Picture the scene. You’re sitting in a strange room with your friend, waiting for the near-stranger to come and give you instructions, and, you hope, some money. You look around at the expensive furnishings, and your friend, who is wearing just a bed sheet. “So…are you wearing any underwear?” you ask. “No,” they shoot back at you, and you both crack up. And then your client comes back in the room, and you eye them with a mix of ingratiation and just enough jut of the chin to let them know who’s in charge.
The mix of camaraderie, defiance, curiosity and sitting around naked in unfamiliar places is familiar to any sex worker. But the two characters onscreen are Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, who have been summoned to Buckingham Palace to work on a confidential case involving some compromising photos of a young royal. The photos in question are held by one Irene Adler, a dominatrix, who we also see in tantalisingly brief shots intercut with Holmes and Watson. While they look at tastefully posed photos from her website, she thumbs through real-time snapshots of them on a swanky phone. A game of wits is thus begun between Holmes and Adler, in which they bluff, drug, evade and outfox each other by turns for ninety convoluted minutes.
Sherlock is a new and glossy BBC-funded outing for Conan Doyle’s tireless detective. This episode is the first in its second series, and begins with a retelling of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” one of the first Holmes stories. In the original, Irene Adler attempts to blackmail a minor European royal and is smoked out by Sherlock Holmes in disguise but nonetheless manages to flee the country, outwitting him in the end. That, clearly, would conclude the episode far too quickly, hence the script which adds a serpentine dance of attraction, mis/understanding and intellectual combat between the contemporary Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and updated Irene Adler, given life by Lara Pulver. Pulver claims to have extensively researched the dominatrix part of the role. “Literally, if you search my computer, you’d think I was a porn star or something!” she chortled in an interview with Digital Spy in December 2011. Normally, there is a special position over my caning bench for people who misuse the word “literally,” but in this instance we’ll let it slide, since Pulver turns in a performance as Mistress Adler (or, as she is referred to in the show as in the original story, ‘The Woman”) which is nuanced and convincing.
Adler as dominatrix is, I think, a fairly close fit to the original character. She’s feisty, resourceful and willing to go her own way. “I make my own way in the world. I misbehave,” she declares. There is every suggestion that she enjoys her job, and is empowered, wealthy and formidably brilliant. But how does the dominatrix role as written compare to the actual life—my actual life, to be precise—as a London spankstress?
I’m sure you’ll all be shocked—shocked!—to hear that I don’t wear black fur stoles, Louboutins and red lipstick in my everyday peregrinations around the city, like Adler appears to do. (At least in a scene where she’s at home, the Louboutins are shown discarded on the floor as she pads around in what must be blistered and sore stocking feet). Neither do I reside in a marble-furnished mansion in the West End, or extract state secrets from covert ops agents when they’re tied up during a session. Almost all of my gentleman callers use pseudonyms, as do I, and fear exposure more than I do: if I plied them for secrets and favours, I’d rapidly find that I had no clients. As many have pointed out over the years, most depictions of sex workers in popular media show us either as flat broke, down on our luck and battling drug habits, or as lavishly wealthy sophisticates who make more money on a good day than our contemporaries earn in a week. In reality, most of us are somewhere in the middle, keeping a balance sheet in our head of potential appointment revenue, advertising outlay, venue hire and wear and tear on stockings. Neither desperate nor rolling in money; just making a living. Seeing a depiction of a dominatrix as fantastically rich and powerful is less irritating, on balance, than seeing her written in as desperate and pathetic, but it’s still problematic.
It’s made more so by the screenwriter Steven Moffat’s assertion in interviews that contemporary Irene Adler is a “psychopath” to match his cold, cerebral and frankly assholish Sherlock character. “Both are clearly defined as deranged—it’s love among the mad,” he told the Guardian. “He’s a psychopath, so is she.” It would be unfair to put words in Moffat’s mouth, but there does seem to be a lingering implication that only someone deranged would sincerely enjoy tormenting people for money. Perhaps Lara Pulver should share her research with him, and explain that pro-domination is a job which requires immense depths of understanding, acceptance and compassion as well as ferocity and technical skill.
It feels churlish, though, to complain that Moffat’s dominatrix doesn’t resemble me or any of the dommes I know. She’s a storybook character: a device to help the screenwriters show Sherlock’s complex emotional landscape. You may as well complain that Molly, a forensic pathologist, is pictured at work with her hair brushed out and hanging loose, when it would surely be tied back neatly for lab work. Adler has some sensationally dommey lines (“Look at those cheekbones! I could cut my hand slapping that face,” she purrs) but the real character development and nuanced top/bottom dynamic is all Holmes and Watson’s. Underpinning the story of international intrigue is a surprisingly gentle and subtle examination of the non-romantic, non-sexual relationships in Sherlock’s life, and the ways in which the people around him back him up and keep him (relatively) sane. These, more than any seamed stockings and riding crop, were evocative of my experiences of sex work: solidarity and affection in the face of the challenging and the ridiculous. And occasionally checking to see if your friend is wearing any underwear.
Annabel Trotwood is the toast of London corporal punishment perverts, and the butter and marmalade too. Her splendidly conditioned spanking muscles have won her many an arm-wrestling tournament. She likes punishing people for poor grammar, and dislikes donkeys on her lawn.