What Is A “Heat Level” and Who Decides?
There are books where almost every page drips with murder and blood; others where the pages drip with sex and, er, other substances; some (especially in the vampire genre) where it’s a combination of both.
Mostly, sex is the dividing line. The Hunger Games Trilogy, for example, feature explicit scenes where one teenager kills another, but the sexuality/sensuality is extremely innocent, amounting to no more than kissing, so most people mentally slot the books into the YA (Young Adult) genre. Harry Potter battles for his life (but not his virginity), therefore, those books are MG (Middle Grade) and YA.
Unlike the Motion Picture Rating Association, when it comes to fiction, there is no one authority that decides how a romance (or other) book is rated, and why. (Though some publishers and reviewers do use similar PG, R or X ratings when describing books.)
At least for now, each writer, reviewer, editor and publisher decides for him or herself what kind of heat level a romance, or a book featuring a romance, falls into.
Below are some guidelines I’ve found helpful.
From Romance Author Laura Sheehan:
I like to gauge my novels using the following sexual intimacy scale:
1 – Chaste (no sexual intimacy beyond a kiss on the hand or the cheek);
2 – Sweet (there may be sexual attraction and kissing, but no overt sexual interaction);
3 – Hot (there is overt sexual attraction, kissing, making out/fondling, but sex, if any, is either not described in detail or only alluded to);
4 – Steamy (there is potent sexual attraction and sexual interactions are described in detail);
5 – Scorching (sexual interactions are frequent and described in detail, may include fetish/taboo sexual scenarios); and
6 – Erotica (the central focus of erotic romances are the sexual interactions. Sexual interactions are very frequent, described in high detail, and may include any type of sexual scenario, including fetish/taboo scenarios).
Sweet Romance doesn’t contain any sexual scenes. We have an understanding that the main characters have sex but there is no description of the acts. There might be sexual tension throughout the story.
Sensual Romance has an increased level of sensuality in love scenes, which are consummated, and an integral part of the story. The love scenes are not explicitly described even though they might occur more than once on the course of the story. Emotion and conflict run high. No graphic language or violence is used in love/sex scenes’ descriptions.
Erotic Romance is a step up from Sensual where the sex scenes are hot, the language graphic, and the love/sex scenes thoroughly described. There is an abundance of sexual tension and sex/love scenes abound. Erotic romances can push the envelope almost to the edge of erotica but the characters in erotic romance are generally in monogamic relationships and the stories are expected to end in HEA.
Erotica usually means no holds barred. Ménage/multiple partners, BDSM and other less discussed taboos are frequently explored openly. The sex is plentiful, sporadic, intentional, chaotic and VERY explicit. Language can be often crude. An HEA is not required. The only no-no for publishers of this heat level seems to be illegal or some taboo subjects (usually described in the publisher’ submission guidelines).
Romance Novel Heat Levels (from Turquoise Morning Press):
The following guidelines describe the level of “heat” or sensuality associated with our romance novels and some women’s fiction. Sweet, Sensual, Sizzle and Erotic romance must have a happily ever after ending.
Sweet Romance closes the door on any sexual scene. We know the main characters have sex but we don’t read about it. Sexual tension remains high.
Sensual Romance ups the sensuality level of the love scenes, which are consummated, and an integral part of the story. The love scenes are there but not explicitly described. Emotion and conflict run high. No graphic language or violence.
Sizzle Romance is sensual, sexual and edgy. Sex scenes are detailed in their description and graphic, candid language is used. Sexual situations bump the boundaries but don’t cross over into erotic romance. Sexual tension remains at a high level throughout.
Erotic Romance pushes the envelope of traditional romance and breaks the boundaries. The sex is hot, the language graphic, and the love/sex scenes thoroughly described. There is sexual tension and a lot of it, and sex/love scenes abound. Erotic romances can push the envelope almost to the edge of erotica. An HEA (happily ever after) ending is a must.
Erotica: A TMP erotica story is no holds barred. Ménage/multiple partners and more is perfect; BDSM is awesome; your taboo fantasies are wonderful. The sex is plentiful, sporadic, intentional, chaotic, random, implied, controlled, denied, or maybe not even there at all. If it’s illegal or makes us go “ick” however, we won’t be interested in publishing it. An HEA is not required.
The RT (Romantic Times) Uses This System:
Beginning with September 2006 issue reviews, these are the new sensuality ratings used for Historical Romance, Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense books:
SCORCHER — Borders on erotic. Very graphic sex.
HOT — Most romance novels fall into this category. Ranges from conventional lovemaking to explicit sex.
MILD — May or may not include lovemaking. No explicit sex.
For reviews before September 2006 issue, the following ratings were used for Historical Romance books:
SEXY — Borders on erotic. Very graphic sex.
SPICY — Very explicit sex.
VERY SENSUAL — Spicy, but goes beyond conventional lovemaking. Explicit sex.
SENSUAL — Most romance novels fall into this category. Conventional lovemaking. Explicit sex.
SWEET — May or may not include lovemaking. No explicit sex.
Sensuality Ratings Guide (from All About Romance):
Some sites utilize movie-type ratings as the basis for their sensuality ratings and therefore they are more “warnings” than anything else. Our readers seem to prefer sensuality ratings more as simply another type of information; some might even feel “cheated” to read a book given a “Hot” rating if it were only “Warm.” The idea for our levels was based on a Blush Factor several years ago.. .would your cheeks get redder while reading a book with “Burning” sensuality than they would if reading a book with “Subtle” sensuality?
Confused much? Yes, because there are so many different ways to judge the heat level of a book, it can be very hard to sort out. Sometimes you think you are buying or writing to one standard, but your idea of “hot “is someone else’s idea of “burning.”
As a reader– I personally enjoy every heat level (though there are certain fetishes or acts that don’t “do it” for me). I would rather read a well-written novel that is “sweet” or “chaste” than a poorly written story with explicit sex scenes stapled in, which suit neither the characters nor the storyline. Often I will find a “sensual” romance much hotter than a book where the sex scenes sound like the assembly directions for a piece of Ikea furniture. Or where it’s basically porn, and there is no believable or compelling story.
However, if sex – not just sexual attraction, but sex – is integral to the plot and/or the characters, as a reader I do want to “see” the sex. Not some coy fade-out-fade-in. If our heroine or hero emotionally changes because of something specific that happens between the sheets (or in an alley, elevator, or back seat of a car), if it affects her or his actions from that moment forward, I want to be with her (or him) at the moment of change. (Show, Don’t Tell.)
As a writer – sex was one of the driving motivations for several of my characters in my first (someday to be rewritten) novel. Therefore, I needed to write sex scenes, and because no sex scene comes easy to me (no pun intended), I decided to write them as hot as I could, figuring it would be easier for me to tone down a too-hot scene, later, than try to heat up one that was too mild. I’ve continued in that pattern, but have written less explicit, sensual short stories, as well. And even stories with little to no sex at all!
YMMV: Your mileage may vary. If you are not comfortable reading books with explicit sex, then don’t read ’em. If you are a writer, don’t try to write “scorching” level sex scenes if that makes you miserable, just because you think “that’s what sells.” Your distaste for the material will shine through (see Ikea furniture, above).
Luckily, there are enough excellent books to suit every taste.