Home » Fiction Fundamentals » It’s Time to Revamp our Sensuality Ratings

It’s Time to Revamp our Sensuality Ratings

23 January 2012

From All About Romance:

AAR’s sensuality ratings have come under discussion lately due to the changing nature of the romance industry in general. With the recent proliferation of racier novels, what was once declared Hot may now be considered barely Warm by our readers. The language used in love scenes, once a deciding factor in rating, has also changed drastically in recent years.  Quaint euphemisms such as “manhood” or “heated channel” have fallen by the wayside.

If we update our sensuality ratings in response to changes in the industry, what sort of changes should we make?

One issue under discussion was possibly adding another category after Burning.

. . . .

Is it shocking to read a review rated Warm, only to find language once considered very blue when you read the book? Conversely, some readers may be disappointed to purchase a book rated Burning because of language or one delicately described incident of alternative lovemaking, when their hope was for something more raunchy.

. . . .

My suggestions are:


At no point in the book is lovemaking (or rape or other sexual violence) described beyond mention that it has occurred. There may be kisses or petting, pregnancy, mention of a wedding night, etc, but at no time is the reader present during a love scene or forced intercourse.


Straight sex only, Male/Female only, with no alternatives involved.  The reader is present when sex occurs for an unlimited number of times, written with gentler euphemisms or correct terminology (orgasm, penis, erection, bundle of nerves, etc).

Link to the rest at All About Romance

Fiction Fundamentals

45 Comments to “It’s Time to Revamp our Sensuality Ratings”

  1. Sorry, but


    • Barbara – I just put up stuff I think is interesting. I don’t claim to understand the romance market. 🙂

      • Nor do I, PG, that’s why I don’t write them. 😉

        Amazon can drill down remarkably in the rankings but not when you upload the book. There you have very few choices. What about a novel for women that’s about love but is not “romance”? I wind up explaining it in the description so I don’t get mean 1 star reviews complaining that it’s not a “romance”.

    • It’s important to realize that NY editors have been pushing for MORE HEAT ever since they realized erotic romance was selling well. Many authors of my acquaintance (self included) have been asked to add more sex scenes in revisions. The good authors can fold them in, in service to the plot, but others feel sort of shoe-horned. (Er, no pun intended…)

      Please realize that this is not necessarily an author-led phenomena, but rather a publishing one. Editor: Sex sells! We need more sex! Add three more sex scenes to the book, I don’t care where! Argh.

  2. what i find shocking is that “unlimited amounts of M/F sex without ‘variations’ (by which they mean…anything beyond PIV) = WARM” these days. uh…really? wow. i feel seriously behind the times and prudish to find that my own ratings are so very clearly antiquated.

    • I can relate.

      I’m a prude and didn’t know it.

    • The thing that bugs me about all this is that a book can be *incredibly* hot, just sizzling in terms of sexual tension, without a ton of ‘mechanics.’ Trying to rate heat level is too objective. I like Christian’s Fanfic rating suggestions below — makes more sense to me.

      Great discourse on the whole heteronormative issue. DA has conversations like that from time to time, too. Hooray for the digital salon. 🙂

      • True! I also failed to see what was so hard about offering a rating with a brief explanation–either designations like were referenced with fanfic or the way TV ratings are now…M for Mature, with the Violence/Language/Sexual situations specified as needed.

        Also I hadn’t realized how much of the sea change within the genre toward a mingling of romance and erotica was editor driven. It will be interesting to see if the spectrum stays intermingled or kind of separates into different channels again with the rise of self-publishing.

        • I’m already seeing it separate — certainly in my own writing, and I’m hearing stories from other writers who are relieved to let the story and characters dictate the amount of heat, not the editor. 🙂

          • “writers who are relieved to let the story and characters dictate the amount of heat, not the editor”

            This point is the reason I love the digital self-publishing–the freedom to write the story the way it is SUPPOSED to be rather than how someone else wants it to be. Whether that has to do with how much sex is in the book or how long it is (now that novellas are viable forms again) or anything else. It’s funny, because I came through a hard-knocks school of writing in college and actually really value an editorial opinion on my writing…but by now I have heard altogether too many stories about editorial tinkering to want to work with an editor who was not under my employ (rather than the reverse, or some twisted semblance of it). If I have to re-write MY book and MY story and MY characters to suit a publisher’s requirements…that basically makes me a contract writer, not a purveyor of my own particular blend of the genre’s elements. No thanks. I’ll keep being obscure and retain my integrity, instead. 🙂 After all, if I like it surely a good 6999 other people do, too, even if I’m 1 in a million….

