Sherlock and Asexuality

Many people have debated whether or not Sherlock, of BBC’s Sherlock, is asexual. Whilst this has brought asexuality to a place of public recognition, it’s also opened up discussion revealing an awful lot of public discourse. And I mean awful in both the senses. I suppose I didn’t expect much of Moffatt (Misogynist Extraordinaire) but it’s not just him, although that makes a good starting point.

So, here is the full quotation: “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…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!”

Point number one- I am not going to disagree, mainly because I have not read enough of them, and don’t claim to be expert. Secondly point- ouch, it’s a classic in the male ‘genius’ trope-see Beethoven for more details. From the point of view of sexuality though, whether he is asexual or not, this is problematic. Just because you may be sexually attracted to X group, does not mean that whenever you encounter a member of X group, you’re only option is to be sexually attracted to them. If this is the case, that would make life very hard, and in situations where people act as if this is the case many individuals, more often women who are objectified as representing item of potential sexual attraction. Now I’ve reached this point and reread the first statement of Moffatt’s-I don’t believe that can be true. ‘No indication’-really? Surely the beauty of much literature is multiplicity and ambiguity, and more often than not the characters for which we have enduring interest have been intentionally created to have some degree of mystery. By saying there’s ‘no indication’ of asexuality or homosexuality, Moffatt is basically saying that from adapting the books the only option is heterosexuality. And I must say, I don’t really believe that’s ever the only option for anyone, both in ‘real life’ and in the case of someone who is essentially writing a large-scale fanfic on a fiction. Whilst I have consciously decided not to discuss heteronormativity and misogyny here, they are clearly factors to bear in mind.

Bearing that in mind I’m going to skip to the ‘if he was asexual’ bit. Well, first of all that is appalling grammar, particularly from someone who makes a living by writing. It’s the subjunctive-‘if he were asexual’. Maybe Moffatt’s lack of understanding when it comes to the subjunctive makes imagining different scenarios and possibilities difficult…just a thought. Anyway, oh dear: ‘there would be no tension in that, no fun in that’. So I suppose by saying ‘no tension [in being asexual]’ he’s forgetting the massive tension between individuals who identify as asexual and the rest of the world which if not heteronormative, is very often sexualnormative. I don’t know if that’s a word, but I can’t think of a better one and I’m sure you know what I mean. If I’m wrong and there is one, please let me know! In fact, he is surely showing this conflict in his clear lack of understanding of asexuality. As well as finding the ‘no fun’ comment deeply insulting, I also reckon it’s fairly inaccurate. I think that people who may not experience sexual attraction are likely to have an altered but wonderful perspective on the world. One notices different things and even holds slightly different priorities which can surely give new insights. Perhaps he’s implying that if you’re not having sex with someone you’re not having fun? If so, that’s really quite sad, because life has so much more to offer than sex. Maybe he’s saying that if there is not the possibility that the person you are talking to may want to have sex with you you’re missing a certain spark, or element of the unknown-which leads you to missing out on fun? To be honest, if this is the tension he is discussing, I find that quite concerning, even a predatory attitude. The idea to me of thinking in these terms would probably lead to living fearfully. As the many politicians who dismiss rape by comparing it with being ‘force fed chocolate cake’ fail to notice, not all sex is good, not all sex is fun, and not everyone wants it, sexual or not.

I’m not going to spend any more energy on discussing his statement, although much more could be said, because it’s plain depressing! Naturally Benedict Cumberbatch has been questioned on the topic. For the main part I’d say he’s been relatively sensible, but the following, after saying Sherlock is not asexual, is not ok-‘Like a lot of things in his life where he’s purposely dehumanised himself, it’s do to with not wanting the stuff that is time wasting, that’s messy. That goes for certain relationships, as well as sexual intimacy’. Whilst he doesn’t say that asexuality is a form of dehumanisation, he says that choosing not to have relationships, or even sex, is a form of dehumanisation- which does reflect on  or apply to those who choose to be celibate or are asexual. Now, if we said that women weren’t really human, or black people weren’t really human, or gay people weren’t really human, that would not be ok. As we know, some people have and do make such statements, but as is being increasingly recognised, they are very, very wrong. How come Cumberbatch therefore thinks that this is ok? Maybe I’ve misinterpreted slightly, but at the moment I don’t think I have. If you have any thoughts, please do contribute, but don’t be too mean, I’m just trying to discuss a relatively undiscussed issue which I think is important.

In the media more generally we’ve also seen problematic understandings of asexuality in relation to Sherlock. Let’s look at this sentence opening the Radio Times’ piece on the matter ‘He’s seen as cold, calculating and utterly focused on the case at hand, but despite some viewers’ assumptions Sherlock is not an asexual character, says the show’s star Benedict Cumberbatch’. This seems to imply that cold, calculating and focussed = asexual. Once again, apply those terms to other groups, gender, ethnic, sexual or other, and you’d find yourself in deep water. One could even argue that the fact that there is no potential sexual impetus behind an asexual person’s relationship could make for a much more comfortable relationship than one that is ‘cold’. I don’t know, but to me that seems really harsh, and deeply non-understanding of what it means to be asexual. The way the Radio Times has arranged quotes from the actors is also problematic: ‘The actor says his “damaged” character may not be romantic but there’s definitely a sexual element to his relationship with Irene Adler’. The use of ‘damaged’ in this sentence seems to be therefore associated for the writer to the main issue of the article: asexuality. This simply reinforces belief that if you are asexual you are in some way ‘damaged’ or ‘broken’, something is missing. Once again, this takes sexuality as the norm and furthermore, if applied to another group of people would almost certainly cause offence. Whatever it is, your identity it is not a fault, and anyone who says so probably needs some help understanding things themselves.

Sources discussed:

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2012/jan/20/steven-moffat-sherlock-doctor-who?INTCMP=SRCH

http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2012-05-06/benedict-cumberbatch-sherlock-is-a-sexual-person

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