Suitcase in my hand.
Jack’s in his corset,
Jane she’s in her vest,
Me, babe, I’m in a rock n’ roll band.
Riding that Stutz Bearcat Jim,
Those were different times.
The Velvet Underground, ‘Sweet Jane’
Those inclined to seek homoromantic subtext in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have never had to work very hard to envision it. Even in Doyle’s own time, perceptive readers did some subtle winking and nodding and incorporated their findings into their own parodies and homages – as in George F. Forret’s hilarious 1905 parody “The Adventure of the Diamond Necklace,” in which Goswell (a play on “Boswell,” clearly a stand-in for Watson) literally throws himself at Warlock Bones’s feet in his rapt adoration. The scene is certainly suggestive:
“‘I have made a special study of trousers,’ he answered, ‘And of beds. I am rarely deceived. But, setting that knowledge, for the moment, on one side, have you forgotten the few days I spent with you three months ago? I saw you do it then.’
He could never cease to astound me, this lynx-eyed sleuth of crime. I could never master the marvellous simplicity of his methods. I could only wonder and admire –a privilege for which I can never be sufficiently grateful. I seated myself on the floor, and, embracing his left knee with both my arms in an ecstasy of passionate adoration, gazed up inquiringly into his intellectual countenance.”
Even by 19th-century romantic-friendship standards, this seems to stretch the limits of platonic adoration, albeit for comic effect. For that matter, when Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung, wrote his affectionate-parody Raffles and Bunny stories, Bunny’s lovesickness fairly dripped off the page. Fiction is a road of many forks, and satirists often take paths that writers of “serious” intention avoid.
Still, it would take nearly a century from Holmes and Watson’s first appearance on the page for them to get an explicit erotic romance of their own. For contemporary readers steeped in the easy availability of gay and lesbian romance and mystery literature, it might seem puzzling that it took so long. But, as Lou Reed sang in the gloriously queer “Sweet Jane,” those were different times.
This essay will focus on The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Dr. John Watson, MD., published in 1971 by Olympia Press. The real author was Larry Townsend, (1930-2008), a California leatherman with a knack for pseudo-Victorian prose. Townsend was a prolific writer of both gay SM erotica and how-to manuals, advice columns, and commentary on sexual mores in the gay male leather community. His 1972 work The Leatherman’s Handbook was considered the go-to book on the subject for over a decade. He served as president of H.E.L.P. (Homophile Effort for Legal Protection) in the early 1970s, and was a player in several 1970s California cases regarding free expression of leather sexuality, including the notorious 1976 bust of a Drummer-sponsored “The Great Slave Auction” for charity, which resulted in Drummer publisher John Embry being arrested for the crime of slavery. It was Townsend who first put Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson out there, in proud X-rated glory.
Beaten (Off) to a Pulp: Literature and Liberation
Whether earlier readers cherished a queer subtextual reading of mystery fiction’s most famous close male/male friendship or not (Townsend certainly implies that he did in his youth), such a work would have had a difficult time surfacing from the underground any sooner than it did. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, anyone sending “indecent” books through the mail in the United States could be arrested and imprisoned for a federal crime. As recently as 1962 Ralph Ginzburg, publisher of the short-lived Eros magazine, was convicted of three counts of obscenity and served eight months of a five-year sentence.
Publishing houses like Guild Press, Grove Press, and Olympia Press that saw pushing the envelope as an important form of political action. Works by Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, first published in France in 1934, not in the US until 1961 by Grove Press), William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, published first in France in 1959 by Olympia and 1962 in the US by Grove), and Allen Ginsberg (Howl, published in 1955 by City Lights Books) (the latter two being explicitly gay works) were the focal points of high-profile court battles to decriminalize sexually explicit literature. Although past obscenity and indecency trials, such as United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933, had relied heavily on establishing the literary merit of works that also included sexually explicit passages, these publishing imprints saw the very act of publishing straight-up pornography, particularly that featuring marginalized sexualities, as culturally worthwhile in its own right, and no doubt potentially lucrative. While the distinction between fine literature and stroke books (a popular slang term for pornographic texts, unembarrassed about their purpose) still remained, these many cutting-edge publishers gleefully issued cheap portable editions of both in the same series and with similar covers.
