Sex and Sensibility on Sherlock

BBC’s hit Sherlock provides a fascinating model of unconventional relationships that stands out from almost everything else on the air right now, and Alyssa’s interview with Steven Moffat last week in which the relationship between Sherlock and Holmes came up was a fascinating glimpse into Moffat’s mind as a creator. I have my own issues with Moffat (oh, do I), but one thing I have to admit he’s done brilliantly with Sherlock is expose audiences to the idea of complex emotional connections between human beings that are not necessarily based on romance or sexuality. And I’m glad to know that this is a deliberately and carefully thought-out choice on his part.Holmes and Watson run down a hall, looking harried (and manly).

A lot of asexual Sherlock fans read Sherlock as asexual, and there’s certainly ample reason to think that; he talks about being married to his work, and in the original canon as well as Moffat’s work we don’t necessarily see evidence of sexual relationships or sexual attraction. The tension that ran between him and Irene in “A Scandal in Belgravia” was not quite sexual in nature, although it was sexualised; it was an expression of emotionality between a man and a woman who are baffled and excited by each other in a way that didn’t look like sexual attraction so much as it did intellectual and emotional stimulation.

As a viewer, I didn’t get the sense that they wanted to have sex. Sherlock seems largely uninterested in sex while Irene is pretty clearly gay, and not sexually interested in him. They were attracted to each other’s brains, not bodies. Yet, they enjoyed the same electrical connection that people often evoke when they talk about sexual attraction, living in a state of hyperawareness of each other and longing to see each other again even as they were, at times, in opposition. It was an episode that flipped assumptions about sexuality and attraction on their heads.

This is a model that a lot of modern viewers seem to have difficulty with. As Moffat pointed out in the interview, there’s a reading and expectation that Sherlock and Watson must be having sex, not just from the characters around them in the show but also from fans. Two men who care deeply about each other, live together, and are emotionally attached must evidently be gay. Because all important relationships are founded on sex, yes?

What intrigues me about the bromance on Sherlock is that it presents not just two men who live together and love each other—make no mistake, what they experience for each other is love, although it is not romantic love. It’s that Watson has girlfriends and partnerships outside the relationship, which sets it apart from a lot of other bromances in pop culture.

The framing I usually see is one where two men are tight with each other until a romantic partner breaks up the close bonds of the friendship, setting it back as a trial run for a “real” relationship. What Moffat has dared to do here is illustrate that it’s possible to have multiple meaningful relationships at the same time, and that one person doesn’t necessarily have to be another person’s everything. What Watson gets from his girlfriends is different than what he gets from Sherlock, and he clearly wants and needs both in his life. Both are sources of emotional reward and pleasure.

Irene, Sherlock, and Watson revolve around and through each other in a way that is somewhat unusual, living in a state of mutual tension and excitement but not envy or opposition. Irene isn’t a rival for Watson; she’s something more complex and emotionally separate because she’s bringing Sherlock something Watson can’t. Likewise, Watson, whom Sherlock refers to as his only friend, occupies a unique role in Sherlock’s life that isn’t replaceable.

Or, by the terms of modern pop culture, readily definable. Where do you put a friend who is not a lover, a man who is in love but not romantically? As Moffat puts it, this is a story about infatuation and love. That doesn’t mean it can’t be sensual—come on, tell me that scene with Irene whipping Sherlock wasn’t hot—but it isn’t sexual. And that makes it tremendously exciting and novel for television, where romance is frequently the pinnacle of human relationships and dynamics like those between Watson and Sherlock simply don’t exist, or are used as evidence of sexual and emotional confusion when they do arise.

There’s a reason so many asexual folks love Sherlock, write extensive fic, and talk about the show so much. It’s one of the first shows that presents a model of relationships like our own, where sex isn’t the ultimate be-all-and-end-all or the ending goal of all relationships. And this makes it an unusual and standout accomplishment in a sex and romance-saturated media. The care Moffat appears to be taking with these characters makes me tremendously excited for the next season, and that’s not something I find myself saying about Moffat’s work very often these days.