Spice vs No Spice in Romance Books: An Author’s Deep Dive

So, recently on Instagram, I sort of offhandedly said in a post caption that I could go on a whole rant about the spice vs no spice in romance books debate, but that I wouldn’t for the sake of time.

Well, I may not have the time or space for such a discussion in an Instagram caption (at least, not if I were being polite) but a blog post? Heh, heh, heh. That’s a whole other matter.

As a writer and reader whose primary motivation for doing both often ties back to romance in some capacity, this is a question that I feel personally connected to and that I have at least some authority to speak on, since it is kind of, technically, my job.

But before I get into it, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I am not here to throw stones or finger-point a specific group, because neither side of this debate is entirely at fault. Nor is either side of this debate entirely innocent.

I will be stating my honest observations and informed opinions (emphasis on opinions) on a matter that has, quite frankly, polarized the bookish community, and I will be doing so in a very open, but hopefully inoffensive, manner.

In other words, I’m roasting both sides equally. I’m an equal-opportunity roaster.

But before we begin, I should probably say up front where I stand on the spice vs no spice issue. And the answer is… somewhere in the middle. I don’t typically read for it, but I don’t tend to mind if it’s there as long as it feels warranted. Does that make me The Authority? No, but I think that as someone in the moderate middle, I have a fair vantage point from which to evaluate this.

So here we go. For better or worse, I’m tackling the never-ending debate of spice vs no spice in romance books. Let’s do this thing.

spice vs no spice romance books

First of all, when I say spice vs no spice, what am I talking about?

If you’ve been in or around the bookish community for a hot minute, particularly BookTok, Bookstagram, or the indie author space in general, then you are likely already well-aware of what I’m talking about. But just for the sake of clarity, let me define some terms.

Glossary of spice vs no spice terms

Spice = sexual content, also known as steam or smut. Thus, a book that is “spicy” is basically synonymous with a book that is “sexy.” The spicier the book, the more explicit the sexual content is.

In reading community parlance, this is usually demarcated by the chili pepper emoji, with one pepper meaning it’s not very spicy or mildly spicy and anything higher than three chili peppers usually signifying that, uh, yeah, you’re in for a time. Like any rating system, it’s somewhat subjective based on the reader–much like actual spicy food, one person’s ghost pepper might be another person’s jalapeño.

Non-spice = obviously, the opposite, often broken into “clean,” “wholesome,” or “sweet” categories, though most who write in these genres agree that the terms can be vague and misleading, often implying value judgements or religious undertones that aren’t always intended. (This article attempts to define what it is and does so pretty well.)

For the sake of simplicity, non-spice will be considered books that do not have any explicit sexual content; not that it’s never mentioned, but the most you’ll see described in detail is kissing. If spicy books are upper PG-13 to Rated R, non-spicy books range from PG to PG-13 at most.

Other terms you might want to know

KU = Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s ebook subscription app and the foremost delivery method for romance novels, especially independently published ones. Some romance authors are referred to as KU authors and their books as KU books because when you distribute through KU, you’re stuck there, baby. But the upsides are distribution and reaching a wide, hungry audience.

(Side note: as someone from the Midwest, I have to work hard to divorce my association of the KU acronym with Kansas University. Rock Chalk BookTok?)

BookTok = the nickname given to the community of readers on TikTok who post videos about what they’re reading, share reviews, recommendations, favorite tropes, etc. Sometimes it’s entertaining and full of charm. Other times, eh.

Spicy BookTok = a subculture of the BookTok community that is specifically interested in books that have spice.

Fantasy romance = also called “romantasy” or “romance fantasy” (or, wait, are those different things? Agh!) this subgenre has gained significant traction in the past few years, no doubt thanks in large part to the popularity of SJM’s A Court of Thorns and Roses.

Both spicy and non-spicy authors write in this genre, so the level of explicit content can vary widely, but the one common denominator seems to be this: you’re in a fantasy world, but the plot is driven by/interested in developing the romance between the two main characters.

AKA, my favorite genre, though I didn’t know there was a name for it until recently.

Does the book industry favor spice vs no spice?

I mean, it certainly favors the romance genre. Overwhelmingly, women’s fiction/romance/erotica tops the charts in terms of physical book sales and book deals to this day. It’s also a well-established fact that romance authors do well on Kindle Unlimited, and there are stats to back that up.

