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Saintly, Sweet, Sensual, & Smutty: a treatise on the four types of romance novels & how to navigate them as a Christian

by Kellyn Roth |
March 29, 2023

My dear reader, today I am undertaking a task few would approach and fewer still would do with any professionalism. I am fortunate to not be one of those few in the final category. Though my idiocy has driven me to undertake this post, I cannot promise it will be entertaining or insightful in any real way.

That said, I will be attempting to do what the title hints at. I will be categorizing all romance into four categories from a purely level-of-sexual-content perspective, discussing the contents of those types of romance, and further exploring what Christians should and should not be doing.

This post is written for Christians, specifically those who are interested in reading clean romance or in general do not choose to read sexual scenes for moral reasons. To any non-Christian reader, this post is rather a silly one and will not benefit you in any way, shape, or form, so … just know that it’s useless to you if you don’t fall into that category.

As for those of you who are the intended audience of this post, you may find yourself asking a question. A question that I am going to create a header for below and answer.

Warning for Sensitive Readers

In this post, I will be pretty frank in the “smutty” section and throughout the post in general. Because this is a post specifically discussing the levels of sexual content in romances, you can guess that some of these discussions were have to do with sex! Read with caution.

What’s the point of this post?

When it comes to reading romance novels which by definition MUST BE sexual in nature, you have personal convictions about how much sexual content they will accept in the novels they read (and write, for us authors).

That said, even non-romance novels often contain a bit of “sexual content” (though they don’t have to, and in some subgenres, as we’ll discuss later, shouldn’t) due to the fact that sex is a part of life. In fact, like it or not, sex is how God in His Wisdom decided to start human life after the event of Adam and Eve. So from the very time that Eve was created (probably about five minutes later, once God left them alone for the night or whatever the situation was), sex has existed in this world, and it comes up from time to time. It’s a fact of life. It’s THE fact of life.

So sex exists in fictional novels, rather outright stated or behind-the-scenes. Therefore, we must decide how we relate to it as adults and as readers of the romance genre or of books that contain romantic subplots.

So the point of this post is to break down how I personally view romantic novels and their varying degrees of sexual content, share my thoughts on how Christians should interact with said novels, and admit to a simple fact: I think de-sexualizing romance and romantic relationships does all Christians a big disservice.

Let’s move on now to the next portion of the post in which we will define several key terms.

Defining Terms

  • Romance

A romance novel can be loosely defined as a work of fiction that tracks the relational growth between a couple, usually from the beginning of their relationship or a point at which the relationship changes, and continues on until a satisfying conclusion is met in their relationship.

The type of relationship? The type that would lead to love and marriage, of course! From a Christian perspective, as we will discuss below in further detail, this is a man and a woman actively pursuing a relationship with each other.

I will also include this post as I often do: Romance is a Relationship, Not A Genre (I am getting way too much content out of this, Grace).

  • Christian people/Christians

I felt a need to define this because honestly, some people get this label without actually, you know, doing any Christian things, and that’s iffy. So here’s the Christian things:

  1. Believes that God loved the world and therefore gave His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us on the cross and therefore save us from eternal separation from God. Has confessed with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord and believed in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead.
  2. Believes that the Bible is the one, true Word of God.
  3. Believes that things that Bible says are sins are sins and that though we will never hit close to the mark, we should try to avoid things that either tempt us to sin or are inherently sinful to the best of our abilities … not because we can gain anything from it (despite the fact that it’s best for us in the long run) but because we love God and want to serve and obey Him.

Everything else? Well, for the purpose of this post, we can ignore that. (Not in general, but for the purpose of this post!)

  • Christian romance

Christian romance can be defined by the following:

  1. Written by a Christian (^)
  2. Written to show a Biblical/Godly perspective of a romantic relationship & glorify God throughout
  3. Written for Christian audiences

What types of romance are we addressing?

Because maybe now you’re thinking that we’re just talking about Christian romances.

Well, actually, no, because there is not a Christian romance that is smutty to the best of my knowledge using the perimeters below.

So … yeah, I guess? In some ways we’re mostly talking about Christian romance?

But to be honest, Christian romance doesn’t fall over all the categories, so yes, we are also addressing secular romances. Because even if the standards for a secular romance writer are different, the standards for a Christian reader are not.

Moving on.

A Basic Guide to the Four Categories

A HUGE NOTE FIRST: I made this up. It’s all my own definition. This is not peer-reviewed. It’s just me taking a leap and defining terms as best as I can after examining the romance genre since I started reading (pretty much) and seeing a pattern or two repeat. I read a lot of romance, and I’ve read pretty widely across different genres before settling in to my favorite. That’s my “source.” Please don’t take this as academic or think that I’m claiming it is so.

That said, there are some discussions in the final two categories that are based on scientific research combined with my personal experiences.

Also, I named these based entirely on alliteration even when I could’ve chosen better names. Forgive me.

Category One: Saintly

Saintly romance, to me, is romance written by Christian fiction with the express purpose of removing all sexuality from romance.

And it’s fine, for a certain audience (especially middle grade and verrrryyy-young young adult readers). It’s fine as a subplot. It’s fine in general, actually, if we’re honest. It’s not sinful or wrong (though some people may sin because of it; however, that’s a different topic and is hardly the fault of the author in this case). But it is a category that I find hard to get behind despite having no real objections to its existence (and despite, in fact, some of my books falling under this category, arguably speaking).

