Romance Rating System

It has come to my attention that the romance community needs to get together and come up with a rating system. Sure, sure, every publisher has their own. I mean a rating system that is agreed upon and implemented straight across the board for EVERY romance from the inspirational and YA to erotic and risque. Frankly all books should have ratings just like movies and video games, but I’m not getting into all books, just romance.

I mentioned movies and video games. They each have an entity (MPAA – Motion Picture Association of America, ESRB – Entertainment Software Rating Board) that takes care of defining and enforcing ratings and romance should have one too. I don’t mean RWA. They have a purpose and they are doing it so let’s not pile more on them. A whole new entity needs to be born to tackle this job.

First off, let’s get one thing straight–the definition of ROMANCE as a genre in literature. Pretty much every where I’ve looked agrees on one thing straight across the board: to be classified as a Romance, a work of literature must have a HAPPILY EVER AFTER (HEA) ending.

I put major emphasis on the HEA because there are many books with plots that “centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” (as defined by RWA). Not all those books have an HEA–chicklit, love stories, pretty much anything in the drama section–and thus ARE NOT Romance and I’m not talking about those (think GONE WITH THE WIND or BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY).

Is that cleared up? Good, great. Let’s move on.

For a loooooong time, erotic literature was tucked away in the back dusty part of the bookstore far away from the Romance section. People had to search low (sometimes really low) to find it then it was put in a nondescript, dark bag so others wouldn’t know they bought it. Times have changed. Thanks in large part to epublishers, it has settled in nicely in the Romance section of the bookstore and is now known as Erotic Romance instead of erotica. Though I’m sure there is still some erotica out there that is still pure sex with no plot and no other goal than to get someone hot and bothered, I’m not talking about those. 🙂 (There’s a lot I’m not talking about, huh?)


Since women (and some men) have put pen to paper to write out these works of romantic relationship bliss, there have always been people pissing and moaning about language, violence, and rape. My goal is to shut them up as best as I can. As MPAA and ESRB (especially ESRB) have proved, some people won’t read ratings or, if they read them, they don’t take the time to understand them. Those people are stupid and should have to wear a sign (thank you, Mr. Engvall). They will complain no matter what but with a universal Romance rating system, they look stupider the more they complain.

First a name. Romance Genre Rating System (RGRS… rigors, huh?) or Genre Romance Rating Team (GRRT… uh, I think the Kellogg’s people would have something to say about that) or Romance Genre Rating Board (RGRB… does anyone else see “rug rub”… uh… that’s so appropriate yet sooo wrong).

You know what, screw the name until later. Let’s get to the ratings.

MPAA has five ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17) while ESRB has six (eC, E, E-10+, T, M, Ao) not to mention the dozens of content descriptors. Let’s see how many Romance will get (according to me).

I’d just like to say I went to several epublisher sites and the definition of Sweet changed with each site. But those are the words they like and we’re going to stick with them.

Sweet, Sensual, Spicy, Hot, Carnal, Steamy, Sizzling, Sextreme, Scorching, Graphic, Erotic, Intense, Sensuous, Erotic, Xtreme — these are just a few of the MANY (let’s emphasize that word a lot) MANY rating categories that different publishers use. Some publishers don’t even use ratings, they just have warnings or levels.

Some of the above are ratings and some of the them are content descriptors. I’m picking what makes sense, you don’t like it… well, leave a comment or get started with that committee. ;P

RATINGS (as I see them) OF ROMANCE

FRESH (Fr) – No, not that kid you had to slap because he said your butt looked hot in those jeans. FRESH as in new, untainted, (or as Miriam-Webster put it) “having its original qualities unimpaired” — IE VIRGIN. Pretty much all YA would fit into this category. There might be a few kisses and TALK of going further but nothing is described and there are no closed doors (or open doors, for that matter). This rating is all sighs and hearts and cherubs.

SWEET (Sw) – Closed doors all the way. Sure the hero and heroine are going at it, but you NEVER get to see it. The author will allude to it, but that’s it. The author left EVERYTHING totally to your imagination so they could get on with the non-physical side of the relationship and the plot.

SENSUAL (Sn) – Euphemisms, some closed doors, and lots of petting (heavy and otherwise). The hero and heroine have one or two sex scenes described with elusive language and then the rest is alluded to or behind closed doors. (Most everything I write falls into this rating).

