Is It Romance Or Is It Erotica?

February 9, 2014 Opinion 22

Ridley and I are both advocates of porn. Wait, that sounds wrong. Hm, let’s try that again.

There have been many discussions between Ridley and Meoskop (that’s me!) about what makes a good romance. We both believe the key ingredient is heroic people. By heroic we don’t mean perfect, we mean a person we want to see have the happy ending they’ve worked for. Romances with highly problematic elements won’t work for us. We don’t believe in the ending, so we can’t celebrate the journey. There are, of course, exceptions to this. (They’re rare and usually written by Patricia Gaffney.) On the other hand, there’s Erotica.  Erotic Romance writers hate the porn label because it implies their work is only about sexual gratification (like that’s a bad thing) when they’ve worked hard to include emotional and narrative elements into their work.

Why do you care how a book is labeled?

Meoskop: I don’t know if I care so much about the label. It frustrates me when discussion of toxic relationship dynamics is shut down by conflating romance and erotica. Sure, rape is a common sexual fantasy, but it’s a sexual fantasy. So if you’re not reading the book for it’s sexual content, why does your sexual fantasy justify aspects of the read?

Ridley: First things first, I am an advocate for porn. I want people, women especially, to visit Tumblr and Literotica and watch and read porn and enjoy the hell out of it. Find out what turns your crank, and spend some quality time with your id. There’s no judgement from me. My browser history would make many people blush.

When I pick up erotica or stroke fiction (erotica is stroke fiction with a college degree and a nice suit) I’m not expecting to cosign the characters’ behavior, I only expect to find the situation erotic. I may also find the situation terrifying, dangerous, shameful or unhealthy. It’s a sexual fantasy, so it doesn’t have to, and often doesn’t, fit real world standards of behavior.

I don’t consider romance novels to be porn. I think we use the terms hero and heroine for a reason, and that’s because we expect the characters to act heroically. Romance is like mystery or film noir in that the ending should punish evil and reward good. If you’re selling me a book in which a human trafficker kidnaps a woman, turns her into a sex slave, then has them live HEA, and you call it romance, you’re telling me that human trafficking isn’t always evil and can be justified. I’ll read the hell  out of that plotline in erotica, where I’m not asked to make a moral judgement. In romance, though, I’m not having it.

Aren’t you disregarding the different ways readers read?

Ridley: I might be, but I’m not sure that means I’m wrong about something. Excusing rape and abuse in romance doesn’t make any sense to me. If you’re not treating the rape as a violation, I’m not sure rape fantasy is the applicable term. Rape culture is more like it.

Meoskop: I used this example on Twitter. Either genre labels have meaning or they don’t. You can have an alien species in Elizabethan England in a SF/F novel but if you put aliens in a Historical Novel people are going to be outraged. The genre constrictions are the genre constrictions. When I don’t want toxic relationship dynamics in my romance reads, I’m not shaming other people’s kinks, I’m saying Romance as a genre is not the same as Erotica. I hate how they’re blurring together.

Don’t buy what you don’t like!

Meoskop: That’s my point! It’s not even an issue of what I do or don’t like, it’s an issue of how pervasive it’s become. There’s bondage in my peanut butter. (Wait, what?) I can’t trust a certain author or a certain line to write pure genre because the message is sex sells. Kink it up, bring the party. And I can’t discuss how that content may have failed the story because it’s perceived as my failing to value how other readers read. Be honest about what you want the story to do! Don’t ask me to play pretend.

Ridley: Romance makes a promise to the reader that the ending will be optimistic. This is really what defines the genre, in my view. You know that the characters will end the book with more happiness than when they started. It’s about creation rather than destruction (e.g. the babylogue). If a book ends with an unrepentant, unpunished rapist or abuser as the heroine’s life partner, that promise to me has been broken. The only way that can be optimistic is if his behavior is not considered a problem. So, I am buying what I like when I buy something labeled “romance.” Some people just keep putting erotica or general fiction under the wrong label

The genre isn’t going to change for you. If it sells, it sells.

Ridley: A world where corporate marketers define the meaning of art is not a world I want to live in. I don’t consider Fifty Shades et al to be romance, much as RWA would like to claim its sales figures for the genre. It can be romantic erotica, but they don’t fit romance conventions. Not every book where people bone and profess their love is a romance.

Meoskop: Obviously, everyone should do things my way 100% of the time. But look, readers are stuck hunting and hoping. Take Caroline Linden. Love her. But I’m not reading her new series. I’ll be back when her characters aren’t trading erotic novels with 50 in the title. It’s entirely possible she hasn’t upped the sex factor, but my reaction to the marketing is rejection. It’s as unsatisfying to get a sex laden read when you want a romantic one as it is to find out your porn flick got swapped with a Disney cartoon.

