Romance novels don’t have the greatest reputation. Most people have an idea of what a romance novel is that’s definitely outdated.
Let’s see. Here’s an example of the type of romance most people think of. It’s about a heroine who just wants duke to whisk her off her feet and take her away from her family’s dairy farm. Once they finally kiss and he whisks her away, she’ll take care of his babies and cook him meals until her dying day. How romantic!
And a lot of people still think of a shirtless, long-haired Fabio on the cover, even though he hasn’t been on these covers since the 90s. (He was on 466 though, so we understand how you got there.)
Plus, the sex in this hypothetical book is either boring or nonexistent. There’s lots of throbbing members and tongues wrestling for dominance, but very little actually sexy stuff.
Romance novels aren’t anything like this anymore. They’re fun, sexy, and actually really feminist. They’re almost entirely written by women, and they’re a breath of fresh air and a rectangle full of sunshine, which is great with everything happening in the world nowadays.
You should give romance novels a chance. You might just be surprised by what you find in them.
More people read romance than you’d think. There are at least 29 million dedicated romance readers in the U.S. alone, and the number of people who read the occasional romance novel is even greater.
Romance novels make publishers a ton of money. The market is worth $1.44 billion dollars a year. That includes indie and self-published novels as well. This number means that romance and erotica are the biggest sellers of any other literary genre!
The pervasiveness definitely means that it’s not just sad divorcees who are reading these things. The audience does skew 82% female, and the average age of a romance reader is 35-39 years old, but there are people of all ages, genders, races, and sexualities reading romance.
So it’s good to know what we’re talking about when we say “romance novel.”
A romance novel is not just a book with a love story in it. It may surprise you, but most fans of the romance genre don’t feel like Nicholas Sparks’s books like The Notebook and Dear John are actually romance novels, even though those books (or more likely their movie versions) are what the general public considers the pinnacle of romance.
In order for a book to truly be a romance novel, it needs to fit two criteria.
First, it needs to be a story where love is centered. The couple coming together needs to be the main focus of the book, even if there’s a murderer on the loose or a party to plan. The love story has to be the most important thing in the book.
Second, it needs to end happily, with the main couple together. Romance readers call this an HEA, or a happily ever after. (It’s possible to have an HFN, or a happy for now ending, but a lot of people don’t think this is enough. HEA reigns supreme.)
In order to qualify as an HEA, a book needs more than just a kiss and a potential date at the end. Readers want an assurance that the couple will be together forever. Traditionally, this is a wedding, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be moving in together, having a baby, adopting a dog, or agreeing to open the macaroon bakery they’ve always dreamed of. Whatever it ends up being, it should be permanent.
By this definition, most “romance” narratives aren’t actually romances. Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t have a HEA at the end of each book; romance readers don’t like cliffhangers. Me Before You definitely isn’t a romance, since (spoiler) the dude dies. The Fault in Our Stars isn’t a romance, because again (spoiler) the guy dies at the end.
Part of the reason for reading romance is that you know that the main characters aren’t going to die or move away or decide that they need to focus on their career. You know that they’ll end up together in the end. You just don’t know how.
If you’re not super sold on the whole romance thing, there are a bunch of reasons that you should try out romance novels. Here’s a non-exhaustive list.
Most fiction genres are predominantly male. In 2010, fantasy and sci-fi were dominated by men; 79% of works in the genre were written by guys. Spy novels, adventure, and suspense skew male, too.
Sometimes it feels like most media is created by men, from movies to tv to books. Romance is a way to escape this trend and read a female perspective. It might honestly be the form of media that’s least populated by straight men like ever.
You might think, “But it’s not feminist to reduce women to a love story!” But romance novels can definitely be feminist and empowering.
Women in romance novels aren’t helpless anymore. Many have prestigious careers, live complex inner lives, and don’t take any shit.
Romance novels aren’t just about the love story. During these books, you often see the heroine learning about herself, discovering her independence, healing from a bad relationship, or figuring out how to be vulnerable. They’ll find love, sure, but they’ll find themselves in the process.
