“What’s the difference between erotica, erotic romance, and just a really steamy romance?” As an author of all three, that’s easily the question I get asked most! Well, aside from, “When are you going to write a sequel to [insert any book featuring a really pushy hero]?”
Unfortunately, there is no single industry definition. You could ask ten different authors and editors and get ten different answers. But you’re asking me, I suppose, so I’ll give you my answer!
First, let’s separate out Erotica from the mix. An erotic story differs from an erotic romance in that it may not feature any romance. Erotica is centered around a sexual journey or episode, one that may or may not feature love or affection or a happily ever after. Erotica offers writers a lot of freedom—it can be just about any sort of story, as long as the spotlight is on the sex. Erotica is designed largely to arouse the reader, and it can deliver on that promise via a wide variety of packages (har.) It may feel like you’re reading about a room full of dynamically slapping body parts, or it could feel exquisitely intimate, with rich character development. But if people fall in love and become attached and devoted to one another by the end? That’s probably an erotic romance.
My short response to that question is to ask you another one: if you took all the love scenes out of a given sexy book, would you still have a story? If the answer is yes, you’re probably talking about a steamy Romance. In most romances, external circumstances (plot) drive the story and the couple’s evolving relationship. The sex will contribute to that evolution, but if you took all the love scenes out, the story wouldn’t collapse.
How about this other sexy book you’re holding—what if you took the plot out? Would the characters’ romantic arc still stand? If you can say yes to that question, you may be in possession of an Erotic Romance. While erotic romances have plots, they can tend to be quieter ones, because the main force driving the characters’ growth and relationship is the sex they explore together. If you take all the sex scenes out of an erotic romance and read what’s left, scene by scene, you would likely feel you were missing something, and wonder why it is these people have gotten so attached to each other.
Another method would be to pretend a friend is asking you, in regards to a certain book, “What’s it about?” If you respond, “Oh, it’s about these people who fall in love while they’re trying to figure out who abducted the heroine’s sister. Plus there’s a lot of sex in it!” then that’s likely a steamy romance. But if you say, “Oh, it’s really dirty and awesome! The sex is like, crazy-hot. Plus I think there’s something in there about the heroine trying to save her cupcake bakery.” Ding ding ding! Probably an erotic romance.
Basically, in a stew recipe for steamy romance, the plot is the meat and the potatoes and the gravy, and sex is the spice—sex enhances, it’s important, but it doesn’t bind the story together. In an erotic romance stew recipe, the sex is the meat and potatoes and spice, the plot more like the gravy, or perhaps the bowl that contains the story. The plot binds, but the sex is the substance.
There are some other, more trite, assorted answers to this question, as well. Erotic romances tend to be kinkier than steamy romances, frequently featuring intense power dynamics, role-playing, props and toys, perhaps a third lover, maybe a fetish. But not as a rule. Some of the hottest erotic romances I’ve read have featured only missionary and oral. In fact, I know some authors who could write a hot-as-hell, satisfying erotic romance in which the characters never even take their underpants off! (Charlotte Stein and Mary Ann Rivers, I’m looking at you.) It’s the intensity that truly drives the heat level. Unsurprisingly, erotic romances also tend to feature more sex than steamy romances—more frequent love scenes, and longer ones…probably because the couple doesn’t need to rush off to deal with complications brought on by that damn, pesky plot.
So those were a few different answers to one question! I get asked about this so often, I appreciate that the concept’s tricky. I hope any one of those explanations clicks for folks who’ve been wrestling with the difference. Now go forth, and cook up whichever persuasion of romance stew satisfies your individual appetite!
Cara McKenna writes smart erotic romance for Penguin and Ellora’s Cave, and red-hot contemporary romance as Meg Maguire, for Harlequin and Samhain. Visit her website at caramckenna.com or find her on Twitter, @caramckenna!
You might also like: “In Defense of Erotica” by Olivia Glass.