Heat levels vs. erotic romance (and erotica)

In one of my writers’ groups the subject of heat levels in romance came up, and how to describe romance novel sexy times (or lack thereof) on some sort of scale.

You probably think this is an easy discussion, right? Ha!

There is literally no industry standard for heat levels, and yet romance readers constantly want to know what to expect sexiness-wise between the covers.

Having no industry standard means everyone has their own opinion including one particular retailer which randomly puts romance books into their “Erotica Dungeon” even if said romance book is not erotica (plus erotica is not a heat level — more on that below).

This post is not in any way going to attempt to create an industry standard for heat levels in romance, but rather to highlight some of the salient issues regarding why this is so difficult to pin down.

What is meant by “Heat Levels”?

Heat levels refers to quantity of sex on the page. Meaning: no sex, closed-door or implied sex, on-page sex. All of these points can be further broken down by which sensual elements are present, from hand-holding to graphic sexual intercourse.

Why is having a scale of heat levels in romance even necessary? (Which was asked during the writers’ group discussion.)

Because readers want this. Readers want to know what to expect when they break that spine or download that ebook.

Using another genre as an example, how do readers know the difference between a blood-soaked suspense thriller with on-the-page graphic violence and a cozy mystery with a cat?

Well, somehow they do.

Filling in the Void

If there were an industry standard for heat levels in romance, the best organization to create such a standard would be the professional organization for romance writers, the Romance Writers of America, right?

Well, RWA does not have any standard, nor will ever create a standard. RWA does, however, have a lot of other things to say about the romance genre.

So, who fills in the void created by the lack of an industry standard? Reviewers (including bloggers and bookstagrammers), publishers, and contests.

Reviewers

Reviewers play an important role in imparting needed information to readers about what to expect sexiness-wise, as well as how good a book is. Most simply write up the information within the text of the review. There are a few who utilize heat level scales in their reviews. A selection is below (and if you know of any more, please leave a comment!).

The Romantic Fantasy Shelf
This site has four levels: Sweet, Tangy, Zesty, and Piquant:

Sweet – some romantic interactions and kissing, no onscreen or offscreen sex
Tangy – romantic interactions, kissing, and making out, fade to black sex scenes
Zesty – romantic interactions, kissing, and making out, one or more onscreen sex scenes
Piquant – romantic interactions, kissing, making out, detailed and/or longer sex scenes that include four-letter anatomical terms

All About Romance
This site calls their five heat levels “Sensuality Ratings”. I do disagree with how they use the term “erotica”:

Kisses: Kisses only. There may be moderate sexual tension, but it is never described in specific terms.
Subtle: No explicit sensuality. Sex is described in general terms and the emphasis will likely be more on the emotions of the characters rather than physical sensation.
Warm: Moderately explicit sensuality. Sex is described, but often with the use of euphemisms.
Hot: Very explicit sensuality. Sex is described in graphic terms.
Burning: Extremely explicit sensuality. Books in this category are generally considered erotica and will feature the graphic depiction of sex as a main focus of the book. These sexual acts may include those outside the sexual mainstream.

Romance Rehab
I love Romance Rehab’s six-pronged “Romance Remedy chili pepper heat rating scale” because I do have a fondness for peppers — hot or not. I disagree with associating erotica with heat levels, though. [Quote is edited for space.]

5 chili peppers: All erotica would include a 5 chili pepper rating. This is going to include all menage reads, books with heavy bondage scenes, reverse harem stuff, and all the books that don’t have a real plot.
4 chili peppers: Romance with 3 or more explicit sex scenes that use all the naughty words for body parts that would get your mouth washed out with soap if you said them in front of your parents as a kid.​
3 chili peppers: Romance with 2 or more explicit sex scenes, but generally milder language.
2 chili peppers: Romance with plenty of sexual tension and foreplay, but closed-door sex.
1 chili pepper: Romance with some sexual tension, maybe some kissing and hand holding, but no sex.​
0 chili peppers: Nothing but longing glances. Not even any dirty thoughts.

You can see there are slightly divergent opinions regarding how to quantify heat levels amongst reviewers. Still, they are good guidelines for followers of their reviews.

Publishers

Romance publishers have their own heat levels which are usually expressed by imprint or series. I’ll use Harlequin as an example because they are probably one of the best-known romance publishers to the general population. Below are some of their requirements for authors alongside their promise to the reader.

