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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Earlier this week I stumbled across an interesting (old, but new to me) article where Benedict Cumberbatch talks about how he thinks of his Sherlock character’s sexuality. He said:

He’s repressed his sexual drive and a lot of other things in his life, simply because he doesn’t want to waste his time. The man’s too busy to have sex – that’s really what it is. Not every man has a sex drive that needs to be attended to. Like a lot of things in his life where he’s purposely dehumanised himself, it’s to do with not wanting the stuff that is time-wasting, that’s messy. That goes for certain relationships as well as sexual intimacy. To the Victorian eye he’s an eccentric, but I think he has purposely repressed those things. [emphasis mine]

The article summarizes Benedict’s comments as “almost asexual so he can commit himself to working out the mysteries.” But that strikes me as really a very misleading summary of these comments, and it rests on a misunderstanding of what it means to be asexual.

In the Arthur Conan Dolyle originals, I can’t remember seeing a single reference to Sherlock ever having a girlfriend or a boyfriend. That’s not so odd; Watson is described in The Sign of Four as a man with “an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents“, but we never really see him go on a date or hear the details of his romantic life. He’s obviously married at least once (and arguably several times), but Doyle hardly seems interested to keep track of the details, let alone using them to develop these details into part of his characterization.

What does this have to do with Sherlock and asexuality? Well, when it comes to Doyle, absence of evidence simply isn’t evidence of absence. It’s obviously not proof of it, either. I personally see three real interpretations of Sherlock’s romantic interest and sexuality:

1. Sherlock is just as driven to romance and sex as any other man of his time. He has relationships; they’re simply not Doyle’s focus and so don’t get mentioned.

2. Sherlock has at least a moderate sex drive but he’s more driven to solve cases. He suppresses that sex drive so as to avoid the attraction.

3. Sherlock genuinely isn’t interested in sex or romance. He wouldn’t pursue relationships even if they didn’t interfere with his work.

Phrases like “just as driven to ______ as any other man of his time” don’t really strike me as a good description of Holmes. It’s a possibility for people who want to take it, but not how I see Holmes. For me, the really interesting choice is between the second two options. Is Sherlock simply not interested in sex at all, or is he choosing to suppress those desires for some reason?

2383218In the quote above, Benedict Cumberbatch seems to point to both interpretations, and I don’t think both can be true. If Sherlock genuinely lacks “a sex drive that needs to be attended to,” that’s coming close to how I understand asexuality. The FAQ at the Asexual Visibility and Education Network is a good resource on this topic. As I understand it, asexuality where you simply don’t experience sexual attraction to other people. Asexuals often form romantic attachments and some even have sex for non-sexual reasons (to satisfy or express love for their partner, to conceive a child, etc.) There are also some people who identify as asexual (sometimes as gray-sexual) when they go through both sexual and asexual phases.

The key thing for the purposes of Sherlock: being asexual doesn’t mean you experience sexual attraction and choose not to fulfill it or choose something else that’s more important to you – it means you simply don’t experience sexual attraction. You can enjoy the aesthetics of a beautiful body, you can have romantic relationships, you can even have sex for reasons other than because you feel sexual attraction. Some asexuals aren’t driven romantically at all; others simply don’t want sex, at least not for the same reasons as sexual people do. And to be absolutely clear: you can be asexual and gay or straight or bi or any other orientation you could think of. This is about whether you want to have sex and why, not who you want to have it with (or more commonly, who you want to form a romantic relationship with, whether it’s sexual or not.

The second possibility is that Sherlock actually is sexually attracted to people but that he’s sublimated this attraction. This seems to be the line that the BBC is taking in the scene at Angelo’s in “A Study in Pink”:

Sherlock’s description of being “married to his work” are particularly interesting to me because they call to mind the idea I’ve heard from a nun friend that nuns often consider themselves “brides of Christ.” It’s not so much that they aren’t sexual or romantic in any way; a nun can be just as sexually interested as any other person. However, they choose to take that sexual attraction and turn it into something else. This is quite different from an asexual, who wouldn’t have any sexual interest to be sublimating in this way.