Olympia Press was one such publishing house of the period. Founded in 1953 in Paris, it specialized in controversial works in English aimed at a traveling/expatriate readership who might encounter legal trouble trying to order such books through the mail in the United States, which had far more repressive laws than France did. The “Traveler’s Companion” series cheerfully cranked out both literature and porn side by side and refused to discriminate. When things began to loosen up due to court victories for writers and publishers and to changing public attitudes in the US, Olympia and its fiercely litigious head Maurice Girodias immediately opened a branch in New York to publish “The Other Traveller” series, which is the imprint that gave us this remarkable addition to the Sherlockian lore.
Clearly there are many people, and many types of audiences out there who have long desired queer Holmes/Watson interpretations, so I believe The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes would be far more influential were it not for the fact that it’s out of print and not easy to come by. Both the 1971 original and the 1993 reissue are available from dealers on Amazon, but not for less than $70, and a very good condition copy of the original has the hefty price tag of nearly $500. There is no ebook edition that I’ve been able to find.
It was introduced to the Sherlock internet fandom a couple of years ago by someone who wished to remain anonymous, who shelled out a collector’s price for the 1971 edition and then laboriously photographed each page, compiling the whole into a PDF. This was picked up by a few Tumblr bloggers with large followings, and circulated on from there in a sort of glory hole of grainy porn that was wonderfully reminiscent of how stories with explicit LGBT content were sometimes circulated hand to hand by readers and writers, no publishing company involved.
We can discuss the ethics of this, of course. I would not have participated in this if the book were legitimately available for a reasonable price and the author still alive. Since neither of these factors apply, I personally feel that this work should live on and be read and so distributing it among fans is a lesser evil than allowing it to fade into oblivion.
A Porny Pastiche
The gay leather scene of Larry Townsend’s day was a passionate cult of homomasculinity that fetishized rough trade, raw raunchiness, and love of boisterous, hierarchical, and violent play that built sexual fantasy material out of the boxing ring, the truck stop, the sailors’ docks, the locker room, the prison, the biker bar, and the military barracks. It is the author of such works as Run, Little Leather Boy, Kiss of Leather, and A Slave’s Gambit who produced The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He toned down his usual themes of dominance and submission, at least in the main relationship, to stay fairly true to Doyle canon in his reasonably faithful stylistic pastiche.
The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes “plays the game,” working within Arthur Conan Doyle’s conceit that all the Holmes stories, including this one, are really the works of Dr. Watson. Therefore, in Townsend’s tale there are two versions of the stories:
As several editors on the staff of Olympia Press had long been suspicious of the relationship between Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, they felt it their duty to launch an investigation. A thorough search of the basements and attic at 221B Baker Street, London, England, finally resulted in the recovery of a secret cache. Dr. Watson, always a man somewhat ahead of his time – despite his being so frequently overshadowed by his friend – had followed the course of so many businessmen in these days of exorbitant taxes. He had kept two sets of books. (Preface)
Naturally, the heavily censored and veiled ones were published in Watson’s own lifetime, and the ones stored away in secrecy were reserved for a “healthier” age that can handle them. Of course that healthier age is Townsend’s own. Like most sexual revolutionaries of the period, Townsend considered the open expression of his sexuality – especially in its most extreme and edgiest forms, the ones most disturbing to mainstream sensibilities – to be a leap forward in human society, a blessed relief from the centuries of suppression that had twisted desire and kept millions of LGBT people from reaching happiness and fulfillment.
Townsend knew his canon as well as any other Sherlockian nerd out there, and worked hard to get that Victorian voice just right. His ACD-pastiche style holds up very well alongside most others in the field, especially when you consider that he faced the additional challenge of blending in the lurid style of 19th-century pornography.
“Lying quietly in the darkness, I watched as Sherlock Holmes stood beside the bed and removed his clothes. Carelessly, he tossed these aside until he was down to his undergarments, at which I noted he was wearing one of those new, two-piece sets of vest and drawers. I must have gasped, for I always thought this somewhat extreme for a gentleman of good taste. Holmes chuckled when he heard me, and muttered some remark about the greater freedom such undergarments gave him. ‘Lets the prick and bollocks swing,’ he added. ‘Keeps one always ready and alert.’” (p. 14)
A few pages later:
“As if aware of my admiring observation, Holmes stood motionless for several seconds, staring down at me. Totally naked, his hard-flexed frame was softly outlined in lights and shadows by the glow from the street. Watching him, my entire body seemed to burst into flame, and I experienced a passionate desire, unmatched by any remembrance of previous sensation. I think he smiled, though this was difficult to discern in the uncertain light, and abruptly cast himself upon me. Hungrily, he buried his face against the muscles of my chest and shoulders, applying his teeth to my flesh as if he indeed intended to devour me. This generated such a fierce response within me, I lost all awareness of time or place, and simply clung to him while mounting lust forced a series of animated groans and protestations of affection from my lips.” (p. 15)
Townsend was a versatile writer: his nonfiction work has a witty but authoritative voice, and he clearly put a great deal of effort and pride into his filthiest stroke books.
