I’m sure everyone’s thought similarly before – those fantasy stories about being the chosen one or meeting people from other worlds are great, aren’t they? Wouldn’t it be enthralling to be a part of an adventure like that?
That alone isn’t a particularly unusual line of thought. Everyone wants an adventure at some point or another in life. When I was a kid, I thought that was my reason as well. I was blessed enough to have a boring childhood, free of real hardship or trouble – perhaps I just wanted a little excitement. As I grew older, however, and especially as the Young Adult genre began to flood the market with such stories featuring a romance (ones jumping to mind being Tithe by Holly Black and The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater), I had an epiphany, of sorts: What I want isn’t the adventure but the relationships. And if you’ve been reading my blog this far, you know that I don’t mean a romance.
By nature, stories are eventful. Particularly in fantasy, there are tricks and treasures, pleasantries and peril, and by nature, humans form bonds through adversity. In stories about chosen ones, the chosen one must prevent a great danger, and they form allies, some of whom become friends. In stories about meeting strangers from other worlds, one or the other is often stranded, and there is a trust that is born out of dependency that develops into understanding. The hardship forms a strong connection that leads to cliched but powerful lines such as, “I’ll be right by your side,” or “I believe you,” or “Do it for the both of us.”
When I was younger, I preferred stories with male protagonists. In my experience, they were the stories with the kind of relationships I enjoyed. I recognize, now, that this was because of the dated but lingering idea that epics of danger and triumph are more suited for boys and because stories with female protagonists often defaulted to romance. However, it does mean that when I speak of those strong friendships, I often mean fictional friendships between men. This is not so much an issue of personal taste as an issue of availability in my options in my childhood.
Reading the original tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I envied the strange but steady companionship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. I was fascinated by the passionate admiration between Hamlet and Horatio. There are whole essays written about Frodo and Sam from The Lord of the Rings. Although I have not seen anything of the Star Trek franchise, something tells me that Spock and Kirk would fall right into the lineup.
((Edit: I have since been informed that Spock and Kirk are heavily implied to harbor romantic affections?? But like I said, never saw the show, so I don’t know.))
Now, if any of you readers are heavily invested in the fandom or even the internet, you might notice some familiar names. Yes, the kind of relationships that I enjoyed as a child, and still do now, belong to characters that are often, in fandom, romantically paired with one another. Fans who ship Holmes and Watson have grown exponentially since the airing of the BBC hit Sherlock, and I know that Spock/Kirk fans have existed since the debut of their show, decades ago. I’m a young woman who loves fiction living in the internet era – I’ve explored fanfiction and fanart. I know how it works.
A lot of people, particularly female fans, look upon the relationships between these characters and deem it too affectionate or too ‘intense’ for a normal friendship. As a result of that, they sweep these relationships under the umbrella of ‘romance’ and write between the lines, pulling out proof of romantic attraction that I miss, either because I am aromantic and never notice such things or because it was never there in the first place. I don’t know which it is, but I do at least know how I feel about this phenomenon.
In this post, I will often default to the supposed romantic relationship between Watson and Holmes because it was through watching BBC’s Sherlock and exploring that fandom that I managed to understand my feelings on relationships. For one thing, I was and still am incredibly uncomfortable with the popular interpretation that Holmes and Watson feel a romantic attraction for one another. I can say with full certainty that it is not because I disapprove of two men in a romance – I feel strongly that there needs to be more gay romance in media actually written by gay men, and what few gay characters there are in mainstream media have all been a delight.
((My discourse on the dangers of modern fetishization and tokenization of LGBT relationships is for another post on another day.))
Before I delve into all this, however, I will be the first one to say that humans and human relationships are nuanced and complicated. Not all romances need sexual attraction, not all sexual attraction needs romance. Not all romance needs physical intimacy, and not all physical intimacy is romantic, and so on and so on, so for the purposes of clarity, please allow me to outline a few of my personal definitions on the issues at hand:
I define a sexual relationship by the presence of sexual activities, which does not include kissing but does include ‘making out’ along with actions that are meant to incite sexual arousal in a person. As such, it is possible to maintain a sexual relationship without direct physical intimacy, through videos, text, or verbalization. Passion is not necessary to make a relationship sexual.