To be honest, I just don’t enjoy it when the focus on the story is the cleanliness over just telling a good story. I find romances without a little chemistry a little dull, and I think the world has so many tough topics in it that not discussing some of them in an adult novel is … well, lacking in depth.

That said, there are reasons to write these romances, and good ways to write these romances that are enjoyable and interesting, and I know most of my friends and readers do. And I think that’s good. We should all follow our convictions. Many of the best novels in the world fall under this category. A lot of classic novels would fit under the definition purely because of the standards for fiction of the era.

However, those classic novels do not do what a select few Saintly writers attempt to do – they do not stray away from tough topics. They do not attempt to write a Hallmark movie script with a few prayers tossed in or one of those irritating Pureflix movies. And occasionally, Saintly fiction can have a tendency to do this.

Classic novelists are honest, straightforward, and strong in their writing. The best of them tell it like it is, and that’s why they stick with us.

So as I said, nothing about Saintly romances is bad in any way, shape, or form. The issue becomes, of course, when our convictions are forced upon others. Which, as with many things in this article, I will discuss later.

As I mentioned before, what Saintly romance arguably tries to do is keep all elements of sexuality under wraps, from the simplest peck on the cheek to references to past sins to discussions that should probably be had with anyone over the age of 10.

What I also dislike about this genre is often things that are NOT sexual become included under this category. Breastfeeding, for instance. And pregnancy. And menstrual cycles.

Plus, we all know where babies have come from. It should be understood that anyone over the age of five or six knows at least the basics of where babies come from. I’m always surprised when any kid over the age of three or four doesn’t get it, but I’m just a farm kid, so what do I know? (I am 100% dragging my future kids to a farm so they can watch animals mate, be born, and die, like God intended.)

And I get the perspective. “That’s all private stuff! It should only happen in private!” Well, some of it, yeah, but I’ve seen my parents kiss (and I daresay even random people in a grocery store), I’ve had conversations in real life about these topics, and of course I see a pregnant woman from time to time. I’ll even go as far as to say I’ve discussed pregnancy with pregnant women (*gasp*). And there is nothing about many elements of my personal relationship that I would not hesitate to tell a friend or for educational purposes. Why shouldn’t our novels do the same?

Yet some people are more private in nature, or have different convictions about what they will and will not discuss publicly. Therefore, this category continues to be, as I mentioned before, legitimate.

Because Saintly is so much an ideology rather than a set of rules, it can be hard to define the difference between this and Sweet. People have tried. It’s just … never quite sat right with me because there are definitely Saintly authors who cover a wide variety of topics in a wide variety of ways.

However, I will try. Here are some common cliches when it comes to “Saintly romance”:

  • None of the main characters’ interactions are sexual in any way. No kissing, very little hugging, at most holding hands, and no references to any kind of sexual or physical contact between them. Also, no references toward longing for the same.
  • The main characters show little or no physical attraction for each other. No noticing curves or strong muscles or nice smells. An occasional “she’s pretty” (or slightly more descriptive, at times) may be allowed, but it ought not to be the main focus.
  • The couple is rarely or never alone and it is commented on that this is a conscious choice. Oftentimes these romances will set up a “courtship” structure to share the author’s views about how romantic relationships should be conducted. It goes without saying that there will be no “only one bed” trope.
  • No references to sexual sins. The hero and heroine usually don’t have a “past” or any type, and if minor characters do … well, if there are references, they are done in a way that honestly makes it difficult for the reader to discern what actually happened. In fact, the word “sex” is almost never used (and is often starred out in reviews on sites that don’t have any kind of algorithm to trick???).
  • No references to things like pregnancy, birth, menstrual cycles, birth control, “nakedness” (it’s a book? Without describing it, how do you count …?), etc. If there are references made, they are made in a pseudo-Victorian way that is honestly somewhat amusing to me.

Further, when I think of Saintly romance authors and readers, here’s what comes to mind:

  • A great portion of their platform is dedicated to speaking out against books that aren’t clean and sharing books that aren’t clean.
  • Their reviews are very harsh toward books with any negative content. It takes an incredibly clean book to please them.
  • Usually they’re pretty great at explaining the logic behind their decisions … but not always. That said, because it is a counter-worldly stand to make, they’re probably had to deal with explaining the “why” to people a lot!

Some Potential Downfalls of This Genre Are:

  • Romance, sex, and marriage are inherently linked, so dismissing sex completely from your story can be a mistake, especially if you’re trying to write a God-honoring relationship, which MUST include a healthy dose of sex.
  • There’s a risk of creating a sense of shame and even repression in your readers toward sex. This can only happen if they are a “weaker member,” per se, but the risk does exist.
  • You’ll need to remember that even if you’re writing super clean, you still have to go into the humanity of your characters while crafting their arcs. It doesn’t have to be sexual, but it does have to exist.
  • You will need to make extra sure there’s more to your book than it just being “clean.” And more to your platform. And more to YOU as a person and as a Christian. Being holy and set-apart is one thing. Being removed and “better than” from all the tax collectors and prostitutes is another.
  • Some readers who have ADHD and red hair and like border collies might want your characters to kiss once or twice and then pout like a two-year-old when they don’t.