A Study in Leather: Townsend’s Alternate Universe
Townsend doesn’t attempt to cover every Sherlock Holmes story, of course, nor does he adapt all the best-loved ones. He’s spent most of his attention on a pastiche of A Study in Scarlet, in which the relationship between Holmes and Watson begins and develops, a take on “The Greek Interpreter” that introduces both Mycroft and Moriarty, and a version of “The Final Problem,” in which a Holmes and Watson who have been estranged rekindle their passion before tragedy strikes, which is where his version of the tale ends. The renamed contents are:
- A Study in Lavender Lace (“A Study in Scarlet”)
- Part 1: The Queen in Lauriston Gardens (p 23)
- The Advertisement and the Lovely Serving Boy (p 47)
- The Urchins and Tobias Gregson (p. 61)
- A Frilly Rise in the Darkness (p.73)
- Part 2: Those Who Were Hanged and Those Who Were Hung (p. 80)
- John Ferrier and the Prophet’s Disciples (p. 97)
- Jefferson Hope and the Wrath of Vengeance (p. 114)
- A Continuation From the Secret Journal of John Watson, M.D. (p. 125)
- The Queer Affair of the Greek Interpreter (p. 139) (“The Greek Interpreter”)
- The Final Solution (p. 191) (“The Final Problem”)
Since Townsend ends with his version of “The Final Problem” that means that this novel doesn’t have a Holmes/Watson happy ending: Watson still believes Holmes dead in the last pages, and he himself is with someone else. I find myself wishing that Townsend had taken on the whole canon in his inimitable style – the “Empty House” reunion scene could have been delicious, especially considering Townsend’s usual method of linking the stories to an overarching narrative structure. I find his way of connecting “The Greek Interpreter” to “Final” fairly ingenious (he spends more time connecting Moriarty to various crimes and criminals than ACD ever did) and wouldn’t mind at all having more Holmes and Watson adventures in this lascivious universe. There are a lot of tantalizing background details that make me want further explanation. For example, consider how his Holmes discusses his brother Mycroft.
“‘My dear Watson,’ said he, ‘I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own abilities. When I say, therefore, that Mycroft has better powers of observation than I, you may take it that I am speaking the exact and literal truth. As to his sexual potentials, let me only comment that as youths on our parents’ estates, we engaged in numerous affairs that bore the stamp of incest, and in every instance I found myself unable to compete with my brother’s insatiable desires.’” (p. 144)
Sherlock says this with no shame or remorse: by being “unable to compete with my brother’s insatiable desires” he is in no way suggesting any sense of trauma or exploitation; he is just stating the straightforward fact that his brother is the greater sexual athlete of the two (and we have just spent over 100 pages learning just what a superb one Sherlock is, so we are meant to be very impressed by this revelation). Significantly, he tells this to Watson right after they’ve had fairly spectacular sex and are panting in the afterglow. Watson, our mirror, is rather gobsmacked, as he is by the revelation that Mycroft is a denizen of the legendary Diogenes Club. Which is, of course, an exclusive and hardcore BDSM dungeon in this universe – what else could it possibly be? Mycroft still sits in a calm center of worldly power, just manifested in the terms of this fantasy world.
This chapter also brings a foreshadowing of Moriarty, discussed as the only other man in London who can rival the Holmes brothers on the sexual battlefield, but, as Sherlock describes him, he is “a truly dreadful person, who prides himself on his terrible sexual potential and uses his skills for the evil fulfillment of his own degenerate needs.” He is not just “the Napoleon of Crime” but also “the Caligula of London.” (p. 202) Rather than use his promiscuous prowess for mutual pleasure and pragmatic information-gathering, as the Holmes brothers do, Moriarty is a rapist, pimp, and abuser who enslaves young men and ruins their minds. Townsend-as-author, through the vehicle of his characters, never endorses this behavior as anything other than that of a despicable villain, but it is also presented as a perfectly legitimate thread of hot sexual fantasy. We are encouraged to disapprove of it, but we are certainly allowed to be aroused by it.
