Sexy, steamy, or downright raunchy — how do you rate THOSE scenes?

Has this happened to you?

You’re reading a pleasantly romantic book, eagerly turning pages, enjoying the building chemistry… and WHAM! Suddenly, you feel like you’re either in (a) an anatomy classroom or (b) the gynecologist’s office? So many body parts. So much fluid (ick). So many, many, many specifics.

Now, granted, tastes vary GREATLY by reader. The moaning and slipperiness that send me running for the hills are absolutely what other readers look for in their romance fiction. All tastes are valid! I’m body-positive, I swear!!

I just prefer my reading to leave certain things more to the imagination, ya know?

When I write reviews of romance fiction, I’ve struggled to find a clear way to let readers know what to expect. And that’s key for me actually — just tell me what to expect!! If I know a certain book has sex scenes that are way more graphic than I prefer, then I can decide for myself ahead of time if I want to read it. (And sometimes I will anyway, because the story or characters interest me enough to give it a try — but at least that way, I’m going into it fully aware of what I’m reading).

I did a bit of Googling, and haven’t found too many consistent approaches. Some of what I’ve found:

Open door/closed door: Pretty much what it sounds like. The door in question is the bedroom door, of course! Open door means the scene will show everything — the metaphorical door is wide open and we’re welcome to watch it all, in technicolor details. Closed door, on the other hand, means we may see some build-up, but once the action really kicks in, we’re left to imagine for ourselves what’s happening on the other side of the door.

Clean: When people talk about clean books, sometimes they’re talking about sex (i.e., nothing more than mild kissing at most), and sometimes the implication goes beyond that, to include everything from swearing to smoking to drinking. My spidey-senses tell me that readers looking for “clean” books often have a more religious standard in mind than I’m comfortable with, so this isn’t a descriptor I’d ever use on my own.

Movie ratings: I’ve seen some book reviews that use the MPAA rating systems as a guideline — G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17. In some ways, that’s fairly clear and easy to understand… but as a tool for distinguishing between different ways sex is portrayed in fiction, I’m not sure it’s all that helpful. X-rated or NC-17 makes it sound like porn, which isn’t what I’m talking about.

A few other variations I’ve come across:

All About Romance’s sensuality rating system — ranging from N/A to Burning.

Book Cave’s rating system — All Ages, Mild, Mild+, Moderate, Moderate+, Adult, and Adult+. (Interesting, but their system factors in alcohol, violence, profanity, and horror, as well as sexual content, and that’s well beyond the scope of what I care about)

Here’s a raunch rating scale I found on Reddit, which seems pretty practical.

I’m still unsure.

But… I’m thinking something along these lines:

Sweet: Kissing, cuddling, clothes on. Think Hallmark movie dating scene — cute, innocent, lightly flirty.

Suggestive: The flirtation becomes more physical — make-out scenes, caresses, breathlessness, mostly clothed action, driving each other crazy. Getting hot, but not seriously heavy.

Steamy: Bedroom scenes, but from a more zoomed out perspective. We know enough to know what’s going on — actions, positions, interactions, clothing removal — but no camera lens up close and personal.

Graphic: The aforementioned anatomy class / gynecologist’s office scenario. Everything is shown. Lots of fluids, lots of sounds, lots of swollen… well, everything.

What do you think? What am I missing? Would have a ratings scale for these type of scenes be helpful to you as a reader?

As I’ve said, I’m not a prude, I think sex is a good and positive thing when it’s between enthusiastically consenting people, and I believe strongly that people should read whatever appeals to them. I fervently oppose censorship! And I think “smutty” books and erotica are perfectly valid forms of expression, and I support people’s right to read whatever appeals to them.

And yet… I know my own tastes when it comes to what I do and do not want to read — and at this stage in my life, I’d rather know ahead of time that that cute-looking romance I was about to pick up is actually on the graphic end of the scale, thank you very much.

Do you have a scale you use or have come across to describe this kind of content? Do you see a value in it?