But romance is a pretty all-encompassing genre, so just how much does spice factor into those numbers? If human nature and common sense are to be believed, then the answer is: quite a bit. Not that non-spicy romance doesn’t do well, but its X-rated counterpart tends to do even better. The fact of the matter is, sex sells.

What’s the #1 most-searched-for thing on the internet? Chances are, you already know the answer to that question. Carry that logic over to the spice vs no spice book industry, and the numbers speak for themselves.

via GIPHY

So what’s the issue with spice vs no spice?

The issue isn’t that these two categories exist: it is a great and wonderful thing to have a wide selection of books that appeal to different audiences and their preferences.

The issue is that for whatever reason, this crap has gotten political. The two factions (spice vs no spice, I suppose) are at war. A war for views, a war for sales, a war for… moral validation? I don’t know who started it, and I don’t really care. I’m ending it once and for all. (Because that’s the level of influence my tiny corner of the internet has, obviously.)

When you really get to the root of the problem, it’s social media. Specifically, TikTok and its ginormous community of readers (aka, BookTok), though Instagram doesn’t fare much better when all is said and done. The same platforms that allow us to connect with people who share our interests also allow us to disparage those who do not. It’s a tale as old as time. People bond over negativity. They like to feel right. And one way to feel right is to oust those you think are wrong.

In this case, those who… don’t like books that have a lot of sex in them? Or vice versa?

I honestly can’t think of anything more petty and ridiculous than a bunch of grown-ass adult (let’s be honest here) women fighting on TikTok about whether or not books should talk about dicks. I mean, come on. You have a limited number of days on this Earth. Are you really going to waste them on that?

But like I said, people like to feel right and to feel validated, and negativity tends to get more views than anything else. When you have an entire community of fellow readers who will back you up with an enthusiastic “Amen, sister, it’s smut or nothing!” or, alternatively, “Amen, sister, smut is ruining romance!” then you can say anything you want and rest on the laurels of your self-righteousness.

Oof, so much for not being inoffensive, I guess. But I said what I said. Don’t worry; I have good things to say about both groups, too. Mostly.

Spicy book community: the pros and cons

Pro #1: it’s just fun

The spicy book community can be a lot of fun. They’re like the best friend who knows how to party. They know what they like and they’re not afraid to say so. There is a positive side to the shamelessness, to the idea that sex is natural and it’s okay to like it. I didn’t know it was possible for it to get even less taboo in this century, but somehow it has, and that’s not always for the worse.

In some ways, I’d say that spicy books have helped many (let’s be honest) women feel more comfortable with sex and perhaps even helped them in the bedroom. Anything that improves a committed couple’s sex life in a healthy way (big emphasis on healthy) is a win in my book.

NOT that spicy books are somehow some kind of substitute for relationship counseling… or common sense.

Con #1: men written by women

Because of course, you have to tread carefully where fiction and fictional men are concerned. Fantasy romance (and basically any kind of romance) is just that: a fantasy. And it’s very easy to get swept up into it and develop unrealistic expectations toward men.

Every time I see a TikTok or Instagram that says something like, “fictional men are better than real men” or “men written by women are better” I die a little inside. Of course they’re going to be more appealing. They’re a woman’s fantasy.

First of all, you cannot say shit like that and then turn around and get mad about women written by men. It’s a double-standard.

Second of all, it’s not fair to real men, who are real people with real strengths and weaknesses, real emotions (as much as some of them like to hide it) and, uh… real body parts? Listen, you can gush over Rhysand all day, but he ain’t gonna jump out of those pages and take care of your needs.

Don’t get me wrong; I love reading and writing fictional men. And maybe I’m being patronizing; maybe these women that post these things are being hyperbolic. You know, for the views.

But part of me knows better. Because I’m a woman, too, and I know how we can be. The romance doesn’t even have to be spicy. All it takes is getting an idea in your head, looking at your significant other, and thinking, “Why doesn’t he do that?

Honey, he’s a real, living, breathing man. He was not written by a woman. He cannot read your mind. But if you tell him what you want, chances are he’ll be happy to oblige.

via GIPHY

Pro #2: new readers added daily

Another pro of the spicy book community is that it has gotten a lot of people into reading. Yes, maybe they started with A Court of Thorns and Roses and things just got kinkier from there, but if they’re having fun and it’s not hurting anybody, who freaking cares?

