Steamy Romance Novels versus Clean Romance Novels
Steamy Romance Novels versus Clean Romance novels—Finding your Goldilocks Zone
In the past, I used to scorn at steamy romance novels calling them the “lowest common denominator literature.” However, one of my dearest cancer patients offered me a new perspective.
This delightfully polite lady in her seventies—I’ll call her Martha—had dealt with two cancers in two years. Despite this challenge, she’d kept high spirits and stood out among other patients due to her pleasant disposition and impeccable fashion style. One time Martha volunteered how close to despairing she’d been after the second diagnosis. I asked her what her secret to keeping her positive attitude was, and her answer surprised me.
Sweet, ladylike Martha replied, “My secret is that I read a steamy romance novel a day. The sexier, the better—my favorite ones are the hot, rough cowboy romances.”
I smiled. “Well, thank God for that!”
The point of Romance Novels (Clean and Steamy)
Martha’s answer supports the conclusion of our last blog post: Romance novels are more than just escapism: they are legitimate mood enhancers. By allowing us to borrow the identity and adventures of the main characters, they temporarily flood our brains with all the feel-good neuropeptides and hormones of kissing, touching and falling in love.
And just like all mood enhancers—from a cup of coffee, to a glass of wine, to a prescribed antidepressant— steamy and clean romance novels must be used with caution. Brain chemistry knows no difference between a real and imagined experience—se we need to be very careful of what we feed our minds.
Is there such thing as too much sex in a romance novel? How much is too much—and how much is too little? Are there any lines that, if crossed, can ruin the reading experience for you?
In this post, I’ll explore these questions by sharing the process I followed to find “my Goldilocks zone of steam” as an author. With it, I hope to help you define yours as a reader.
When Steamy Romance Novels Give You a Third-Degree Burn.
From my mid teen years, to before I started medical school, my mother, sisters and I read romance novels by the dozens. Then, I got drowned into my medical education and paused reading fiction for over a decade. When I finally emerged from training and reached out for romance novels again, I received a shocking surprise.
Had my mother been sheltering me, vetting my books, or had times changed that much? It seemed that the word “Romance” was now used as a euphemism for porn. And I’m not referring only to the official sub-genre “Erotic romance”; the average “Contemporary Romance” contained an exorbitant number of F words multitude of sex scenes graphic enough to keep me cringing all throughout the pages.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude (hey, I’m a mother of four and a doctor, I’ve seen it all). But I’d rather not read a love scene so explicit that it feels like reading a gynecology textbook. Seriously, I enjoy a movie scene where the characters are eating—yet I don’t necessarily want to see close up images of their throat and tonsils.
In the more extreme cases, it ruined the experience. The feel-good effect of the novel got spoiled when it jolted me with mental images too difficult to shake.
Moving from a Reader to a Writer
Regarding steam (or lack of it), a friend described my first novel as tame enough to be “appropriate for nuns.” I knew that, if I wanted to take part in mainstream romance, I needed to get comfortable with a little more sexiness. But could I?
For a while I resented authors who, in my opinion, “had risen to success stuffing their novels with sex scenes.” It took me some time to admit my sour grapes syndrome: this wasn’t resentment, but a little envy and admiration.
Blame it to my Latin American upbringing, loaded with impossible double standards and medieval style Catholicism. Or perhaps blame it to my family penniless blue-blooded complex: I just couldn’t write profanity or graphic sex scenes without experiencing physical pain. Like Dr. Maxwell Steele says in Kiss me in Italy, I have a tiny explosive device in my brain that will blow me into bits if I cuss in front of a lady (and I am a lady, so…)
My first Conclusion:
As a reader, I truly appreciate a tastefully-written sex scene—but as a writer I only write stories I would not be embarrassed to read aloud.
Therefore, some genre soul-search became necessary.
Clean Romance Novels. When “Clean” Turns into “Sterilized”
The next logical step was exploring the other end of the spectrum: Clean romance novels. I loved the words Clean, Wholesome, Uplifting, Feel-good, Inspirational, Clean and Sweet (I have a big sweet tooth!)… This had to be home for me, right?
However, after joining a couple of clean books authors groups, genre authorities educated me on my lack of fit: True clean romance was expected to have content equivalent to a PG rating. Even my PG13 kisses and my occasional use of the world “damn” could disqualify me. “Sweet romance” was expected to stay away from any “ugliness.” Even my fondness for characters who were cancer survivors was out.
Clean romance novels disqualifiers included:
-Any mention of nudity.
-Any love scene that went even one step beyond fading to black.
-According to some definitions ANY LOVE SCENE. Period.
-Any cuss word above “darn.”
-Any mention of premarital sex.
Premarital sex too? Oh, come on! (I threw my hands in the air) “Engaged couples in their thirties waiting for the wedding night before consummating the relationship? Isn’t that a little improbable in modern life? “
However, I gained deep respect for writers of clean romance novels when I realized what they’re doing: Clean Romance authors portray their ideal of love, regardless of what other people claim is possible or not. That’s exactly what I (and most romance authors) do—that ideal just looks very different for each of us.
Could I force myself to fit?
For a brief time, I considered taking the last leap to clean romance. My novels were, still, much closer to fit the Clean subgenre than to catch up with the steamy mainstream. But still, something stopped me. And it had more to do with my personal reason to write romance novels:
Why I write
I write about romantic love because I truly believe in it. I’m not only certain that soulmates exist (I’m married to one, and have a few others in my family), but I also believe that romantic soulmates have a purpose. Romantic love can be a powerful instrument for psychological healing and spiritual growth.