As much as I wish Sherlock really was asexual (I love the idea that you can have a full life that’s not built around romance, as I’m not particularly romantically driven myself), I really don’t think that’s what the BBC version is giving us. The BBC version of Sherlock has a strong intellectual understanding of sex if his conversation with Mycroft in “A Scandal in Belgravia” is to be taken literally, and he has no problem being sexually attracted to Irene Adler. (I mean, the dream; his reaction to waking up; the scene where he’s just passing out…) He’s downright tender with Molly, and as for John, well, there’s enough subtext there to make a five-course meal if you were so inclined. The BBC version of Sherlock seems much more like someone who’s chosen some type of celibacy rather than a true asexual. Though out of fairness, asexuality is more of a spectrum than a yes/no identity, just as I believe hetero-, bi-, and homosexuality are. Sherlock probably has a lower sex drive than most people do if he’s willing to suppress it in the interests of his work. So he may be edging towards the asexual end of the spectrum to begin with. But really, at least in the BBC version, it seems like the it’s a willful choice, not a complete lack of sexual feeling, that’s driving this character.

Here’s the interesting thing: this isn’t the only bit of his humanity Sherlock has suppressed to become the best consulting detective possible. In “The Great Game” John chastises him for not caring about the people he hurts, and by the end of that episode he sees to John rather than chasing after Moriarty. Mycroft tells him, and Sherlock agrees, that sentiment is a defect rather than a strength, but in Baskerville Sherlock readily admits that he has at least one true friend he cares about. And Reichenbach… do we really need to go into how Reichenbach is all about the importance of sentiment and human connection?

My take: Sherlock has a moderate to low sex drive. He’s not a true asexual, but he finds it messy (emotionally and physically) and certainly not as important as other more intellectual priorities. I can see him having sex to learn what it feels like and he’s certainly able to use his sexuality to get what he wants (c.f. pretty much all of Molly’s season one appearances, particularly in “The Blind Banker”). On the gay/straight/whatever question, I don’t think he fits into any of those camps neatly because he seems more drawn to intelligence and character that excites him than to anything physical – which could just as easily be found in a man as in a woman, and isn’t really an attraction to them as their gender but is organized on some other line of attraction entirely. I also believe he has a relationship with Watson that functions like an old married couple, both emotionally and practically, whether or not there’s actual romance at the center of it. For the interested, I talked more about my thoughts on this point in my recent post, “In Which I Declare my Tenancy on the Good HMS Johnlock.”

Here’s the thing, though. That’s just my take. Yes, I’ve read every Doyle story I could get my hands on years ago and am currently (slowly) working my way back through them. Yes, I’ve watched the BBC episodes entirely too many times to admit it in writing and am also making progress on the Brett series, at the suggestion of a friend. I have theories and speculation and ideas, but they are really just one person’s ideas. Benedict Cumberbatch perhaps has special insight into how Steven Moffat and the rest of the BBC crew are thinking about Holmes. He certainly has as much exposure to Doyle as I do (I believe he read all the Doyle stories to prepare for the role?). But he doesn’t have any monopoly on ways to interpret the original character. I’d even say that once you put your own version out there, you almost have to expect that other people will build on it and read it in their own ways, though those other people (subcreators, to borrow JRRT’s term) shouldn’t really expect their personal interpretations to be reflected in the canon or in other peoples’ read of the character.

Let me put it more simply: there’s more than enough Sherlock to go around. Write him as sexual to more or less degrees who chooses to be celibate for the sake of his work. Pair him with John, or Irene, or Molly, or Sally, or Lestrade, or Moriarty, or the Doctor, or Dumbledore, or whomever else catches your fancy. Convince me. (Some will take more convincing than others.) Make him a true asexual if you like – not an impossible sell by any means, even if it’s not the route my brain takes most naturally.

Just don’t write him as actually liking that death frisbee-thing, and I think we’re cool.



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 22nd, 2013 11:44 pm (UTC)
I'm learning more about Sherlock reading your posts than I ever did in school, for all that one English teacher made us read it. :)

Your discussion of asexuality made me go catch up on Shades of A. Have you ever read it?
Nov. 23rd, 2013 05:40 am (UTC)
To be fair, a lot of what I'm discussing is the show rather than the stories. And I'm probably ot as clear to distinguish one for the other as I should. I'm glad you're learning things and I hope you're enjoying my thoughts.

Never read Shades of A - what's it about? Should I?
Nov. 23rd, 2013 01:19 pm (UTC)
It's a webcomic that was originally intended to be a Shades of Grey parody, hence the title, then the author actually read the book and decided to try to do something better that dealt with how the real world works, and wherein people had actual personalities.

The main character identifies as predominantly asexual, and at the beginning his friend ropes him into going with them to a kink club as moral support since the friend is going for the first time to meet some people they've talked to online. At the club he ends up talking with a transvestite about "everything from computing theory to Dr Who (which got many other people joining in)." After that it's more or less a slice-of-life comic about him, his life, and a developing romantic but non-sexual relationship with the transvestite.

