Queens of the Underworld: sex workers breathing together

Latin America Regional Correspondent

A little more than a year ago, Romina Rosales, a Latin migrant 43-year-old sex worker, started “Queens of the Underworld”, a non-profit organisation based in L.A., California. According to their website, the organisation “provides community for women-identifying and femme sex workers that serves as a resource for learning coping-skills and self-care”. They are committed to providing a safe and welcoming atmosphere where sex workers can connect with resources, and to learn self-care and awareness through classes, mentorship, and peer support.

Latin American people make up the largest demographic in L.A., and at least 20% of the sex workers that Romina work with are Latin migrants. Many live under the threat of deportation. Although this has always been a problem for Latin people living in the United States, fear has increased under Donald Trump’s administration. Obama’s administration oversaw the deportation of 3 million migrants, making it the biggest period of immigrant deportation of all time. Now, Donald Trump is surpassing this. Deportations in February 2017 were 2.2% higher than the previous year under Obama, with most people being deported to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to ICE. There are not only more arrests - they are also more violent.

Some people Romina works with have married abusive men in order to get their papers. The ones that do not have papers cannot apply for state aid, and can’t get an apartment – or even a phone - in their name.

Building community

Romina told us that she has had anxiety issues for years, telling us “I couldn’t move further in my life until I started to process those issues”. One night, while she was in the dressing room of the strip club where she worked, she had the idea of asking other sex workers about their own anxiety problems. She made a survey, took copies and handed them out in a red file folder to every sex worker she could find. She received a lot of responses, and there she found out that there were a lot of common denominators related to the specific vulnerability of being a sex worker. One key thing she saw was the need for sex workers to find an atmosphere where they were validated and supported.

Rosales wanted to put faces to these stories and to reflect sex workers’ real experiences, giving them the space to discuss the many realities of sex work without judgement. The group often talks about the different paths sex work has. “I'm working with some girls who have been trafficked by their mother or boyfriends, and to those who have consciously made the decision to explore the freedom that working brings”. They support women who want to stop and will stop [doing sex work]; they support the ones that want to stop but not yet; and they support the ones who decide to stay in the industry. They show honestly, without victimisation, that “for some women sex work is empowering, while for others it has been a downward spiral of too much pressure and toxicity.”

In order to reach more sex workers, Romina started to use social networks to talk about her life experiences, her anxiety and depression issues, and to share skills that have helped her. She took a teacher training course in order to be able to teach her peers breathing exercises. As Rosales sees it, this is a simple tool that can help women while stripping, the same as outdoor sex workers while walking the streets, or while working in any other branch of sex work. “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”.

As well as this work, once a month Rosales visits sex workers from Skid Row, an area with one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the United States (around 8,000). She tells them about Queens of the Underworld, and sometimes gives them money or food after doing community outreach.

“I don’t have a (formal) space yet. I teach sex workers and even customers for free for now. I'm talking to a breath work teacher that trained me, to co-facilitate a class in the next few weeks. That will motivate me,” says Romina.