Harlequin Dare
For the author: red-hot romances that push the boundaries of sexual explicitness! …contemporary romances with high levels of sexual tension and graphic sex scenes; they feature alpha heroes meeting their match in strong, independent heroines in international settings.
For the reader: Step into stories of provocative romance where sexual fantasies come true. Let your inhibitions run wild. [Um, but only if you read contemporary romance…]

Harlequin Desire
For the author: The chemistry pops! High sexual and emotional tension pushes the reader through the twists and turns of the story. The anticipation sizzles, and the sex is hot but not graphic.
For the reader: Be transported to the luxurious worlds of American tycoons, ranchers and family dynasties. Get ready for bold encounters and sizzling chemistry.

Harlequin Heartwarming
For the author: Heartwarming romances feature a low sensuality level. Hugs and kisses only. Still, lots of romantic attraction and tension is required! No explicit or behind-closed-doors sex, nudity, pre-marital sex, profanity or graphic depictions of violence.
For the reader: Connect with uplifting stories where the bonds of friendship, family and community unite.

Contests

Romance contests run by RWA chapters have their own heat levels. Some examples:

New Jersey Romance Writers Put Your Heart In A Book
This is a contest for unpublished writers which lists five heat levels for judges, who are able to choose the levels they do not wish to judge. Again, they misunderstand erotic romance:

Level 1: No sexual action beyond hugs and kisses
Level 2: Closed-door sex or passionate kisses with no sex on the page.
Level 3: Open-door sex, but graphic terms are not used.
Level 4: Steamy. Open-door sex with graphic terms.
Level 5: Erotic Romance. Contains explicit sexual content with graphic language, often with kink.

Land of Enchantment Romance Authors The Writer
This is a contest for unpublished stories (authors may be published). They list four heat levels (again using pepper references) to ensure the right judge is paired with the right manuscript:

One Chile– Mild (ex. PG movie, Hallmark, “sweet”, some handholding, a chaste kiss, no detailed descriptions of intimacy, all intercourse and steamy scenes occur off the page or it fades to black, lots of emotional tension)
Two Chiles– Medium (ex. PG-13 movie, second base, kissing and touching and intimacy shared but less focus on the body parts, majority of the sexy stuff is still behind closed doors)
Three Chiles– Spicy (ex. R movie, sex on the page, doesn’t fade to black but might follow the participants through the door and into the bed)
Four Chiles– HOT HOT HOT (ex. NC-17 movie, explicit sex, graphic language, anatomically descriptive in detail)

Product Cues for Heat Level

How else can a reader ascertain heat level of a book? By perusing sales page elements. Blurb, reviews (if there are any; some books may only have ratings), and the cover should provide adequate information regarding heat level.

The main issue with blurbs, and sometimes covers, is Amazon (it’s always Amazon) will randomly toss books in their Erotica Dungeon if certain words are used. What these words are is anybody’s guess. So romance authors often have to carefully dance around what they really want to say in a blurb and use coded language.

Regarding covers, here’s an interesting take from a voracious reader/reviewer

illustrated covers mean NOTHING in terms of heat level. The cutesy illustrated covers are on high heat novels and no-heat novels alike. Some kind of rating system to indicate heat level would be GREATLY appreciated.

Generally, however, higher heat covers will show some skin. But not always. Having too much skin on a cover might get one slammed behind Amazon’s Adult Filter.

Heat Level vs. Erotic Romance and Erotica

“Erotic romance” and “erotica” don’t imply heat level.

I know all of you are saying “WHAT?”

Erotica is a literary form where the core of the story is sexual in nature, but that does not mean there is actual sex. This can merely mean a sexual journey, a journey of realization, perhaps. A young man realizing he is gay, a woman realizing she feels sexy and confident wearing a corset, or, as in one of my stories, a man experiencing submission for the first time. This latter story, “Object”, has no actual sex in it and yet is definitely erotica.

Erotic Romance has all the elements of erotica with a romance (meaning a Happily-Ever-After/Happily-For-Now) at its core.

“Erotic romance” and “erotica” are not heat level designations. They are, rather, sub-genres of romance and literary fiction. The heat level of such stories can vary from no sex to explicit sex, just like any other sub-genre of romance.

Final Thoughts

Publishers, reviewers, contests each have their own idea of heat levels, and the professional organization for romance writers does not offer any guidelines. Authors have to try their best to match the heat on the page with appropriate covers and blurbs.

Perhaps the best heat level guide is in the discerning eye of the romance reader?

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