Here’s one way that romance novels are unique: you can find a narrative featuring just about any kind of pairing you want. There’s diversity on the romance scene that definitely trumps other genres.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang features a heroine with Asperger’s. You can find tons of romance novels with trans protagonists. You can even read a story about two black queer women who fall in love. (One of them is a butch woman who is an advisor to a prince, just FYI.) It’s not easy to find books with representation like that anywhere else.
But it’s important to note that the romance community needs to go further to make the genre inclusive. Most major romance presses only publish a small number of books featuring people of color as half of the main couple. Some presses had no PoC heroes or heroines at all last year. This is something that has been brought to light in recent years, and that hopefully, publishers are addressing.
So much of our culture is based on prestige narratives and heavy themes. We see serious art as higher quality than art that’s fun and actually like, enjoyable.
The world is kind of a disaster right now. Plus, we all go through difficult points in our lives when we get broken up with, lose a job, or struggle with a mental illness. Who wants to read sad stories during times of strife?
Romance novels are an epiphany. They’re compelling, but they aren’t depressing. They talk about important themes, but not in a way that’s boring. They show people dating, but you don’t have to see them break up and cheat on each other over and over again like you do in a reality show or teen drama.
These books are an antidote to the current political climate in the United States and worldwide. They allow you to curl up with a cup of coffee and get lost in a warm, soft, happy story. Opportunities like that are rare.
Let’s turn up the heat
You can definitely find sex in a lot of romance novels. After Fifty Shades was published, people have assumed they’re all super freaky. But contrary to popular belief, they’re not all smutfests.
Romance novels have different amounts of sex based on what their audience wants. This is called their heat level.
On one end, you’d have Amish romance, where the climax is probably a chaste kiss at the absolute most. On the other, you have a romance book where they do it all over the place. The couple has sex multiple times, multiple ways, and the author isn’t afraid to show it, usually using much more explicit language than the Amish book.
There’s a lot of range between the two poles. Some books imply that the couple has sex, but they fade to black once they enter the bedroom. Some books show sex, but they only use euphemisms for genitalia. This is where you read some creative phrases, like calling a penis a “spear” or just “maleness,” or calling the vagina a “sheath” or “the door to her femininity.” Thanks, but no thanks.
There’s no consensus on the different heat levels, exactly. Romance readers (also called Romancelandia) haven’t come up with a universal system.
Here’s our proposed heat level scale:
Erotic romance and erotica sound very similar, but they’re actually different things.
Reading erotica is sort of the equivalent of watching a five minute video on PornHub. There’s great sex, but there’s not a lot of plot. In erotica, the sex is the most important part, and the story is there mostly to make more sex happen. Erotica also doesn’t have to end with the couple being happy together forever. Usually, it’s not gonna have a sad ending, but it could just be that the two (or more!) leads part, having had really awesome sex. If that’s your jam, that’s great!
But erotic romance is different, mainly because it’s still a romance. The couple is going to fuck like rabbits, but they’re still going to fall in everlasting love. That’s just not negotiable with a romance. With novels at this heat level, you can get turned on while also getting the endorphins from the happy lovey dovey stuff. It’s basically a win win.
So unlike with erotica, there are feelings involved, at least by the end. Sex is a tool to bring the couple closer in an erotic romance novel, while in erotica, you’d only bring the couple closer together to make the sex hotter.
Since there’s no consensus on heat levels, you won’t find a universal system on books, either online or in a bookstore. You’ll see buzzwords like “steamy” and “spicy” on self-published books, but the writer’s definition might be different from yours. Traditionally published books generally don’t label their heat level at all.
The main way to figure out how much sex is in a book is to read online reviews. Goodreads is a great place to do this. You can probably Ctrl + F the word “heat level” and see what bloggers have decided to rate any given book.
Checking the heat level is a good idea, because it’s disappointing to buy or borrow a romance that has less sex than you were hoping for. If the characters experimenting with anal beads or knife play is important to you, do some research before you buy.
One hotly debated aspect of sex in romance novels is whether authors are obligated to write “safe sex.” Usually, this means condoms for vaginal or anal sex.
Some say that romance novels are meant to be a fantasy...and condoms aren’t in most people’s fantasies. If people can read a book about a serial killer and not kill anyone, why can’t they read a book with unsafe sex and still have safe sex?