And speaking of healing, few experiences in the world are more beautiful and restoring than the touch of someone we really care for. When deep, true love arises between a couple, touch and eventually sex are the most natural next step.
Therefore, in my humble opinion, touch (kissing, caressing, making love…) needs to be part of a romance novel.
My Second Conclusion:
I believe in love, therefore I will write love scenes.
(Notice how I didn’t call them sex scenes—the emphasis is not on the sex.)
Beyond Clean and Steamy Romance: Defining our Goldilocks Zone.
In case I haven’t made it clear: a well-written romance novel is art, and it’s to be valued regardless of whether it falls in the spectrum of clean, dirty, steamy or chilled with ice.
My definition of “the right amount of heat” doesn’t have to match anyone else’s. What is true for you? What is yourpersonal definition of “tasteful”? What is the line that, if crossed, spoils the magic of the story? What are the words and details you’d rather have the author gloss over? Do you have a pet-peeve that makes you cringe?
In my case: this is my own personal line in the sand (drumroll, please).
My personal ideal is that sex should always go together with Love, respect and exclusivity.
I understand that’s not often the case in the real world. Let alone Tinder hookups between strangers, even married couples sometimes disrespect each other and engage in loveless sex.
But isn’t the romance novel a celebration of an ideal? From the impossibly adorable small town, to the man who’s strong and sensitive andalso tireless in bed—and has washboard abs? Half the fun of a good romance novel is indulging in an airbrushed version of life. Doesn’t it make sense to also raise the bar for the quality of love we’d accept?
Setting a minimum bar for Steamy romance novels: Not All is subjective.
Until now, I may have come across as vague and uncommitted. After all, this is a highly subjective topic. But I’d like to finish this post clarifying that I do believe in some concrete boundaries.
There’s a difference between principles and values. Principles are universal truths that transcend time, culture and religion. For example: “don’t murder your neighbor.” Values, are more personal interpretations of principles that reflect the filter of our upbringing, beliefs, and priorities. For example, nationalism (which taken to an extreme, could even be used to justify murder in a war).
My definition of tolerance and open-mindedness is recognizing that, around the few islands of black-and-white principles in the world, lie oceans of gray subjectivity. One of the best markers of psychological maturity and self-actualization is fully embracing your own values, while respecting that other people may honor different ones.
What’s my point? Remember that paragraph about being careful what we put in our minds? Ideally, the essence of the books you read should be in congruence with your values and principles. Or at least, I strongly recommend you set your own parameters and dealbreakers. Here are mine.
My Two Major Dealbreakers in a Steamy Romance Novel
I wish I could un-read a scene in a novel I picked up once. Within minutes of meeting the heroine, the hero French-kissed her against her will and got to second and third base, ignoring her pleas to stop—and he was her boss.
Uh. No. A million times no.
I will not support literature that portrays disrespect for women’s dignity. I don’t even want to read the books that depict sexual violence as way to raise awareness—trust me, we’re all painfully aware of what’s wrong.
Even the most open-minded people I know, who claim that “everything is okay between consenting adults,” will agree: the operating word is consenting.
So…Dealbreaker #1-The operating word is consenting.
And by the way, who wants to root for a hero who treats women like that?
Which leads me to:
Dealbreaker #2- Unprincipled or Unethical characters.
I recently quit a novel because the “heroine” was unremorsefully lusting over the hero while in a live-in relationship with another guy. Come on, sweetie, these aren’t the times of Sense and Sensibility. If you no longer like your boyfriend, show him the respect of breaking up with him.
I don’t enjoy main characters who unrepentantly murder, steal or lie. (Unfortunately, lying/fibbing is way too common in romance heroines). In the same way I don’t like heroes and heroines who cheat (even emotional cheating). The real world is constantly challenging us with unlikable people: I don’t need to bring those into my precious reading time.
When I pick up a novel, I want to find protagonists I would like to be friends with; people I would respect, perhaps admire. Yes, they’ll be making mistakes, but also learning in the process. What’s more, I want to fall in love with the main characters, through the other person’s eyes. Therefore, I will hold them accountable for much higher standards than I would hold a friend.
My Third Conclusion:
I will only write stories about protagonists I would fall in love with; people of character, making an effort to be better versions of themselves.
How about you? What are your non-negotiable deal breakers? What stretches you out of your comfort zone but still feels acceptable? What are the situations and scenarios that bring you cognitive dissonance when you read?
So, let’s celebrate both clean and steamy romance.
Thank goodness not every author is as prudish as me! I’m glad someone else can write hair-rising, toe-curling, detailed tales of slamming flesh and glistening body parts while still keeping it fun. Let’s cheer for authors of steamy romance novels.
And thank God for awesome authors of clean romance who stick to what they consider right! If I ever labeled a story that advocates for abstinence until marriage as “unrealistic,” I take it back. After all, who on earth reads romance for realism?
In my case, my intention is to replicate the experience of love in the reader’s mind as vividly as possible, my creative challenge is to do it in a tasteful way. It’s finding sensual yet subtle ways to bring romantic touch onto the page and communicate the character’s emotions. And I absolutely love it when I find other authors who do it well.
I celebrate authors, clean and steamy, who truly make an effort to portray their definition of love (REAL love, as opposed to insta-lust). Those authors have my eternal admiration and I’ll be honoring some of them in future blog posts.
So stay tuned!