I’d love to hear other opinions on this!!

22 thoughts on “Sexy, steamy, or downright raunchy — how do you rate THOSE scenes?

  1. I’m definitely with you on not wanting too much graphic detail of what goes on the bedroom (or sofa or whereever). I tend not to read books where the reviews mention that it’s ‘steamy’ but sometimes books just take you by surprise. I get round it the same way that I do when the violence in crime novels is too graphic and just skim over it quickly. A scale would definitely be useful.

  2. Great discussion! I always include open/closed door terminology in my reviews when needed. I might also reference the steam factor. Because I think readers want to know one way or the other. I also mention excessive profanity and graphic violence. These are all things I want to know before making my reading decisions!

  3. I don’t want a lot of sex in the books I read. I want plot and character development not 50 pages of them getting hot and heavy. I find too many “romance” novels are more like porn on paper with a bit of a story line. A rating system would be really helpful for me to know whether or not to give a book a chance or to steer clear!

  4. I’m so glad I’m not the only one that goes “ick” sometimes. In “Outlander” I almost wrecked the car (sorry Orkin man) when a really, really gross sex scene came on in my morning commute). If I know the book is raunchy then I decide if its worth it. I don’t like stuff sneaked in just to “titivate” because for me it often leads to throwing the book away–DNF. I especially do not like things that are modern put into historical fiction. Sure, people had sex before marriage back then, too, but stay within the moral code of the time, place & class in which you are writing. Don’t “modernize” it to “appeal” to today’s readers. I am not the only one who doesn’t like “today’s” version. GREAT POST. I’m tweeting it!

    • Haha, your near car-wreck sounds all too familiar! The Outlander scenes are an exception for me, maybe just because I’m so invested in the series that I can accept whatever gets included… but I distinctly remember listening to one of the audiobooks in the series on the way to pick up my kid at school, and a particularly graphic scene was playing… and it was such a weird moment for me! (And yes, I turned off the audiobook well before the kiddo got in the car 🙂 )

      A recent audiobook I was otherwise enjoying suddenly took a turn into a super graphic sex scene that seemed to go on forever — I kept fast-forwarding, and yet they were still at it! Ugh.

  5. I have no helpful answers, unfortunately. Even in the “graphic” section there’s a lot of variety. For example, I’ve read books where there’s one graphic scene and also books where there are multiple.

    Just the effort to describe steam I think, goes a long way in flagging to readers what to expect. Even if a descriptor like “steamy” isn’t super helpful, at least someone knows that there will be steam ahead.

    I won’t DNF a book because it’s sweet but I find myself gravitating to graphic or above nowadays. I find sweet reads risky because they sometimes (but not always) overlap with more religious books which is not to my taste at all.

  6. I do NOT care for too much sex in the books I read. I don’t mind some intimacy, but I know what happens between the sheets, you don’t need to describe it for me. Many years ago, in Hollywood movies, when a couple was supposed to be having sex, you’d see the couple kissing with passion, and then the camera would cut out to something like waves crashing against a jagged shore, or panning out to a thunder and lightening storm outside. Give me the waves and the lightening!

  7. There was a time (years ago!) I sought out sexy books but lordy that time has passed, lol. I’m in the “fade to black” category, and I’d rather let my imagination fill in the blanks. I do like the way you broke it down!

  8. I agree, everyone has different preferences when it comes to this, so it does help to mention how graphic it gets. I think the system you came up with is a good one and the 4 categories is all you need.

  9. I have read a few narratives were my eyes burned more than i would like, but that was more for language than graphic level and to see what the writing world was expressing! i like layering it in classical text reference, intellectual level requiring to be higher than any age definition, you understand it or you don’t!

    • It’s really very personal, what sets one person off vs not bothering them at all. Language doesn’t bother me (vulgarities/swearing/etc) if it’s done creatively and helps convey character — but I don’t particularly like it when it’s crude just for the sake of being crude.

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