Some Potential Uplifts of This Genre Are:

  • You don’t have to worry about tempting anyone to sin in a sexual way because no one is sinning sexually in your book.
  • These stories can hold so much more beautiful intentionality than other categories, and I think that’s fantastic. Romance should be intentional because couples should intentionally want and choose each other.
  • Oftentimes there are less of those annoying tropes because the characters are trying to be so good. And I deeply appreciate this.
  • Your book can be shared with your church. Don’t share them with your grandma’s knitting circle, though, because grandma-knitting-circles like a little bit of smooching.*
  • Your audience wants you. There’s a push for this type of fiction in the Christian world, and you are fulfilling a clear want if not a clear need. Branding all at once becomes easy. After all, you’re clean. Further, in certain genres, like YA fantasy, you are a minority and yet still have that built-in audience. (You are not so much in Christian historical romance, which is perhaps why I get so confused when people are like, “And it’s clean!!!” I’m always like, “Yes, but so is every book in Christian fiction?” I am arguably a minority here.)
  • It really is fun to be able to say, “Even your kid can read it!” Though let’s be honest, half of us don’t write genres kids actually enjoy.

*This is a generalization and may not apply to your grandma.

Am I making fun of this genre?

  • NO. I just think it’s not possible to have every single book in the world fit into this genre.
  • Honestly, I think you should start using this term because I think it’d be a fun way to market yourself.
  • And heck, we’re all Saints, right? (The Catholics have left the chat … sorry, guys. You know I’m so Protestant that I practically glow with it. I didn’t mean to scare ya off, though …)
  • This isn’t a genre I consider myself to write, nor do I really feel comfortable building my platform around the idea that I write clean fiction when I cover so many topics that a lot of clean-fiction-reading folks don’t appreciate. So I’m a little different in that regard.
  • Not all writers who would like to be included in this genre necessarily fall into this genre, and here’s why … because there’s another “clean fiction but not quite THIS” category. See below.

One Last Note:

Before you go into the comments and argue about middle grade and young YA, please make sure you read the rest of the post. Because I’m talking about adult and young adult romance here. I’ll discuss the place of Saintly fiction in MG and YA later.

Category Two: Sweet

Honestly, I think this is what I write. “Sweet romance,” despite the fact that some non-romance topics are less than sweet. (As, I think, it should be.) I like the term sweet because it doesn’t imply “hand it to your ten-year-old.” Though I think most ten-year-olds SHOULD be mature enough to read my books, not all of them are. (At that age, I was rewatching West Side Story and … well, any manner of other things. That’s the one that strikes me as funniest, though. Just a lil’ murder and racism and gang violence and premarital sex …)

And like, I’m fine with that. I’ve made it clear from the start that I write for a 16-25 age range, more or less. And that’s how I think it should be because some of my topics aren’t frequently encountered by the average 10-year-old despite the fact that they should at least have been a discussion topic with said 10-year-olds’ parents. (I am very convinced that children need a gentle introduction by their parents to most topics before they hit middle school age or even earlier, and no topic should be a “shameful” one that can’t be discussed between a parent and a child because that’s just silly … and problematic. But I’m not a parent, so what do I know about the logistics of this? Nothing.)

However, let’s remove ourselves from the discussions of tough topics except as related to sexuality and focus in on what sweet romance, to me, generally entails. Again, made-up definition and made-up terms, but let’s goooo!

  • Depending on the characters, sweet romance may or may not contain the following: kisses, hugs, cuddles, admittances of attraction/longing in an undetailed manner, etc.
  • I will note that long make-out sessions with descriptions of tongues and petting don’t fit in this genre. Because they’re gross unless you’re actually doing them yourself.
  • Though there are to be no sex scenes, some sweet romances may draw the line on one side or another of fade-to-black. For some, no. For others, yes.
  • There’s less of a focus on defining the relationship. Usually these stories operate a little more like your average romance, which is actually kind of a shame because we could use more intentionality in this genre.
  • All the typical romance tropes that apply to all romances apply to this genre. Take from that what you will.
  • In terms of all the above-mentioned issues such as discussing sub-topics (premarital sex, infidelity/adultery, birth control, sexual abuse and assault, “nakedness,” vague references, backstories, pregnancy, childbirth, and menstrual cycles), there is a wide variety of ways that these are addressed and regarded by readers. Some books are don’t include them, some include them in shallow ways, and some actually address them in meaningful and interesting ways. Most, however, do not consider things like pregnancy, childbirth, and menstrual cycles to be no-no topics.

Some Potential Downfalls of This Genre Are:

  • Some readers are not going to like this kind of fiction. Some people will confuse sweet with Sensual or Saintly, which inevitably is frustrating.
  • Tropes can sometimes be super annoying.
  • As can the lack of commitment-based relationships. Basically, if a toxic romance trope exists, these books sometimes feel free to address them. There can be less depth in general because these can feel more like a normal, non-Christian romance in general, even in the Christian fiction genre. It’s not set-apart … and yet it should be.
  • You get to choose how you portray all these wondrous topics you can discuss freely. That comes with inherent risks – such as not addressing them well.
  • Arguably, there’s a wide variety here. If you have strict convictions, you may get burnt … or you may not.
  • Sometimes people will read “sweet” as “less conflict.” I’m not using it to mean that. I actually don’t think “sweet” is the best way to define this type of romance. So it’s harder to market in that way … because the correct term in my mind is “Christian romance.” However, that definitely includes Saintly, so I guess my conclusion is … it’s still hard to define. “Christian fiction that discusses tough, real topics” is so long to say, but it’s the best I can do.

