But how did Moffat and Gatiss solve the most vexing mystery, Sherlock’s sex life? “There’s no indication in the original stories that he was asexual or gay. He actually says he declines the attention of women because he doesn’t want the distraction. What does that tell you about him? Straightforward deduction. He wouldn’t be living with a man if he thought men were interesting.”
Moffat is not saying that Sherlock, like Austin Powers, misplaced his mojo. “It’s the choice of a monk, not the choice of an asexual. If he was asexual, there would be no tension in that, no fun in that – it’s someone who abstains who’s interesting. There’s no guarantee that he’ll stay that way in the end – maybe he marries Mrs Hudson. I don’t know!”
I’m sure many Sherlockians are familiar with the above statement. After all, when the Guardian article was first published in January 2012, it was met with a furious reaction among fans, and rightly so. It’s a classic example of the ‘straight until proven otherwise’ perspective that unfortunately predominates in modernised adaptations of unspecific source material.
The most obvious issue with this is that it places ‘straight’ as the default orientation, an issue which has severe real life consequences. It is for this reason that so many people who do not identify as straight have to come out, a process which can be incredibly frightening and dangerous for many people. People are afraid to express who they are because being straight is portrayed as the norm in our society, and everything else as abnormal, wherein lies the basis of a significant amount of prejudice.
More specifically, however, Moffat’s statement shows a very ignorant interpretation of Holmes’ orientations in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon.
Firstly, let’s look at his ‘straightforward deduction’: ‘He wouldn’t be living with a man if he thought men were interesting.’ Surely Moffat does not mean to say that homosexual = sexually attracted to all men? Surely he is not sexually attracted to all women? I am predominantly sexually attracted to men. However, I am not sexually attracted to all men. I have as many male friends as female, and am very close to some of my male friends. There are several men that I could quite happily live with without ever once worrying about being distracted by matters of the flesh. In the canon, Holmes only ever lives with one man - Watson - and stayed a month with another - Victor Trevor - during his youth. Is it so unbelievable that a gay man could live alongside two men, neither of whom he was attracted to? Certainly not. Gay people are as capable of having platonic relationships with members of the same sex as straight people are of having platonic relationships with members of the opposite sex. A rather poor deduction there, Moffat. Holmes would be appalled.
Now let’s look at this: ‘There’s no indication in the original stories that he was asexual or gay. He actually says he declines the attention of women because he doesn’t want the distraction.’
No, Moffat, you’re mistaken. He actually says he declines MARRYING because he doesn’t want the distraction: ‘love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.’ (The Strange Story of Jonathan Small, The Sign of Four)
You must remember that there were strict laws against homosexuality in Doyle’s period - anyone found guilty of sodomy would be sentenced to three years of hard labour which killed most who underwent it. The only legal unions were between men and women. Were same sex marriages legal, would Holmes have specifically stated that he would never marry a woman? I doubt it. It is a romantic union that Holmes is opposed to, not the distraction of women specifically.
This brings me on to another point: Holmes is arguably aromantic, i.e. does not feel romantic attraction to anyone. Moffat makes the unfortunately common mistake of failing to distinguish between sexual and romantic orientations. If he is so keen on gathering evidence to support interpretations, then he is missing some essential ones that support the claim that Holmes is aromantic (or, since there was very little awareness of non-binary sexual and romantic orientations in Doyle’s time, as close to aromantic as a character of his could be written). Most significantly, there is the fact that, on 16th June 1892, a year after he wrote A Scandal in Bohemia, Doyle wrote in a letter: ‘Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage’s Calculating Machine, and just about as likely to fall in love.’ Why is the date significant? Because, on Holmes’ relationship with Irene Adler, he said: ‘I remember when I was reading that story [A Scandal in Bohemia] as a kid, Sherlock goes on and on about The Woman, the only one who ever beat him, and you’re thinking, he’s had better villains than this. And then you click: he fancies her, doesn’t he? That’s what it’s about.’ [x] Not according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Moffat.
