May We Present… My Love is a Beast by Alexander Cheves
Author: Dale Corvino
July 6, 2022
Welcome to May We Present…, a column from Lambda Literary that highlights authors with recent or forthcoming publications. This MWP discusses Alexander Cheves’ My Love is a Beast, published on October 12th, 2021 by Unbound Edition Press. It is a memoir told through a collection of lyric essays, threading Cheves’s transgressive arc from adopted son of conservative Christians to sex columnist, sex worker, self-avowed slut, and kinkster.
In an interview with Lambda Literary Fellow and fellow sex worker Dale Corvino, Cheves discusses his writing and publication process, his interactions with sex work and kink communities, and the topics of consent, agency, and disclosure.
How did My Love is a Beast come to be?
I had a few pieces that I felt would make a book, so I just started asking around and pitched it to a few people. I’d worked with Patrick Davis, and he had just started Unbound Edition Press. I’d wanted to go the bigger press route, but a friend of a friend told me it would be a tough sell for a larger press. I wanted it to be graphic and sexual and they said I was an untested writer for such content. They’d want me to stick closer to what I’d already written for magazines. And so, I went with a smaller press because Patrick let me write the book I wanted to write.
Unbound has a stated commitment to queer and BIPOC authors. What has your working relationship been like?
I think its mission is admirable; to start a small literary press now is ambitious. Patrick ran a branding agency, so I knew that he was good. More importantly, I knew that he really cares about getting underrepresented writers into the fore and wants dissenting work. It’s queer-owned and publishing challenging work. I’m excited about their books in the pipeline. They just announced that Janet Hardy is publishing a meditation on queer aging, and my second book with Unbound is set to publish in 2024.
My Love is a Beast Is a memoir in the form of lyric essays, each examining a moment in your life, offering the reader depth but at times a fugitive view of the subject as compared to more conventional memoir forms. How do you see MLIAB within the genre of memoir?
I still struggle with its label as a memoir. When you write personal essays and put them in chronological order, that is a memoir, sure, but I really appreciate the view of it as a collection of lyric essays. I wanted each to stand on its own with minimal connective tissue to each other.
Your engagements in sex work struck me as so unburdened. You liked it, it was cash for your appetites, a side hustle, income during an unpaid writing internship. Were there nightmare calls? Or sublime ones?
Well, I’m still a sex worker, and I think everyone in the business has had some scary experiences. I’ve been doing this long enough to where I can look out for bad actors and bad situations. When you’re younger you don’t know what to look for. I think every sex worker is going to tell you the same thing: any time heavy drugs are involved is potentially volatile. You have to create policies to protect yourself. My policy now is no hard drugs. If there’s travel, get a deposit. If there’s any suspicion whatsoever, get paid up front. I mean, I generally recommend getting paid up front. You learn how to take care of yourself.
We’ve both written about SESTA/FOSTA, the 2018 law intended to help law enforcement prosecute sex traffickers, which has had a chilling effect on online freedoms. I described the law as borne of a moral panic, “a narrative of rescuing innocents (and innocence)…” while you focused on the harms it does to queer people and sex workers. Four years in, the law has failed at its stated objectives. Where do we go from here, as queer people, as sex workers, as creators?
Well, we just elected a co-author of the law to one of the highest offices in the country: Vice President Kamala Harris. I think she’s an inspiring figure for women, but her placement does not bode well for the future of sex work. I think we are very far from decriminalization, and online censorship is going to get worse before it gets better. With the rise of NFT, crypto, and other trends, everything points to a heavily policed internet. We’re facing intense debates on image and content, ownership and safety. I shudder at the thought of a porn industry that only exists on the dark web. The more you push industries that will always exist underground—the more you criminalize—it doesn’t just go away. Like with drugs. You actually wind up pushing the people who would need support further underground, away from resources, away from safety. So it only puts people more at risk. It’s a delusion that these moral crusaders are operating under. I’m not normally such a prophet of doom but with this I think it’s going to get worse.
In the chapter “L.A.,” you broach the issue of disclosure. Did you feel equipped to handle disclosures around sex work, whether it was professional, personal, or with family?
AC: No, I still don’t. I kept those two sides of my life separate for a very long time. Maybe that’s not entirely true: I would casually reference the job in my blog. I wrote a few articles for The Advocate that mentioned that I was a sex worker. I never came out with this big announcement, I just started letting these separate threads come together. When we were working on the book, it became a branding issue. I was escorting under a different name, I used to have this nickname Beastly…so we had my worker name, my publishing name, my nickname, my blog name…and Patrick, a branding guy, was like, “Okay, we have to be a bit more cohesive. The book might get attention and you don’t want three different names out there.” So I took that and applied it to all parts of my life. I escort under my name now, and when that happened, all of my selves came together. I’m a writer and a sex worker, and there’s just going to be transparency. I knew that the interviews and the readings would come and I couldn’t be navigating who I am and what I am.
