Posted by on 29th September 2020

Are Clean or Dirty Really the Right Descriptors to Use to Describe the Heat Level of Romance Novels?

If you’ve read much romance, you’ve probably noticed that many romances are labeled either clean or dirty. “Clean” stories are the ones with no sex in them. “Dirty” stories are the ones with explicit sex in them.

This is a problem.

Why? Because it’s telling the reader that sex is inherently bad. Soiled. Sullied. And, by extension, anyone engaging in said sex is also inherently bad, tarnished, impure, foul, and polluted. Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s consider the dictionary definition of the word dirty.



ADJECTIVE: covered or marked with an unclean substance.

“a tray of dirty cups and saucers”

Also: soiled, grimy, grubby, filthy, mucky, stained, unwashed, greasy, smeared, smeary, spotted, smudged, cloudy, muddy, dusty, sooty, unclean, sullied, impure, tarnished, polluted, contaminated, defiled, foul, unhygienic, unsanitary, cruddy, yucky, icky, manky, gungy, befouled, besmirched, begrimed, feculent

VERB: make dirty.

“she didn’t like him dirtying her nice clean towels”

Also: soil, stain, muddy, blacken, mess up, spoil, tarnish, taint, make dirty, mark, spatter, bespatter, smudge, smear, daub, spot, splash, splatter, sully, pollute, foul, defile, befoul, besmirch, begrime,

Clean, on the other hand, means morally uncontaminated, pure, and innocent.

Other synonyms for clean include: virtuous, good, honorable, respectable, just, honest, fair, reputable, decent, righteous, moral, pure, undefiled, guiltless, blameless, and irreproachable — just to name a few.

When it comes to romance novels, dirty has far too many negative connotations.

Here’s my issue… The implication behind calling a book clean or dirty is that the characters and the reader are also clean or dirty. It’s really a form of slut-shaming. If you enjoy sex whether on the page or in your own life, it in you are dirty.

Yet there is nothing inherently dirty about sex. It is a natural and pleasurable act, and as long as it occurs between consenting adults it’s a beautiful thing.

It is also part and parcel of the most burgeoning relationships today. Sure, there are some people who choose not to have sex outside of a committed relationship or marriage. And that’s fine. But that does not make sex a dirty act. Nor should it make books with explicit sex in them dirty. Not when you consider the definitions of the word.

Romance novels, in particular, are about allowing the reader to experience the wonders of finding love with someone who likes, respects, and supports their partner (or partners). That includes finding ways to give a partner or partners joy, pleasure, and happiness. Good sex is part of that.

While my books have plenty of graphic, premarital sex, the only time they might be considered dirty is if someone has literal dirt and sweat on them from playing hard outdoors.

Instead of using clean and dirty, what’s the best way to describe romance novels with explicit sex?

My preference is steamy or hot (i.e., high heat level). I can even live with spicy, though I think it’s less accurate.

Years ago when I first discovered fanfic, a story would be labeled as having “lemons” (not sure where that came from) if it had explicit sex. I liked that, but it wasn’t clear from the get-go what it meant (I had to google it initially). What we don’t need are descriptions that imply sex—or anyone having it—is inherently bad, or distasteful, or unclean.

So, what about those “clean” romances? What do we call them?

Sweet seems to be the best industry term, though I’m not convinced we can’t find something better. Still, sweet and steamy seem to have fewer problematic connotations than clean and dirty.

Regardless of which ones we use, the words and labels we choose are powerful. Their implications can resonate farther than we realize. In an industry that already gets disparaged for making women’s fantasies and dreams come true, we simply don’t need any more negative descriptions of such wonderful stories.

What are your thoughts on clean versus dirty as descriptions of romance? Please do leave a comment below.



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