This is common in leather fantasy pulp stories, which often make no solid, clear distinction between negotiated in-scene fantasy play and real (in-universe) scenes of rape, torture, murder, slavery, pederasty, incest, etc. (which are common subjects of in-scene fantasy). There are no warnings for such content: it seems to be assumed that if you’re reading porn in the first place, anything might go. The brutal gang-rape and murder of Jefferson Hope’s young lover by gay-bashing Mormons in “A Study in Lavender Lace” is described in graphic, titillating detail, as are Hope’s revenge killings of perpetrators by choking-during-blowjob. There are moments of tension between Holmes and Watson for sure, yet Townsend is unwilling to compromise the heroism of either by involving them in anything villainous by the standards of his readership. We never see either of our main heroes participating in anything non-consensual by the standards of early ’70s porn conventions (although the youth of some of the Baker Street Irregulars implied to have enjoyed Holmes’ favors give most readers pause). The scene where Holmes demonstrates upon Watson exactly how Hope killed his victims gives a little thrill of mild fear as Watson chokes briefly, but Watson enjoys it much more than not. Yet Townsend goes out of his way to ensure that some fantasies of violent, non-consensual nature type find a home in the narrative anyway – readers might feel cheated without them, and based on the proliferation of such themes in his other works I think it’s very likely he greatly enjoyed writing them.
Different World, Different Rules (With Sherlock Holmes, You See the Sexual Battlefield)
When Moriarty challenges Holmes to single combat, man-to-man, of course the battleground is sexual. They do at last meet on the ledge over the Reichenbach Falls and grapple naked in a manner more like gladiators than lovers; the consummation of their union is death, not orgasm, although the two have already been linked many times over in the reader’s mind. Watson witnesses most of it, a significant departure from ACD canon.
“Sherlock Holmes had wrapped his long, powerful legs about his opponent’s waist, and for a moment I wondered if he were indeed impaled. He was not. Of a sudden, my friend managed to loosen the other’s hold and in a trice he was on his feet, crouching and ready for the others to spring. I could see his penis hanging loose and heavy from his groin showing no sign of arousal. From this I assumed their struggle was a test of physical strength quite beyond the limits of Moriarty’s original challenge. I was mistaken, only to the extent that the professor was attempting to force the issue, and with the gun in the Swiss youth’s hand, Sherlock Holmes had apparently been compelled to participate within the other’s stated parameters.” (pp. 220-221)
Realizing that he cannot win – as he had always admitted – Holmes instead chooses to throw both himself and Moriarty off the edge in front of both Watson and the Swiss youth Friedl, Moriarty’s accomplice and sex slave-cum-lover, who is destined to wind up as Watson’s partner at Holmes’s urging in his posthumous note.
Both men have sex with various other people throughout the course of the story, and no one really bats an eyelid at this. Watson’s horror at Holmes’s sluttiness during the molly house encounter in “The Queer Affair of the Greek Interpreter” has more to do with Holmes’s cross-dressing and feigned effeminacy than conventional jealousy, which leads him to blow the duo’s cover in a burst of anger, resulting in an hilarious but cringeworthy nude escape scene. And the main reason Watson objects to Moriarty’s sexual-duel challenge is fear for Holmes’s safety, not his virtue. When Holmes leaves this story’s version of his famous farewell note, he also leaves Watson with a parting gift: the traumatized young man Friedl, Moriarty’s last conquest, whom Holmes perceives will be as devastated by Moriarty’s loss as Watson will be by Holmes’s, and perhaps the two should find comfort in each other’s arms. Holmes writes:
The young man who has sworn to bear this message to you after the contest is the latest of Mr. Moriarty’s conquests. He will be as distraught as you at its conclusion, for if this message must ever be delivered into your hands, his master will also have perished. I beg you to have compassion for him, and to join with him in your mutual grief. In effect, this is my final bequeath, and I pray you will regain your own mental homeostasis through your efforts on this poor creature’s behalf. With my deepest love and affection, SHERLOCK HOLMES. (p. 223)
Watson takes him up on it.
