Sherlock Holmes is interesting in many ways: his intellect, his observation skills, etc. However, one thing that is rarely talked about, but is an integral part of the character, is his asexuality.
Sherlock is celibate. In the BBC version he is an acknowledged virgin. This is atypical of characters of his age in fiction. In our time sexual experience is a sign of adulthood. An adult who has not had sex is considered somehow inferior to others. There are those who chose to abstain from sex, like priests, but even they probably had sex at one time. Finding a character who not only does not have sex, but does not even want to have sex is quite rare.
Now the original reason for this probably had something to do with the age that the character was written in. The Victorian era was infamous for its sexual repression. (That’s what gave Freud all his material.) As a Victorian character, it is perfectly normal for Sherlock Holmes to eschew sex.
Sex and Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes
In the books Sherlock never marries and never has sex. In A scandal in Bohemia Watson says:
“It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.”1.
This is all fine and good if you live in Victorian England, but when you move Sherlock into the modern-day, it makes Sherlock more odd. People assume that Sherlock must have some kind of sexual desire, even if he is celibate, so I thought that I’d explore that in this Blog.
Sex in BBC’S SHERLOCK
( WARNING: All the videos in this section contain SPOILERS! for Season 2 Sherlock. If this bothers you, don’t watch them.)
Sex is mentioned quite frequently in the BBC show Sherlock. Mostly it is mentioned by John Watson who must forever deny that he is gay. So let’s begin with that.
Is Sherlock Gay?
Does Sherlock like men, women, or both. Even John doesn’t know.
Sherlock is very close with his feelings. He never admits that he needs or wants anyone, so we must use observation to find out his feelings. One technique for discovering sexual interest (as mentioned in Pride and Prejudice) is to watch the eyes. One person who Sherlock can’t take his eyes off of is Irene Adler. In A Scandal in Belgravia, Sherlock stares at Irene in every scene that they are in together. Contrast this with the way that he ignores Molly and the way he is repelled by Kitty Riley and you can see that this is a genuine preference.
In their first meeting, Sherlock is rendered speechless by Irene Adler. Later he stumbles on his words. Something that almost never happens. It shows that he is distracted by her, and challenged by John’s interest in her.
In scene after scene it is obvious that Irene Adler has turned his head. This strongly suggests that Sherlock is interested in women, or at least one of them. He is not comfortable with this attraction though. When John makes a comment about them picking baby names, Sherlock jumps as if he is embarrassed by the comment.
Irene Adler comes the closest of anyone to seducing Sherlock Holmes.
Yet even in this scene he does not seem very strongly interested in sex. He has another motive for touching Irene, and he is able to change the subject and avoid it.
Sherlock and emotions
In the Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock admitted that the thing that disturbed him most was losing control. Emotions were “The grit on the lens” and “the fly in the ointment.” Love, and certainly lust would be to Sherlock extremely distressing emotions. Conan Doyle writes, “But 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.” 2.
Sherlock, it appears, does not want to have sex with anyone. To do so would affect his work which he values above all other things. But emotions have a way of showing up even when one does not want them to. What Sherlock wants and what Sherlock feels may be two very different things.
The eyes have it
If you are counting total eye time for Sherlock, John ranks number one.
Sherlock is constantly watching John. What does this mean? Love, Lust, curiosity? His constant glances are a source of fan girl (and fan boy) excitement. The John / Sherlock pairing is THE major pairing in the Sherlock fandom. Why? Because there is just so much there to see.
Sherlock is intense. Benedict Cumberbatch acts this intensity with his body language, and his eyes. You can see that this is a conscious decision, because in the first pilot his gaze wanders in a much more normal manner. In the regular series, Sherlock stares at people burning them with the intensity of his full attention. Since Sherlock spends most of his time with John, he is largely the focus of Sherlock’s gaze. Does this mean sexual attraction? You decide. (Note: The sex scene was added from another show.)
Is this love?
Now if we assume for a moment that Sherlock is gay, and that he is attracted to John in a sexual way we still must deal with the fact that John is NOT interested in Sherlock that way. One doesn’t have to be as smart as Sherlock to realize that unwanted sexual advances might threaten John and make him leave, and sex or no, it is clear that Sherlock needs John to stay. So Sherlock probably wouldn’t say anything even if he was interested in sex with John.
Sex or no sex it is clear to everyone that Sherlock does have strong emotions for John. We can tell by the intensity of emotion that Sherlock shows whenever John is threatened. The panic that Sherlock feels is evident in his voice and face.
The shock and fear that he expresses for John is more than for Mrs Hudson or Lestrade. This is passion. It is evident that Sherlock could not bear to lose him. Now there are perfectly logical reasons for Sherlock to wish not to lose John.
- He is a good man to have at one’s back (He’s saved Sherlock’s life many times now.)
- He is his first and only friend.
- He helps him at his work.
But is that enough to explain his tears at their parting on the rooftop? In my mind, the answer is clear.
Will Sherlock have sex with John?
Does Sherlock Love John?
1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, THE SIGN OF FOUR. Chapter XII .<http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2097/2097-h/2097-h.htm>
2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “A Scandal in Bohemia”, THE ADVENTURES OF
SHERLOCK HOLMES. Chapter I. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1661/1661-h/1661-h.htm>