I was in the dressing room one night like ‘How… did I end up back here? I’m clean, I’m smart, I’m resilient. What is it?’ Then I started looking around the dressing room like, there’s some really intelligent, capable women working with me. Why are we all here? So I find this survey called the adverse childhood experiences questionnaire. It’s a test to gauge the level of trauma you experienced in your formative years. Out of ten I was like an 8 or a 9. And so I printed 20 of them out and put them in little folders. I didn’t even know what I was doing. But I passed out these surveys to every girl I knew. And I realized that many of us had experienced the same kind of abuse.
SR: So what did you do with that information? What are some of the community’s spiritual and mental health needs that you’re trying to address now, with Queens?
RR: There’s so much whore shaming, and there’s no compassion or understanding. So I needed to provide a safe space where these girls can tell me anything and learn how to cope with what they do. It’s not that I’m trying to get them out of it. That’s not my business. But what I want them to know is that they have to have a balance. I tell them, ‘You can be hyper-vigilant in your work life, but when you go home, I want you to leave that girl there, learn about yourself, learn about your body and what you really want.’ A lot of girls call me after they’ve been robbed and they need to calm down and do something to release so they can go back out and make money. So I teach immediate coping skills because that’s what they need.
SR: Tell me a bit about the work you’ve done with pimps and others in management.
RR: It’s been a bit of a controversy! People are like, ‘Why does Romina love pimps?’ When I started learning about abuse and generational trauma, I saw that when people come from impoverished neighbourhoods, young men often become thieves or they start making music. So to be a pimp, in my community, was the ultimate. He had money, he was a gentleman. (Trafficking is different — I’m talking about consensual work.) So these men are just like sex workers, but they’re men. They suffered abuse, neglect, trauma and rape. So [with my exposure to] Buddhism — how could I judge them when they did what they had to do, just like men working corporate jobs, or in car dealerships? I got so much online bullying for saying this. If I was anti-pimp, pimps wouldn’t allow their girls to take my lessons. Now, some of them tell their girls, ‘… you should go.’
SR: As you’re helping those in the industry navigate anxiety, what are some of the self-care tips you share?
RR: For me, it’s about protecting myself. It’s about boundaries, figuring out what hurts you and what makes you feel resentful. Self-care is drinking water when you’re thirsty. It’s saying no. Sex workers have to present themselves in a certain way in order to survive. So I think it’s also breath — just taking a moment. If you learn to catch yourself and practice breath, you’re less likely to act out. It’s noticing those signs — is your neck tight? Jaw clenching? Heart racing? It’s tuning in to what we really feel.
This interview has been condensed and edited. For more of Broadview‘s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.