This is a topic that comes up frequently on our Sensual Romance discussion list. We define the purpose of our list and the books that are “on topic” for our discussions and reviews: “Sensual Romance books are about the spicier side of romance, the romantic element of indulgence in sexual pleasure, including sexual fantasy and games, passionate activities that are just a little bit naughty. In erotic literature, we focus on the softer side, the romantic erotica.” But what exactly is “sensual”, “spicy”, “naughty”, or “erotic”? Those words mean different things to each of us.

Why is it important? Well, as Henry Ward Beecher said, “All words are pegs to hang ideas on.” Giving something a name defines and describes it, and each of us then has a mental picture of what that thing is, what the word represents. In writing and publishing, as in most industries, the image -- what people perceive something to be, regardless of what it actually is -- can make a vast difference. What a book is labeled -- romance or romantica or erotica or pornography -- will determine which publisher may accept it, how it will be marketed, who will read it, whether the book buyers will be happy with their purchase, and therefore how successful the book and author will be.

It is not uncommon for staff at websites devoted to romance books to hear from authors and publishers: “We don’t publish erotica! It’s romantica.”, “I wish the review had mentioned how hot and erotic my book is.”, “Please don’t say my book is erotic -- just call it sexy or sensual.” These people are concerned what the words will convey to potential book buyers. But because we’ve each got a different picture in our minds of what certain types of books encompass, it’s hard to label them properly. The publisher labels it romantica, the reviewer calls it “a hot read”, and the reader may find that it is less or more sexy than they anticipated based on their own interpretation of those words.

I couldn’t find ‘romantica’ in any dictionary; it seems to be a fairly new word used primarily in the romance publishing industry. All dictionaries agree that the first definition of ‘sensual’ relates to the senses or bodily sense organs. Some then proceed to secondary usages of the word: “suggesting sexuality; voluptuousness”; “physical rather than spiritual or intellectual”; “carnal; fleshly”; “connected with sexual pleasure”. Hmm, quite a wide range for interpretation. ‘Erotica’, says the American Heritage College Dictionary, is “literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire”; and ‘pornography’ is “sexually explicit material that sometimes equates sex with power and violence”. But Webster’s New World Dictionary says that pornography is “writings, pictures, etc. intended primarily to arouse sexual desire”. Wait, wasn’t that the other dictionary’s definition of erotica, not pornography?!

(Just for fun, I checked the oldest dictionary in my collection, White’s Modern Dictionary, 1905 edition. They take a softer view of ‘erotic’: “Pertaining to or caused by love; an amatory composition.” They don’t even list ‘pornography’. And ‘romance’ had a broader meaning back then. Something romantic was “wild, fanciful”; a ‘romance’ was “a tale of exciting adventure; a fiction”; to ‘romance’ was to “write or tell marvellous tales”.)

So . . . there are no universally accepted definitions for the words we use to describe this particular genre. To help me in communicating with all the people who use our website and discussion list -- readers, reviewers, authors, publishers -- I compiled some informal definitions. These are based on the SR list discussions. Not everyone will agree with them, but at least they gives us a basis for understanding what we mean when we talk about these books. I’d be happy to hear what you think about these definitions.

~ Sensual (sizzling/sexy/hot) romance is driven by the romantic relationship and the emotional development of the characters, but contains lots of sexual tension and fairly explicit conventional sex. The relationship is monogamous and the story has the traditional HEA ending.

~ Romantica is both romantic and sexually explicit. Both the sexual and emotional aspects of the relationship are integral to the plot and the development of the characters. The sex may be beyond conventional "mainstream". The story almost always has the traditional romance HEA ending.

~ Erotica contains emotional relationships, but the plot is more driven by the sexual relationships. The sex can take on all aspects, including D/s, bondage, voyeurism, multiple relationships, menage a trois, and so forth. The story has a happy ending for the characters, but it might not be the traditional romance ending.

~ Pornography focuses on sex acts; there is no (or very little) actual romance and emotional connection between characters. The story line is used as a device to string together sexual encounters.

by Raelene Gorlinsky (Raelene@thebestreviews.com)

Raelene is the Managing Editor of Sensual Romance Reviews (http://sr.thebestreviews.com) and editor of the monthly Sensual Romance E-newsletter.

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