I define a sexually-charged relationship by the presence of sexual attraction, aka lust, which means that a character interprets the appearance, actions, words, or other qualities of another as, either consciously or subconsciously, an indication of sexual desirability, which only refers to sex in the recreational sense and not a reproductive one. I do not include the desire to have children together as an indication of sexual desirability. This is the kind of relationship I believe people mean when they say ‘passionate’.
Those two are easy enough. Now, I’m about to introduce a couple of definitions that a lot of people, and even I myself, struggle to explain and understand, so please bear with me:
I define a romantic relationship by the presence of romantic attraction, sometimes involving a character’s desire to monopolize a person’s time and often precluded by a stage of infatuation. Romantic attraction often includes physical intimacy, such as kissing and cuddling, but I also recognize that it is possible to hold a romantic relationship without such a thing. I believe that a romantic relationship is often defined by a desire for it to be recognized as such, a desire for recognition from society that separate people are now a unit of some kind for purely emotional reasons (meaning not as a business partnership or so). As such, the desire to raise children together with someone falls under a kind of romantic attraction, in my opinion, as it ties individuals together into a recognized family. For the vast majority of people, romantic relationships come hand-in-hand with sexual attraction. In fact, for many people, sexual attraction is a prerequisite for romantic attraction.
What I want in my life, however, and what I label all of the aforementioned character pairs above as, is a quasi-platonic relationship (also known as queer-platonic), which I define by not only the presence of trust and understanding but also the exclusion of the romantic attraction. This is the kind of relationship where where those involved understand each other to a point near telepathy, have learned to read stories in their partner’s silences. Conversation is easy and partners know most of what is going on in each others’ lives.
There is a candid honesty and familiar ease, knowing that the parties involved in the QPR want to devote whole effort into their relationship. Though no space can ever be free of judgement, the relationship is one where someone can at least expect an attempt to understand. It is a relationship valued above other friendships, more emotionally intimate in some way. It is a relationship where you can entrust yourself, emotionally, to another person and know that you are relatively safe.
Some QPRs have physical non-sexual intimacy, and some might even have a friends-with-benefits sexual relationship within the QPR. Unlike romantic relationships, however, despite a desire to spend time together and be invested in each other, there is not necessarily a desire for social recognition as a set unit through labels such as ‘couple’, formalities such as marriage, or responsibilities such as starting a family.
As such, a romantic relationship can have the qualities of a QPR, and I am of the belief that the healthiest romances do have those qualities. However, a relationship does not need those qualities to be a romantic one, and a QPR by my definition cannot be romantic. Further, because sex and romance (or at the very least, sex and dating) are so tied together in our modern culture, often QPRs are non-sexual in nature. As someone who identifies as an aromantic-asexual, the QPR I desire is, most certainly, non-sexual.
The term is probably new to a lot of you, but does that make any sense?
To add another layer of nuance, the expectations of QPRs are different depending on your own romantic orientation. From what I know of the term, it was coined by a woman who hoped to describe an intimate friendship of hers, one that had people always assuming she and her friend were a couple. However, she and the friend were romantically involved with other people, and the QPR was just another kind of commitment on top of ones already present.
However, to many aromantic individuals, and most certainly to me, a QPR is something that takes the place of a romantic one. I know in my case, I hope for a life partner, but I do not want to be a couple in any sense of the word. What I hope for is a friend committed to live out their life with me, but without the ties of marriage or social label as ‘an item’ – the idea of those kind of ties disturbs me beyond my understanding. So I want a QPR, platonic but intimate and rich with care. However, I also want it to be exclusive, with my partner uninterested in pursuing a romantic relationship in addition to our QPR.
Yeah, good luck with that, me.