Some Potential Uplifts of This Genre Are:

  • There is a lot more freedom to discuss needed topics. If you like tough topics and a little more grit, you can find it in this genre without reading actual sex scenes or otherwise being dragged through the dirt.
  • In general, you’re not tempting anyone to sin unless they are super sensitive. However, at that point, it’s truly not your fault. Do what you can to warn people about your topics and leave it at that.
  • Most people don’t expect Saintly, so usually to general audiences, including most Christians, this counts as “clean.” Despite what some of the louder voices might say.
  • THE SMOOCHINGGG. But without getting so into it that you’re getting uncomfortable.

Category Three: Sensual

I feel like you’re probably giving me a skeptical look because you have a question: aren’t sensual books always smutty?

No. I argue that they are not. But … Christians, approach this category cautiously, because you don’t want to walk the line. You want to be far away from the line, right? Or as much as you can, given whatever the plot of your story may be.

Does this mean that we should avoid all sensual situations? I don’t think so. I mean, I arguably think certain scenes of my books count as such (meaning certain ones with Jordy and Ivy in books 4 and 6 because at least pending book 7, Alice and Peter … arguably don’t … Well). I wouldn’t say the entire vibe edges that way, but without deliberately dragging readers into the sensuality of said scenes, there is sensuality.

But I deal with it in a different way than a “sensual romance” author might. With the exception of celebrating a married couple’s intimacy (which I think we’re missing in Christian fiction at large!), usually these situations in my stories come with a heavy degree of regret attached to them. I deal with sin pretty firmly in my series, as you know, while still allowing for the flow of grace.

I think most Christian authors who have books that edge on this do the same, but there have been some exceptions. Let me say this once, clearly and firmly: it was not “just a mistake.” It was a sin.

Some loooooossseee definitions for sensual romances:

  • More detail and more intensity with the kissing and related actions.
  • More focus on physical attraction.
  • Might spend a bit more time in the scene before the fade-to-black. (You may find yourself saying, “Oh, we’re still here? Ah. Okay … Y’all just gonna … Mm-hmm.”)
  • Writers of this genre are usually pretty pleased with the smooches they write … and with how hot their main characters are … both in general and for each other. 😛

Some Potential Downfalls of This Genre Are:

  • Tempting people to sin. It’s not something we talk about a lot except in the sense of purity culture/modesty (because y’all are so obsessed with that for some reason), but it’s a thing. When does writing romance become “causing your brother to stumble”? I argue that it doesn’t begin with sensual romance – but rather with smutty romance – but with every step toward smutty you make on this sliding scale, a few more people, depending on their level of sensitivity, will sin because of what you write. You can’t control that. You shouldn’t even try to! But it means that every word ought to be weighed. When does it stop being an accurate portrayal of a loving relationship (which, yes, includes sexual attraction!) and start being more smutty than sensual? That’s a line every author must come up with for themselves. But as I’ve said before, I generally prefer to err on the side of caution if I’m writing anything vaguely sensual.
  • Honestly, a lot of the authors who write this category seem so naïve to me. Okay, don’t come at me, if you consider this to be your romance category, but I’ll hear them say things like, “Well, no one would ACTUALLY be aroused by these things. It’s a harmless celebration of attraction. All romances should contain this because it’s realistic …” Well, first, it’s realistic from your experience and may some others (mine, for instance), but that doesn’t apply to all people and more than that, all characters, nor should it (at least, pre-marriage). Further, I assume these authors have never experienced sexual sin and don’t understand how it works at all … or have experienced sexual sin and forgot what it’s like to be still struggling with it*. Which is fine. It’s just an observation. Again, I know it’s not the duty of the author to protect their readers from sin, but it is certainly something to keep in mind.

*Everyone deals with past issues differently, so some people become hardened toward past triggers while others become more sensitive to them than anyone else.

Some Potential Uplifts of This Genre Are:

  • Honestly, you can say what you want, but I believe this firmly: we need more portrayals of healthy, godly attraction between married couples, and we need to understand that before getting married, you should know whether or not you can bear sharing a bed with a person. You don’t want to marry someone you don’t desire. It’s just not a good idea.
  • To write this genre as a Christian, you’ll definitely be forced to pray about these issues a lot in order to thoughtfully write this kind of romance. And more prayer is never a bad thing!

Category Four: Smutty

Smutty romance is an easy one to approach as a Christian writer: no.

There is no need for Christians to write or read smutty romance. Smutty romance (erotica, steamy romance, etc.) has the same effects on the brain as watching pornography.

Now, there has been some debate in the Christian community lately about whether the reason more women tend to read porn than watch porn (the actual percentage differences between women who watch porn and men who watch porn is not that different, depending on who you ask, but it’s still there: “one survey from Australia estimated that about 4.4% of men and 1.2% of women consider themselves addicted to pornography” — source — and other studies have found porn use to affect about 60% of men and 30% of women) is because of the emotional pull of romance. I think … yes but also no.

