Has the definition of Erotic Romance changed?

When I started reading erotic romance back in the early to mid-2000s, erotic romance meant “bedroom door wide open”, the author would use graphic terminology that the regular romances wouldn’t. The act of love making between the hero and heroine was captured in all its glory, so to speak, instead of closing the door or the camera panning to the window and only panning in once the couple were in the cuddling after-glow stage.  There were some books where the hero was dominant (not with a capital D), and some where there was a certain kink factor. Especially when the paranormal was involved — the one that springs to mind is Lora Leigh’s Elizabeth’s Wolf. OMG hot!

But as time went on it seemed that the “envelope had to be pushed” to include kinkier and kinkier acts. It’s pretty much a given in any of the books I’ve read lately that anal sex will be included. The menage a trois that used to be scandalous has become almost passe to have only three partners and not more. (The logistics of all those body parts and what fits where and the gymnastics that have to be gone through to … well, it’s an intricate act of choreography.)

Is it just me or has the tide shifted so anything labelled erotic romance has to include BDSM?  It seems to be industry prevalent — the Romance Studio doesn’t even have an erotic romance category in their CAPA awards anymore, now there’s only a BDSM category (and it’s not just at TRS I’m noticing this phenomenon.) My editor at Samhain tells me that to qualify to be a Red Hot in their store, the story has to be about the sexual journey more than an outside plot. But is an excursion into the realm of BDSM the only journey left to explore these days? Is everything else too “vanilla”? 

Personally I like writing (and reading) characters using bondage in the bedroom. As a writer it’s fun to explore their psyches as they relinquish control, as a reader it’s just fun to read. And while bondage is the B in BDSM, I think it’s the SM part that bothers me as a reader the most. While I’ve written characters who are into spanking and flogging (yes, there is some in PERSONAL PROTECTION, and more (for both good, and bad) in HIDDEN HEAT, personally I find it difficult to write heroines being turned on by pain. Wearing my reader hat, I generally find a hero who causes a heroine pain, even in the name of love, makes him less heroic, and when there is pain it tends to lessen the romanticism of the scene for me. In both cases, I know that my own life experiences are coloring my preferences, which, for a writer, can be dangerous because I am not supposed to let the dreaded “author intrusion” occur. 

So I’m interested to know what other readers of erotic romance expect these days. Do you prefer your erotic romance to involve BDSM?  What are the boundaries of that envelope that’s being pushed? Are you reading erotic romance for the romance or for the eroticism? What changes have you noticed? What trends do you like? What trends are you getting bored with?

What about those of you who prefer the bedroom door left partially closed? Are you finding more and more graphic sex creeping into what used to be regular contemporaries?

Tell me…

I’ll give away a digital copy of the winner’s choice of erotic romance from either Samhain or Carina. I’ll close the comments next Monday April 9th at 9 a.m. to give a chance for everyone to weigh in, and choose a winner using random.org, then post the winner later that morning. Congratulations to Annabelle for her comment–she won the contest. Thanks to everyone else who took the time to comment. Just because the contest may have ended, doesn’t mean the conversation has to stop…



37 thoughts on “Has the definition of Erotic Romance changed?

  1. Great post Leah. Personally, I don’t like SM of any form in a book. I don’t understand the whole pain with sex. Sex is supposed to be pleasureable and fun. Not painful. That said, spanking and flogging is fine. I love the sub genre of BDSM but I would have to agree, its becoming more and more common. Just like menage. I don’t read as much menage has I used too. Too much of it now is just an excuse for a writer to have a sequel for the one that gets left out. That really burns my rear.

    I’m also one of those readers that also reads Christian Romance, too. Don’t judge. I like romance regardless of what happens in the bedroom. I want an emotional, thought provoking plot that will keep me interested. I want to connect with the characters, care about them and the situations that they are in. Sex, regardless if the door is open or not is not a priority for me in a book.

    In closing…(sorry so long)…erotic books to me are becoming tamer and more acceptable in society. Authors are pushing the envelope more and more and publishers are putting it there for readers. I tread lightly around some of those authors.

    Marika

    • LOL no judging Marika. I’ve read a few CRs myself. I think for me it comes down to the writing and the characters, more than the genre.