My mother knows that I’m a sex worker and that was a tough conversation. She found out and I basically said that there are parts of her that I can’t talk about: my parents are conservative Christians. They voted for Trump. I said, “If I look at those parts of you, I can’t have a relationship with you. So I choose to overlook some aspects of your life in order to know you and to come home and to love you. I just need you to return the courtesy.”
In the chapter “Submission,” you address agency and consent through specific experiences, which for me brought needed nuance to those topics often missing in public discourse. I was especially taken with the line, “I thought I had an issue with the labels—boyfriend, boy—but my true issue was with possession…” How has sex work and your engagement in kink communities—respectively—informed your ideas about agency and consent?
I’m currently writing an essay about consent for an upcoming book (Unsafe Words: Queering Consent in the #Me Too Era). I have complicated views of consent. I think that there are sexual communities and spaces with no overt, stated consent before or throughout a sexual encounter. Nobody fucks like that [with overt, stated consent]. I sure as hell don’t fuck like that because I like getting fucked by strangers in the back of a club. There are unspoken rules in my culture in which situational and implied consent work; we have to acknowledge that. That can be a threatening thing to say to people who believe that consent should always work the same way. But that’s a fantasy. We can’t pretend that there aren’t different views of agency across the world. Within queer culture, gay male culture is a micro-culture, and it should be respected as much as any other. It can be unfairly criminalized when it should be protected by law. I don’t think we’re ready to have that discussion. I’m ready for queerness and its sex practices to be seen and protected.
I think most kinksters have complex but well-developed views of agency because kink mandates a very clear understanding of one’s wants, desires, and limits. If anything the kink community is the community that should be leading these discussions. The surrendering of agency in this context really tests and stretches how far one’s agency goes. I can’t think of anything more important in sex than feeling like an agent. I think that is probably the most key ingredient to good sex. My agency allows me to be submissive, to be degraded. Because I want it and given the ability to have that dialogue only makes me feel more of an agent. Though what I’m doing might be perceived as facilitating violence, I feel like sex work—and especially kink—has given me greater agency over my body and my sex.
Throughout the text, other writers and poets are cited or summoned: Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, Nicki Minaj… In the chapter “Backroom” you describe reciting W.S. Merwin’s “For a Coming Extinction” to two lovers. In the poem, Merwin says to the whale, “We who follow you invented forgiveness / And forgive nothing” (5-6). So given your upbringing and its challenges, where are you on forgiveness?
That’s a beautiful segue. It’s a beautiful question. My biggest guilt with the book and the biggest thing that I was afraid of is that it was too harsh on my parents. I told the truth. Everything in the book happened. But I’m a loved kid. I was raised well. I went to college. I’ve had a great life. I’ve had privileges and opportunities few people have. Despite everything, I was able to go to school and be a writer. I owe my entire career to them. And then I write a book that paints them in a harsh light. There’s nothing left for me to forgive. They’ve only done right by me and that’s why I dedicated the book to them. All families are difficult, and most parent/child relationships are complicated. I had good parents, they’ve made some mistakes, said some bad things. That doesn’t make them bad parents; that makes them human. In the years since, I’ve only tried to love and understand. If anything, I’ve been the one unwilling or hesitant to forgive—sluggish to come around—and that’s on me. I still have to deal with my own fears of closeness associated with them.
Do you read other sex workers or sex work content?
I found an old copy of a book called Hustling: A Gentleman’s Guide to the Fine Art of Homosexual Prostitution by John Preston at the Housing Works bookstore. It’s out of print now; it was first published in the 90’s but it’s still relevant. I’ve learned almost everything I know about my job from John Preston. It’s amazing.
In “Prayer,” you talk to god, compare god’s love as it is purported to your own, and land on the book’s title: “My love is a beast…” Now that you’ve characterized your capacity for love and put it out there, how’s the beast?
I’ve had some uncomfortable encounters since writing the book. I wrote about sex for a long time, so I’m accustomed to people recognizing me and asking for advice, but now I’ve run into these weird situations where people have read the book and midway through a conversation, they’ll reveal that they know my personal triggers. I’ve given them a field guide to my sexuality. It’s one thing to write general sex advice, but now people know me and how I work and that’s a different animal.
I broke up with my partner, whose name is Ber in the book. We separated on Christmas, and bizarrely writing the book played a part [in] that. It made me realize our differences, and we lovingly separated. So I’m single now and it’s nice to have less work to do to tell people how I am. I’m running into the issue now where when I meet somebody new, they know a lot more about me than I know about them. I don’t think I fully grasped how much of myself I was putting out into the world, but I knew I wanted to put it all out there. I was inevitably going to run into this situation where I meet total strangers who know my turn-ons, my deepest fears and desires, and that’s a journey.
What’s that great quote about writing? I can’t remember who said it, but it’s, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” You need transparency because that’s where we connect; we don’t connect to general platitudes. Readers are intuitive; they can tell when you’re withholding.