January 26, 2012

The Thin Red Line Between Romance and Erotica

Let’s talk about sex. 

When it comes to a book’s sensuality level I always have a hard time doing the grading. I’m never sure if a book with explicit -albeit vanilla- sex should be McSexy, McSteamy or even McBurning.

When we were deciding on our sensuality rating we were quite clear on what a book should have in order to be one of the five categories. So if a book only had kisses and no other clear references to sex then it should be McPrude; if it had vague references to sex and maybe some petting -but nothing more than second base- then it should be McDreamy; heavy petting and sex scenes filled with euphemisms will make it a McSexy; if the book had explicit sex scenes was McSteamy; and anything beyond that like BDSM, ménages, etc. was McBurning. But then there were the shades of grey. What about a non-explicit ménage story? What if the fact that multiple simultaneous partners was hinted at but never shown? What should we rate a book like that? 

Then we have the issue of what we define as vanilla and what we define as kinky, case in point m/m romance. If I’m reading an m/m book with any type of anal play or sex, like rimming and actual penetration, I’ll treat that scene as I would a regular, missionary or oral sex m/f scene. If, on the other hand, I’m reading an m/f book and suddenly there’s anal sex in the scene, then I’ll probably be surprised and I’ll give the book at least a McSteamy, maybe even a McBurning because anal sex isn't common in mainstream straight romances. The same applies to ménage scenes, does the fact that there are more than two people in the scene increase the heat level to scorching hot even if they are having the most regular sex someone could possibly have? I always wonder about all this and that’s why sometimes I have such a difficult time deciding the appropriate grading. I feel like I have a double standard and that I should rethink how I rate the books.

This leads us to another issue: erotica, and what makes a book an erotica. I honestly don’t know. I used to think that there were three basic differences: the number of sex scenes, the nature of the sex scenes and whether or not there were feelings involved. But there are books like Megan Hart’s Broken where the hero has lots of sex throughout the book, never with the same woman, sometimes with more than one and they are all one night stands, but regardless of all that, Broken is one of the most complex and even romantic -in a very unconventional way- romances I have read. Is it erotica? Or is it a romance? Maybe is both. My problem is that I’m typecasting and I’m equaling erotica to porn, which, let’s face it, sometimes it is, but not always, and so when I come across a book labeled as erotica that’s filled with deeper issues and lots of romance, I get confused because a romance with lots of explicit sex shouldn’t be labeled as something I associate with porn.

This sounds like I’m bashing erotica and even porn, but I’m not. What I wonder is if we should consider erotica a romantic subgenre, and by erotica I mean books that only have sex but no romantic feelings, like a book about someone’s sexcapades, because I wouldn’t consider that book a romance.

In my opinion it all comes to the fact that our definition of erotica, romance or even erotic romance, is as personal as our enjoyment of the book. Sensuality ratings are as subjective as regular gradings and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you are a regular reader of our blog and read one of my McSteamy reviews you probably know by now that what I consider McSteamy might as well be McBurning to someone else. So far I have only given five McBurning grades and one of them was to a book where the sex scenes weren’t that graphic but that had a lot of violence. I have a harder time tolerating violence than sex. I think that as long as the people having sex are consenting adults then anything goes, if you want to have sex with seven guys while wrapped in plastic (and I won’t blame you since it’s bound to get messy and the plastic might offer some protection) then that’s fine. The same goes if you only want to have missionary sex with one of those sheets with a hole in the middle. As long as that’s what you want to do, then fine by me. When it comes to me grading the sex scene I’ll keep playing it by ear.

Last but not least, I do think that sex with feelings makes a lot of difference on how we see a particular sex scene. If the people involved in the scene care for each other that will influence the way we see the sex between them. I have read books where the main couple have smoking hot sex with a lot of dirty talk including using words like pussy and cunt (which, BTW, I absolutely hate) but it didn’t feel cheap, in fact, because I knew how much they cared for each other, the scene ended up being way hotter to me. Had I read the same scene with different characters I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. In the end, our focus should be on the people and not the actual sex, and we should rate and judge each book individually and stop paying so much attention to categories and labels. 