Romance and erotica writers don’t like being put in a box. They’re writing books, not doing sex ed presentations. A lot of authors think that bringing out the condom is clunky, and they don’t think it’s sexy.
But another perspective is that exploring condom use in a romance novel and making it sexy might encourage readers to use them. There was an experiment done that found that safe sex elements in romance increased positive attitudes towards condoms. In addition, subjects said that sex scenes where condoms are used made them marginally more likely to use condoms themselves in the future.
The CDC has found that high school sex education courses require only 6.2 hours of instruction time on human sexuality and four hours or less on STIs, HIV, and pregnancy prevention. Plus, sex ed isn’t required by the federal government at all, so many people don’t actually get to experience the awkward day where the teacher puts the condom on a banana. This means that there are a lot of people in the United States that know very little about how to practice safe sex.
In an informal poll, 68% of romance readers said they actively look for condom use and are disappointed when one is not used. Many comments say that they think that the protagonists are being foolish if they don’t engage in safe sex, especially with a casual hookup or with a new partner for the first time. This is especially true in cishetero relationships, where pregnancy is a real possibility.
Most romance novels that come out nowadays include condom use. A study of romance novels that came out between 2000 and 2009 found that 58% of these books included condoms, and it’s very likely that that percentage has gone up in the past decade.
Just like in real life, a condom doesn’t necessarily need to be used during every sexual encounter in a romance novel. If the characters go to get tested together and any pregnancy risk is taken care of, an author cutting out condoms makes perfect sense.
Romance novelists shouldn’t be required to include condoms. However, it seems like mentioning safe sex options like STI tests, birth control methods, and condoms is a great way to help people learn more about sex in a fun way.
How reading romance novels can enhance your sex life
Romance is one hell of a drug. Romance novels can improve your relationship, change up your sex life, and just make you feel happy about the world.
Here are a few ways romance can make you feel the warm tinglies (in your brain and down there).
It turns out that when you’ve got love and sex on the brain, you’re more likely to get it on.
One study found that women who read romance or erotic novels have 74% more sex with their partners than those who don’t. And another one says that 75% of women reported that reading romance novels impacted their sex lives in positive ways. One of those ways is obviously boning more often, but it also means that some of these women feel they’re having even better sex!
Romance novels can teach you new tricks for the bedroom. This could be as simple as a new position, but it could be as much as a newfound kink.
A lot of explicit romance books cover more than one kink. This keeps the readers interested and showcases all the writer has to offer. If you picked up a book about bondage, you might be surprised to find a breath play scene. And you might be even more surprised to find that your panties get wet reading it.
Then, you can take your fantasies into the real world. If you’re creative, you don’t just have to read about these kinks. You can take what you’ve learned from the book, do a little Googling (and read our blog), then go off to the races.
Heroines in most romance novels have stopped taking shit. They’re not willing to lay down missionary style or sit around waiting to be rescued. Women can take charge now. It’s 2019.
If you have trouble taking sexual agency in the bedroom, reading books about them can help you learn to rise up and be fierce. Tie him up for a change. Get on top. Ask yourself: WWYFRHD (What Would Your Favorite Romance Heroine Do)?
At the end of the day, romance is a fun fantasy. You can read about a duke and a peasant girl who fall in love during the 19th century. There are books about werewolves who mate for life. You can find romance novels about Olympic athletes, boy band members, or veterinarians.
Many of these characters will lead different lives than you, and this breeds amazing roleplay scenarios. Why do a schoolgirl and teacher roleplay again when you can be a baker and the man who wants to shut down her business? Or maybe a girl who’s selling her panties and her bad boy client? What about a ghost and a professional ghost hunter?
The hotter a scenario gets you, the hotter it will get you in bed with your partner. Don’t let yourself feel silly. There’s probably other readers out in the world doing the exact same thing.
So now you’re ready to try out romance books...but you don’t know where to start. There are so many romance novels released every year, it can be hard to sift through them. Luckily, we’re here to help. We tried to cater to lots of different tastes, so you should be able to find a little bit of everything on this list.
So what are you waiting for? Read like your sex life depends on it!
The pen is mightier than the sword...