      I want an emotional, thought provoking plot that will keep me interested. I want to connect with the characters, care about them and the situations that they are in” This! If the writing is strong, and has characters I can identify with, I’ll read it.

    • I dislike when the characters in a menage don’t end up together. I want a HEA for all of them, and I want it in one book. I guess I’m more into polyamory than menage. Leah, thanks for such a timely post.

  2. I honestly think all of the genres are in a chaotic flux at the moment. There are so many sub-genres (think fantasy/urban fantasy/gothic fantasy… erm… romance on the end) nobody can keep them straight.

    In a way, it’s awesome we’ve kicked boundaries down. But I think it makes it harder for readers to find us.

    As for erotica– my gut tells me that as we earn the myth of “permission” to enjoy it, backlash tries to yank it back. There are all sorts of knee-jerks driving everything right now.

    • Chrissy — you’re right about the genres being in flux, and yes, it’s fantastic that there aren’t boundaries to box us in the way they used to. Knee-jerks — yes, with the operative word/emphasis being jerk, from where I’m standing.

  3. You’ve asked a lot of questions. Questions, I’ve asked myself as a reader and a writer. The one that interests me the most, and I’ll answer with my opinion is…Does bdsm have to enter into all erotic books?

    I think we’re seeing more of bdsm tendencies in story lines, because readers are seeking that alpha male. The man who will take charge, and give us permission to accept his stand as the man in the relationship. Don’t shoot me yet. ;-)

    Times have changed. It’s normal for women to have just as much control, power, whatever you want to call it, in their personal life as a man does. Yet, I feel that in the bedroom, women still have a tendency to want to have someone else be the aggressor. We work, we raise children, we bring order into our family life. Sometimes it’s nice to let someone else run the show…hence, why a dominating man gives us a look at our fantasies. Is it bdsm? No. But that subgenre seems to allow our heroes to show their true side. Even when the sm part of bd is missing.

    I’ve found that publishers want me to step up the bdsm play to fit the man’s behavior, or tone down the hero’s attitude toward the relationship. There’s a fine line. I’d love to see more heroes that tell their heroine to get in the bedroom…now! To be a little possessive, because he’s taking care of her and keeping her safe. To me, he’s a man. If he wants to put his foot down or haul her over his shoulder and tie her to the fence post because he knows that’s what works…even better. That’s what men in my world do. (My bubble, my world. lol)

    I’m curious about other people’s answers. It’s food for thought. Thanks, Leah.

    • LOL Abby, I often ask lots of questions because it gives the reader lots more fodder to think about and there may be one that triggers them to want to leave a comment rather than walk away. Plus I was interested in hearing what other people thought about any of those issues. Your definition “Sometimes it’s nice to let someone else run the show…hence, why a dominating man gives us a look at our fantasies. Is it bdsm? No. But that subgenre seems to allow our heroes to show their true side. Even when the sm part of bd is missing” matches my personal one. That you can write those elements without it being full-out BDSM. And still be enjoyable ;)

      • I can see the sense in that — a female reader thinking, “OMG, you mean I have to do EVERYTHING in the d*mn bedroom TOO???” and wanting to read and/or fantasize about something where the female isn’t responsible for every freakin’ thing that needs to get done, whether it be laundry or orgasm.

        That being said, I like variety in heat levels. Sometimes I’m in the mood for open doors and sometimes (mostly) closed ones. Sort of like real life :)

  4. Interesting observations. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to tell the difference between BDSM and erotic because I see things in shades of power. So something like Sarah McCarty’s Promises series is hot, hot, hot. To a certain reader, it might be considered BDSM, because they play with power exchanges a little bit (informally). To another reader who is looking for a BDSM story, it’s not at all. Where’s the club, the leather? The obligatory safeword? LOL, that’s another story. But the point is that power exchange is inherent in sex, at least for me.

    BDSM is definitely the trend right now and I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon. However, neither do I expect the market for vanilla erotic romance to dry up. I know way too many people who love it to think of that.

    • Skye — I think that’s what I’ve been struggling with as a writer. Where is that line drawn where it’s called BDSM? Does any bondage anywhere in the text make it a BDSM? Or do you need more, including spanking, nipple clamps etc? And who draws that line on where to “shelve” the book?