      • I like the sizzle of anticipation – for me ‘it’s not the kill, but the thrill of the chase.’

        • Amen. Anticipation is good but it’s gotten to the point where I just skip any sex scenes (or at least skim for dialog) when I’m reading because they don’t do anything for me and they generally feel forced. I’m of the opinion that if it’s not actively contributing to the plot or character development in some way, please close the door!

  3. PG,


    I’m _anything_ but a prude, but I recently bought on Audible a book I thought from the blurb was about art and nudes.

    The thing was nobbut erotica. It was grubby.

    The blurb should be honest, or the sample chapter represents what the work will actually contain.

    FWIW, it was the third book I have returned, (out of 845 purchased.)


  4. *embarrassed face*

    I write romance, but only paranormal YA romance.

  5. I write erotica and I clearly mark it as such and even annotate how “hot” it is (like 4 out of 5, etc.) along with other traits (bondage). I do not adhere to a predisposed rating system, however. That said, I do want my readers to know what they are buying. Those that are not interested will move on. Those that want to stay will stay and hopefully buy. Those are the readers I want.

  6. I’d actually love a rating system – but I don’t know who would get the final call on what a book should be rated.

    As my son gets older and I don’t have time to read every book/series/author he’s interested in, I’d love to be able to steer him toward books that, because of a certain rating, I know won’t have graphic violence, excessive language, and other explicit scenes.

    I’d be happy to rate my books so that the reader would get an even better idea of what they were purchasing.

  7. I write romance – and my books aren’t ‘hot’ by any modern standard. Everyone is different – and I’ll stick to ‘warm’ when it comes to ‘love scenes.’

    I’m more interested in writing what happens outside the bedroom, or where ever it happens to happen. Those who enjoy the steamy side of romance are welcome to it.

    As a reader, I’m glad to see they are finally getting around to revamping the ratings. Of course, it might be best to just call everything ‘hot’ and up ‘romantic erotica’ and be done with it.

    I’ve returned several books that contained more sex than plot. I don’t think kinky sex is a substitue for a plot.

  8. Two interesting things.. First, based on the comments here, I am a literary permissive anti-prude. The phrase “Literary Trollop” just popped in to my head.

    Also one thing that jumped out at me from the ratings. “Homoeroticism” is automatically “Burning” and rates above bondage or “racier verbage”. Interesting in 2012.

    I tend to read a lot of “gay romance” or M/M as it’s called these days. I am gay and finding a “good book” about gay characters that isn’t depressing or boring is rather difficult. I gravitate toward gay romance mysteries (Lanyon, Banis, Brown) and all of those would classify as “burning” under this scale, however if one of the characters was a woman it would be “warm” or “none”.

    • Christian, there are plenty of romance writers who comment here. I imagine most of us will weigh in.

      I don’t think you’re alone in finding some of the rating divisions odd. Someone on the AAR post left a comment to the effect of “so a m/m kiss would be rated ‘hotter’ than a m/f bondage scene? wtf.” Which really sums it up better than I ever could.

      My personal discomfort with their divisions, as a romance reader and writer, is that these new guidelines are based not on how sex is used in the context of the book but what the sex is, exactly. I would much rather it be based on frequency/percentage of storyline than what actual acts are involved. I’ve read plenty of books that devolved into nothing but boring sex scenes for at least 50% of the screen time, and those books are decidedly NOT the same category as a book that has one or two explicit sex scenes over the course of 400 pages.

      I have seen m/m romances but not read any to have any recommendations there. I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble finding good (not so prurient) ones!

      • “I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble finding good (not so prurient) ones!”

        I don’t mind smut in my gay fiction, actually I quite prefer it. The problem is the reverse. The “gay fiction” category tends to be filled with boring de-sexed angst-fests. Even though the greatest and origin of the category was quite racey and very explicit. The Frontrunner would easily be “Burning” even if they weren’t weighting the scales for gay sex.

        Also, I wouldn’t knock the writers of the more smutty romances. As an example, I have been following Josh Lanyon’s career for some time. He is one of the few male writers of M/M romance. He has mentioned a number of times that early in his writing career he struggled to put enough sex in his books to keep his female readers happy. He found that women wanted more explicit and more frequent sex scenes than his male readers.

