Clean, Dirty, Sexy, Spicy: A Guide to Romance Heat Levels


Is there anything as assuming a story is going to be a smutty romp, only to find sex scenes are totally absent? Or what about when you choose what seems like a cute story, only to find it’s five-alarm spice?

There’s nothing wrong with either of these stories. As a reader, though, you feel a bit betrayed by your expectations. Trying to figure out romance heat levels can be tricky—which makes it difficult to know what you’re getting.

There are a few different ways of describing heat levels in romance. We’ll explore each of them—and why some of them are more problematic than others.

Taste Testing Romance Heat Levels: Sweet vs. Spicy

A close-up of a chocolate cupcake with white icing and rainbow sprinkles on top.
Delicious! (Skyler Ewing / Pexels.com)

One of the more common ways to describe romance novels is using a taste description, such as “sweet.”

Sweet romance does not include sex scenes. The focus here is on the meet-cute and feel-good scenes between the main couple.

By contrast, some authors will describe their work as “spicy.” Much like you can find different spice “levels” on salsa jars at the grocery store, “spicy” romances have different levels. A mildly spicy story might have one fade-to-black scene. A medium one would stop short of explicit sex scenes. Five-alarm spice is the next thing to erotica.

The sweet-versus-spicy rating system works for a few reasons. One is that “spicy” has different levels, which can tell us what to expect in any given book. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to discern where the line is between, say, mild and medium spicy. Switch to another brand of salsa (or author) and you might find the “medium” isn’t spicy enough!

The other issue is that “sweet” has more positive connotations. This creates a sort of value system within the sweet-spicy dichotomy.

Clean Romance Implies the Existence of Dirty Romance

Next, we come to what is probably the most reviled method of talking about romance heat levels: clean romance.

An over the shoulder shot of a woman reading in a luxurious bath featuring flowers. The word "clean" is sometimes used to describe romances that don't feature sex scenes.
No, putting your books in the bath doesn’t make them clean.(Monstera / Pexels.com)

Most of the time, you only hear about books labeled “clean.” This means there isn’t any sex in them. Occasionally, sex might be hinted at, but it definitely happens off-page and the characters aren’t talking much about it.

What’s the problem with this designation? Well, the existence of a “clean” romance implies that there is also “dirty” romance.

“Dirty” romance would include sex and sexual content, obviously. And this makes sense. After all, English speakers often use euphemisms such as “dirty talk” or refer to sexual acts as “filthy.”

The problem, though, is that it plays into moral stances about sex. It’s intimately connected with purity culture for that reason.

In Christian thought, for example, sex is a sinful act that we should all be ashamed of. Thus, we arrive at “sexy stories” being dirty or sinful, while those without sex are “wholesome” and “clean.”

There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about sex. In fact, it’s quite natural, and the intense shame around it causes plenty of people plenty of problems. While it’s perfectly fine to prefer things without sex—as some ace individuals do—there’s no need to pass moral judgment on stories that include sex.

Steamy Romance

“Steamy” romance is another romance heat level system, which has been gaining some more traction recently. Unlike the “clean” romance designation, it lacks moral implications.

Unlike the sweet-spicy axis, though, “steamy” doesn’t necessarily have a spectrum. We can say a story is more or less steamy, or it contains more or less steam.

We could assume that the opposite of a “steamy” story is one that’s frigid or cold, which might imply a bit of a moral stance. Can you imagine calling an ace romance, sans sex, a “frigid” romance? That makes steamy, in some ways, about as bad as the clean/dirty paradigm.

The other issue with the “steam” system is that it’s hard to quantify. Since there aren’t clear gradations, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much “steam” a story has. Again, we can say it’s more or less “steamy.” We heave to depend on authors, publishers, or even other readers to judge exactly how steamy a story is.

This becomes a problem, because everyone has a sort of different idea of what’s “steamy” and what’s not. Someone who prefers reading stories with little to no sexual content might find a story with a fade-to-black sex scene “very steamy.” Another reader, who is used to stories with graphic sex scenes, might find a fade-to-black story just a little bit steamy.

The level of “steaminess” thus becomes a slippery beast. What counts as “steamy”? What counts as “very steamy”? Where are the lines?

With so much ambiguity here, it can be difficult for readers to find stories with the heat level they like. For that reason, we can think about combining “steam” with another romance heat level system: the number system.

The Number System for Romance Heat Levels

The number system works with both “steamy” and “spicy” gradations. It can also work on its own as a romance heat level indicator for stories.