      I like your point about the power exchange being inherent in sex. I don’t think you need leather and clubs and such (though my Hauberk series features them on occasion, LOL) to have a Dominant character.

  5. I have read a decent amount of BDSM and I was bored quickly. Why? Because I’m not into alpha males. Now, give me the rare book when the man is the sub and the woman is the Domme-that is far more interesting to me.

    I think this is, in part, because I prefer very strong heroines. Sometimes, even if the author has set the h as a strong woman, once she discovers her taste for subbing, she often loses her edge outside of the bedroom, or slips between strong and subby in her daily life, destroying my image of her.

    I also enjoy watching a H come out of his shell more than a Lethario-type being “tamed” by an oh-so-perfect h.

    That being said, I love that every kink and fantasy is available to allow every reader to feel validated!

    • Annabelle — have you read any of Joey Hill’s erotic romances? She does excellent Dominant women/submissive men. Start with Natural Law — I love that book.

  6. This subject is so interesting to me. I would have said a few years ago that no way could I read or write this genre, but now my personal library is loaded with erotic romance books. Like everything, its a fine line.

    The best books with erotic/bdsm are the ones that truly reflect the control the submissive heroine obtains and sustains the control through the story. Alpha males are definitely hot, but not at the risk of the female character’s strengths. A few of my all time favorites create the submissive females with a very strong dominate emotional side. Allowing the scenes to play out but still have a balance of dominant personalities for both male and female characters throughout the story. Books that push the envelope so much the female character appears to be weak do not set well with me.
    As you stated, ‘letting’ is how I look at it. We are relinquishing control, which as a mom/wife/writer/employee there are days that I would LOVE someone else to come in and take over. I would gladly let someone else cook, plan, coordinate, help with homework, etc. But key factor-I give the control. Maybe we should use BDRM using relinquish instead of submit, but that looks like an abbreviation for bedroom -well i guess that works too :-)

    BTW-I have read all of your books and they are my favorites because you have found that balance!

    • You make a good point, Eden, that some writers and readers miss — that it’s the sub that actually holds the power in the relationship. They have to relinquish that control and give themselves over to the “care” of their partner — I don’t like the term control, but I know that’s just me because I … well, that takes me down a whole different path, LOL. Anyway, BDRM works for me, rather than “sadism/masochism or even slave/master” but then I know there are those who love the idea of a slave/master relationship. Guess it comes down to the boat you’re floating on. ;)

  7. I’ve only written erotica sorta accidentally. Bear with me. :)

    What I’m saying is I never set out to write a story labeled erotica, it’s just that certain characters and situations that I want to write about come with that, meaning whatever’s going on in the sex is really necessary to the relationship.

    The only thing I’ve written when it comes to BDSM is that I just wrote a hero who gets off on pain. But the reason for it is that it’s a paranormal, he’s a self-healer who’s had an abusive upbringing and his pleasure/pain is all mixed together now, especially since it feels good when he heals himself.

    That ended up being a particularly violent sex scene. :)

    I think the key is that stories that start out with a character and a relationship and then follow the logical conclusion of how those people would get together are the best, whether they are erotica or Christian romance or somewhere in between. Sometimes I think some stories include these elements as trappings and that’s when it get problematic.

    • Corrina — I think for it to be a good erotic romance, the sex absolutely needs to be necessary to the relationship, or else it is more of an erotica without the romance.

      The hero you’ve just written reminds me of JR Ward’s Zsadist or even more of Vishous. It all depends on how it’s written…

      Sometimes I think some stories include these elements as trappings and that’s when it get problematic.” Now that’s another issue — is it a device or is it essential to the characters? I would think the author should be aiming for it to be an essence of the character, as opposed to a device simply to titillate, and yes, if it’s a device, that becomes very problematic.

      • The power dynamic is interesting since I think many romances are about finding that balance of power. BDSM takes that subtext and finds a physical text for it, so to speak. :) That’s what I enjoy in the bondage-style romances I’ve read, the dance over who’s in control.

        As you say, though, it all depends on what works for the story. And I think perhaps with one style of story being successful the urge to write & publish that story grows and the material isn’t always suitable.