“A few words may suffice to tell the little that remains. I turned to the young man beside me, and in our respective states of grief we suddenly found ourselves in each other’s arms. It was not a sexual thing, not just then, though we did eventually return to the Englischer Hof and we slept together in the dependency of grief.” (p. 223)
Another significant difference is the role Mike Stamford plays. As in the original ACD story, as in Sherlock the TV show, as in countless adaptations, he is the one who first introduces Holmes and Watson. But his motives for doing so here aren’t just friendly, although he and Watson are friends and have had sex in the past: he is in the business of setting up introductions between men interested in sex with each other, and possibly entering into a patron/rentboy relationship. He accepts a finder’s fee for arranging such meetings, paid by the wealthier person.
“…I charge a modest fee for bringing together two gentlemen of similar persuasions. If the one who is better able pays the fee, this is something I do not question. Nor can I control what may subsequently pass between the two persons once I have introduced them. . . . Really, Watson, I recall you were not above an occasional dalliance, and unless your wound is excessively disfiguring I see no reason why this body of yours – this body which has already caused you such distress despite your youth – should not be put to use to remedy the deprived situation in which you presently find yourself.” (p. 6)
The impecunious Watson splutters and objects at first, and never quite admits he’s looking for a Sugar Daddy, but although he and Holmes are close in age, Holmes does later insist on paying the entire rent, and only to the public will they claim to split it down the middle.
Watson and Holmes’s meeting, which otherwise happens much as it does in “A Study in Scarlet,” is sexual from the very beginning:
“He seized me by the coat sleeve in his eagerness and drew me to the table at which he had been working. ‘Nice,’ he muttered absently, as his hand slipped from my arm and grazed lightly across my hip and backside. Then he launched into a description of his experiments and their result, drawing a drop of blood from his own finger to illustrate the point.” (p. 9)
They’re kissing in a cab by page 11, and undressing each other by page 12.
The sex scene that follows is as lush and erotic as any from the online erotic fanfiction scene, but also filled with terminology and descriptions unlikely to be found there – the interest in penis measurement, for example (Holmes has “slightly over nine inches” if you were wondering). Oral and anal sex follow from this; on page 17 Holmes rims Watson for lubrication:
“Finally he inserted the tip, parting the sphincter as his tongue glided within, moistening and lubricating the passage as wave after wave of unbridled passion swept through my body. I was so weak from emotion that I could have denied him nothing, and while I knew he was preparing me for an unaccustomed assault, I did not protest.”
From this we gather that Watson isn’t accustomed to bottoming. This becomes especially relevant in a fueled encounter on page 173, when Holmes is beginning to unravel:
“‘Hard,’ he tapped in Morse. ‘Grow hard and use me as you will . . . hard . . . hard . . .’ As my brain deciphered his message, the words seemed to swell and to assume a beat that coordinated with the throbbing pulse at my temple and the heavy thunder of my heart. He was willing me to recover and asking that I sodomize him. This was rare, for I was usually the recipient.”
I think that in a contemporary work of online erotic Sherlock fanfiction for the Sherlock fandom audience, more negotiation of these roles would be expected. Subcultural ideas of the meaning of “top” and “bottom” carry different significances there (which can vary widely from fandom to fandom and author to author), and the ways in which penetrative sex roles are coded in masculinity are often interpreted differently by writers and readers who are not themselves male and have their own sexual agendas.
Townsend’s M/M Fanfiction Versus Slash
Slash fic is named for the punctuation mark that denoted the romantic relationship between two characters in the science-fiction fanzines of the 1970s (Star Trek‘s Kirk/Spock, the primogenitors). Slash readers are are a lusty, greedy lot who always want more. Male/male slash, like all fan fiction, is driven by desire – the desire of the fan to see more of the characters we love, in stories the creator never envisioned (whether it is against the authorial grain, or the original creator simply never got around to it.)
While The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes hits many marks and straddles many subgenres that are comfortable and familiar to slash fic’s readership, in its rampantly masculinist style, it also veers away from slash fic conventions in a way that might give readers of that background a bit of an Uncanny Valley sensation. For example, Townsend uses many other tropes that are common in male-authored smut aimed at a male audience (such as exaggerated genitals, prolific bodily fluids, physical endurance tests) are found much less often in slash fic.
Slash authors and readers are often the same people, or at least know each other, and they are overwhelmingly likely to be female and/or gender-nonconforming. I do not subscribe to gender essentialism in any form, but the traditionally feminine-coded emphasis on expression of emotions is a strong element of slash reader expectation, and an emphasis on comfort and consent has been growing especially strong in slash communities.
