Monday, September 25, 2017

[Let's Talk]: Romance Heat Ratings

Closed Doors and Disappointments

Jen: You all know me since I’ve been publishing reviews here for a few months. However, if you aren’t part of Romancelandia Twitter, you’re really missing out on the real action. The conversations are so rich and interesting, and I’ve met lots of people that have my shared joys and frustrations with romance. Today, we’re going to be talking about whether or not romance should have sexiness ratings---a super interesting conversation that started with a tweet from KT.

KT: Hi! I have loved to read Romance all my life and now I also attempt to write it. I’ve finished my first full length novel but I also post short stuff on my blog. Following the ups and downs of romancelandia on Twitter is always interesting and often fun. Normally I lurk and jump in when I’m feeling particularly confident. Last night, it seems I inadvertently started things off.

Jen: Inadvertently starting things off is the best part about romancelandia twitter!

KT: So true! So what happened was, I finished reading a book yesterday. It was by a new author to me who I’d seen and interacted with a bit on Twitter. She’s self-published, has nice covers, and the book was well edited and well written. So I was looking forward to talking on Twitter about this new author that I’d found. Then I get to the point where the hero and heroine finally get together. It was about 75% of the way through. There had been lots of sexual tension and adult language, kissing and then... nothing. No sex scene. Nothing. They woke up the next morning and that was it. This does not work for me. In fact it makes me a bit ragey. Hence the tweet that I put out:

Jen: I’ve had this same frustration with how sex plays out in romance. I want to be sensitive to humans who are ace, but for me, sex is a big part of the human experience and of the romance genre. The more romance I read, the more I appreciate authors who skillfully use sexual relationships to build intimate relationship between characters. As an aside, I know that being sexual isn’t important in all relationships or to all humans--self-love and platonic love are also important. But in this case, I think there is an interesting conversation about sexual relationships and how they play out in romance.

Reading KT’s tweet immediately reminded me of an NPR interview I heard with Sarah Wendell, patron saint of romance book bloggers. She talked about the sexiness level of a book by using chili peppers. There’s a couple of reasons I really like that idea, and a lot of them are in the replies to KT’s original tweet.

KT: As far as Twitter went, there seemed to be lots of people who agreed with my original tweet. (Or maybe I’m just friends with a load of pervs?!) Anyhoo… there was a general feeling of discontent and someone even said they felt betrayed when the sex was closed door and this wasn’t made clear in the information about the book. GIFs were thrown about and soap boxes were stood upon. I think it’s fair to say that passions run high with this subject.

Jen: I had an inappropriately hilarious time coming up with a rating scale for romances, joking that it could start at heat level zero and advance up to heat level ghost pepper. There were gifs. There were Golden Girls jokes. It was glorious. But the truth is that rating romances like this would never work, and it’s definitely a bad idea to even try it.

KT: Heat level is going to be subjective, right? And will depend on how much and what you read. Not much shocks me anymore. In contrast, my Mum thinks Nora Roberts is risque. I always struggle to keep a straight face when she says this.

Jen: Yes, I’m full on Jane’s Addiction-level romance reader: Nothing’s shocking! Your Mom thinking Nora Roberts is sexy is honestly the best. Sexy, sexy Nora Roberts!

KT: For me a rating system would be about clarity. Mills and Boon have certain series like Cherish which are ‘high on emotional and sensual tension but have no explicit sexual detail.’ You know exactly what you’re getting when you buy a book from this series. A kiss or two but no sex. Contemporary Romance in general is much more of a grey area, especially self-published work that doesn’t fit into a category or series that a publisher creates. Many books that are classed as Contemporary Romance these days would have been classed as erotica a few years ago. Having a rating system would never be faultless but it would at least give readers a general idea of what they are getting.

Jen: Absolutely. The lines are being redrawn so fast that it’s impossible to keep up. Remember that TV show Sex and the City? There’s an episode where Miranda is with a guy sticks his butt in her face, and she has this shocked, panicky reaction. I feel like anal is standard fare in a lot of romances these days. Even if people aren’t doing it at home, it’s just not taboo to talk about or read about. Rimming jokes are everywhere--even in mainstream movies!

KT: I tweeted about revenge pegging in a novel the other day. That about says it all. LOL!

Jen: I recommended a Julie James novel by saying, “Don’t worry. There’s no pegging in a Julie James book.” What this tells me is that most of us are trying to be sensitive about that heat level when we are recommending romances to each other.

Above you said that the goal would be clarity, but my guess is that any rating system would be used to ostracize relationships some readers might feel are “inappropriate” and to shame books with kink. I just know that bigoted cishet readers would expect LGBTQ+ romance to have the biggest warning labels regardless of actual sexual content. Or that some white readers would want to label inclusive or multicultural romances with inappropriate ratings. It’s glaringly obvious that the same problems with racism and homophobia exist in romance just like they do in the world. Obviously, some readers would unfairly rate book just because they think they’re yucky. That would be very, very bad.

KT: I totally agree and interestingly, when I was thinking about a theoretical rating scale last night, I realized that some books with kink wouldn’t even make the hottest end of the scale. There is such a wide range of kink and with a sex positive approach, every aspect of sex in Romance should be included. I just want to know when it’s closed door sex. Pretty much any other heat level is fine by me.

