I Want to Have Sex Like… John, Not Sherlock (BBC Miniseries)
Diving into the Media
Sherlock is a modern-day adaptation of the 19th century series of short stories Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s fast, it’s witty, it’s action-packed. The two main characters are good friends who meet, become roommates and partners in investigating crime. They have various romantic partners.
Of particular interest is that Sherlock Holmes seems to be asexual. It’s under discussion on Goodreads1, Benedict Cumberbatch said so2, more on that on the AVEN forum3, though Steven Moffat begs to differ4, and last but not least, Anagnori wrote a well-structured essay arguing Sherlock Holmes is asexual5, a post that also contains links to pointers for people wishing to portray characters as asexual themselves.
So I figured: I’d want to have sex, or a relationship, like Sherlock… right? Well, no. I actually prefer John’s love life. To recap: John Watson, soldier, doctor and heterosexual, has a significant girlfriend in the first series (season), dates throughout series one and two and is engaged and married to Mary Morstan in the third series. Sherlock, consulting detective with an indeterminate sexuality, claims to be “married to his work” at the start of the first series and has a girlfriend in the third series, and a does-he-doesn’t-he crush on Irene Adler in the second series. That Sherlock and John are regarded as a gay couple is a running gag throughout all three series6.
Sherlock and Mercenary Sex
I’ve never been simultaneously so in awe of a narrative and repulsed by a character’s action as in Sherlock. During episode 3.2, chronicling John’s wedding, Sherlock’s usual rant on the minutiae of people’s lives, in this case, the suitability of all male wedding guests for a roll in the hay, didn’t scare the bridesmaid he talks to off. It made Janine flirt with him, and him with her. She’s his girlfriend at the start of episode 3.3, but it is later revealed he started that relationship simply because she’s Magnussen’s PA, and he wanted access to the blackmailer’s building.
In other words, he had sex for a case. While he’s mimicked emotional reactions for cases before, this is the first time we see him use sex, and actually pretend to be in a disgustingly honeymoon-phase mood. It’s unusual on TV, to have sex included in undercover roles. More incongruous in this case because Sherlock was not having sex before this point. And because as viewer you’ve been led to believe Sherlock was developing social skills through his friendship with John, Molly and Lestrade, to the point where he could be ready for a relationship.
The only previous clues lie in his interaction with Irene Adler, who seems to have a crush on Sherlock’s brain, while Sherlock admires her brain and notices her physical proportions, but never seems to move beyond that into love or lust, though he does mourn her death (the first one).
I can’t get a bead on his sexuality, but that’s alright. What I wouldn’t want is to have such a love life, or sex life, or sex as a tool in an arsenal, myself. The flirtation with Irene was alright, as fantasy material goes, flirting with bad girls or bad boys feels good as a fantasy. The prostitution of self for professional purposes in the third season does not. And yes, I do mean to imply he abuses himself for the sake of his work. It squicks me on a visceral level, and I think it’s mostly the calculation in it. I’d want to have sex for love’s sake. For pleasure’s sake (if I can find someone who could pleasure me that way). Or hell, even to poke around genitalia to see what they do. Not lying back and thinking of England.
John dates many girls. It’s implied that a good number of them he dates to get them between the sheets. There are two who get some more screen time. The first is Sarah, girlfriend and colleague in the first season. While many women leave when John answers Sherlock’s summons a lot, Sarah stays with him through quite a bit of date night no-nos before the relationship ends.
Mary Morstan takes it a step further. She likes Sherlock, to the point where she can side with him against John when she happens to disagree with John and is actively amused by him. Though it’s later revealed it’s a false identity and it’s all tied up with blackmailer Magnussen, I do like that the affection between her and John eventually survives that humongous deception. Their relationship is portrayed as established without being boring, and they are capable of loving each other while feeling betrayed.
What I like about John’s relationships is the honesty in them. He’s bumbling around life, first trying to build it as a freshly returned veteran, later as the roommate and partner of a mercurial detective and later still through all the emotional ups and downs of domesticity, marriage and intricate plots bred by genius villains. Especially with Mary there’s an emotional depth I cannot help but appreciate.
Bromance and Amatonormarivity
John Watson gets married, and Sherlock loses his partner in life and solving crime. It’s an oft-used cliche in romance stories: families and friends dealing with the male or female lead entering marriage, prioritising that relationship above all others. The bromance ends where the romance begins.
I think it’s here that Sherlock is ‘coded’ asexual: John is, for all intents and purposes, his platonic significant other, and effectively ending that part of their relationship in favour of starting one with Mary. Resulting in nerves before the wedding and a huge amount of nostalgia during the event on Sherlock’s part. I like that they let him feel that without letting him be less of a Sherlock.
It’s not Sherlock who’s feeling abandoned later, however. John goes a little psycho at the start of episode 3.3, while Sherlock works a case and appears to have a girlfriend. And throughout that last episode their friendship is still very much intact, to the point where, at the end, I’d say Sherlock’s on his way to becoming Mary’s friend as well as John’s, if only because she’s his wife.
I like how, on the whole, the friendship is not shoved aside for the sake of the romantic relationship. They are both allowed their depth, their emotional intimacy. I think it’s very healthy to show both that relationships impact each other and that it’s not a competition, that they can coexist.
I like John’s relationships best, especially with Mary, because of it’s depth most of all. Again, it’s the emotion that does it for me. Sherlock’s treatment of sex feels just plain wrong to me, which is weird, because I’d expected to identify with his outlook on sex. What I do identify with in Sherlock is his relationship with John, how platonic relationships, familial, friendship or romantic, are crucial and enriching and important, especially if you are going to want sex rarely or never. I need sex and love to be real, emotionally deep and honest.
- Goodread’s discussion: Is Sherlock Holmes asexual?
- Benedict Cumberbatch says Sherlock’s asexual ’cause he’s workaholic, in a Mirror article.
- AVEN’s forum thread on Cumberbatch’s view on Sherlock’s sexuality
- Steven Moffat considers Sherlock to be celibate rather than asexual.
- Anagnori’s tumblr post linking to her essay on asexual Sherlock and writing asexual characters.
- Playing with the idea that characters might be gay without committing to it is known as queer baiting or gay baiting, read more on Fanlore.