Yes, there is usually an emotional element to erotica romance. There’s often some kind of storyline. The characters often are “in love” and stick together after the story is over, much like a regular romance. Everything is usually consensual or at least mildly consensual (unless it’s feeding a kink, as I mentioned later in the post). Yet I think it has more to do with the fact that erotica romance is written with a female protagonist and is in general not male-centric. And I just don’t agree that the actual emotions of a romance novel are bad (see this post), so that argument has never made sense to me.

That said, the feelings of sexual arousal are not only sinful but have horrible negative effects on the brain. Pornography itself is not what is damaging but rather the natural human response to be aroused by it and therefore to associate pornography (or in this case, smut) with the emotional, physical, hormonal “hit” you get from arousal (and of course orgasm, but it happens regardless).

The other issue? It’s as addicting as porn. Now, granted, so is coffee (despite the fact that coffee is not a sin and therefore cannot be spiritually damaging unless it becomes an idol), but addiction to receiving pleasure from someone other than your spouse is problematic, not to mention all the myriad of other symptoms, including but not limited to:

  • Decreased libido in any other sexual situation than while engaging with pornography.
  • Lack of attraction for spouse/other partner.
  • Increased risk for depression, anxiety, alcoholism, job loss, and money problems.
  • Lack of energy.
  • Neglect of other duties/responsibilities.
  • Decreased self-esteem in both men and women.
  • A mentality that sexual intimacy is violent toward women.

Some Potential Downfalls of This Genre Are:

  • All of the above! But mostly, it’s a clear case of sinning (by publishing these types of books and in some cases, by writing sex scenes in the first place*) and causing others to sin with you (as they read the book).
  • These types of romance are generally swamped with dubious consensual consent, kinks that may be harmful or damaging (though they may also not be, but that’s between you and your spouse), unfair standards for both men and women in regards to both the practicalities and actions and responses of/to sex and physical appearance/attributes, and an abundance of really unlikable (cruel, abusive) characters. Now, there are completely healthy relationships in these types of books! Don’t get me wrong. I am not of the widespread belief that all secular romance must contain great evil. That said, there is such a tendency toward perversion in these romances that I cannot healthily ignore it.

*I mean, theoretically, you could write a self-insert for your spouse, and that’d be okay, so I was hesitant to completely decry ALL writing of pornographic literature. But the problem is, involving fictional characters (or anyone who is not just you and your spouse) makes it iffy in a hurry!

Some Potential Uplifts of This Genre Are:

  • Uhhh …?
  • It’s fine for secular audiences. *shrug* I mean, why wouldn’t you?

Sensual vs. Smutty: the hardest-to-define terms

It’s so hard to define an exact boundary here because honestly, what might be smutty for one person is sensual for another.

Like many things, Christians get flack about not understanding that “smutty” is a spectrum. Fortunately, this is one thing Christians can get away with not caring about, unlike other things. Because we all should know that reading smutty books has the same effect on our brains are watching porn*, and we don’t do that. That is the assumption I am operating under as a Christian writer who writes for Christians.

*Sources: 50 Shades of Grey Matter: Your Mind on Smut | Anti-pornography group has a pointed — yet simple — message about the dangers of smut | Are romance novels the equivalent to pornography? | Is Erotica Bad for the Brain?

That said, roughly speaking, smutty romances deliberately arouse the reader by including sexual situations that are certain to cause said reaction. Since various readers react at various levels, it can be hard to gauge this. Some people are just less easily aroused or just have been exposed either less or more to sexual situations (exposure affects different people differently) … but that doesn’t mean there’s not harm in these kinds of situations due to some of the points discussed above. Further, “you really don’t know until you try,” and why are you trying to find out what will and will not have these negative effects on your brain?

From a moral standpoint, involving ourselves with sexual situations outside of our relationship with our spouse is obviously a sin. And I argue that that does include fictional characters, even ones of our own creation.

So what then? Is the difference between smutty and sensual simply on-page sex vs. off-page sex? That still doesn’t take away all our issues. Is there a point at which fade-to-black sex becomes potentially smutty? I argue that yes, there is a point at which describing the lead-up to sex is smutty because, after all … foreplay. You know, the thing that is literally meant to … be arousing? That’s? The? Whole? Thing?

I guess that’s the main thing. You want to stay out of a characters’ foreplay as much as the actual sex. Because again, we don’t need to be there for that.

A Few Other Random Things

Now I’d like to cover a few points that I think come up regularly in this discussion.

Historical Factors

I disagree with the concept that historical couples weren’t very affectionate. Because we were still humans, and though some societal restraints may have affected some, it did not affect everyone. In public? Perhaps. But if you know anything about most people in most eras, it’s that the way they acted in private was usually quite a bit more relaxed.

Also, keep in mind that half of propriety comes down to parody or extreme situations. There is a dissonance between our understanding of history due to fictional accounts not always accurately portraying the era they are set in.

I’ll quote another article of mine:


A lot of what we used to form our opinions on historical eras these days seems to come from one of the following sources.


    • Example: Jane Austen, Mark Twain.
    • Not necessarily accurate because it often exaggerates certain elements of the era (or all elements). Since you didn’t live through the era, it can be difficult to discern, without historical record, what is and is not satire.

