How Steamy, Exactly? Expectations About Sex in Romance Novels

I’ve been a romance reader from the time I was old enough to buy my own books — or, to be honest, from the time I was old enough to convince my dad that I needed a book instead of a comic when he took my two younger brothers and me on an evening “expedition” to Mayfair News (probably to give our mother a break).

Mayfair News was full of newspapers from all over the world, an enormous selection of comic books and magazines, and a wire carousel of romance and suspense novels. There was also a glass-topped freezer chest full of Popsicles and Fudgsicles and Creamsicles and Revellos. I loved those late-night adventures with my dad and brothers; in retrospect, we were probably home for bedtime at nine, but it was dark out.

I’m pretty sure my dad has never read a romance novel, so I’m assuming he had no idea what went on inside those shiny covers with their embossed swirly titles and partially-dressed couples. He probably didn’t even look at the covers too closely, being more interested in The New York Times and The Guardian, and in any case, the comics my brothers chose must have provided some camouflage.

But there was nothing terribly shocking in those old-school romance novels, anyway. Oh, some throbbing members and moist centers, most likely — enough to make a teenage girl blush and giggle. Still, as I recall it, the sex was mostly vanilla and not that big of a deal. I coveted those books for the love stories and the feelings and the drama, and the happily-ever-after endings they guaranteed.

How Steamy, Exactly? Expectations About Sex in Romance Novels

As romance readers, we all want to ride that love story roller coaster and disembark into the warm glow of happily ever after.

But what about our expectations of sex in romance novels?

When you read a romance novel by a new-to-you author, do you go into it with preconceived expectations about how much sex there will be? How explicit/descriptive do you assume the sex scenes will be? How kinky do you expect it to get?

We’re obviously not talking about Christian romance or inspirational romance here. I think everyone recognizes that those are firmly planted in the “sweet” category (where the sex is closed-door, saved for marriage, maybe even saved for an implied honeymoon after the book ends at “you may kiss the bride”). Definitely no whips and handcuffs. I’m sure exceptions to the rule exist, but the general comfort level is clearly defined.

We’re also not talking about erotica, because the expectations there are pretty clearly defined too. There’s nothing wrong with erotica — it is, and has always been, fiction focused on the sexual journey of the protagonist (self-discovery, awakening, exploration, healing, whatever that happens to be). As such, the nature of the genre is explicit and the exploratory nature of it invites boundary-pushing.

So, let’s say the book you pick up is a contemporary romance (I’m thinking about contemporary because that’s where Rock Star’s Heart fits in, but the same question applies if you’re into romantic suspense, paranormal romance, or historical romance). It’s a given that the main characters fall in love and develop emotionally, but what do you expect from the book in terms of sex scenes? Are you disappointed, or do you consider that the book has failed you, if it doesn’t meet those expectations?

I have to admit that I’m a little worried about this, as a writer. Many medium-heat romances (at least, what I’d consider medium-heat) seem to all but carry warning labels letting readers know they won’t be getting a barrage of steamy scenes, while others (that strike me as similar in heat) are labeled 18+ or Adult. One-star reviews for both “too much sex” and “not enough sex” are common, because there’s no standard scale to measure what you’re getting in advance. And everyone has particular words they love to hate, too — clinical and anatomical words, euphemisms, slang terms, and descriptive words that trigger ick rather than yum.

How can I describe the steam factor of Rock Star’s Heart in terms that will mean something to you, the individual reader? There’s sex, but not on every other page, and not till well into the book. It’s not kinky, because these characters didn’t develop that way, but it isn’t all tender and slow either. Body parts and fluids are mentioned on a couple of occasions, but not in, ah, veiny detail. Like Goldilocks and the porridge — is it too hot? Not hot enough? Just right?

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