It's been an ongoing conversation in the romance world, but a recent post on Book Riot has nudged it to the forefront once again: How should we label the "sexiness" of our romance novels? And more specifically right now, the label "clean" is a problem; so what do we do about it?
Though I encourage you to check out the other post, the issue boils down to the implication that romances which aren't "clean" are, by default, "dirty." Since we aim to be sex-positive and avoid shaming people for what they choose to do with their bodies, that implication is problematic—the same way calling someone who chooses to abstain "childish" or "immature" would be. (For the record, someone denigrating those who choose to abstain is not truly sex-positive, no matter how supportive they are of those choosing to have sex.)
The rise of the label "clean" was almost certainly a marketing ploy targeting people who judge things like premarital sex as being unethical or otherwise problematic. "Want romance that matches your (implication: 'superior') moral values? These romances are 'clean'!"
The question today is: what should we call them? No one really agrees. Some think they should be pulled into the "sweet" category, but there are some important distinctions. In sweet romance, the characters can have premarital sex, as long as it's not happening on the page. Sweet romances can include more of a physical awareness, some sensuality and touching, hotter kissing or light fooling around, and that implied sex between the characters—just as long as the reader doesn't actually see it. It's a very early fade to black.
"Clean" romance doesn't have any of that. It's quite similar to the heat level of Hallmark movies, where the main characters may hold hands, hug, and kiss, but rarely anything more. The characters definitely can't have even implied sex, regardless of whether it happens on or off the page, unless it takes place after marriage. (Even then it would be off the page, but characters could go on a honeymoon or discover a pregnancy.)
The problem is there doesn't seem to be a word that describes that absence of sexual content without added negative connotations. "Sex-free" (in addition to not being the best marketing term) still makes it sound like sex is something that should be avoided (like "pesticide-free," or "GMO-free"). "Unobjectionable" suggests sex is something to which we should object. I did like the suggestion of a fellow author, which was "chaste"—but the vague connotations regarding the "value" of virginity, of sex making someone "impure," still make that an imperfect choice.
But the same way that people who prefer hotter books don't label sex-free stories as "bland," despite that being an antonym to "spicy," those who don't like hotter books—and the language the industry uses—need to be equally accepting in describing those hotter stories. Still, language is complicated, and finding a good option free of problematic connotations may require a neologism.
As part of the conversation on this, I also learned that the way I've been using "steamy" is very different from how many others do. For me, it was a step in between "sweet" and "spicy" romance; for many, it turns out, there is no difference between "steamy" and "spicy."
So in addition to finding a better label for "clean" romances, we need some industry-wide clarity on heat levels overall. While I don't have a solution, I do want to be clear regarding my own books:
Level 3: Moderate on the spiciness scale, & what I used to call steamy—sex scenes on the page, but euphemistic language, and usually only after an emotional connection between the characters. Among my books, Mortal Musings.
Level 4: Spicy, or as others use steamy. More explicit language, more sex scenes, and sex can happen earlier—including in the opening scene. This is actually a pretty broad category, and Tasting Temptation would be on the lower end.
Level 5: Erotic romance. This can include fetishes, explicit language including naming of body parts, menages or group sex, and more. The main story still must include a romantic connection between/among the main characters, but in terms of explicit sex on the page, anything goes.
For those who may have been wondering, hopefully that clarifies the heat levels in my published romances. Interestingly Taralynn's stories would fall under Level 5, though Summer Seduction has so far only reached a 3. We'll see what happens!
What do you think about how we label sex content in romances? Any suggestions for a good term for Level 1? Share in the comments!