The romance book industry has been around long before KU entered the picture. This genre didn’t just spring up out of nowhere; it’s always been a major draw. Now, there are just more ways to access it, more authors writing books, and more readers willing to give them a try.

It’s made way for new trends and new ideas to get their place in the sun, and it has done wonders for the indie author community. A rising tide lifts all ships, so they say. Even if you don’t write spicy romance, you now have access to avenues that previous independent authors could only dream of.

And I guarantee that a big reason why that trail has been blazed is because, well, a lot of people are just really horny. Whether you like it or not. So perhaps we should all be a little more grateful toward human nature.

Con #2: new reasons to justify yourself added daily

On the flip side, people who read for smut often display a certain… insecurity that I can’t help but notice as someone who regularly interacts with the community.

How do I put this lightly? It’s not that books that are primarily focused on the spicy aspects can’t be well-written and well-developed, have compelling plots and characters, all that good stuff, but… those elements are often secondary to the main driving force of the story: the romance.

Now, this is a hallmark of the romance genre in general, but where spicy books are concerned, it basically translates to… lots of sex. That’s what you’re reading for, that’s what better be there, and that’s where much of the focus is going to be. Which is honestly fine as long as it’s marketed that way.

But (and I say this with as little condescension as possible) because the focus is on the romance, and because many of these books are self-published, the quality of writing can be… not great. These books can be (but not always) written badly. Or plotted poorly, or just lacking some aspect of storytelling that would be a dealbreaker for other readers.

And if the spicy book reader is halfway intelligent, they notice. They notice, but they don’t necessarily care, because that’s not what they’re there for. In their eyes, good smut covers a multitude of sins.

Meanwhile, the “sophisticated” readers, those that “read for the plot and the characters” turn their noses up at these people for reading and promoting books that they feel have no intrinsic value. And maybe from a technical standpoint they actually don’t. But that’s not what they’re written for.

So the spice readers, in turn, get defensive, simultaneously ashamed of their chosen genre’s limitations and unapologetic toward their sensibilities because, well, they like what they like. If you want to judge them for it, so be it. You don’t have to read it.

Which would be fine except that spice readers constantly feel the need to justify themselves to complete strangers on the internet as to why they should be allowed to like fairy porn, etc. and to get really loud and obnoxious about it and that’s where it goes a little overboard.

We get it, okay? You read for smut. Mazel tov.

Con #3: romanticizing abuse

I’m not trying to be the moral police here, but I’m just going to call it like I see it: some of what gets lauded and praised in these spicy books is straight-up harmful. I know there are kinks and tropes, and that “it’s called dark fantasy/dark romance, blah blah blah,” “we all know the morally grey love interest would get sent to jail in real life” but I’m talking about abusive relationships portrayed as sexy and desirable. Did 50 Shades start this or has it always been a thing?

Let’s be real: there’s nothing new under the sun.

Listen, what two consenting adults do behind closed doors is their business, but a lot of young people read these books (some younger than they should), and like I said above, fictional romance does impact our perception of the real thing when we’re not careful. So, um, can we just not? Can we not? Can we?

Okay? Good? Great. End of discussion. Glad we had this talk.

Non-spicy book community: the pros and cons

Pro #1: the swoon factor

A lot of romance readers read the genre because of those silly little butterflies you get in your stomach whenever two characters hold hands or have to snuggle for warmth or have their first kiss, and for many, that’s all they need or want. And you know what? That’s perfectly valid. That doesn’t make you immature or overly conservative. We all have different preferences and for some, sex is a very private matter.

They have nothing against it as a whole, they just don’t prefer to read about it. That’s more than fair.

Usually, in non-spicy romance, there’s also an emphasis on the emotional bond between the two love interests, often resulting in more well-rounded character development and a more believable relationship.

Not that spicy romances can’t have emotional bonding, or that non-spicy romances can’t have stiff, two-dimensional characters. I’m just saying that in cases where the romance is not focused on sex, it tends to supplement in other ways.

For readers who are looking for that sort of thing in their books, knowing they can fully invest in the relationship’s development without the added overstimulation of sexual content is a big draw. Sometimes, we just want to relax and get those warm fuzzies in our stomaches, not feel like the room just heated up twenty degrees (though sometimes that happens anyway).

