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?
In 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.