I have to admit that before writing this post, I had never purposefully sought out fanfiction involving asexuality, if only because I was too scared to. I’m not trying to say that I think all ace fanfiction would be terrible or poorly written—one of my favorite fics stars an ace character—but I’ve had a lot of bad experience with stories that have unfortunately made me a little terrified to see how other people interpret my sexuality. As such, I generally get my fanfiction kicks from reading stories that simply have no pairings, or no overt romance and sexual tension, as I more or less know what to expect from them.
Though I know there has to be plenty of well-written stories involving ace characters, there are also plenty of bad ones, and I sometimes feel as if this lack of quality comes from not only certain misunderstandings about asexuality, but also from how the original source material and writers treat asexuality.
We’ve talked about asexuality a couple times before on this site, but I cannot remember if we’ve ever explicitly stated what it is, so to avoid confusion for the rest of this post, here’s its definition as given by AVEN:
An asexual is someone who does not experience sexual attraction. Unlike celibacy, which people choose, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are. Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or any better, we just face a different set of challenges than most sexual people. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community; each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently. Asexuality is just beginning to be the subject of scientific research.
To me, as an asexual, it seems like a pretty straightforward concept. However, I have learned over the years that, while it is difficult for me to comprehend what sexual attraction and wanting to engage in that attraction is like, it can be equally difficult for sexual people to comprehend what it is like to not experience sexual attraction. Because of that difficulty, among other things, there are people who then internally alter their own personal definitions of asexuality into something easier to understand, and from that comes a lot of misunderstandings as to what asexuality is and inaccuracies in how it is portrayed.
I have noticed this explicitly within BBC’s Sherlock and in Steven Moffat’s comments on the matter. Sherlock’s character could easily be read as asexual, both in canon and in various fanfiction. In “A Study in Pink”, Sherlock states that he’s married to his work and that dating women is not his area of expertise. When John asks if Sherlock has a boyfriend instead, Sherlock assumes that John’s interested in him and prepares to turn him down. From this single conversation alone, plenty of viewers read between the lines and came to the conclusion that Sherlock is asexual. This is something that Steven Moffat later refuted.
Sex sells, and I think the lack of asexual representation, in fanfiction and especially in original works, comes from writers believing that no one would be interested in a story about asexual characters, since sex is less likely to be an intrinsic part of those characters’ lives. Steven Moffat made a very good example of this a while back, over a comment about Sherlock’s sexuality:
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!
Here, Steven Moffat perfectly displayed himself as someone who not only thinks asexuals are boring, but who also has no understanding of what asexuality is. Otherwise, he would not have called it a choice.
Additionally, there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to learn more about asexuality because they believe the entire concept is ridiculous. I have heard numerous times that asexuals don’t need representation or that there is simply something wrong with our hormones that we should just get fixed.
Fanfiction can be very sexually liberating and open, but sometimes it’s open to the extent that asexuality can be somewhat erased within it. One of my bad experiences with reading fanfiction involving asexuality was when the asexual character in question needed to lose his virginity to another character in order to be “fixed”, because virginity is apparently a problem that everyone should get rid of. While it didn’t bother me that this was something many of the characters pushing him to have sex believed, it did bother me that the author in question clearly thought those characters were in the right.
Sherlock’s sexuality has never explicitly been stated in canon, and there are some issues with claiming characters who were originally written in earlier time periods as being part of the LGBTQ+ community. That said, it is still not inherently wrong to interpret said characters as being something other than heteronormative, and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock can easily be interpreted as asexual. Whether or not he intended it, he wrote an interesting character who can not only fall into the asexual spectrum, but can also be an accurate and great representation of asexuality.
Needless to say, I do not think Moffat handled the situation well with his response, as he essentially said that he thinks asexual people are boring. Or rather, “no fun”. In doing this, he’s getting rid of a lot of opportunities to explore asexuality in ways that would be rather interesting.
Asexuality and celibacy do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many asexual people, like myself, find themselves in relationships with non-asexuals, and those relationships are very rarely conventional. Sherlock could find himself in a relationship with someone, and the two would have to communicate and learn to compromise. Maybe they’d have sex, but not often. Maybe the relationship would be completely sexless, and instead involve other things: cuddling, hugging, etc. Most romantic asexuals are willing to compromise and engage in these acts, despite being sexual in nature. How far they are willing to go in the matter will depend on the person or character in question. Maybe as long as Sherlock’s partner stayed emotionally and romantically engaged with him, Sherlock wouldn’t mind if said partner wanted to be sexual with other people. Maybe due to societal norms where sex is the end goal of some relationships and a major part of most relationships, Sherlock would feel marginalized or inadequate because he wouldn’t want to offer his partner sex.
These are things that I would greatly love to see explored more in fanfiction, since I can’t have it in canon. The main Sherlock pairing is called Johnlock, and though it’s not something I personally ship, I wouldn’t mind seeing John and Sherlock together if some of the more serious issues between asexual and sexual people were explored well. I do not like stories where the asexual character is shown as having something wrong with them or being asexual due to abuse, and I especially don’t like it when “magical penises” cure said character of being asexual. Not only is this kind of story offensive, that mindset does have real world consequences.
Asexuals don’t need to be cured or erased in order to make a good story, and a relationship between a sexual person and a non-sexual person does present a lot of challenges that most people don’t deal with every day. John is a rather sexual person—he’s had numerous girlfriends, and seems to really like the more physical aspects of a relationship. Regardless of Sherlock’s sexuality, if they were in a relationship together, John would probably want to have sex. In a healthy relationship, the two would have to discuss what they are and are not comfortable with, and how often they are either willing to engage in sex or not engage in sex should sex be on the table.
As most of these kinds of relationships are not conventional, they tend to fall apart when held up to conventional standards. Some asexuals will enjoy sex if only because it feels nice, despite a lack of attraction; some don’t mind sex or will be indifferent to it and will be willing to have it regardless of not really enjoying it; and many others may find the entire act of sex repulsive. It all depends on the person. Because of this, sex can rarely be spontaneous. John and Sherlock would have to discuss when they would want to have sex—essentially, they might have to schedule it—but if they’re not careful, they might accidentally turn it into a chore. And when that happens, they would struggle in the relationship.
How would Sherlock feel with people constantly telling him that it’s selfish to withhold sex from his partner, while very few people, if any, tell John that it’s selfish of him to want sex? Would John feel guilty for wanting sex when Sherlock doesn’t, or would he feel angry? How much will Sherlock’s lack of sexual attraction to him bother John? What will John have to do to prepare himself for this kind of relationship? Maybe Sherlock will feel broken, inadequate, or even guilty for not giving his partner what he wants. In this kind of relationship, these problems do not go away because the asexual decides to have sex or because the sexual decides to abstain.
There is a lot of ground to work with when it comes to asexual characters, and relationships between characters can certainly be interesting whether or not sex is present. I’m sure you can find plenty of fanfic that explore some of the issues I just outlined well, but even though it is Steven Moffat’s prerogative to make Sherlock’s sexuality whatever he wants it to be—just as it’s any writer’s prerogative—it’s still more than a little upsetting how he handled the situation. It’s also a little upsetting that I’m more likely to find asexual characters in fanfiction than in canon. I think I can safely say that Moffat’s flippant attitude regarding the issue has left a bad taste in my mouth for the entire Sherlock fandom.