  8. I think there’s a definite trend toward BDSM, heightened by all the hoopla over “Shades of Gray.” I also think true BDSM, as practiced in the community, can be difficult to get right. Having the dominant (male or female) tell the submissive “Spread your legs six inches at all times when you sit,” can be just as charged as “Over my knee for a spanking.” The dance between the sub and the dom is what makes the story interesting.

    In addition to getting the BDSM practices right, the writing needs to be well-done and the characters compelling for it to stay on my shelf. While my reading taste sometimes runs to really edgy material, my stories aren’t quite there.

    In theory I’d love to have someone take charge of my entire life…in practice, not so much! LOL!

    Great conversation and one that can be continued for a long time.

    • “In theory I’d love to have someone take charge of my entire life…in practice, not so much!”

      for me, THIS!

      • Yes! Fascinating discussion with lots of great points. The flux of the mixed genres, the BDRM, and the power issues. Good stuff. Make this a part 1, Leah.

  9. I like reading BDSM in books and I don’t mind SM. That being said there is a fine line and any blood play or knife play and I’m done. I understand that some like to read that but I am not one of them. I have noticed a big increase in BDSM in books lately and it does get a little old. Especially when it isn’t well written

    • Yes, there is a fine line, and it depends upon each individual reader to decide their own personal line. And I suppose it depends upon the individual writer too.

  10. Great post, Leah. I was nodding my head all the way through. It seems to me that the sexuality in “regular” romances is being upped almost daily, and correspondingly, the erotic romances are getting…hotter? wilder? more erotic and less romantic? Not always, but sometimes.

    For me to truly enjoy a story, I need great characterization and a real romance, whether the bedroom door is open or closed, whether their sex is ‘vanilla’ or kinky.

    As for BDSM, it seems to have snowballed in recent years, for sure. Even as a sub-genre, it’s cracking into distinct niches: light bondage, S&M, Domestic Discipline, fetish… I just wish there was some sort of a symbol system for each, because while I like books with the lighter side of BDSM, I can’t stomach the inflicted-pain scenes or the DD aspect. (Those always end up being DNF books for me.)

    This was a great post, Leah. Lots of interesting comments, too.

  11. For me …..it’s all about the wrting, the emotional journey the characters undertake and the romance ….I do like BDSM but it’s certainly not something that I have to have in a book to enjoy it and anything that is badly written – whether it’s BDSM, a menage or even straight romance is simply to be avoided. I do think that not every author can write BDSM or menage or the kinkier side of sex and I personally think it’s a shame that so many authors feel that to have their book published they need to include something they are not comfortable writing or experienced writing because believe me it comes through. I can’t count the number of just badly written menage stories I’ve read but there are plenty of them out there and there’s also plenty of bad BDSM. I know why it’s the popular subject now but I think that author’s need to focus more on their voice and the story they have to tell than on what might be commercially viable – let’s face it most publishers, even the ebook publishers, tend to exist in a box and focus on bottom line numbers which is a shame because that means they are forcing certain types of books to be written and I personally prefer the different voices we get when an author is allowed to write what they are inspired to write. I don’t know if my comments make sense but I like to read all kinds of books in different romance subgenres and don’t think there should be any fast and steady rules.

    • let’s face it most publishers, even the ebook publishers, tend to exist in a box and focus on bottom line numbers

      That brought up another issue — what about the books the BDSM community says misrepresents their lifestyle/choices, is egregiously wrong but still sells like hotcakes? Do those books, because they’re best sellers encourage other authors not to do their proper research and continue that misrepresentation? (no, I’m not naming any names/titles or reviewers here, but speaking in generalities) Personally I think that could be applied not only to BDSM/erotic romances but any trend.

      • I think there are many instances of books “selling like hotcakes” that have errors that bother me. (Of course there are plenty of purported “Non-fiction” books that make me shake my head, too!) This is true beyond the BDSM world.

        It would be as if you fictionalized all Italians according to gender stereotypes rather than doing your research. An Italian would probably get offended. I think that’s probably what you’re hearing from the BDSM community as well.

        And each writer needs to examine her or his own conscience before they begin to write about any world they are unfamiliar with, IMHO.