Authors and publishers who adopt this system usually rate their books on a scale of 1 to 5.

If a book contains no sexual content at all, it might even be rated a zero. The publisher or author might not indicate the heat level.

Books rated 1 and 2 generally have little to no sexual content. These might be referred to as “closed-door” sex scenes, where it’s implied the characters are having off-page sex. A book rated 3 will have at least some sexual content, and it may include fade-to-black scenes. A book rated 3 may also have one graphic, open-door sex scene.

Books rated 4 to 5 will include multiple graphic, open-door sex scenes. Books rated 5 usually have more sexual content. They’re the closest you can get to erotica in the romance genre.

How Does the Number System Work with Other Romance Heat Levels?

Two red chili peppers, facing opposite directions, rest on a white background. The pepper emoji is sometimes used to indicate romance heat levels.
This picture is only mildly spicy! (Karolina Grabowska / Pexels.com)

You can introduce the number romance heat level system to the “steam” system or the spice system. For example, a book rated 5 on the number scale might “5-alarm spice.” A book rated 3 or 4 would be “medium spicy,” while a book rated 1 or 2 would be “mild.” A zero would be “sweet.”

The number system can thus work with the “spice” system—and it can work with the spice system simply by including the pepper emoji. Four peppers, you have a level-4 “spicy” book.

Number indicators can also help sort out the inherent weakness with the “steam” system. If we combine the idea of “steam” with the numbering system, then we can get “levels” of steam.

Using the Movie Rating System

There are other solutions, although most romance readers, authors, and publishers are familiar with romance heat levels. In some ways, talking about heat levels is easier to understand than other systems.

One other system that’s familiar to many readers is the motion picture rating system: G, PG, PG-13, and so on.

This is roughly analogous to the 0-5 number scale, as well as the “sweet-spicy” axis. A good example is G being “sweet” or 0. We wouldn’t expect to see any sexual content in this kind of story.

A PG story might be a 1 or 2 on the romance heat level scale, while a 3 corresponds with PG-13. R-rated films can contain more sexual content, which might make them similar to a level 4. NC-17 or X-rated films are explicit, roughly in line with the expectations of our “5-alarm spicy” book.

In fanfic, FF.net makes use of the movie rating system, while AO3 uses something similar to the video game rating system: G for general audiences, T for Teen, M for Mature. The major difference is the addition of “E” for explicit (while video games use “E for everyone”).

The Old Citrus Rating System

Another way of categorizing sexually explicit content in written works hails from fandom circles: the citrus scale.

The citrus scale was a coded way of talking about sexual content. “Lemons” were stories that included explicit sex scenes, while “limes” included heavy sexual content and scenarios. Characters might be making out or they might be having “fade-to-black” sex.

An iPad rests atop a bin of yellow lemons, some with green leaves and stems attached. The "citrus system" was sometimes used to describe heat levels in fanfic.
You know what they say, when life gives you lemons … write smut! (Sotiris Gkolias / Pexels.com)

Other designations, like grapefruit and orange, were less common. As a result, their meanings were less fixed. “Citrusy” or “citrus-flavored” was a way of indicating that a fic wasn’t perfectly “sweet” or without sexual content.

The citrus rating system was difficult to use. Lemon and lime were the only clearly defined terms, and the lines between them were often hazy—much like the “steam” system. With the advent of AO3 and its archiving free of threats of being TOS’d, the need to talk in code diminished. The citrus scale largely fell out of use.

The citrus scale never made its way to mainstream romance publishing, just as romance novels never adopted the movie rating system or the video game rating system. That marks another major difference between fandom and romance publishing.

Which Romance Heat Level System Is Best?

If I had to choose what system to use, I’d say the sweet-spicy axis or the number system are the best entries. They include five or six different designations, and each is relatively clearly defined.

Better yet, neither of them include the same moral implications as the “clean/dirty” designation. If you like sweet romances, that’s great. And if you like ‘em spicy? That’s great too. It’s very “different strokes,” unlike the “clean” designation.

The romance heat levels numbering scale also works well. Again, it has quite a few different designations. That makes it easier for readers to tell exactly what kind of content they’re getting.

And, after all, isn’t that the point of any rating system? To help the reader decide what they want? We can argue about helping parents determine “appropriateness” or what have you, but at the end of the day, rating systems, much like content warnings, are designed to help us engage with the media we want to engage with. Systems that are more informative and offer more granular information are always going to be the “superior” choice.

About the author

By Cherry

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