So what do you think? Where do you draw the line between erotica and romance? Would you judge a book based on the people having sex more than in the actual sex? How do you feel about sensuality ratings? Are they useful, misleading, do you care about them at all? 

This one has nothing to do with the post, but it's so true!

Note: In case you were wondering, I got all the pictures here: http://someecards.com/


  1. I am guilty of looking at erotica with a less discerning eye than you do.. I kind of walk the "I know it when I see it" line. If I have any benchmark (and it's hazy at best) it's whether the book is more about the story and/or relationship --or about the screwing. If the screwing is really what the book is about, then I see it as erotica.

    As for sensuality ratings, I don't really look at them much. But then again, I'm good with almost any heat level unless it's totally pure. I DO like to have a heads up on a book's kink of choice (ie. whether it's BDSM, menage, etc.) so I can avoid the few scenarios I know I don't like.

    1. That’s a good way to look at it. If the main focus of the story is the relationship it should be a romance regardless of how much sex it has. Perhaps the key is just viewing it as erotic romance, and I think a lot of books out there that are labeled as romance should, in fact, be labeled as erotic romance. But there’s a lot of prejudice out there when it comes to erotica so I can see why authors and publisher would be weary of the word “erotic”.

      I like sensuality ratings. I want to know what to expect and I went through a phase where I wouldn’t read a book unless it had sex in it (it happened just after I discovered book with sex scenes), so I always looked for reviews that mentioned the sensuality level. Nowadays I don’t care about the nature of the scenes -meaning that I read everything- but still is good to know. And knowing the kink of choice IS important!

  2. I want all of my erotica and my romance to mix together. I've recently discoverd Cherrie Lynn and holy cow, she gives me the exact amount of sugar sweet romance I want, along with the sexxy time.

    More times than not, I'm going to start my search in the erotic section, because a lot of popular romances lately lack in the sexxy time department.

    "My balls aren't going to lick themselves" killed me. I can't stop laughing.

    I appreciate your sensuality ratings, I use them when deciding whether or not I really want to read a book.

    1. *adds Cherrie Lynn to TBR list*

      See?! I think ratings are useful as long as you’re a bit familiar with the reviewer and know what she or he consider to be Hot, Sexy, Mild, etc. But when you are a discerning reader looking for a very specific type of book then is good to have a more detailed description of how graphic the scenes are because it helps to make a more informed choice!

      That was my favorite picture of the bunch! I had more but couldn’t fit them in the post. I need to write another one so I can use them.

  3. I haven't read erotica in so long. But from what I can remember it was just a lot of sex, usually menages' or multiple partners. A lot of times it was some crazy scene too, like sex at a masquerade ball in front of everyone, or in a barbershop or bus depot. And many times there were no real feelings besides lust between the characters.

    My romances have sex, but most are hot, yet tastefully done. Also, the majority of the time the characters actually feel something real for each other. Or at least it grows into that.

    1. I think erotica has changed in the past few years, but there’s still a lot of what you mention, which is perfectly fine. Also think that mainstream romance has changed as well, because the amount of explicit sex scenes has increased a lot so now readers that loved explicit sex but wanted more romance can read these books and be happy. There’s something for everyone.

  4. Hello everyone!! Lately I'm having the same problem when choosing the sensuality rating. I mean, a novel full of innuendos some petting and just one sex scene should be something like McSexy but sometimes this sole sex scene is so detailed that it feels like a McSteamy, but again is just one scene. I think that the operative word here is "feel", is just how a romantic scene makes you feel. Although, I sometimes use Ellora’s Cave’ classification, which is an classification within an erotica publication.

    1. You're back! And just when we're talking about sex, it figures ;-P

  5. There was a term on blogland a couple of years ago... Romantica. I think that term kind of describe Megan Hart books well.

    I don't really look at sensuality rating, because it's different for everyone. I like the naming of yours, McPrude, McSexy, etc. I think it's fun... but overall, it's not something I really pay attention to.

    Me, I usually pick up books based on the authors and publishers, so I kind of know what I'm picking up and avoid some surprises. I mean, you come to know the style of an author - who's more heavy on the sex, who has what type of sex in their books, etc.