Not safe for work (boobs), and there's a whipping demo going on at the kink club when they arrive so we see two panels with that. I can't think of anything else to warn you about.
Nov. 23rd, 2013 06:21 am (UTC)
Conan Doyle's Sherlock seems to be, from canon, to be asexual and passionless, according to Watson in the first paragraph of A Scandal in Bohemia. We also see what seems to be his actual disdain for Watson's fondness for women, his wife in particular.

Having said that, I do see Cumberbatch playing him more celibate by choice. I think we see glimpses and moments of passion here and there such as his odd dark need for for Ms. Adler, his caring about John when he really to care so little for anyone else.

What do you think of Brett? He is my favorite after the canon but Cumberpatch is... well, he's so different from anyone I've come across.
Nov. 23rd, 2013 06:04 pm (UTC)
This is why I am rereading the Doyle stories. The BBC show has so overtaken my imagination, and I first read the stories so long ago, it's a bit hard to remember exactly what Doyle said. I had a vague idea that this was a change from the canon, but couldn't remember why exactly. For that same reason, it's a bit hard for me to unravel Doyle's Sherlock from the BBC version of him when I'm talking about it because in my mind they've become more or less melded. They're so similar but substantively different at certain points as well.

As for Brett: I've only seen the first three episodes, but he's lovely Enigmatic and socially unrestrained but a bit more like the reserved man I'm finding in the actual Doyle as well.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 23rd, 2013 01:30 pm (UTC)
Dunno if a different interpretation might help, but I read dehumanizing in this context more like de-boning or de-stressing. Since he's /removed/ sexuality from his life, he's removed a part of his natural human self, hence de-humanized himself. It would be different if he were naturally asexual.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 25th, 2013 09:25 pm (UTC)
I may be making too fine a distinction here, and the last thing I want to do is defend someone who smears asexuality since I fall toward that end of the spectrum.

That said, I'm not sure the point is that you can't be nonsexual and still be a good human. Rather, this seems to be something of a trend for the BBC version of Sherlock. He takes all these human impulses toward friendship and sentiment and romance, and he buries them. He takes great pride in being emotionless. The problem isn't that he didn't feel those things (which would be IMO a perfectly healthy way to be on its own), but that he thought being the best detective in the world was worth sacrificing those things which he did have in some level. So I'm not sure this quote has to mean asexuality ==> inhumanity. It seems to be the way this version of Sherlock suppressed (even excised?) his sexuality denies its value. It's part of trying to turn himself into a kind of machine.

That seems quite different from asexuality, where people don't have those erotic feelings to begin with. Asexuals can live fully human lives, no question. And there are probably some things that are worth not expressing your natural sexuality to pursue. (For instance, as a Christian I believe celibacy should be the natural state outside of monogamous, permanent relationships; and I certainly respect people who choose to be celibate for a cause worth pursuing.) The problem is that turning himself into a great observer of human behavior without being able to experience it --and this goes beyond sexuality, though sexuality is a part of it-- doesn't make Sherlock a better person. It makes him a worse one IMO. Not because asexuality or a certain type of sexuality is wrong; it's because Sherlock isn't an asexual, and because the reason he's choosing celibacy doesn't seem worth it.

But I will say this: as I reread my Doyle, the way the BBC crew is handling this issue bothers me more and more. Sherlock isn't treated as someone who is simply passionless when it comes to human relations; he's treated as someone who's suppressed that side of the character and is being pulled out of it. It does take away one of our best models of a good, asexual characters, and the fact that they don't think being asexual is interesting enough isn't sitting well with me. My response to your indignation may have more to do with a growing frustration with a much-loved show rather than being a fair reaction to you. I don't know for sure; but it's a definite possibility.
Nov. 23rd, 2013 05:56 pm (UTC)
I read it along the same lines as Fractalwolf: not that asexuality per se was dehumanizing but that this version of Sherlock's celibacy came because he wanted to remove the human parts of his personality. That he had passions but was trying to ignore them or minimize their influences in a way to become so analytical that he could solve any puzzle. As I said, that's not true asexuality and I think the dehumanization he's talking about isn't asexuality so much as this drive to push sex out of the picture.

Which doesn't really help that much because it means that celibates aren't fully human either - that if you have a sex drive and choose not to act on it, that has to be a bad decision. An idea I reject in a big way.
Nov. 23rd, 2013 03:22 pm (UTC)
I've never seen "Sherlock", but I like that clip VERY much.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )



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