This is an aspect of the book that most disturbs a contemporary audience rooted in the female and gender-non-conforming culture of slash fiction writers online, who have very strict subcultural ethos when it comes to warning for content that could be triggering to sexual assault survivors. But Townsend writes in a universe where masculinity is assumed for both his characters and his readers; he is writing homomasculine kink fantasy, what is sexy to him. What is generally presented as sexy in this subgenre is not negotiation, but rather the idea of masterful master and willing servant, and lust so potent it sweeps all fears and inhibitions away.
“Nor did Holmes ask for my consent. After a considerable time, spent probing and preparing the channel, he simply raised his upper body, spat upon his hands, and applied the lubricating film to his lengthy protuberance. Centering the crown against my anus, he adjusted the position of my legs across his shoulders, and began to ease himself into me.” (p. 17)
Holmes is careful not to injure Watson, but he is operating on the assumption of his own dominance here, and Watson doesn’t mind it one little bit.
“He paused, then, allowing me to adjust to his possession. I had closed my eyes, so my awareness consisted almost completely of the glorious, swelling euphoria occasioned by my impalement.” (p. 17)
For them, this sexual encounter is the beginning of something much greater, and they both know it immediately:
“I shoved my lower body upward to meet his every thrust – writhing, moaning, trembling as I felt his manhood swell within me. Emotionally, I was just as affected as he, and while I would have denied the possibility prior to our initial meeting, I suddenly realized that it was the first thrill of love that made this moment so complete.” (p. 18)
“That a bit of buggery should so completely change one’s life!” remarked Holmes several days later. (p. 18) For this Holmes and Watson, sex is easy to come by and casually embarked upon. If love comes at all, it comes later (or, in this case, at the same time as coming) and usually as a surprise. It’s by no means necessary to enjoy sexual intimacy, and we see demonstration of casual sex as a pleasant and normalized fact of life all through the book. The book is a sexual fantasy, of course, but it also reflects the reality of how casual sex is widely perceived as common and normal within the gay male scene – definitely in Townsend’s own time, if not in Holmes and Watson’s.
In “The Advertisement and the Lonely Serving Boy” Watson experiences only passing guilt when he is seduced into 69 – one of the most popular sex acts in this book – by one of Holmes’s messengers. They are spotted by Mrs. Hudson, who is, or possibly plays at being, upset by Watson’s infidelity and threatens to hold that secret over his head. But of course Holmes deduces it as soon as he arrives home, and doesn’t appear bothered by it at all, reminiscing instead about how he’s enjoyed that particular young man’s favors himself.
“‘Ah, Watson,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I see you have had the serving boy. Quite an attractive lad, isn’t he.’ With that he set about filling his pipe, leaving me to stare at him in astonished perplexity.
‘How on earth . . .’
‘Elementary,’ returned my companion, ‘but if I explain it to you, you will know what precautions to take next time round, and that will never do at all.’” (p. 58)
Far from being troubled, Holmes seems to relish the idea of being able to think about Watson’s dalliances, and refuses Watson’s request so that he can indulge the pleasure in the future.
One significant difference I see right away between this story and the most common narratives in the slash fiction community that posit Holmes and Watson as lovers is that, although Holmes and Watson meet and move in together and become romantically and sexually involved right away, sexual exclusivity is neither really expected nor desired.
This is distinctly at odds with the One True Pairing narrative prevalent in contemporary slash, and clashes horribly with the strain of erotic romance writing that wants at least one party in the relationship to be inexperienced if not outright virginal, and requires both parties to be uninterested in sex with anyone other than their beloved. Yet The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is absolutely a love story on its own terms, and readers are meant to believe wholeheartedly in the intensity of feeling between Holmes and Watson, which is what makes their breakup devastating. This feeling probably reaches its climax near the end, when a desperate and drugged-out Holmes wants (unusually) to be penetrated by Watson. (pp. 171-176)
Topping & Bottoming
Topping and bottoming, both in the penetrative sex sense and the allotment of roles in power-exchange play, are fraught issues for both men who have sex with men in real life and for writers of all flavors of M/M erotica. In his leather advice manual, Townsend addresses this with an attitude that some slash fic readers and kinksters alike might find a little surprising, though of course it is completely logical and speaks to the individual’s desire to experience all possible aspects of the sexual experience (note that in this quote from The Leatherman’s Handbook, S=sadist/M=masochist):
In my opinion, versatility can provide the key to a tremendous range of personal enjoyment . . . at the same time allowing the person involved to savor a variety of styles and techniques that are going to contribute to his own wealth of skill. I do not like to hear someone say he is exclusively S or exclusively M. To me, this immediately smacks of a serious hang-up or suggests a crippling degree of inhibition. It may denote an inability to appreciate the full potential of his own chosen role, and certainly a failure to properly empathize with his partner. I might accept it from an older S who’s been around long enough to have tried it all. It’s his right and privilege, because he knows what he’s doing. When a young S tells me this, I am inclined to doubt him. Many times he’ll claim to be exclusively S because he retains that silly hang-up that one has to be a Topman to be butch. Unrealistic as this attitude may be, it is fairly common and is not restricted to the beginner. (p. 125)
Note that the desire to be butch isn’t questioned in this passage.
