Should erotic romance be a separate genre from romance? Are heat ratings the way to go?
We’ve all read romance novels that have some pretty steamy scenes. Christine Feehan’s Carpathian series includes love scenes with fellatio and cunnilingus. Eric has a monstrous oversize penis in MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead series, and Kresley Cole’s immortals certainly burn up the sheets. Yet none of these books are rated as erotic romance. Even Lisa Valdez’s book Patience (released by Berkley), which has dominance and submission and some very graphic scenes, isn’t given this label.
So I ask again, is there really a point to having a separate category called “erotic romance” vs. just “romance”? I say there is not. Romance and erotica should remain separate categories, of course, since erotica does not require a romantic relationship between the characters, but I don’t believe “romance” needs a qualifier when it comes to its love scenes.
That brings us to heat ratings. If you get rid of the word “erotic” before romance, then the way to reveal how much sex and graphic language is in a book is through the heat index. Whether measured in flames, descriptors (e.g. sweet, sensual, spicy, hot), or some other method, the heat index can inform readers what to expect. The problem with this is that the heat index is largely subjective. You may ask, “How hot is this book?” But then the natural response has to be, “Compared to what?” What is the standard? Which book is the benchmark for sensual heat in a romance novel?
Most publishers take it a step further and list keywords of content and “kink.” I think this is a terrific way to show readers what they’re in for. Just like movies warn us about nudity and adult content, these content labels are the best disclosure. If a book is described as containing “graphic language, voyeurism, and bondage,” you know going in this isn’t a sweet Disney-version romance you’re about to read.
Going back to the movie example, I personally pay less attention to whether a movie is rated PG-13 vs. R than what the content warnings tell me. Even there, I think some better descriptions need to be developed. For example, “graphic violence” could mean a lot of things. I don’t mind a sword and sorcery battle in a fantasy, but I don’t want to watch a horrifying torture scene. Both are categorized the same.
Although I think the writing industry tends to be franker and less prone to euphemisms with content descriptions, I see the same pitfalls. Go ahead and spell out that “graphic sexual content.” Is it oral sex? Missionary-position sex? Anal sex? Sex with toys and props and kink? Usually writers and publishers will elaborate, but not always. And how about “dubious consent”? Am I going to stumble into a nasty rape scene? Or are we talking bondage? One of my paranormal romance books received the “dubious consent” label. When it came out and I first saw that, I thought, Huh? Then I realized what it referred to in my book—the heroine tied the hero to the bed and used her psychic ability to give him a hard-on. That’s a far cry from a brutal rape, but readers may not know that.
As a romance writer with some molten hot heat ratings, I’m not put off by scorching love scenes, but I know they’re not for everyone. I’d like to see the trend of content warnings continue and expand so that readers can make informed decisions about what they read. Speaking as a reader, just let me know what to expect from a book, and I’ll make my own choice about whether or not to read it. Full disclosure, please.