    Overall, I agree with Jen's comment. If the story is about the sex, then it's erotica for me.

  6. Hi nath!

    I buy books based on known authors and publishers also, so I have a pretty good idea of the type of book I’m getting since I’m already familiar with their styles. However, when it comes to authors I’m not familiar with, I do like to know everything I can before getting the book and that’s when things like sensuality ratings help.

  7. Hi Brie!
    I think the sensuality ratings are fun and even useful when I'm reading reviews for new-to-me authors, but I don't rely on them entirely because like you said, levels of sensuality are different for a lot of people. I think your levels and descriptions for each give your readers a good enough indication of what to expect... at least in the explicitness of the sex scenes. Sometimes that's dictated by the author's level of description of the sex scenes and not necessarily the "kinky-ness" so to speak. For example, a menage scene may not be as erotic as a "traditional" monogamous sex scene--it all depends on how detailed the author is.

    As for Megan Hart, she's in a genre all her own as far as I'm concerned. Yes, her books are sexy and sometimes downright erotic, but the context of the sex is always so incredibly thought provoking. I don't know.. her stories are special. :)

    1. Hi Christine!

      In my opinion, what happens with Megan Hart’s books is that her characters are so interesting and so complex that you forget about the sex. Perhaps forget isn’t really the most adequate word to describe it, the sex is there and you know it, but it’s such an important part of the plot and the characters that the reading experience is different than when you read a book whose main focus is the sex. I don’t think her books are about the sex, at least not mainly about the sex.

      I think you should deal with sensuality ratings in the same way you deal with any rating. It’s all about familiarity with the reviewer. Just like you get to know authors and their styles, you get to know reviewers and their likes and dislikes. So the more you know a reviewer the more useful the rating will be because you will have a better idea of what they are talking about. In the end, sensuality ratings are useful when you are trying to decide whether you should read a new-to-you author or not, or when you have a very specific taste and just read one particular type of book.

  8. I haven't read erotica in so long I'm not sure. I've read a few reviews on other people's blogs and I've wandered, "wait, so is this erotica?" I usually want to know one way or the other.

    1. LOL! I want to know too and that’s why I love detailed reviews, since I’m not a fan of books with sex but no plot I want to know exactly what I’m about to read. And yes, sometimes it’s hard to tell.

  9. I think there is definitely a difference between erotic and erotica - but it is hard to put it into words. I'm not a huge fan of erotica but I love erotic. Maybe erotica to me is excessive sex that doesn't really further the story? I don't know...also I wonder if there is always a HEA with erotica?

    In terms of sensuality, I like to always know if the book is erotic and if there is bdsm. Otherwise - the level doesn't matter to me too much.

    I get frustrated when people assume m/m books are erotic..I totally agree with what you say on that subject above.

    Also - I literally just ran to Amazon before I commented here and bought Broken for my Kindle. I am SO in the mood for a darker erotic book..I've been looking all weekend AND I'm a Megan Hart virgin(well..I think I read something by her in an anthology..)

    1. I'm sure you gonna love it! I was a Megan Hart's virgin no so long ago, I started with Broken and then I couldn't stop reading her books. Hope you'll come by to tell us about your experience reading Broken.

    2. "Maybe erotica to me is excessive sex that doesn't really further the story? I don't know...also I wonder if there is always a HEA with erotica?"

      I think that’s it, pointless sex is a good way to differentiate it, and even the lack of a HEA mostly because the story is all about the sex.

      I hate when people label m/m as erotica just because it’s two guys having sex. It implies that gay sex is somewhat dirtier than heterosexual sex and thus it should come with a warning. If the book has graphic sex scenes, then fine, but I’ve read several mainstream romances where the sex is just as graphic but aren’t labeled as erotic. That right there is a terrible double standard.

      I can’t believe you’re a Megan Hart virgin! Ha, you’re in for a treat but one you aren’t expecting. I hope you review it or at least let me know your thoughts on it. Broken is a book perfect to talk about and discuss because there’s so much going on in it, great characters, great plot and great sex! LOL

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