Feminism / Gender
Another aspect of The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes likely to give offense to slash readers, especially those female-identified in some way, is the valorization of a masculine sexual identity, and the disdain Watson sometimes shows to gender and sexual expressions that depart from hypermasculine norms. [We don’t know if this disdain extends to traditional women since the book manages to avoid including any assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) characters at all except one innocent suspect’s distraught mother.] This is another substantive difference to works produced in the fanfiction scene, which often grapple with issues of misogyny; there is a long history of feminist discourse about the role of women in M/M slash, for example.
For Townsend’s type of fantasy story, in which all motivations and relationships are driven by sexual love and desire between men, women are simply irrelevant, since none of his characters are sexually interested in them. Watson’s disgust for femininity is selective, though; he doesn’t appear to be disgusted by Mrs. Hudson/Violetta (who is either a drag queen or a trans woman; the distinction was not so precisely enunciated in either Watson’s time or in Townsend’s), and in fact is rather in awe of her sexually adventurous past involving the seduction of Napoleon III and what he’s been told about her enormous penis. If this is the first appearance in a pastiche of a Mrs. Hudson/Violetta with an exciting checkered past or as a transgender woman, then both BBC Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary might owe it a little debt.
Despite his easy acceptance of Mrs. Hudson’s identity and presentation, Watson is viscerally disgusted by the frilly, dandy disguise Holmes adopts to infiltrate the brothel/social club The Roaring Bitch in “Greek Interpreter” and also by the painted, drag-wearing patrons of the clubs (who are nonetheless described in masculine terms beneath their costumes, and show dominance in a pack by subduing Watson sexually). In fact this leads to the breakdown of their relationship when Holmes becomes interested in further study of this “transvestism” and becomes addicted to it, alongside increasing cocaine use. The two pursuits are described by Watson in parallel terms, as a self-abuse that is painful to watch and throws cold water on his desire, leading to their eventual heart-wrenching breakup.
Yet when Watson’s new partner Jeffrey Phelps moves in with him and decides to make their social life simpler by dressing as a woman all the time, Watson grows used to it and finds it doesn’t impact his masculinity at all in private:
“…as I felt the solid length of his shaft slide into me I was fully cognizant of Jeffrey Phelps’ being very much a man. And he knew precisely how to use his gifts to their very best advantage. I soon felt the thrill of impalement and the same full range of responses which Holmes’ more heroic size had once called forth. Jeffrey lowered his body on mine and gripped me solidly with both arms as his groin began to fall against me with a steady, rocking rhythm.
‘Tell me, John. Am I a man or not? Tell me!’ he whispered by my ear. ‘Tell me.’
‘You are,’ I gasped. ‘You are and always were.’” (p. 198)
In the canon stories, Watson’s marriage serves as a symbol of comfortable normality; here, Watson’s relationship with a man who is less erratic and demanding than Holmes (and also both shallower and less thrilling; this “marriage” is doomed as soon as Holmes persuades Watson to come away with him in his desperation during his “Final” trials) is also presented as a warm, comfortable respite from the storminess of loving Holmes, and we wonder whether Phelps’s propensity for presenting as a woman to placate social convention is nothing more than a plot device and a sort of apology to Townsend’s less butch readers.
A Slight Case of Culture Clash
One of the biggest points of distribution of The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on the Internet was the Tumblr of English blogger thescienceofjohnlock. As expected, some readers were very strongly put off by Part 2 of “Lavender Lace,” which contains the graphic gang-rape and murder, and while it’s true that Larry Townsend seemed to hate Mormons almost as much as Arthur Conan Doyle did, this was not the most common basis for the objection. But overall, thescienceofjohnlock perceived the response in her circle and readership to be very positive. She told me:
I mean there were the usual crazy top!Johners who couldn’t [bear] Sherlock being top/aggressive but they pop up anywhere. Mostly people seemed to love it.