STEAMY (St) – This is the “unconventional” relationships — three/foursomes+, male-male, female-female, etc. BUT like sensual there are euphemisms, closed doors and petting. Just because you’re in a relationship that doesn’t fit into the category of “normal” doesn’t mean you have to have a potty mouth (I got a few in this category too… just not finished yet… teehee).

SIZZLING (Sz) – No closed doors. Every time the author gets to the hero and heroine going at, it’s described. Books in this rating have a few more sex scenes than the ones before (duuuuh). The sex scene language is a bit graphic because there are no euphemisms. This is about the time you start seeing a little toy play, possibly someone getting tied up (or down), and a little masturbation.

HOT (Ht) – This is the “unconventional” relationships version of Sizzling. Don’t need to say much more than that. (Are you seeing a trend yet?)

SCORCHING (Sc) – No division of conventional and unconventional here. Let’s everybody join in the fun of EXPLICIT, GRAPHIC LANGUAGE. All the relationships are equal in this rating, ’cause frankly, if you got this far, why does it matter? Sex scenes are more frequent (like every chapter) and the author goes into almost clinical detail about the *snicker* ins and outs of the act. If you don’t need some alone time (or sig other time) after this book, there’s something wrong with you (or did you skip over the sex to get back to the plot?)

EXTREME (Xt) – All you BDSM, fetishing types, this is your rating. You didn’t just tie him up, you hanged him from the ceiling and spanked him with a feather boa… whoa O.O! Okay, backing off that one. You get the idea. This is everything that Mommy and Daddy never talked about and you have to go the “fun” side of the adult video store to find. The language is totally graphic and explicit and so are the sex scenes. As some of the epublishers put it — “not for the faint of heart”. this is the stereotypical erotica everyone is used to but with that HEA we love so much.

But what about the rape and violence and… I’m getting to that. Hold your horses (this won’t take long since this is a looooooooong post). Those little things are known as descriptors. You slap that in the little box after you give it a rating, just to warn people about what they should expect in that particular book (no guess work). Like when you go to a R-rated movie and it says for violence and language. You know there’s no nudity or sex because they didn’t warn you about it. Same thing here. Just to make life simple, descriptors should be one or two words ONLY.

Some (but not a list of all) descriptors might be: rape, mild rape (yes there is mild rape, as in almost happened but not really), adult language (not to be confused with graphic language, I’m talking cursing here, people), spanking, toy play, forcing (see previous post), masturbation, violence, death, killing (no this isn’t the same as death), sentient animals, shape-shifting, etc ad nauseam.

What do you think? Do-able? Let’s work together on this. I think it’s something that can span across every publisher (e and print) and really help the genre towards more understanding (within and with out). Ultimately though, I just want the bitching to stop.

If anyone has any suggestions on how to start something like this, I’d love to get in on it (especially since I’ve already defined the rating system).

Next week’s topic:
Romance in video games, not just movies. Romance novels get turned into shows, movies, and made for tv movies all the time, why not video games? Join me for a look at what is and what could be. 🙂


  1. I think this is a ‘novel’ (hehe) idea. Being one that often writes in the “Sizzling” to “Extreme” ratings I find myself often trying to ‘prepare’ my readers for what is to come. I keep much of my writing on They use a less detailed system for ALL of the writing on the site including (18+)(GC-Graphic content)& (XGC-Extreme graphic content)


  2. I don’t think I’m with this at all. I visited the ESRB and MPAA sites. The words that stuck out in my mind was that the publishers of the works are LEGALLY AND CONTRACTUALLY bound to enforce the ratings. How in the world can book pubs do that? Even the ESRB can’t control their industry – for example the folks who published a certain video game (I won’t name it here) were in trouble with the ESRB because the place where the games were sold (e.g. Best Buy, Circuit City, WalMart, etc) didn’t enforce the age limit and keep younger folks from buying the game.

    You say “We need this” but you haven’t really said why. So some folks complain about hot romance – so what. Those folks will find something else to complain about.

    And who is going to pay for this organization? Who is going to pay these people salaries? Probably the publishers, which will more than likely impact royalties to the authors.