I’m calling it the swoon factor.

via GIPHY

Con #1: how to define it?

The biggest problem I see with the non-spicy genre is how vague and varied it can be, ranging from 100% squeaky clean to maybe like one chili pepper? The spectrum is really disorienting, both as a reader and especially as a writer.

There’s also all these terms that mean different things to different people and have confusing connotations. Here’s the best I can parse it out:

Clean romance usually means no graphic content whatsoever, not even profanity–most romance writers don’t like this term because it implies that the opposite is “unclean” or “dirty,” giving it a religious or moralistic connotation. I’m inclined to agree. Just because a book has sex in it doesn’t make it dirty.

Sweet romance is another confusing term (maybe synonymous with “cute romance”?) that usually means non-spicy, with an emphasis on the swoon factor. Generally, though problems and tensions arise, the main focus is on two characters falling in love and navigating that new relationship together. I don’t think this subgenre usually has any spice in it but I kind of don’t like the implication that romances with sex aren’t sweet. They can be very sweet; they just probably won’t be as graphic.

For the record, I’ve had my debut novel, The Last Celestials, described as sweet and cute on multiple occasions.

Romantic comedy can be clean, sweet, or spicy, which is not confusing at all. Usually we’re looking at comedic situations and mishaps interspersed with the swoon factor as the characters grow closer together.

Non-spicy romance is obviously the umbrella term I’m using for this article but honestly, I’m unclear on what exactly it means, too. If it’s a true antithesis of spicy romance, we’re talking no sex whatsoever, right? Or does closed-door or fade-to-black count? Can characters curse or talk about sex? Somebody help me.

I’m also not keen on this correlation between sex and profanity, as if you can’t have one without the other. Plenty of YA books have language but no sex, and plenty of historical romances have sex but no language. It makes it very hard for authors like me, who might have characters curse but keep it light on the spice, to know where exactly they stand in the romance community; whether spicy readers will think it’s too little or non-spicy readers will think it’s too much.

I’ve seen book reviewers give books a heart or pepper rating with content heads-ups, which I think is smart. If more people start doing that for non-spicy or lightly-spicy romances, that might help clean up this hot mess of a classification system a lot more.

Con #2: the high horse

All right, I threw spicy readers under the bus for being obnoxious, so now it’s non-spicy’s turn. There is a tendency–not with everyone, but with some–to get a bit self-righteous about the whole anti-spice debacle. Usually, this manifests itself in one of two ways:

“I actually care about plot, characters, and worldbuilding, and you don’t” Listen, I know you know I know. I did say up above that spicy books can (but don’t always) consider other elements of storytelling to be a lesser priority than the smut.

But listen. You could take two completely different books written by two completely different authors, one spicy and the other not, and they could both have the same level of technical mastery, the same level of character development, and the same level of care and attentiveness toward its genre tropes and its intended audience.

These same two books could also both be total crap.

There is a sliding scale of quality in both the spicy and non-spicy categories. Your preferences aren’t automatically more valid because there’s no sex in them.

“It’s not Christian” This one really bothers me, because I’m Christian, and I am more than aware what the Bible says and doesn’t say about sex. Listen, if you don’t like reading about certain things because it makes you uncomfortable (for whatever reason) or it’s just not your cup of tea, that’s fine. You shouldn’t read things you don’t enjoy.

But please, don’t condemn or guilt-trip readers into feeling dirty or wrong because they like more explicit content than you. As a reader, that’s pejorative. As a writer, it’s exclusionist. And if I’m being honest, not very Christian.

As a writer who actually does try to do God’s will (believe it or not), I understand the challenges that come along with vetting the content you consume and produce. But sex is not off the table, people. God did make it, you know. And reading or writing books that have it in them does not make you dirty. The way you approach it and handle the topic might be different, and there are certainly lines you don’t cross, but do you really have to choose one or the other?

Because that’s what I feel like the spice vs no spice argument has done: forced people to choose a side. Can’t we have a little of both? Can’t we be human?

via GIPHY

Pro #2/Con #3: the booktok strikes back

It’s no secret that the book industry is a bit… oversaturated with spicy books. Like I said before, sex sells, baby. And I fully empathize with the frustrations that come along with feeling like you’re just one drop in an endless ocean. A very horny ocean.