    • Example: Lucy Maud Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, Maud Hart Lovelace.
    • Often gives an idealistic, sweet, or otherwise light-hearted take on the era, ignoring bigger problems or things that are “hard” (much like Christian fiction sometimes does today).

    • Example: Martha Finley, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
    • Well, you wouldn’t expect children’s fiction to discuss big, adult life issues, would you? At least, not most of them. Also, there was a tendency in Victorian children’s fiction to moralize and focus on presenting perfect role models. Nothing more unrealistic than that.

    • Example: Margaret Mitchell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck.
    • A LOT of writers fall into this category. They portray one side of an issue to make a point, and oftentimes, they use their powerful writing to sway their reader one way or another.

    • Example: Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Nathanael Hawthorne.
    • More focused on some kind of particular thought process, point, etc., than anything else. Often don’t have time to perspectives they aren’t willing to explore and/or do nothing but explore perspectives. These are probably the more accurate to the time pieces of the bunch; however, they still lack actual reality.

    • I won’t even both giving examples, but there are a lot of these. Especially in the mid-1900s, as communication spread, historical eras became more talked about … and often the way the Victorian era in particular was talked about was based on inaccurate stories from grandmothers and from suffragettes and … well, don’t get even get me started on corsets.

Then of course there’s science fiction, comedies, and such, but we won’t even discuss that. We all get that those aren’t necessarily reliable historical resources.

Basically, we need to do better. We need to dig deeper. We need to expect fiction to be just that … fiction. Not our own personal little guidebooks.

Basically, if you’re going to cover anything, make sure you actually understand it. And don’t say that no unmarried couple in the Edwardian era would ever have kissed when this is simply not true.

A Word on YA & MG

I really think middle grade should be saintly when it comes to romance (if there is any at all), and I kind of feel like YA should, too, though I think we should be encouraging young adults to read adult books anyways. That said, putting sexually charged situations in middle grade is kind of … pervert-y. I mean, leave it to their parents.

The role of personal convictions in writing & reading

Regardless of any of this, regardless of anything, personal conviction will always impact every area of our life, and for choices such as what we read or write, these are even more vital. Approach all elements of your writing and reading, but especially your writing, with prayer.

And if you find your convictions are different than mine … that’s not even a situation in which we need argue or have further discussion about it. It’s a CONVICTION. You get to have yours, and I get to have mine. All right? All right.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

I honestly don’t know how to wrap this up. We’re 6,000 words in, and that’s significantly longer than it ought to be. Yet here we are, and I honestly feel like most of it is necessary. I hope this was helpful for you in some way … or at the very least, interesting!

So I leave you with this monster of a post and one final sentence: don’t destroy me in the comments. All I did was make up a bunch of random stuff and put it together in a somewhat feasible way to share a bunch of miscellaneous observations about the romantic genre and my approach to it.




Well, thoughts? This is all made up to a certain degree, though some of the research behind it is based on facts. You know, the parts where I linked sources because that way I won’t have to bother with them later.

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20 Responses

  1. i literally couldn’t agree more with this post, kellyn! i think so often, especially as christians, we can get confused by the idea of writing God honoring fiction, and mix that up with writing strictly g-rated fiction, and not touching on harder topics (of course, if someone were to feel that God was leading them to write something squeaky clean, that’s completely valid <3) my main wip, which is upper ya, deals with lgbtq+ topics (from my own personal experience), and i've had a lot of people tell me it makes them uncomfortable, which has been….. hard to hear, because i'm trying to deal with this from a biblical perspective and it… it can be hard.

    i'm so sorry if this comment doesn't make much sense- i'm trying to write this while watching gilmore girls while thinking about 5 million different things ???? i'm not normally this rambly, i promise XD

    1. Aw, thank you, Rue! I am so glad you enjoyed this post! And that’s really flattering because I had my moments of doubt while writing these, and it sure took me a while.

      Oh, no, not at all. That makes sense to me. (I love Gilmore Girls!)


    Every word of this post was PERFECTO. You know as much as everyone how central romance is to everything I read and write (and life in general, basically), so it BUGS ME TO NO END when people/Christians start misdefining these categories and ruin romance in one way or another for pretty much everyone.

    Like, “spice” is NOT smut/erotica/porn. Spice is the same as what you call sensual, and it’s basically including some attraction and real-life feelings/struggles and actually acknowledging the sexual aspects (sexual reality, really) of romantic relationships. So usually spice and smut interchangeably can really mess people up and make it harder to discern what is right/wrong and what is potentially hazardous to their mental/spiritual/emotional/sexual health.

    Anyway…I found your definition of sensual romance muy interesting, because that’s basically what I write…somehow…even though I have experienced -0.0% of what all that entails in terms of the actual relationship. However, I’m glad to say I don’t fall into the naive category (which makes it easier to discern what aspects of the romance I’m writing could be dangerous or cross the line). And I’d like to add another potential uplift to that genre: reaching people who struggle with sexual sin. Most sensual romance (from Redeeming Love, Bound and Determined by moi, everything by Julie Lessman) focuses on past sexual sins, prostitution, etc., and can help readers deal with their past trauma and confront their unhealthy habits. Not because of the heavier content, but because of the themes and messages that arise from the content.

    ANYWHOOOO. I was not the LEAST bit offended (rather flattered that you keep linking back to my post ????), but I had to comment anyway to comment you. ???? (Also, I’m even more motivated to do that thing we were talking about…????)