    I see the merits of what you’re saying, but I’m into LESS beauracracy, not more. Back in the days of book censure (what you’re suggesting isn’t quite censure) a group of folks had a say so over what my grandparents could read or not read, or whether they could read at all.

    I’ve had seven books published in the past fourteen months. It’s me and my pubs place to say what they are and what they aren’t. I’m just not into giving someone else the say so over what they feel my books should be “rated” as. What’s to keep them from going a step further and saying it’s not suitable for public consumption at all?

    Just my fifty seven cents.

    Later, ya’ll ;D


  3. I’m with TJ on this. In truth, it’s never artists who decide on this stuff, it’s bureaucrats and what does a bureaucrat know about romance novel rating? In fact, look at the recent RWA mess, or rather the every year RWA mess – these are romance writers and look at how they consistently make mistakes with respect to other genres within romance.

    Moreover, each of us has different perceptions of fresh or sizzling, etc and frankly, I don’t want anyone else labeling what I write.

    I don’t agree that all books should have ratings. I don’t like movie ratings for the same reason and watching what a mess the RWA can make of things I’m sure not behind the creation of yet another group that will tell me what I write and what I have to put in to make it an accceptable “romance” according to others when the only people whose opinions matter are my readers.

  4. To TJ, on the ESRB site says that their ratings ARE NOT mandatory, which means that companies DO NOT have to use them. BUT, if a company chooses to put an ESRB rating on their game (and majority of them do) then that company must follow all guidelines of the rating and enforce it.

    I never said it had to be mandatory. It’s up to the publisher who uses it and who doesn’t. And this isn’t censorship either. I don’t want to change what’s in the book, I just want to know what’s there BEFORE I buy it. Based on what I’ve seen on some forums (complaint-wise) I’m not the only one.

    To Lauren, the rating doesn’t tell you what to put in it, it warns the reader what’s already there. Write whatever and categorize it later. Almost every single epublisher (especially those that put out erotic romance) has a rating system of some kind and they’re all different. Some only have three while others have five. AND then there’s the reviewers who have their own rating system. Let’s not forget the ebook sellers (allromance ebooks, etc) who also have their own rating system. That’s three separate entities telling you what your book is rated and I’m betting none of them agree.

    The books are already being rated, that’s just point blank and period. It’s mostly the erotic romances that get the ratings, but they are there.

    I say make it uniform. One set of ratings would cut back on the confusion.

  5. I agree with Jack. I am also on and their rating system does somewhat let me know what to expect, whether I am reading, reviewing or posting. While a rating system does not talk to the quality of the plot, or the depth of the characters, it is like a flashing red light saying, if you are offended easily, or don’t like the idea of a consensual spanking, turn away now. It is not a system used to divide, it is more of a caveat emptor (buyer beware).
    Ok, for my long winded response, here is the short answer:
    Bring on the rating system!

  6. I can see where some writers might object to ratings, but as a reader. I think it’s a great idea and I’ve said so for years. I don’t read erotic/erotica, I don’t like graphic sex or language or kinky stuff. I’ve picked up a number of books lately, books labeled as romances that weren’t romances at all. Sometimes you can tell by the cover or the back copy, but not always. I also appreciate the ratings on movies for the same reason. I don’t want to see nudity or graphic violence, I don’t want my head filled with profanity. Once inside your head, those images and words are there forever.


  7. Thank you, Nevea and Mandy, for making my point and seeing where I’m coming from.

    Nevea said it perfectly. This is a “buyer beware” type of thing, no more and no less.

    And frankly, I’m a little like Mandy (only a little… sorry, I need my violence in movies). I LIKE the euphemisms and closed sex scenes. Those were the books I “grew up” on–as it were. Some people may think it’s a little childish not to just call a penis a penis (or all the other words that have turned up nowadays that I won’t include in this post) but stuff like that rips me out of the story. I suck it up and deal because the story is good. And it’s not JUST ME. There are tons of other people who feel the same.

    Hell, my friend has pretty much given up on reading Romance on a whole because she’s sick of the bare sex scenes and having to skip over–what seems like–half the book to get around them. But then my friend is a contradiction in terms since she also wants a return of the “bodice-rippers” of old where the hero TOOK the heroine and she loved it… eventually. ;P

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