Isn’t this just another case of a blogger wanting to define the genre as whatever they personally like?

Meoskop: I can’t even talk to you when you’re like this.

Ridley: Is there any genre whose boundaries are etched in stone? Everything is debatable. This is my argument for what is and is not romance. If you disagree, come at me bro.

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Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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22 Responses to “Is It Romance Or Is It Erotica?”

  1. mel burns

    Great effing post!! Thank you!

    Caroline Linden said in an interview at SBTB that a “table” of marketers from her publishing house chose the name of the book within the new series. She seemed not happy about the 50 in the title. It really turned me off too…..I hate what is happening to good romance novelists like Linden who are forced into changes because of “the sex sells” or “50SoG” marketing. Some of the best romances of the genre are “closed door”. Many of the worst in the genre are the ones that give up the plot and story for pages and pages of sex scenes.

    And Ridley, what you said about the sex trafficker in a romance as opposed to in an erotic story is so right on!
    It is very hard sometimes in heated discussions for me to articulate my opinion, so I really appreciate it when you throw your hat into the ring…’s like “yeah what she said”. So Thanks.

    Meoskop: ” There’s bondage in my peanut butter”…..Yes! I know exactly what you mean. Just this morning I was perusing the LAPL Overdrive catalog in Romance. I had to wade through so much Erotica, M/M, NA, YA and other stuff that isn’t really even in the true genre. UGH!. All those genres have something to offer, but hey, I just want to find some Romance!

  2. Erin Satie

    I think part of the problem is that ‘heroic’ and ‘good’ are pretty subjective terms. One of the tropes that I dislike the most, and tend to avoid, is the ‘paragon’ character. Male or female, these characters are such upright do-gooders that their partners often end up tiptoeing around them, frightened of being judged, or awed into low self-esteem.

    I would not call these characters heroic–I would call them sanctimonious jerks–but they are clearly designed by their authors to be all that is right and good in the world. The model and definition of a hero(ine).

    What’s more, I tend not to believe in the HEA. I feel pity for the couple. I think they’ll be really unhappy, before too long.

    Good, worthy & heroic are pretty flexible terms. Not just in books but in life, too. Whenever I look into the lives of people who’ve done fantastic, admirable, heroic things there are always a couple of skeletons in the closet that reflect really, really badly on the person. (Though this may be the sort of person I pick as a hero).

    I haven’t read 50. I don’t plan to. But it seems clear that there are plenty of people who find Christian Grey legitimately heroic, who honestly and sincerely approve of his behavior and wish that they could be in a relationship exactly like the one in the book.

    Even if all signs point to that being a toxic relationship–and they do–I’m not sure it makes sense for anyone, however thoughtful and level-headed, to decide when the relationship is so toxic or unsustainable that it no longer qualifies as romance.

    TLDR: genre definitions should rely on criteria that are not subject to debate.

  3. nu

    @Erin Satie: Good points.

    For me, as I was following along with the discussion, I agreed that sex fantasies, which are exempt from either logic or morality, belong in erotica rather than romance, although some people like their erotica with logic and morality too. There is probably something for everybody. I assumed that they were talking about the New Adult or perhaps some of the Young Adult genre (I definitely think that should be distinct from other romance!!!).

    But if we’re talking about historicals, I think hero is a distinct problem from too frequent love scenes. (The latter problem is pretty mild to me compared to abusive heroes.) And I certainly am not interested in all romances suddenly becoming “clean” since a) I don’t think sex’s shameful and b) I like the sensual element, not just because I have a libido but because I think a lot people have doubts that HEAs are compatible with a healthy sex life, and they like that reassurance. I haven’t read too many romances where there are too many sex scenes. I think the average number is three…? But I kinda just pulled that out of the air.

  4. Jill Sorenson

    I have agreeing thoughts and disagreeing thoughts. I’ve always considered the domineering hero dynamic as a subtle type of D/s for readers who might shy away from overt bdsm. I don’t see a big difference between an erotic bdsm spanking scene and an Outlander punishment-spanking scene. I also don’t believe that readers who enjoy non-consensual elements and forced seduction are contributing to (or getting off on) rape culture any more than those who enjoy the same things in erotica. I may be wrong about that, but I don’t view subtle bdsm as worse than graphic abuse in erotica.

    I also don’t think I accept rape or abuse as sexy in any type of fiction, erotica included. Romance is full of sexual fantasy. I’m not sure what we gain in separating the two, or if it’s even possible.

