When a reader says they want a “steamy” book, what does that mean? What does “sweet” or “clean” mean? Well, these often means a lot of different things to different people.
When trying to find the line between steam levels in different romance subgenres, it’s helpful to break down what each level means and which subgenres use each most often. Of course, there are books that cross, blur, or nudge the lines, but it’s good to have a firm basis to start with.
Low-level sexual tension, focused more on emotional elements than physical, limited to kissing and embraces. Stories often end with a proposal or strong HEA. Think G-rated movie.
Most often used in Regencies and some historicals, middle and younger YA, religious/spiritual/inspirational fiction, and sweet/clean contemporary romances.
No explicit sensuality, kissing and touching is okay but physical descriptions are limited to general terms or are only implied. Physical acts should be focused on the emotional elements rather than explicit description. Off-screen sex is alluded to and left to the reader’s imagination. Think PG-rated movie.
Most often used in YA, mild contemporary romance, some historical romances, and spiritual/religious/inspirational.
Moderate explicit content and sensuality. Sex is described, but not in graphic detail. The emphasis stays on the “lovemaking” and emotions, not the act. Euphemisms are more common and many details are left to the reader’s imagination. Sexual tension is used throughout, with more touching and some undressing involved, and there are usually only one or two sexual scenes in the whole book. Think PG-13 rated movie.
Common in single-title romances, upper YA, mild NA, some historicals, milder/teen paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi, and some romantic suspense/thriller/mysteries where the focus is more on the crime than the relationship.
Very explicit sensuality and a deeper focus on sexual feelings, desire, and physical sensations. Sex scenes are longer and may have 2-3 in the book. Character thoughts are focused more on sexual urges and desires and sex is graphically described with specific body part words used and strong euphamisms. There may be light exploration of less-traditional sexual activities. The emotional aspect of sex is still important and should be balanced with the physical sensations. Sex scenes should further the story, not overtake it. Think R-rated movie.
Includes the majority of contemporary romances today, romantic suspense, most NA, some Apha/mafia subgenres, and most paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi.
Extremely explicit sensuality and descriptions with a strong focus on sexual thoughts, desires, and needs. Sex may be the primary focus of the story, but it still has a full-arc storyline and strong emotional elements. Sex often includes non-traditional elements such as light BDSM, use of sex toys, ménage or other forms of “kink.” Profanity is more common and graphic language is used in descriptions. There are usually multiple sex scenes throughout the book. These stories can’t be told adequately without the sexual content. Think NC-17-rated movies.
***Always consider consent and the line between abuse and dominance. Characters must retain a choice on whether to participate and there needs to be a minimum level of respect between partners to keep it out of the realm of an abusive relationship.