  12. I do love to read great stories with BDSM in them, but they don’t have to have it for me to enjoy them. I read a variety of erotic romance and to me, the romance is the important part. I can only get into a story if it has great characters and a good plot. If either are missing, I do not enjoy the story. I don’t think all erotic stories should have BDSM, it has to fit the story and the characters. Besides, I like a lot of variety in the books I read.

  13. Great post, Leah. I think the genre is wide open. I don’t write BDSM but still have plenty of readers. I do write menage a trois and very graphic love scenes. I believe there is room for whatever an author wants to write.

    • So I’m curious as to what you think of the categorizations these days, NJ. Since you don’t write BDSM but do write menage a trois, some places might put you in the same category as a regular romance — which might throw off the reader looking for a more vanilla closed-door-romance. Readers? How about you, had any shocks? I know I’ve had some reviews left on some of the major sites because they bought one of my books, expecting it to be a sweet love story then were shocked it contained a menage with a m/m element.

  14. There is no denying it that the industry has changed so much. It seems like people are pushing the envelope over the edge and thinking it will get them noticed. You want to write and keep the passion and story alive, you don’t want to kill it by thinking shock will push it to be noticed more. I’m seeing some books that border bad porn…Don’t get me wrong I like my kink but when you kill the book just to fill it with sex and nothing else that is just not good.

  15. Hi Leah! This is a great post on a subject that has been bothering me for a while. I know you are asking for reader input (of course I read a ton of romance) but as a writer, I find the “pushing” of the erotic romance envelope making it increasingly difficult to label my own books.

    True, I don’t write BDSM (though I do have a story coming up that will have some bondage in it), my love scenes are extremely explicit and plentiful (though always necessary for the storyline). The problem is, a lot of readers (and reviewers) consider my books to be erotic…and yet, there are many others who don’t because the love scenes are “vanilla” compared to “kinky” erotic romance. It makes it very difficult to label my books so I don’t mislead anyone.

    Nowadays, I typically label my books as “borderline-erotic” and describe my love scenes as “explicit” and “sizzling” in hopes of staying clear of any problems.

    Seems to me the definition of Erotic Romance has changed once again compared to when I got published in 2006, when my first book, A Knight of Passion, was labelled “erotic romance” using the same language in the love scenes as I use now.

  16. I read a lot and I do mean a lot of romance books. Some are sweet, some are sexy, and some are erotic. I like them all for different reasons but yes, the industry has changed by leaps and bounds. Personally, I like books that explore what a lot of people would consider kinky. However I personally don’t care for the whole pain scene. Yes, I realize there are people out there who claim they “need” the pain and you know that’s a choice they make but I really don’t want to read about it in great detail. I’m not judging anyone, my hubby and I decided a long, long time ago that what goes on between two consenting adults in the privacy of their own home or where ever is between them. I’ve probably read 30 or more books over the last two months and two stick out in my head more than anything…one was what I would call a traditional romance. Yes, the couple had sex but the book was over 3/4 done before they did. It was the dialog, the build up that made this book so special. Just proving that writers don’t always have to be so graphic to write a good book. The other was a M/M story that was just a beautiful love story. So, while I don’t mind reading books that are about BDSM, I feel there are way more books out there that are fantastic books without that element. I will also state that I really don’t get into all the different genres out there…I don’t care for paranormal at all, the whole “Steam-punk” genre doesn’t thrill me, the sci-fi stuff bores me…just give a good old contemporary with some great dialog and a few laughs and I’m a happy camper!

  17. Thanks for commenting everyone — it was a very interesting discussion. The winner of my contest is Annabelle (thanks to Random.org’s list randomizer) Annabelle, I’ll be getting in touch with you shortly about your prize.

  18. So much stuff to comment on here! I’ve got to just start with replying to the questions in your article and the thoughts they brought up. First, I think I’ll clarify what I mean when I talk about erotic romance. An erotic romance should have a significant part of the relationship developing through sex.

    I don’t know that the definition of erotic romance has changed, but I do think that the boundaries are getting more and more extended. What would have been considered absolutely risqué previously is now being explored with open arms and by a lot of people (BDSM for example).

    However, I don’t think this means that BDSM is the only way to go in erotic romance. There’s room for a lot of variety, and I think that some times people (and publishers) forget that in their desire to tackle the current craze.