    That said, I prefer non-abusive characters and consensual sex in romance. I agree that heroes and heroines should be heroic. The Iron Duke is a good example of a mainstream romance with a non-con scene. I can’t say I was bothered by it (though I didn’t love the book or the relationship dynamic). But the idea that this text supports and reflects rape culture in a non-thoughtful, regurgitated way…no. I don’t think so.

  5. Ridley

    @Jill Sorenson:

    The Iron Duke is a good example of a mainstream romance with a non-con scene.

    I’ve read that one and the fact that it’s treated as a violation, as something the hero did wrong, is a crucial element. It at least addresses the issue. It didn’t posit that her orgasm meant she consented.

    I’m not sure what we gain in separating the two, or if it’s even possible.

    Like I said above, the two genres promise different things. Erotica promises only to titillate. Anything extra is optional. Romance promises an optimistic ending, and there’s not much that’s optimistic about rewarding bad behavior.

  6. Fiona McGier

    I always have problems with the labels. People ask me what I write and I say Romance, but since I’m not sure what their experience is with that, I usually further clarify and say, Erotic Romance. That gets me raised eyebrows and a reference to FSOG. Sigh. Is that the only romance they’ve ever heard of? I point out there’s no beatings in my books, and any man who tries to force violence or himself on a woman is always one of the “bad guys” who gets vanquished by the hero or the heroine herself, before the end of the book.

    I write love stories, with graphic hot sex in them. Always between two people, because quite frankly, a sex-between-a-crowd-scene with a shifter-emu for variety, makes me wonder if there are going to be enough orifices around to satisfy everyone, and how it all can be arranged with no one touching anyone in an undesired place just boggles my imagination. So realistic sex between two people, please. My own brother told me I’m “hopelessly vanilla”, but in the town I live in, if anyone read my books they’d burn crosses on my front lawn!

    So I don’t just say Erotica, because that doesn’t imply a HEA. And I don’t just say Romance, because I don’t want someone being shocked by the graphic sex scenes. Though I must say, I dislike the C*** word, so I’ll never use it in a sex scene. As an insult, certainly, yes. But to increase hotness? Uh-uh.

  7. Jill Sorenson

    @Ridley: The scene read as titillating to me, not instructive, but I agree that the issue doesn’t go unchallenged and that counts for a lot. I’m still not sold on the idea of separating problematic sexual fantasies from romance, however. I see a clear connection between slut shaming and rape culture. This one is fuzzier.

  8. Meoskop

    The comments are always interesting to me but I am on a mobile device that hates @ replies.

    When we defend those who read Grey (as in Erin’s example) as a romantic figure then we are invalidating readers who find him an abusive one. If endorsing and upholding the view of control in romantic pairings is not part and parcel of rape culture, then what is it?

    We discuss Alpha heros as though Betas are impossible, or do not exist. We discuss non-con and dub-con as though they are natural and normal and anything else is “vanilla” or boring, without recognizing that we are therefore pushing enthusiastic consent down the list.

    When we normalize toxic dynamics as the default and proritize readers who prefer them over readers who do not, what are we upholding if not rape culture? While rape culture is a problematic term for me, it’s as good as any to describe the normalization of domestic violence threads in romantic set ups.

    None of that means BDSM can’t exist in a healthy relationship, or that erotic romance isn’t a completely legit genre of it’s own, or that hero and heroine’s must be nausiatingly perfect to lead a book.

    Think about that last one – either the characters are saintly or they embrace toxic dynamics. Where did the middle ground go? That’s my point. I want middle ground books – imperfect heros and heroines who are good for each other, who make each other better, with enthusiastic consent as the preferred standard.

  9. Penelope

    “There’s bondage in my peanut butter.”

    And misogynist, abusive “heroes” in my romance novels.

    Me no likey!

    This post is great. It hit on a whole bunch of my hot topics right now.

    I think the gist of this problem is jumping on the bandwagon. Authors see BDSM, abusive motorcycle dudes, rich traumatized “bad” boys as a new popular theme, and so they all jump on the wagon, hoping to make a million bucks or at least attract new readers.

    The problem is “sexy” is not necessarily “heroic”…and I agree with Ridley. ROMANCE infers some sort of heroic storyline/characters.

    Sure, an asshole motorcycle dude who passes his girlfriend around to his buds might be considered “sexy” by some readers, but this is not necessarily heroic behavior. I want romance in my romance.

    Furthermore, plenty of erotica authors who know NOTHING about BDSM are adding it into their stories. They think cuffs and whips are sexy, but don’t understand the psychology behind this kink.

