All too often, I’ve encountered people online declaring that erotica must have X or romance must do Y, and I strongly disagree. My approach to genres is to read around to find out what the general consensus seems to be and use that definition. I differentiate reader expectations from definitions as well (sometimes they’re the same thing, sometimes they’re not).
What is Erotica?
Erotica is a work of written fiction created to sexually arouse the reader and/or tell the story of a character’s sexual journey. Erotica has to revolve around sex in some way, whether it’s a simple sexual encounter (e.g., a new secretary gives in to her boss’s advances), a character’s sexual journey (e.g., a couple in a lackluster marriage’s attempts to reignite their spark in the bedroom, or a young woman’s exploration of how to reconcile her feminist beliefs with her desire for sexual submission) or a plot that must be solved with sex (e.g., a prostitute sleeps her way through the French court to unearth a secret plot to assassinate the king).
If a story has a lot of sex and/or has graphic sex scenes but the plot focuses on something else, it’s erotic fiction.
What isn’t (necessarily) erotica?
- Porn: I consider pornography visual and erotica written, but besides those differences, porn is usually devoid of a plot outside of the sex, focused solely on getting the viewer off.
- All sex and no outside plot: As referenced above, erotica can and often does go beyond mere wank fodder. While erotic shorts often feature little plot, many amazing anthologies and collections contain thoughtful, beautifully written erotic shorts that are about more than arousing the reader.
- A well-developed story revolving around sex: On the other extreme of the erotica debate, many erotica authors who write quality stories claim that erotic shorts that are thin on anything but sex aren’t erotica—they’re porn. I disagree with them, if only because their point of view is so overwhelmingly in the minority. It would be lovely to have separate designations for both kinds of sex stories, but for now, they both fall under the erotica umbrella without any neat subgenre designations.
- A sexy story with an HEA or HFN: This is a hill I will die on. Erotica does NOT require a HEA or HFN. That’s a romance requirement. Some publishers equate erotica to erotic romance and demand this type of ending, but unless you’re writing for one of these publishers, you can give your erotica whatever ending you damn well please.
- Extremely graphic or crude: Erotica also doesn’t have to have explicit sex scenes, though most readers will want and expect it.
I’ll say it again: erotica is not romance with hardly any plot and tons of sex scenes. Erotica is its own genre—sometimes poorly written with little to it other than titillation, and sometimes subtle and literary.
What is Romance?
Romance is a type of fiction that tells the story of how two (or more) people fall in love and form a relationship against all odds. Romance concludes in a happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN) ending.
What isn’t (necessarily) romance?
- A love story: This is the single biggest misnomer about romance. All romances are love stories, but not all love stories are romances. Love stories can be non-romantic (the love of family, friends, pets, etc.) and/or have unhappy or more nuanced endings.
- A story that features a romance arc: If the main plot doesn’t revolve around people falling in love and staying in love, it’s not a romance. It’s some other type of fiction with a romantic subplot.
- A steamy story: Love and sex are not the same thing. Plenty of romances don’t have any sex or sexual tension at all, and plenty of steamy stories aren’t about falling in love. Also, I’ll say it again: erotica is not romance.
- A story that ends with two people in a relationship: This is a little subtle, but stories that revolve around obsession, abuse, etc. aren’t romances if the story doesn’t show them in that light. It’s not enough for a couple to simply end up together at the end. Everyone in the relationship needs to be happy about it. One book commonly mistaken for dark romance is My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. But it’s clearly framed as a book about abuse, not love.
Romance is probably the most intricately niched and troped genre in existence, but two things never change about it: the central love story and the HEA/HFN.
What is Erotic Romance?
Erotic romance is a romance with lots of steamy sex. From what I understand of reader expectations, the definition stops there, but I’ve heard the slightly more pedantic stipulation that the sex in erotic romance is the main way the characters develop their relationship.
What isn’t (necessarily) erotic romance?
- Erotica: These two get conflated all the time, but erotic romance has all of the requirements of any other romance genre, meaning that it must be a love story first—not a sex story.
- High on smut, low on plot: Some erotic romances devote a ton of pages to on-page sex. Others don’t devote all that much.
- A fast burn: Just because it’s erotic doesn’t mean the characters have to jump into bed with each other on page 5. Writers can slowly build the sexual tension before letting the fireworks loose. Just be careful to avoid “bangziety” (the anxiety a reader gets when they’re far into a book and there’s still no on-page sex, which makes them wonder if they’ve picked up a “sweet” romance).
Funnily enough, while I wouldn’t say that erotica (particularly literary erotica) requires super explicit sex scenes, I do think it’s so ubiquitous in erotic romance that it’s almost a requirement of the genre.
Why Does It Matter?
Most dark romance readers want erotic romance all day every day and most erotica writers write romance, but I stress being precise about these different genres and subgenres because not everyone likes all of these things interchangeably. And sometimes readers are in the mood for something in particular.
I don’t much like romance, but I love erotica, and I’m so sick of searching for erotica, only to find rows upon rows of romance books. Likewise, many erotic romance readers expect that HEA or HFN, and if they don’t get it, they’re disappointed, which can be bad for both the reader and the writer.
I also just wanted to write this article to outline how I define these terms so readers can find what they’re after among my work.