Definitions: Erotica, Erotic Romance, Steamy Romance (Reprise)

In a couple of discussion forums I’m on, the question of what is erotic romance vs. what is steamy romance has come up yet again.

As a writer of both, and of erotica, I know the answer. I wrote a blog post about it way back in 2015. Since some parts of that post are no longer relevant (especially the bits about a now-defunct publisher), I decided it was time to reprise my definitions post, with some updates.

I’ve been writing erotica, erotic romance, and steamy romance for well over a decade, and am mystified (and annoyed) that our industry has not yet solidified the definitions of these genres. Does definition diminish creativity? Not at all. What it does is help industry professionals better understand what is being written, marketed, and sold. With definitions, the industry as a whole would be on the same page.

It’s about expectations.

Example: You put out a call for submissions for erotic romance and you get stories that are romances with sex, rather than stories that are actual erotic romances. (This example is based on my experience as an erotic romance writing contest judge.) Or, what about Amazon’s “Adult Filter” and “Erotica Dungeon” which should be aimed at porn but, instead, are aimed at erotic romance. Amazon’s lack of understanding of how the genres of porn, erotica, erotic romance, and steamy romance differ is the root cause of numerous author headaches suffered while trying to navigate the retailer’s convoluted, murky, and random rules. The fact that Amazon frequently slams mainstream romance into their “Erotica Dungeon” reveals no one at Amazon understands romance in the slightest.

When genres and sub-genres are well-defined, then expectations are met, and nobody’s time is wasted.

Definitions: Reprise

These are not definitions for readers. Readers are going to define all types of romance in their own way. I’m submitting the below definitions for the industry: writers, publishers, guilds, professional associations, retailers.

Romance: Reprise

In order to define sub-genres of romance, I have to first define romance. I’ll go with an already established industry definition from the professional organization that represents romance authors, the Romance Writers of America (RWA):

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

That “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” is also called a Happily-Ever-After (HEA) or Happily-For-Now (HFN).

Erotica: Reprise

Erotica is a literary form where the core of the story is sexual in nature. As a literary form, erotica has plot, themes, character development, goals and motivations, conflicts and resolutions, and all those elements that make up a story. But all those elements deal with something sexual in nature. Typical themes include the erotic development of a relationship (e.g., a Dominant and submissive), or an innocent’s journey of sexual discovery, or a character’s exploration and development of their true sexual nature. One could not strip out the sex scenes and be left with a comprehensible story. The sex is the story.
An HEA/HFN is *not* a requirement for erotica.
[UPDATE NOTE: I want to emphasize that by “sex scenes” and “sex” I mean scenes supporting the sexual journey, and that the sexual journey is the story. Erotica does not necessarily have to include depictions of sex acts. I myself have written erotica without a sex act.]

Erotic Romance: Reprise

Erotic Romance takes all the elements of erotica but has a romance at its core. An HEA/HFN, i.e., an optimistic resolution to a relationship, is essential in an erotic romance. In erotic romance, sexual elements form the foundation of the plot, themes, and characters. Sex scenes are not gratuitous in erotic romance. One cannot simply strip away the sex scenes and be left with a comprehensible story. The sex scenes drive the plot and character development and push toward that culmination of an HEA/HFN.

Industry pitfalls: Erotic romance is not simply “romance with sex in it”. Nope. For a story to be classified as an erotic romance, the sex has to drive the story, not just be present in the story.

Steamy Romance: Reprise

Steamy (or Sexy) Romance is a romance (i.e., has a HEA/HFN) with a lot of sex in it. Generally, there are good reasons for the sex scenes, e.g., moments when the H/h+ connect deeply and emotionally. But the character or relationship arc is not something sexual in nature. Yes, the characters might “try something new” to “spice up their relationship”, but if that erotic element is not a core part of the character/relationship arc and just something that happens in a scene or two, then the story is not an erotic romance.

Industry pitfalls: Unfortunately, too many steamy romances have purely gratuitous sex scenes. By “gratuitous” I mean one could tone down or shorten the sex scenes or fade to black before the sex scenes and the story would be perfectly sound. Sex in a story should have purpose, should propel the story forward. Characters should change, relationships should develop, conflicts should increase or resolve–something has to happen because of the sex. If you can take out the sex in a story, then that scene is gratuitous and possibly dragging the story down. I find it interesting that erotica and erotic romance are often criticized for having “gratuitous” sex. It’s actually steamy romance that too often falls into that pit.

Porn: Reprise

In pornography sex scenes exist purely for the purpose of sexual titillation. Plot, character development, theme, and all other literary devices are generally missing in pornography. In fact, such literary effects are irrelevant and unessential. The entire emphasis is on sexual acts. Pornography usually starts with a set-up, e.g., pizza guy goes to a sorority house and sexiness ensues. Characters remain the same after the act is finished: there is no character development, no character growth, no relationship arc.

Industry pitfalls: Too many in the romance industry conflate porn and erotica. They are two completely different genres. It is very insulting to writers of erotica to call what they write “porn”. I have heard the term “porn” bandied about too often by RWA members at conferences and on panels. It is simply wearying to have to defend oneself constantly in front of one’s own colleagues. Plus, incorrectly using these terms reveals one’s ignorance of these genres.

One More Note

Missing in these definitions is any discussion of tropes or settings or “pairings”. These literary elements do not inherently define a genre. For example, a stepbrother romance is not necessarily an erotic romance, a romance set in Amish country is not necessarily a sweet or inspirational romance, and an LGBTQ story is not necessarily erotica (that last one makes me cringe; yes, I have encountered this prejudice from my colleagues). Tropes, settings, and pairings/combinations exist independently of genre.

Only two elements define erotica, erotic romance, steamy romance, and porn: the way sex is integrated into the story, and whether or not there is an HEA/HFN.

I hope these definitions are useful for my industry colleagues.