    A recent thread on the Amazon message boards really hits home that readers are getting disgruntled with this trend. They are not happy about getting blind-sided by BDSM/menages and other traditional “erotica” topics being thrown into their “romance” novels. They recognize a gimmick when they see one.

    I’ve been reading a ton of Harlequin books lately. I know EXACTLY what to expect. No surprises. Misunderstanding, grovel, grovel, grovel, hero has epiphany and professes love and devotion to heroine.

    And there aren’t any floggers in the peanut butter.

  10. rameau

    I’ve been mulling this over for a couple days now and I think I finally figured it out: I’m not upset about the conflation of romance and erotica as much as I’m upset about the disappearance of non-explicit romance.

    When I want to read something smutty I look for fanfiction, because that’s where the emotional connection already exists. I already know the characters, love and ship them, and that makes the sex better. Even the best erotica writers publishing original fiction can’t compete with years invested in a show or thousands of fanfics exploring the characterisations from all possible angles. Without the emotional connection to the characters, the erotic scenes meant to titillate become rinse and repeat shuffle of words that pull me out of the story.

    I read romance for the character driven love stories and if I can skip a third of the book because the irrelevant sex scenes, I end up wondering why picked up that book in the first place.

  11. Evangeline

    So many overlapping thoughts!

    Since Fifty Shades of Grey seems to be the tentpole in this conversation, I’ll start with that. I am an unabashed fan of the trilogy. I’ve read it multiple times since I decided to pick it up to be able to take part in conversations about the books back in 2012 (time flies!). Unlike most people–I assume–I read for Ana’s journey. I didn’t find her a Mary Sue, mostly because I don’t self-insert when I’m reading, and I think there are a lot of subtleties in the growth of the romantic relationship, the sex, the BDSM, and even Christian Grey’s personality that get lost in between the squeeing and the heavy criticism.

    Meoskop: So if you’re not reading the book for it’s sexual content, why does your sexual fantasy justify aspects of the read?

    Excellent point! As a teenager, I was titillated and excited when I realized there was sex in romance novels. As an adult, I can take or leave the sex–especially if I don’t care a jot about the characters. So this really gets to the nitty-gritty of a great argument about this topic.

    Ridley: Romance is like mystery or film noir in that the ending should punish evil and reward good.

    I found a number of super old handouts from romance writing classes–like, articles posted to and geocities in the 90s–and saw that overall, the basic theme for the genre is “love conquers all.” In that context, good=love/HEA; evil=the hero and/or heroine’s internal and external conflict that keeps them apart.

    Also, the romance genre thrives on high-octane emotions, and the higher the emotional stakes, the better. That’s why it’s daggone difficult to sell a romance novel deemed “quiet,” and is why a book with an instantaneous conflict (or hook) will snatch the attention of an agent, editor, and readers. The genre also thrives on instant gratification alongside the high emotional stakes–reading a blurb that states the hero is in a motorcycle gang, or works as a contract assassin, or is a an alpha Navy SEAL, and that the heroine doesn’t belong to that life is like…BOOM! Immediate knowledge of the kind of emotional ride you’ll be taken on. Isn’t this what Sunita called “id reading”?

    This means that evil in romance =/= real life evil. It’s part of the obstacles placed between the h/h, fwiw. Which, incidentally, circles back to Meoskop’s point about what someone is reading for.

  12. Erin Satie


    On the contrary. The problem w/ Grey (et al) is that the two views are irreconcilable–but one view does not invalidate the other unless & until we accept this definition of romance that you’ve proposed: that a romance must feature heroic protagonists.

    Once you apply that definition, it’s clear that one of those two irreconcilable views about what a hero is must be escorted out of the genre.

    I believe this is the purpose of crafting your new definition. So it does its job.

    My point is that I do not think it is possible to define a genre by fiat. It’s not a club. We can’t re-write the bylaws and kick out half the members while they’re not looking.

  13. Ridley

    @Erin Satie: I haven’t read FSoG, so I can’t really comment on the hero. I don’t think the books are romance because two of the three have open-ended/cliffhanger endings. I don’t consider the In Death books romance either. They’re romantic, sure, but they’re not Romance.

    Also, why is “heroic” any more subjective than “happily ever after” or “optimistic?” I’m not understanding your point.

  14. Anu

    How do you define “heroic”? What does it mean for “characters to act heroically”? And why must they act heroically to get an optimistic ending?

    To me, “hero” and “heroine” are generic terms for “protagonists,” so I’m not looking for heroism or otherwise extraordinary behaviors/personalities in the h/h.

