With late summer heat baking much of the US, and elsewhere, turning an eye to heat levels within our favorite genre seems only natural. Those who don’t read romance sometimes level the accusation that it’s all “soft porn,” and dismiss an entire genre merely because of that. They’re wrong, on more than one level. First of all, romance is not porn. Porn is porn; plot, emotion and character development are not big issues, as the emphasis is very, ah, concentrated. Romance, ah, romance is the exact opposite, and, as with many other aspects, the degree of intimate detail has a wide, wide range. Let’s go exploring.
While it’s pretty hard to find a romance any reader would define as “cold,” some romances, for reasons rooted in faith, culture, personal preference, age of target readers, house style, or other reasons, do not include explicit sexual details. Sometimes, these books are termed “sweet,” or “clean,” though not all readers or writers believe these terms apply. If a book that gently shuts the bedroom door, to give characters some privacy is termed “sweet” that may mislead readers into assuming the story may be lighter than it is, with mild conflict or feelings that only skim the surface. That’s not always the case. If the book is termed “clean,” does that mean that books that do contain more detailed scenes are “dirty?” Many readers and writers don’t think so, which makes labelling such books a tricky matter.
Books that fade to black when it comes to intimate encounters may do so for any number of reasons. Inspirational romances prefer to put the focus on the spiritual intimacy between the characters and their relationship to their faith. If the story is a courtship story, and the faith in question teaches that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage, then odds are the characters will generally tend to abstain until they put a ring on it, which may be at the end of a book. But what about such tales that are about a couple already married? People of faith definitely do express their love physically, and, as people are human, no matter what creed, some may make different choices before or after marriage. Is there a place for those stories, as well?
Books in the Young Adult genre are, as one might guess, aimed at younger readers. Those of us who have lived through adolescence already can attest that it’s not an entirely sexless time, as, even if the teen characters aren’t sexually active, even the idea of sex is everywhere, from media to school, to the changes in a character’s own body as they go through the process of moving from child to adult. While the Young Adult label may have, at one point, been an assurance of a squeaky clean read, teens of today live in a far different world, so it is no longer a guarantee, and then there is YA’s big brother/sister, New Adult. The kids aren’t kids anymore, and delving into adult activities, including but not limited to sex, is kind of the whole point.
Readers looking for a less explicit read, but without the faith element, and aimed at adults certainly do have options. Most genres, from historical to contemporary, and all the permutations of both, have less explicit entries. A trip to the UBS can turn up a wealth of traditional Regencies -all the worldbuilding and the doors decorously closed- gothics -where the shivers are of the spooky rather than hot variety- and decades worth of multiple category romance lines, some of which are still providing new titles for their dedicated readership today. It’s been said that the sexiest part of the human body is the imagination, and books like these leave plenty to it.
For readers who prefer that the bedroom door remain open, or even taken off entirely, there are also a wealth of choices. Most mass market romances, historical, contemporary or paranormal, are going to include love scenes, sex scenes (not always the same thing) and that sweet spot where one scene is both at the same time. Again, there’s an entire spectrum, from sensual to smoking, each with its own flavor, uniquely suited to the author’s voice, character’s personalities, world of the story, and what the readership expects. Every couple is different, and how much more intimate and vulnerable can two characters get when there is literally nothing between them and their bodies connect as they do at no other time?
When more of the relationship develops during these sexual scenes, we move into erotic romance, and that’s not porn, either. Erotic romance puts the focus on how sex advances the relationship. It can be two strangers hooking up for what they think will be purely physical, but…surprise, there are feelings. Real, deep feelings, which can be scary, but they keep coming back for more, the feelings growing deeper as they share parts of themselves that go beyond the mere physical. It can also be a married couple, whether they came to the marriage out of arrangement (think mail order brides or marriage of convenience) or they’ve grown up together and now need to connect not as childhood besties, but as adult spouses, which is a whole different ballgame. Separated lover reconnecting after a long or short time apart, changed by all that has happened while they were parted, belong here, too…as they, and all the others, do in the above categories as well.
It’s not a type of character or plot device that sets the level of sensuality, nor does the composition of the couple. Any couple, of any composition, can be sweet, hot, or anywhere in between. Sensual Amish? Yep, it’s a thing. Sweet m/m, or f/f? It’s out there. Inspirationals that address the challenges of balancing body and soul? Got those, too. Young Adult stories that tackle the challenges of seeing one’s preferred gender in a whole new way? Never been a better time. For those who are interested in the sexual journey of one person without the need for a happily ever after (or happy for now) that’s a whole other genre, too – erotica. From sweet to erotic, romance is all about the journey to coupledom, and the paths that journey can take are endless.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. We may not be able to control the level of heat in the great outdoors, but when it comes to our romance reading, we are mighty. What role does the level of sensuality in a particular book play in your decision to read it? Is there a heat level you will always try, or always put back on the shelf? Is there no ideal setting on your personal reading thermostat, as long as the amount of detail fits the story, characters and subgenre? Are there certain sorts of stories you prefer to see with a certain level or lack of explicitness? Has a story ever left you wishing the author had gone into more detail, whether emotional or physical, or wishing they hadn’t told you quite so much? Have some other preference not listed here? We want to hear about that, too. Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.