    1. That’s funny, because most “spicy” books I’ve seen/read have been quite smutty! But it’s another one of those terms that is hard to define. I’ve seen people use spice as a spectrum term and label the “level of spice” in any given book, and I’ve also seen it used as a genre term, usually for erotica-romance (like erotica but slightly more plot). So if using them interchangeably is a problem, it’s a problem coming from the industry (or individual authors and readers, at least). (I say this as someone with a past of sin that involved these types of books, at least to a small extent, so I have done some reading, and I have read a lot of blurbs.)

      That’s interesting, because though I’ve only read Rina’s story, I wouldn’t really peg your stories as sensual. But like I said, I’ve only really read the one. 😛 I think there’s a variety in terms of readers there, because some people will do well reading stories that feature past trauma or their own sexual sins, and some will just start on up again. But it kind of depends on how it’s happened. (And ya know I’m salty about Redeeming Love. 😛 ) I feel like most topics CAN be written from a sweet perspective, but there’s a place for them to be covered in a more descriptive place – and it’s up to the reader to then discern whether that’s going to be helpful or a hindrance to them! Because, you know, people are responsible for their own reading. That said, from personal experience, whether a book is a help or hindrance will vary wildly depending on the way it’s written, etc., for even me, an individual who presumably should be affected the same way every time! Or, so you’d think.

      Oh, yeah! That’s the email in my inbox I keep on wincing at. I really want to work on that soon, though, because I’ve been putting it off far too long. This month (or year, I suppose) has been so crazy …

    1. Honestly, I’ve seen sweet used in about a billion different ways. Sometimes for books I’d call more sensual, too. There’s not really a genre standard, which makes it hard for everyone. I think mostly what “sweet romance” readers want to say is, “We are a) sometimes having a kiss or two and b) not always Christian.” Which doesn’t apply to me, but I couldn’t think of a better term. And then by that time I had three S words, and just … I had to have a third? Despite the fact that I only added the first because the second was an S-word? (I have problems.)

  3. I really appreciate this post. I think you’ve done a better job breaking all this down and categorizing it in a common sense way, from a Christian perspective, than anything I’ve seen before. In fact, I kind of wish more people would adopt your definitions so it would be easier to know what you’re getting in a book and to tell your readers what they’re getting. I like to market my books as “clean”—as in, I want people to be firmly assured that they will never encounter anything from your Category Four in anything I write (for the record, any romance in my books probably falls pretty firmly in Category Two and isn’t likely to ever edge above the lower reaches of Category Three), since I know that as a reader that can be tricky to avoid nowadays. It seems like most secular fiction, even non-romance (e.g. historical fiction or literary fiction) usually includes at least one explicit scene by default. (I worked in a library for a time, and I learned pretty quickly that if you flip through a few pages of a new historical-fiction novel out of curiosity because the description sounded interesting, or it had a pretty cover…well…) But on the other hand, it’s a tiny bit exasperating to know there’ll probably be somebody out there who complains that a book of mine isn’t really “clean” because there’s some kisses in it.

    As a sidenote, is using “spice/spicy” as a synonym for smutty or explicit a recent development or something? I don’t remember seeing it used that way until within the last year or so, and now it seems to be everywhere. (I thought the word used to be “steam.”) I find it a little bit annoying because it seems like we’re being robbed of the original metaphorical use of the word—e.g. can’t say something is spicy in the sense of intrigue, excitement, etc. because it’ll be taken to mean racy romance.

    I strongly agree with your main point under “potential uplifts” of Category Three. I think in recent decades, probably in (over)reaction to worldly immorality, a lot of Christian circles have gone really hard on a message of “godly romance must have no feelings of attraction! you must choose a spouse based on nothing but their moral character!”, and that mindset has done a lot of harm in its own way. In a nutshell, when we’re talking about literature—you can be totally, firmly against explicit material on the page and justly condemn immorality, but you do have to balance it out by having some positive ideal to point to, or else you’ll just come across as railing against anything remotely sexual. We do need to be able to portray healthy marriage or headed-for-marriage relationships that acknowledge normal attraction and desire as a necessary component—but it’s still possible to do that decently!

    It’s odd to me that many Christian writers are very willing to “tackle tough topics” in a tasteful and decent way if it involves portraying sexual subjects negatively—for instance, dealing with the consequences of immorality, making a point about abortion, abuse, etc.—and can do it well, yet aren’t willing to portray a healthily passionate/affectionate romance or marriage with the exact same level of decency. I mean, if you can tastefully make the reader understand that a character had sinned or was sinned against in the past to make a point in your story, why can’t you handle making the reader understand that a happily married couple…enjoy their life together? Without ever being indecently explicit?

    And this is coming from somebody who doesn’t even write genre romance. 🙂 I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to drop an essay-length comment on you. But this is actually stuff I’ve been thinking for a while but didn’t really have an ideal venue to say it in.

    1. I don’t at all mind the essay-length comment, though when I glanced over it, my brain definitely said, “You are in a world of trouble.” Usually no one takes the time to write a long comment unless they are deep in the depths of criticism and hatred, so thank you for being different. I appreciate it more than you know! (Cue me releasing a breath I didn’t know I was holding, like a book character.)

