Definitions: What is Erotica?

[UPDATE: Please also see my reprise blog post “Definitions: Erotica, Erotic Romance, Steamy Romance”]

People frequently make broad assumptions about what it is I write. Friends, family, and acquaintances snicker about my “porn”. Romance writer colleagues imbued with the cadence of traditional romance often bandy about the term “erotica” as if to signal the ugly otherness of erotic romance.

So I will attempt to answer the provocative question What is erotica? and by doing so answer corollary questions about misunderstood erotic-like literary variations: Erotic romance, steamy romance, smut, porn, and Romantica®.

Discussions and definitions by others

I’ll start by muddying the waters with definitions offered up by other writers.

Erotic romance queen Sylvia Day has her own definitions, which are rather good, and which hinge upon character development via sexual experiences. I’ve only read a couple of her books, and I find those that I’ve read to be more along the lines of sexy romance and not erotic romance, but maybe I’m not reading the right ones.

Day was one of the founders of Passionate Ink, the erotic romance chapter of Romance Writers of America. Passionate Ink has recently worked out the definition of erotic romance for its annual Passionate Plume contest [full disclosure: I’m currently Vice-President of PI]. We used Day’s definitions as a basis.

Author/editor/publisher Violet Blue reads a lot of erotica submissions, which means she ends up reading a lot of porn because writers don’t always understand the difference. Here’s a tweet she posted while reading Best Women’s Erotica 2015 submissions:

Some of my colleagues in private discussions have voiced their opinions that, to them, erotica and erotic romance contain sexually explicit, vulgar language and “four-letter words”. These authors cite the over-use of fuck, cunt, pussy, dick, and cum as the defining aspect of the genre. To me, over-using words (any descriptive words, really) is just lazy writing. I use historically appropriate dirty words and have no problem with including these in my writing. (But I eschew pussy and cum, because…eww.)

Kammerotica Definitions, or The What is Erotica? Cheat Sheet!

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.

But, blasphemy of blasphemies, I do not think erotica has to necessarily be arousing. Sometimes the erotic development of a relationship or a character’s journey of sexual discovery is sad, lonely, and depressing. Sometimes it is shocking. Sometimes it is sweet and romantic. And sometimes it is arousing.

Erotic romance
In order to define this, I have to define “romance”. I’m not talking le Roman de la Rose or Arthurian chivalric knights, which are the roots of the idea of romantic love. No. I’m talking Romance Writers of America (RWA) romance.

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

Erotic romance takes all the elements of erotica but has a love story at its core. An optimistic resolution to a relationship—a Happily Ever After or a Happily For Now—is essential in an erotic romance.

Sex scenes are not gratuitous in erotic romance. Sexual elements form the foundation of the plot, themes, and characters. 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 a HEA/HFN.

Steamy (or Sexy, or Graphic, or Gratuitous, or Explicit) Romance
Steamy Romance is a romance with a lot of sex in it. Generally, there is a very good reason for at least one of the sex scenes—the moment when the hero and heroine (or whatever permutation of H/h the story has: two men, two women, three people, etc.) connect deeply and emotionally. But in a lot of steamy romances, one could tone down the sex scenes or fade to black before the sex scenes and the story would be sound.

Unfortunately, some steamy romance novels have too many purely gratuitous sex scenes. Personally, I find these sorts of stories rather boring. I want the sex in a story to have purpose, to move the story forward. Characters should change, relationships should develop, conflicts should increase or resolve — something has to happen because of the sex. I find it interesting that erotica and erotic romance are often criticized for having gratuitous sex. It’s actually the steamy romances that too often fall into that pit.

Romantica® is a registered trademark of the erotic romance and erotica publisher Ellora’s Cave. The term is exclusively used for their line of erotic romance. Because it is a trademark one should never use the term unless discussing an Ellora’s Cave erotic romance. Maybe one day it will be a generic term, but until then I strongly urge people not to use it out of context.

Depending on who is using it, this word can mean “erotica” or “literary porn” or “just plain porn”. It’s a cute word that seems to be used mostly by erotica authors from the UK.

Pornography / Porn
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. “Literary porn” is really just well-written porn, but once the story starts to have some of those literary devices, porn starts sliding toward erotica.

Pornography starts with a set-up, e.g., pizza boy 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 conflict resolution. There is just pure sexual satisfaction—although I suppose that is a resolution of some sort!

What I Write

So, what is it I actually write? I write all of the above except porn—despite what my friends think. 😉

“An Age Play”, “The Demonstration”, “Object”, and “A Night at Valley Forge” are all erotica because a HEA is not an element.

Erotic romance
Most of what I write can be categorized as this. I like a happy ending! I like my characters to explore their sexual natures!
The General’s Wife: well, obviously. This is pretty much textbook erotic romance.
Hadrian and Sabina: All characters get a HEA despite all the crazy Roman sex!
“One Cheek Or Two?”: All characters explore the boundaries of their sexuality.
“Delia’s Heartthrob”: Edward comes to a realization about his sexuality.
“The Promise of Memory”: A study of sexual awareness despite the persistence of memories. (Although this is really kind of stretching the definition.)
“Silent Sky”: This short story has a touch of a sexual arc involving sexual acceptance. (Again, stretching the definition a bit.)

Because I’ve written for Ellora’s Cave, I’ve written Romantica with my Harwell Heirs series. The Pleasure Device, Disobedience By Design, and Where Destiny Plays are all erotic romance novels under the Romantica brand.

Steamy romance
Yes! I’ve actually written steamy romance! It surprised me too, because I never thought I would. “Hot As Hades”, “Window Display”, “Protecting Her” (and probably “The Promise of Memory”) are all stories with hot sex and a Happily Ever After. I think the stories would not be as good without the sex or with toned down sex, but I hesitate calling them erotic romance. Maybe you can convince me otherwise in the comments?