In fact, if Moffat is so desperate to disregard asexuality, and is apparently unaware of aromanticism, it would arguably be far more logical to presume Holmes to be gay until proven otherwise than straight. After all, Watson is the only character to whom he ever expresses notable affection. Let us take, for instance, The Adventure of the Three Garridebs:
'In an instant he had whisked out a revolver from his breast and had fired two shots. I felt a sudden hot sear as if a red-hot iron had been pressed to my thigh. There was a crash as Holmes’s pistol came down on the man’s head. I had a vision of him sprawling upon the floor with blood running down his face while Holmes rummaged him for weapons. Then my friend’s wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.
“You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!”
It was worth a wound–it was worth many wounds–to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.
“It’s nothing, Holmes. It’s a mere scratch.”
He had ripped up my trousers with his pocket-knife.
“You are right,” he cried with an immense sigh of relief. “It is quite superficial.” His face set like flint as he glared at our prisoner, who was sitting up with a dazed face. “By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?”’
This parallels the words spoken by a man who killed in the name of love in The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, written prior to The Adventure of the Three Garridebs:
‘In five minutes he died. My God! how he died! But my heart was flint, for he endured nothing which my innocent darling had not felt before him. There is my story, Mr. Holmes. Perhaps, if you loved a woman, you would have done as much yourself.’
Now, as I have said, I believe Holmes to be entirely indifferent to both sexes. That said, this is far more affection than Holmes ever displays towards a woman in all four novels and fifty six short stories, so why is Moffat so determined that he is more likely to be straight than gay (or bisexual/romantic, or pansexual/romantic, or greysexual/romantic)?
Does he require an explicit statement - ‘My name is Sherlock Holmes and I am attracted to men’ or ‘My name is Sherlock Holmes and I am not attracted to anyone’ - to stop presuming that any character who does not do so is straight? If so, he’s not only being incredibly heteronormative, but incredibly ignorant. When Oscar Wilde first published The Picture of Dorian Gray, it caused such an outcry due to its homoerotic subtext that it had to be censored. Alterations included, for example, changing ‘It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman’ to ‘From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me.’ [x] The book was even used against Wilde when he was put on trial for sodomy. Is Moffat really so ignorant as to think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could ever have gotten away with writing Holmes (or Watson, or any other character) as gay had he wanted to?
Finally, let’s look briefly at that other statement: ‘If he was asexual, there would be no tension in that, no fun in that – it’s someone who abstains who’s interesting.’ According to Moffat, asexuality as boring. Much more boring than heterosexuality, apparently, despite the fact that that is regarded as the default. Sorry, Moffat, but there I was thinking that your programme was a crime drama. I was unaware that sex is so vital to make a detective interesting.
The canon is vague and littered with continuity errors, and Doyle was limited by his period, so when it comes to interpreting Holmes’ sexual and romantic orientations, there is plenty of room for interpretation, and I will accept that there is legitimacy in reading Holmes’ sexuality as repressed heterosexuality. That said, it is certainly not, as Moffat implies, the only legitimate reading, and I would certainly not argue that it is more (or even as) legitimate as various others.
This is so great; I just wanted to add a couple of things, one about canon and one about moffat:
(1) Holmes makes that comment about marriage once—ONCE—under highly suspicious circumstances: his closest companion is about to desert him for marriage. His comments in that context quite plausibly are coloured by jealousy and bitterness.
Why do I have a hard time reading canon SH as a repressed heterosexual? Because he just never seems to like or be interested in women all that much. He seems like he can’t be bothered with them most of the time. There is virtually nothing I can think of in canon (correct me if I’m wrong please!) that betrays repressed longing coming through. There is literally not one shred of evidence for Holmes’ heterosexual orientation…and a reading with NO textual support is a poor reading of a text.
(2) moffat’s comment is actually self contradictory. First he says that a story is “boring” if it’s asexual, if it’s not about deliberately suppressing or abstaining from one’s (erotic) desires. Then he claims that the central relationship in which we view Holmes IS asexual. Doesn’t that make his relationship with John “boring”? Which is it?