In some of the discussions of the book, particularly on anonymous forums on Dreamwidth and Livejournal, readers were not enamored with the style of the sex scenes. Perhaps the most entertaining comment was one that objected to the repeated instances of anal sex with only saliva as lubricant, and the very indignant commenter declared that the author “clearly knew NOTHING about gay sex!” (Larry Townsend can be accused of many things, but not knowing much about gay sex should never, ever be one of them!)
Townsend is subject to all the same criticisms slash fic writers receive – especially the ones that claim he warps the stories’ plots to make room for lurid, over-the-top porn – but in the book’s main genre, this is nothing to apologize for, and its author did not even believe he’d gone all that far afield. In a rare public appearance shortly before his death, Townsend said “it was the first book of his that got serious reviews from critics,” who attacked him for allegedly making up a sex life for Holmes that wasn’t true to the character Conan Doyle created. In fact, according to the account in Zenger’s Newsmag blog, Townsend said he had stuck so closely to the original stories that “they were really attacking what Conan Doyle wrote.”
Canon-faithful as its style may be, this book is also what contemporary fanfiction writers would call an Alternate Universe, or AU: Townsend has rewritten not only the characters of Holmes and Watson but their entire setting. Victorian London itself becomes a hypersexualized homosocial male world where everything is sexually driven, including crimes and their motives and methods, so sleuth-work quite naturally comes to involve an awful lot of blowjobs. (Including the collaborations with the less intellectually impressive Scotland Yard detectives Lestrade and Gregson, who in this universe are competitive with each other because they are ex-lovers.)
Erotica Vs Porn – A Meaningful Distinction? Or Just Spunk in the Eye of the Beholder?
This raises interesting questions about realism in written smut, the much-vaunted but actually hard-to-spot difference between “erotica” and “porn”. If emotional intensity and relationship development are a defining factor, then The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is clearly both, and it’s hard to imagine what would make the two mutually exclusive. When Holmes and Watson rekindle their passion during their flight through Europe in “The Final Solution” (which is adulterous on Watson’s part, acknowledged in his narrative with some remorse but not enough to stop him), the intensity of their reunion is not downplayed or understated, and given a bittersweet edge by the tragedy the reader knows is coming soon.
That what I was doing was completely disloyal to Jeffrey did not occur to me in those moments. Nothing penetrated my brain except the longing need to take this man inside me, to love him . . . yes, to love him! May all the powers forgive me, but there was no help for it. This bond that joined me to Sherlock Holmes was greater than any quantitative system could measure. It was a merging of emotional and physical desire, symbolized at that instant by the driving prick I held between my lips. (p. 212)
Lets the Prick and Bollocks Swing!
As Holmes and Watson settle further into their cozy, bee-buzzing domesticity in the public domain, writers will continue to tell their own fresh tales, and for some of them, sex and romance will be important parts of their stories. Townsend’s may have been the first book to breach this virgin barrier, but behind it came a healthy spurt of creativity: T.D. McKinney & Terry Wylis’s Kissing Sherlock Holmes, Joseph R. G. DeMarco’s collection A Study in Lavender, Circlet Press’s Elementary Erotica collection, Elinor Gray’s Compound a Felony . . . the list is ever-growing now. Some writers come out of the fanfiction tradition, others from a traditional gay lit background, and it’s not surprising that such a fertile crossroads should come together on the famous Baker Street, where the imagination holds that if you take a deep sniff you can smell the Turkish shag in the Persian slipper, and hear some of Watson’s ejaculations of wonder, so invaluable to Holmes’s art.
- Bronski, Michael. Pulp Friction: The Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (MacMillan. 2013).
- Conlan, Mark Gabrish. “Larry Townsend Speaks to San Diego Leather Pride,” Zenger’s Newsmagazine. 2008.
- Fritscher, Jack. Gay San Francisco: Eyewitness Drummer – A Memoir of the Sex, Art, Salon, Pop Culture War, and Gay History of Drummer Magazine – the Titanic 1970s to 1999.
- Gunn, Dewey Wayne, and Harker Jaime, editors. 1960s Gay Pulp Fiction: The Misplaced Heritage (University of Massachusetts Press. 2013).
- Townsend, Larry. The Leatherman’s Handbook.
- Townsend, Larry. The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (The Other Traveller/Olympia Press, 1971).