        • Ah…you want the ones with both smut AND substance. In plain ole M/F romance that can be hard to find too. And don’t let it sound like I’m knocking the smut. I just…think it would rate higher than a “warm” on their scale.

          One thing I am wondering about the homoeroticism angle is if it is meant not to encompass m/m or f/f relationships so much as a scene where someone who identifies as hetero has a homoerotic experience? because that might actually be a different beast and enough to rate a bit more highly on the kinkometer. just a thought….

    • I found the idea of the “default” straight relationships as having a “safer” rating than the exact same scene both characters being the same gender off putting as well. I feel like there’s not only huge bias there but also something the author of this piece unwittingly said: because reading non-heteronormative work is such a foreign idea to her/him, s/he can’t imagine anyone else reading M/M or F/F for any reason other than the “gratuitous” sex.

      Maybe I’m just reading too much into it and looking to be offended. But why should the same scene get two different ratings depending on what genders the two characters happen to be? This is going backwards.

      • We are starting to talk about a scale with at least 3 levels.

        Sexual details/Violence/homosexual relationships.

        I’d rather see the genre split up.

        Erotica/violent sex

        • Honestly, I am surprised they didn’t just borrow a page from the fanfic community. Just use “story codes”. M/M M/F F/F FROA, G, PG-13, Fuffy, BDSM, Rape Warnings Etc. No perceptible “Value Judgments” just content warnings. It’s helpful for the reader without offending anyone.

          • It would be faster than the discussion their having…but wouldn’t that force the ‘literary establishment’ (which means US in this context) to acknowledge fanfic?

            LOL on a lot of levels.

          • There’s a startup erotica publisher, Forbidden Fiction, that is doing just that–using “content labels” to show what’s inside without judgment or inconsistent “heat” ratings. AFAIK they’ll only be erotica, though, with nothing so low as AAR’s proposed “none” rating. (Which is also why I’m not linking directly to the site in PG’s comments–anyone who’s interested can find it easily enough.) I’m pretty excited about it, especially as it sounds like they’ll have stuff with meatier plots, as well. Then again, they don’t exactly fit in with the romance publishing establishment, such as it may be.

  9. Hmm – I’m more than a bit alarmed that violence has come back into the bedroom as ‘sex.’ My WTF moment is ‘since WHEN did rape and violence become sex? – that was freaking 1950’s when him raping her and slapping her around was ‘love.’

    (With a PS in there, as I think bondage is violence, just controlled and consensual violence.)

    Great, over 100 years of trying for equal rights for women and the ‘bodice ripper’ rapist is back.

    I’m disgusted.

    • Interesting to note you are assuming that it would be the rape of a female by a male. 🙂 And that the point of the story wouldn’t be the females subsequent empowerment or healing after the act. Or that the author wouldn’t be a woman writing for a woman’s enjoyment. I would think dictating what a woman might choose to read and enjoy would be just as sexist.

      I am not really trying to be argumentative. It’s just a thought I had reading your comment and knowing that the vast majority of Romance fiction is written by women for women. (a point which annoys me in the M/M romance genre, but that is entirely another matter)

      • Please note, I’m over 50, which means that I can remember when ‘she asked for it, she wore a mini-skirt’ was a valid defence in a rape trial.

        My world-view was shaped in the 1960’s before the ‘sexual revolution’ that allowed women to work outside the home.

  10. Is there another genre with these kind of rating/sub-sub-sub genre issues?

    • I think part of the problem is that the romance “genre” is so astonishingly variable. It’s never really been subdivided into tiny pieces like other genres have. Really there are entire sub-genres to romance that are only starting to get any kind of major market attention. They’re trying to apply the same scale to stories that are as different as a hard sci-fi and sweet valley high.

      I vote for content warnings. They’re also a really good way of finding exactly what you want without plot spoilers.

  11. Folks, get yourself a copy of “A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire.” It’s never too late to gain valuable insight, whether you know next to nothing about romance or erotica, or are a professional writer of it, or something in between.

    PG, from what I’ve seen, the crime/mystery writing field is fairly ‘genred,’ too. And what about (non-romance) fantasy and SF?

  12. I’ve read at least one YA book that would qualify for Burning rating.

  13. 1. There is a well known song from Avenue Q, learn from it.
    2. Use the story code system everyone in this sector outside the dead tree publishing uses for at least 2 decades and be done.

    Why doesn’t it surprise me at all that this part of the industry is so uptight? Well, at least I have a good idea why they are walking so ramrod straight…

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