    I’ve never really been into reading about ménage à trois in erotic romance because I think so many authors forget the ‘romance’ part of that label. But like BDSM, though maybe slightly earlier, ménage à trois was a big craze and it’s still fairly prevalent, with the envelope being pushed further and further. Yet it hasn’t taken over and replaced m/m, m/f, f/f pairings in romance (erotic or otherwise).

    I can’t pretend to guess why the Romance Studio doesn’t have an erotic romance category, but has a BDSM category. It’s interesting though. Are they combining erotic romance with mainstream romance categories?

    So, like with ménage à trois not replacing a pair in a couple, I don’t feel like BDSM is ever going to replace ‘vanilla’ erotic romance. They’re all just different aspects. I love BDSM romance – when it’s written very, very well, and there are a lot of things that I may pick at with a BDSM romance that I wouldn’t with a straight-up erotic romance. But just because I love it, and appreciate it, doesn’t mean that it is all I want to read. It’s one of the more recent boundary pushing crazes that erotic romance has come up against, and so I think it’s probably showing as more prevalent, but I don’t think it means that’s the new standard that all erotic romance needs to adhere to.

    To kind of get into the BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism) aspect of your post a little (more), if I’m sold a BDSM erotic romance, I expect a certain level of BDSM in it. A scene, like in Liberating Lacey by Anne Calhoun (which is fantastic by the way), where someone is handcuffed to a bed, or plays out a dominance/role-playing/submission scenario does not necessarily make it a BDSM. Like I expect sex to be an integral part of the developing relationship in an erotic romance, I expect BDSM to be an integral part of the developing relationship in a BDSM erotic romance. I think that makes it hard to draw lines, and it usually ends up being, for me, a ‘I know it when I read it.’ I could get into this deeper, but because it’s pretty personal I don’t want to overstep.

    You kind of split us up, those that enjoy erotic romance and those that enjoy the bedroom door partially closed. And maybe that’s right, and normal, for most people. I read across all heat levels, from absolute closed door to erotic romance. But, for me, even in erotic romance it’s the relationship between the characters that I’m reading for, well among other things, but the sex (when present) is just there to further that relationship – at least in a good book.

    I don’t read much ‘regular’ contemporaries anymore, so I can’t really say on that. But I do feel like more graphic sex is in other mainstream romance novels from historicals to paranormals, so I would guess that it’s probably in contemporaries as well.

  19. Hi, Angela

    “You kind of split us up, those that enjoy erotic romance and those that enjoy the bedroom door partially closed.” The post came about after a discussion at my monthly book club — and yes, there was that split between some members wanting the bedroom door partially closed while others definitely wanted erotic romance to be very spicy. And how, for the ones who liked spicy, were finding it tougher and tougher to find hot enough books now they were being shelved with the other “regular” romances.
    I’m like you, I read across all heat levels, but as a writer I do worry about my works-in-progress and whether they’ll be classified erotic romance — I know there are some books published even pre-2010 that may not be classified erotic romance today because I think those boundaries are being pushed. Hence the reason for this original stream-of-consciousness post.
    I don’t think there’s a definite right or wrong answer, and each person rightly has their own opinion on it. But it was and is still an interesting discussion.

  20. I found this post while googling for “erotic romance no bdsm” – just so you know where I’m coming from. I’m not making any judgements, and I’m all for reading some good kink – but so much of it feels totally obligatory. As has been mentioned, like the publishers have to keep pushing.

    I want that door wide open. I like sex scenes hot, and raunchy, and using real words. Up against the wall? Yeah! A little dirty and rough? Yeah! I don’t need the whole circus though. It very often feels tacked on – like someone said “Oh wait, have to have some kink” Is there such a thing as “vanilla” wide open door romance? Must it be one or the other? Why do the publisher think readers have to choose between “pulsing loins” and “nipple clamps and handcuffs”?

    • I find it really interesting that you were searching for “erotic romance no bdsm”! I knew you were out there! You may also want to see my post over on Dear Author (same topic, but slightly rewritten). As a writer I’ve never felt pressured from my publisher to write kinkier, but I have to admit to having an eye on sales and reader comments on other forums. As a reader, it comes down to how it’s written and depends upon the storyline and whether I connect with the characters, I suppose.

      Is there an answer? I don’t have one.

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