It’s easy to get bitter, which is another problem I see with spice vs no spice: non-spicy authors in particular tend to get bitter toward their spicy counterparts. After all, they probably worked just as hard if not harder on their book only to have it be outperformed by something half as good and twice as sexy. It’s irritating, to say the least.

But the positive side is that there is, actually, an entire community of readers and writers out there who like what you like, and want to read books like yours… and they’re starting to get more vocal. It’s easier to find that audience now and I suspect it will only continue to get easier as time goes on.

The caveat is, as I said, the bitterness that often accompanies this community and its platform–hence this feeling that there are two factions at war rather than two sides of a bookish coin. You can market your book without alienating a potential audience who might’ve given your book the benefit of the doubt or fanning the flames of your existing audience’s contempt. Let’s build a community of positivity, shall we?

Spice vs no spice in YA

One last thing I wanted to touch on (since it’s pretty relevant to me and my work) is how spice/no spice translates over to the young adult genre.

Some people have very strong opinions about graphic content in YA, and I am not here to lay down any “thou shall nots,” though I do agree with everyone who has brought up the fact that we really need a more cohesive content rating system for books, like we do for movies.

Because the fact is, the level of graphic content can vary wildly in the YA genre depending on the author and the intended age range. YA is young adult. Teenagers. That’s ages 13-19, technically. That is a huge gap in both physical and mental maturity, not just from year to year, but from person to person.

Because the other tricky part is that some teenagers are ready for/can handle/are allowed to read more explicit content than others. It just depends. I remember my sister and I being very squeamish toward sexual content in our early teens, not because we were taught it was wrong, but because it was just so foreign to us. I would DNF books if I felt they were too sexual, but on the flip side, I had zero problems with profanity because we did it so openly growing up.

But does that mean all YA has to be chaste and censored? No! In fact, I think that’s kind of unfair, almost gatekeeping. Teenagers know about sex. Many of them have it. They know about curse words and violence and all that good stuff. Though comfort levels might vary, treating them like babies or like they’re not old enough to handle the mention of certain things is simply unrealistic and not a true reflection of what many of them experience, especially if the characters they’re reading about are in their upper teens.

via GIPHY

With that said… there has to be a dividing line. The same content that is permissible in Adult fiction should rarely, if ever, be found in YA. It’s the same logic that separates PG-13 movies from Rated R. Can what’s contained in those ratings vary widely? Yes. But are you clear on what the boundary line is? Yeah, I’d say so.

So, when it comes to spice in YA, I think the answer is: nothing that would constitute more than a PG-13 rating or that would require an experienced, adult mindset to be believable. One of my personal reader pet peeves is when teenage characters have the same level of world weariness as an adult, even in a fantasy setting. (I’m looking at you, Six of Crows. And that series isn’t even spicy!)

What makes YA what is it, aside from teenaged protagonists, is 1) the intended audience (primarily teens, though adults can enjoy it too) and 2) the approach: coming of age, figuring out who you are and your place in the world, learning to be independent, falling in love for the first time, etc.

So honestly, if you’re an adult author writing books for teenagers, I don’t think that you could, in good conscience, write a book that is smut-heavy and call it YA.

If you do, you’re no longer serving the main objectives of the genre. You’re writing NA or Adult, and if you want your protagonists to be 18 or 19, fine. Technically, they’re adults. Just make it clear who you’re writing for.

Spice vs no spice: conclusion

The fact is, extremes of either kind are not good. While some readers prefer more spice and others prefer less, the average reader just wants a good book with a good story, and getting political about chili peppers is only going to confuse them and turn them off.

I get that in the spice vs no spice debate, non-spice authors are frustrated at the market for favoring spice. I get that as readers mature, they want content that reflects their adult preferences. There is room in the world for both, and both have an audience that’s hungry for content.

And if you’re like me and fall somewhere in the middle as both a reader and a writer, I guess the best course of action is to just continue to read the books that you like and ignore everything else.

Basically, that’s the major takeaway here: as long as it’s not hurting anyone, and as long as you’re not putting anyone down for not agreeing with you, just read what you like and shut up about it. I mean, you can talk about it, just… you know what I mean. Community of positivity! Not the toxic kind! Just the regular kind! The “we all like to read here and it’s just books and it’s not that big of a deal” kind!

Okay? Good? Great. Glad we had this talk.

spice vs no spice in romance books

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