Jen: A fascinating and important conversation is taking place on YA twitter about sex and violence. In YA, the most violent plots get a pass, but there is so much  pearl-clutching if one of the characters is not cishet. Many rightly point out that teenagers are humans and sexual beings and it is wrong to shame YA authors for including sex. It’s wrong to shame kids for being interesting in reading books about sex.

KT: I live in England and I don’t think there’s quite as much pearl clutching regarding sex and teenagers here as there is in the US. But I agree with your point about violence seemingly being more acceptable than sex. I think that’s the case for adult entertainment in any medium as well as YA.

Jen: For a country with media as sexualized as ours is, Americans sure do get freaked out about teenagers having sex.

KT: The comments and gifs on the thread from that original tweet really made me laugh, but the reason why I don’t like closed door sex is more complex. As a reader, I want to be treated like an adult. Closing the door feels like a smack on the wrist and not in a good way. It’s also the worst tease, all that build up of sexual tension only to get snuffed out like a candle. Then I’m left feeling like I only understand part of the characters relationship. I want to see the intimacy as well as the jokes, arguments and obstacles overcome. There’s nothing wrong with safe, sane, consensual sex. Closing the door makes me feel like the author is saying it’s wrong. That really turns me off the author.

Jen: I think that’s exactly right, that closing the door makes the sex seem dirty or wrong. Imagine a couple having a fight and then the author whisking past it to everything magically being fixed the next morning! We’d feel robbed.

The truth is that a sexiness rating will always smack of judgment, and one of my favorite things about romance is that it’s so sex positive. Trying to quantify, categorize, and sort the way humans experience sex seems to defeat the whole purpose. Here’s what I want to avoid in romance: rape, incest, slut-shaming, victim-blaming. I want ratings that would help me avoid negative/painful sexual relationships. Otherwise, I’m game for just about anything.

KT: Same here. I guess that’s what we rely on reviewers for. Plus trigger warnings, but that’s a whole different post. The problem is finding a reviewer / book blogger who reads in a similar way to you.

Jen: I will say, I do like the term “closed door” rather than “clean” or “sweet.” Closed door is value neutral in the way those other words aren’t. I’ve read sweet romances with sex. Let me ask you a question, if the book you read had been clearly marketed as “closed door” would you have felt as betrayed?

KT: Absolutely not because I wouldn’t have read it!!! Seriously, I wouldn’t buy a book that was marketed as “closed door”.

Jen: Me neither! Above you said, “There’s nothing wrong with safe, sane, consensual sex.” Preach. That’s exactly how I feel, and that’s why I’m so disinterested in closed door romances. I recently wrote a review about two books with Catholic heroes who felt a lot of shame and guilt about sex---it was far more upsetting to me than any sexual act I’ve ever read between two consenting adults. I am not interested in reading about adult relationships with unhealthy attitudes towards sex. But I also know there are readers out there who just don’t like to read about sex, and that’s their preference and their prerogative. My conclusion is that the best possible outcome is to at least label romances as closed door/open door. I think the rest is up to the readers. I think your advice to find a reader or blogger with similar tastes is a good one, and that’s why romancelandia twitter serves such an important function. I think it’s better even than Goodreads for finding help with recommendations and reviews.

KT: Romance caters to pretty much every sexual inclination going. From no sex and closed door sex to sweet and sexy and revenge pegging. If you want to read it, it’s probably out there somewhere. That’s the beauty of it and I don’t want that to change. I would just like to know what I’m buying. And because sex is such a big part of the Romance genre, I think it’s fair to ask authors to say if it’s closed door or not. I see it as honest, open marketing. All I ask is... Please, don’t leave this reader hanging!!

Find Jen and KT on Twitter for similar conversations about romancelandia.

I fully admit to having that disappointed, somewhat irritated reaction when I read a Surprise! Closed Door romance. But then you all know by now that I'm a dirty reader all the way. 😈

To be clear, we're not saying that the romance genre should NOT have romances that are fade to black/closed door/no sex. The wonderful thing about the genre is that there is literally something for everyone here, and that should be the case with heat level, too!

And of course sex is not universally appealing and important to everyone; we're not trying to force that view, either.

I suppose what it comes down to is how can we better label books and their heat level, especially with self-published? Can we stop calling closed door romances "clean" reads, which implies that sex is therefore dirty -- as in, morally wrong, dirty, not "Oh, that's HOT" dirty. I'm not sure that there's an easy answer for this problem, but perhaps it could be helped if authors would put a note in their blurb that a book is "closed door" (or whatever term most of romancelandia can agree upon to replace "clean"). I mean, we've seen an influx of self-published authors putting notes like "Story is for readers 18+, has mature content and explicit sex scenes" in their blurbs -- most likely because of the sometimes blurred line between YA and sexy NA titles and incoming younger readers? -- so why can't authors who do not write on-page sex let a reader know that information as well? It wouldn't turn readers away in the long run. It would let readers know what they're buying, so hopefully you wouldn't have as many disappointed readers lashing out at the surprise.

I don't seek out romances with no sex, but I won't totally avoid them, either. If I know it ahead of time, but the story/author still interests me, or someone recommends it to me, I'll give it a go. I just would prefer to know ahead of time that I'm going to have the bedroom door closed in my face, you know?

What are your thoughts on heat levels in romance? Let us know! Let's turn this into a discussion for everyone. 😃


Until Next Time,

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