Bella Vendetta spends her days trekking to the grocery store to buy bag after bag of food and other necessities.
Most of her purchases aren’t for herself — they’re for her colleagues, other exotic dancers and sex workers in Western Massachusetts whose strip clubs are closed because of COVID-19. Many were barely surviving even before the pandemic hit, she said. She collects donations to benefit these dancers.
“Some people don’t have bank accounts. Some people are living in hotel rooms,” Vendetta said. “It’s not like they were living paycheck to paycheck, week to week. They were living in cash, day to day.”
Every industry has had its own struggles amid the pandemic — even strip club workers, whose plight has drawn little attention.
Under Governor Charlie Baker’s plan to restart the economy, strip clubs cannot reopen until Phase 4, or July 20 at the earliest. That date is ambitious, given that it’s contingent on case data, and the development of treatments or vaccines for the virus. And once clubs reopen, industry workers expect restrictions on contact and capacity that could diminish dancers’ pay.
Amid the pandemic, many sex workers have been forced to work online, turning to webcam performance, OnlyFans subscription-based content, or homemade videos, Vendetta said. Because of this, she said, her relief effort seeks donations of used computers or smartphones for dancers who cannot afford them.
Vendetta said all donations collected so far have come from other sex workers through TeamClearHeels413, a Western Massachusetts-based collective of current and former exotic dancers she founded four years ago. Now operating virtually, the collective’s Facebook page details the urgent needs of those who are out of work: non-perishable food, masks, and cleaning supplies.
“It’s been kind of incredible to see," she said, "but also a little sad, because the community can’t keep passing around the same 20 bucks to each other.”
The inspiration for TeamClearHeels413 came from locker room conversations among Vendetta and her coworkers that revealed an unmet need for education, comradery, and support. Vendetta, an exotic dancer for 13 years, organized the first meetings in the back room of a dive bar where a former dancer worked. The collective later moved to a community health space, with about 20 people gathering monthly.
“So many people I was working with or knew were going through pretty serious traumas," Vendetta said.
The meetings often tackled issues like legal representation or workers’ rights. Vendetta has training in suicide prevention and Narcan administration; others in the group with backgrounds in social work, substance abuse, or mental health practices contributed their expertise.
Earlier this year, Molly Morey, a dancer in Gloucester, connected with Vendetta on Facebook and established an Eastern Massachusetts chapter of the group, TeamClearHeels617. Morey created an anonymous “bad date list” for workers to report dangerous or negative interactions with customers to law enforcement and other sex workers, she said.
“Being a dancer can be extremely isolating," Morey said. "When I started dancing, I got ditched by a lot of my friends and people who didn’t agree with what I did.”
When the pandemic hit, members of the Western Mass. collective began checking in with one another virtually. Vendetta saw that some members were suffering acute needs and began organizing the relief effort.
Many of the dancers are eligible for unemployment benefits, thanks in part to a Massachusetts law that requires dancers to be employed as staff at clubs, not independent contractors. But Vendetta estimated that at least half the dancers she knows work off the books and are paid in cash, so they don’t have official documentation of their employment or earnings. Others don’t want to “out” themselves as sex workers or fear their children could be taken away if they do.
Some dancers who are receiving unemployment are finding it hard to make ends meet, she added, because unemployment benefits don’t account for tips, which made up the majority of their income.
“Some are barely surviving,” Vendetta said. “Some people in our group are living in vans and surviving on the donations we get.”
In Eastern Mass., Morey has been unable to organize a group meeting in person. Before the pandemic hit, Morey worked at a clean needle exchange in Lynn. Drawing on her background in harm reduction, she began mailing out packages of Narcan, condoms, and fentanyl test strips to sex workers in need when venues first shut down.
When clubs can return to business as usual, Vendetta said she expects many dancers will be unable to find work; many clubs were struggling before the pandemic and won’t reopen because they’ve lost so much income, she said, or because they can’t survive under new regulations. Although some dancers have discovered they prefer the autonomy and earning potential of online sex work, she said, those that return to clubs may be more vulnerable to exploitation than they were before COVID-19.
"Women are going to be really desperate to get back to work, " she said.
Grace Griffin can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @GraceMGriffin.