      I’m kind of in the same boat where I’d like to market my books as clean, but I personally have a hesitation or two there because I do get some flack and criticism for doing such given that I cover a world of topics. Granted, as best as I can and as cleanly as I can, but … still, a world of topics. And especially in the romance category, I am a sucker for the emotions of a kiss even though I’m not a big “describe it” person just because … I don’t know, I wouldn’t even want to describe a kiss between my husband and I TO my husband. 😛 I’m a dork, I s’pose, but I don’t mind too much.

      Ya know, I only know spicy as a romance term. And to describe food with spice, I suppose. But I have used it as a slang term for … like, sassy, I guess? So it makes sense that it was used more broadly in the past. But as long as I’ve been in the bookish community, I’ve only heard it as being synonymous to smut, but sometimes used to be mean a lesser degree of smut than actual erotica – so like, “hot but not actual porn” (though debatedly, there’s little difference). I did have another commenter say spicy is synonymous to what I called sensual romance, so … it seems to mean all things to all people.

      Totally there with you. It’s a balance to be sure, but who is better equipped to strike a balance than a Christian author who has God’s Holy Spirit within them?

      Yes, that’s interesting to me, too. I get the perspective, as in some ways it’s easier to insinuate and then say, “AND THAT WAS WRONG” without actually doing any real portrayal. Honestly, good is more complicated and beautiful and awesome that evil. What’s that quote about the drudgery of sin? Well, I can’t remember it, but I can see that it’s tougher to write. But … yeah, we need more of the healthy relationships. We need more of the happily-ever-afters.

  4. 1. I commend you for being brave enough to take on this subject at all and for handling it so well.
    2. At the end of the day, as Christian writers – it should be our upmost goal to tell stories that strive to engage our readers (or viewers) in a God-honoring way.

    1. That’s pretty much the essence of it. Be a Christian, be praying and reading your Bible, be writing a story reflecting those values, and let God do what He will with your story.

  5. THIS POST. SO GOOD. It’s so wonderfully long and detailed and you shared so many amazing insights. Thank you for sharing this epic treatise with us!!! (Ah, yes. Epic was the word I was looking for to describe this post.)

    1. Thank you, Saraina! I’m so, so glad you enjoyed this post! I put so much work into it (lol as the length may hint at), so it’s good to know that someone enjoyed it!

  6. I tried to comment on this before after being pointed to this post by Grace Johnson after I commented on a post you guest wrote about kissing in Christian romance (https://www.graceajohnson.com/post/guest-post-why-christian-fiction-can-end-with-a-kiss-by-kellyn-roth). There was an issue posting, and I emailed my comments to Kellyn, not at the comments are stored I thought I would share my friends for the benefit of other readers and writers.

    I whole-heartedly agree that kissing is entirely up to the convictions and boundaries of the couple. I’d even say that it’s good and healthy. Even passionate kissing and making out. The Penners, for example, recommend passionate kissing for a seriously dating couple looking to marry.

    I think in a work of fiction (whether romance or not), it’s good to have the fictional couple talk about and work through their boundaries, comfort, and physical intimacy. I agree that it’s even okay to have things get steamy and heated, even with an unmarried couple. Knowing these different levels that you’ve described here is very helpful.

    Maybe the couple has different boundaries than the author would (I think would be interesting for me as a writer for my characters to do, or not do, things that I would want for them). And they can make mistakes, as people usually do. Perhaps they go further than they were comfortable with or even compromise their morals, or conversely one or both individuals struggle with expressing physical intimacy. The journey through these struggles, mistakes, and regrets is also a good story and an example of the journey that every Christian goes on. Often, even typically, Christian romance seems to have a problem with over-dramatically portraying kissing, with kissing becoming a substitute for a sex scene. Yes, kissing is wonderful and romantic but it usually isn’t, if ever, as dramatic as Christian romance can make it. I think approaching as I described above is a healthier way to do it, as is having an idea in mind as to what level you want to be at in your novel. A married couple of course could have sex without shame, and I think that this too can be included in Christian romance, omitting explicit detail so as not to become erotica.

    Exactly where these lines are drawn is always going to be murky and challenging, as you articulate well. I think it’s okay for a Christian writer to get into those murky waters, but cautiously. It’s tricky because parts of the Bible, specifically Song of Solomon, fall into what Christian audiences would probably consider smutty, but would be tame by secular standards (and there’s other, non-romantic parts of the Bible that get very graphic). I think it’s possible to get as detailed as Song of Solomon, but even that poem is very suggestive and metaphorical rather than bluntly or clinically detailed. If nothing else, it’s better writing to suggest rather than overly describe. I do think specific detail does have a place, and imo it would be appropriate with the right context and story for things like describing a kiss, a boyfriend removing his girlfriend’s bra, or a married couple stripping naked. But these don’t have to be anatomically detailed. Walking that line between sweet/sensual/smutty is going to be a grey area with some subjectivity. Characters could still be passionate or even make sinful mistakes, and where you are in that grey area would inform how descriptive you get, or rather, in which way you are descriptive. Less can be more. For example, “their kisses and embrace grew increasingly heated. The sudden closing of a door interrupted their ardor. He hastily pulled on his shirt and she fumbled to rebutton the bodice of her dress.” An author can thus tastefully imply the actions of a couple while not being salacious or needlessly blunt.

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