  15. Ridley

    @Anu: Well, I mean they shouldn’t be jerks who make the world a lousier place to live. I wouldn’t find a romance between unrepentant frauds super optimistic. I wouldn’t want them to be happy. I would want a pair of dickheads to get what’s coming to them.

    I don’t expect characters to be paragons of virtue and lead blameless lives. I expect them to be protagonists, rather than antagonists.

    We talk about believable and not believable HEAs all the time. Some books with doubtful HEAs are just bad books. I’m arguing that some would make compelling reads as erotica or fiction, but don’t work as romance.

  16. Meoskop

    @erin_satie – and again, I say which readers are we prioritizing? You say my position tosses half the readers out of the genre as though we have the sweeping power to do that. There is always defense of DV dynamics in any genre. Who speaks for the readers that don’t want those toxic patterns in a romantic read? One team says “then don’t buy it” another team says “you have to read each DV pairing before you can say how you feel about it” but the camp that says “I don’t find DV romantic” gets told to take a chair.

    As I said in my post a few weeks ago, the DV dynamic isn’t going anywhere. Dark books, rapey books, all of that will thrive either in or out of the genre label, but readers who don’t want that and don’t want inspirational go – where? I want love stories that don’t support toxic power dynamics between the leads. Who is worrying about those readers being isolated and underserved?

  17. Fiona McGier

    I say readers who don’t like dark alpha-hole heroes need to start reading the reviews over at the Harley’s Reviews site. She got burned out on domineering a-holes last year and severely curtailed her reviewing. She doesn’t want whips and chains, she wants toe-curling romance between a hot man who will do anything to win the love of the woman he craves. But he doesn’t need 3# of metal implements or a cat-o-nine-tails to beat her into submission. He convinces her with good sex and lots of it! She prefers books with hot scenes, but no so many of them that you lose track of the plot…and she expects a real plot, not just a bunch of excess verbiage to lead from one sex scene to the next. I love her reviews!

  18. Jill Sorenson

    @Meoskop: “When we normalize toxic dynamics as the default and proritize readers who prefer them over readers who do not, what are we upholding if not rape culture? While rape culture is a problematic term for me, it’s as good as any to describe the normalization of domestic violence threads in romantic set ups.”

    I’ve read that normalizing rape is part of rape culture, but it’s not the aspect I understand intuitively. For example, if I say I’m afraid to answer the door to a strange man because of what might happen, am I expecting rape and therefore normalizing it? I also keep going back to the idea I already stated. Enjoying dubcon or noncon in romance is no morally different than enjoying it in erotica. Some readers like the *dynamic* without the explicitness.

    This is a good convo to have, but it reminds me of the old “women can’t tell fantasy from reality” chestnut. Some of the ideas in romance can have a negative influence. So can some of the stuff in porn. Sexuality aside, is it worse to have racist themes in porn than romance? Or is it okay because we don’t expect porn stars or erotica characters to be heroic?

    I don’t want to defend abusive heroes too much, because I really don’t like them! I’m disturbed by the dark romance trend and the easy acceptance of heroes who say they’re going to strangle the heroine, or fall in love with her when she’s underage and keep her teenage panties in their drawer. It’s also hurting my pocketbook, tbh. A recent review of Badlands stated that my hero was weak because he cried (once, I think) and had intimacy issues and wasn’t alpha enough. Decency and vulnerability aren’t “hot.” The hero has to be a nonstop boner-wielding dirty talker.

  19. Ridley

    @Jill Sorenson: You know, it is possible to reject something that normalizes rape/abuse (which means that it treats rape/abuse dynamics as normal, inevitable or even welcomed behavior) because it upsets you without that being an assertion that those who aren’t bothered by it can’t tell fantasy from fiction.

    Also, the fact that adult women generally can tell fantasy from fiction? Doesn’t mean that romance isn’t shaped by/perpetuating rape culture

  20. azteclady

    Regarding the erotica/romance thing, this is what I posted over at Book Thingo (where I saw the link):

    I don’t mind sex and/or kink in my romance novels, but I want the story to be about the characters and their lives as a living, breathing people.

    Unfortunately, in quite a bit of erotic romance, particularly the shorter stories (or quite a bit of what I’ve read in that subgenre) has been more about the mechanics than the dynamics between the protagonists, which doesn’t satisfy me when reading a romance.

    Now, if I know before I start that what I’m reading is erotica/smut/porn, all I care about is that it’s well written (no extra arms, for example) and that it actually titillates–nothing is sadder than porn that leaves you cold.

  1. Bookmarked – Book Thingo

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