I understand that the concept is a little difficult to wrap your head around when it’s new to you, which is why I brought up the fictional relationships I longed for in the past – it’s easier to explain examples someone is already familiar with than to make them up and hope for the best.
In the case of John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, it is true that BBC Sherlock gives many hints at a possible attraction between the two, which is subtext at best and queer-baiting at worst. However, there are many people who argue that, even in the original stories, Holmes and Watson shared a mutual romantic or sexual attraction. They draw such evidence from Watson’s vivid and detailed descriptions of Holmes, such as…
“His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard black lines, while his eyes shone out from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downward, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whipcord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase.” (Boscombe Valley Mystery)
“His eyes shone, and his cheek was flushed with the exhilaration of the master workman who sees his work lie ready before him. A very different Holmes, this active, alert man, from the introspective and pallid dreamer of Baker Street. I felt, as I looked upon that supple figure, alive with nervous energy, that it was indeed a strenuous day that awaited us.” (Priory School)
There are several mentions throughout the stories of Holmes’ eyes sparkling or shining.
However, the argument is founded upon the misinformed belief that eloquence in description purely depends upon physical attraction. As a child, and even now, I do not read Watson’s descriptions of Holmes as romantic in the slightest. I can see where people can draw such interpretations, but I also believe that such individuals forget that aesthetic appreciation or dedication to imagery are both fine explanations for such descriptions.
Furthermore, whether or not Watson and Holmes are in in a romantic relationship, they are in a positive relationship of sorts – friends, at the very least. Watson spent 17 years following Holmes on cases, and he is going to have noticed certain quirks and qualities about his companion, which he would include in his stories that have Holmes as the protagonist, and Watson would want to present his friend favorably. I’ve written descriptions just as vivid about my own friends, and I assure you, I hold no romantic attraction towards them.
Further, an American citizen, my consumption of the literature occurred within the American community, and my familiarity with the appeal of a romantic interpretation of Holmes and Watson’s relationship stems from the American fandom. I believe that this community often forgets that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was written in another time and culture, one which lacked the strange, toxic masculinity and suffocating grip of homophobia that plagues modern America. Of course, that is not to say that gay relations were accepted at the time period, but there was far less repression of platonic male affection in order to ‘not seem gay’. Even in the present, while America clings to its strange culture of ‘no homo’, other societies have men giving hugs and kissing each other’s cheeks in a wholly platonic yet affectionate fashion.
Another frequent argument for the reading that Watson and Holmes are romantically involved lies in the nature of Watson’s marriage with Mary Morstan. People are quick to point out how Watson unquestioningly welcomes Holmes into his married home and frequently chooses Holmes’s company to that of his wife’s. However, this argument is again negating the existence of valuable relationships outside of romantic ones, claiming that a relationship worth more than a marriage must be romantic. This argument ignores the possibility that Watson perhaps did not marry Mary out of love, and it completely ignores the possibility that a friendship could ever be worth as much as a romance.
And people wonder why I’m afraid I’ll lose my friends to lovers… but that’s also a post for another day.
In any case, at the end of the day, I am not trying to convince you that Holmes and Watson are not in a romantic relationship. I acknowledge that the subtext for such an interpretation is present, and the only person with the real answer (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is long dead. However, I am offering you the experience from one reader who identifies as aromantic. My reading of the text never gave the sense of a romantic relationship, and I instead felt an intense envy for the unlabeled devotion between Watson and Holmes, one that was valued at least as highly, if not higher than, romance. Without any explicit sexual or romantic attraction, by my definitions, there is no questioning their loyalty and care for one another. To me, that was all the signs of a QPR. That’s just one interpretation out of many, but that is mine.
At the end of the day, I’m just trying to explain the hazy concept of happiness I have for my future, one that involves a life partner without the unsettling concept of romance. What I want is a relationship like that of Watson and Holmes, that level of fascination, shared experiences, and trust. I want a relationship with that level of investment in each others’ lives and well-being. I want all of that without a romance or a sexual affair, and to be honest, it feels like an impossible ideal.
But hey, until then, I’ve got fiction to get me through.