None At All…Or Just a Little? The Question of Clean Romances

by Teri Harman, @TeriHarman, #CleanRomance

I have a BIG question for you all…

What is the definition of a “CLEAN” romance?

Over the last year, I’ve been asked many times to do book lists that include “clean reads” and especially “clean romances.” I’ve received a few backlash comments on my clean lists from readers who disagree with my book choices, saying they don’t feel a certain book is clean. In most cases, these books in question contained some kind of sex scene.

Many would say a clean romance does not include any sex – none at all – but I’m not sure I agree with that. Personally, I think it’s not about none at all, but more how the subject is handled. I definitely agree that a clean read should have NO descriptive, graphic sex scenes, no dirty details into the physical act itself, but I see nothing wrong with characters having sex as long as it is written cleanly and has a significant role in the story.

I think the writing should focus more on the emotions, meanings, reasons for the act other than the act itself. But sex should not always be excluded from love – that doesn’t make sense – especially in a mainstream novel (I’m not talking about LDS or Christian novels). I think frequency is also important to note – one or two tasteful sex scenes is appropriate for a clean read.

For example, in the book The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, the two main characters, two teenagers both with fatal cancer, fall in love and eventually have sex. It’s an important scene and very well handled by the author – no descriptions, the reader just knows that it happens and how it affects the characters emotionally. This is the only scene in the book involving sex.

I list this book as a clean romance. Would you?

Please tell me what you think. Let’s see if we can come to a consensus. 

None at all or some, if written cleanly? 

What is YOUR definition of a clean romance?

And what are your favorite clean romantic reads?


19 thoughts on “None At All…Or Just a Little? The Question of Clean Romances

  1. I read that book, and liked it, thanks to your recommendation. I would not list it as a clean read mostly because the characters are teenagers. I don't think there has to be no sex at all but I'm not exactly sure where I would draw the line. I always have a hard time recommending books to others because I read a lot of books that others might find offensive.

  2. I personally think it should have NONE to be called clean. I don't like reading about others' escapades, married or not. Just like the screen, it makes me uncomfortable. If they want to say they "went in the room and closed the door", that's enough for me. 🙂 I have a favorite novel, but I can't recommend it to others because of this specific thing and some excessive language in the first 1/4 of the book…and neither would be missed if taken out. Sex is private. For 2 people. No one else should be "watching". Kind of gross.

  3. Murky waters indeed. I agree that a clean read can contain a scene in which you are left knowing that two characters have had sex, but there is not description of what actually happens. However, I think the problem is when the book is intended for a younger audience that people get upset if it's categorized as a clean read. When a teen reads about a teen having sex whether it's descriptive or not, it still sends the message to the young reader that teens are having sex. Does this also send the message to the young reader that's it's okay to have sex? I don't know and not what we're even talking about here. But if you're a parent that doesn't want your teen having sex, you would probably be more sensitive to your children reading that kind of content. And if you are okay with them reading it, then I would at least want to know what exactly the content was so I could discuss it with them. So, if I was a parent who saw a book intended for young people on a 'clean read' list, gave it to my teen without reading it myself, and then found out that there was a scene in which two teens had sex, I'd probably be upset.Maybe you need a new book list that indicates when books are free from sexual description, but still have references to sexual activity.

  4. For me, I think it depends on how it's handled. Since it is such a touchy subject (pun intended), we may have to have a rating scale similar to movies in order to differentiate the various levels of "clean". I think for an adult book, if there's not any graphic description, that's clean to me. But I can certainly understand why someone else may feel differently. For a YA book, I think the standards should be a little stricter given the younger audience.

  5. Good point! And I thought of that myself when making the list. What's hard is deciding what audience to cater the definition to. Some are okay with teens who have sex, others are not. Tricky, tricky!

  6. Ha – pun! Yes, Chrissy, I agree. I've always thought it weird that books don't have a standard rating system. Just a G, PG or R kind of thing printed on the back cover. It would really make sense and take the guessing out of it for reviewers – at least some of it. Rating systems also have their own opinions. There are some PG-13 movies I would never recommend to adults, let alone teens.It's a tough thing.

  7. Having a universal definition for clean would be really helpful. I've come across some books that have been called clean just because there isn't sex, but the descriptions of the kissing scenes are very far from clean. I don't think I've ever given a book a clean review if it has sex. When it is included, I really appreciate the authors who use the less is more approach. I agree with Carolyn's comment about no one else "watching".

  8. Uh-oh. I have really strong feelings about this. 🙂 I completely agree with Carolyn up above. If you sent a suit to the dry cleaners and it came back clean except for one spot, you would send it back, because it's NOT clean – just mostly clean. I get frustrated when I'm looking for clean recommendations and people suggest titles that are "totally clean, except for this one part…but it's handled really well." Nope. No good. Even a single, tasteful sex scene is still a sex scene. Period. I have zero desire to read about sex for entertainment, no matter how meaningful or powerful or well-handled, or if the characters are married, or whatever. It's an extremely private thing, like Carolyn said.You said that "sex shouldn't always be excluded from love," and I agree with that completely. A sex scene might be exactly what a book needs. I'm not saying every book should exclude sex. But I do appreciate when the "clean" label is accurately placed, so I can find what I'm looking for when I want a book without sex.Honestly, it's very easy to find "mostly" clean romances. I don't think it's helpful at all to make a list of them and call them clean. I find a bazillion "mostly clean" romances whenever I do a Google search for "clean romances." I feel that if someone is going to put a book on a "clean romance" list, then it had better be honest-to-goodness clean, not "mostly" or "tastefully handled."Great discussion! Thanks Teri! 🙂

  9. Very interesting conversation. I'll throw in my two cents although it's probably already been covered. I so wish there was a rating system for books like there is for movies. So many times my daughters have bought books that looked like they'd be okay to read and then end up wasting their time and money because they have to quit reading them.I think a clean romance doesn't enter the bedroom (or the back seat or wherever). I want to know that my teenage girls can read it without embarrassment or inappropriateness. That said, I have read a couple of books where characters had had premarital sex (not described at all) but it was important to the story and there were realistic consequences attached to the experience. It wasn't portrayed as okay and wonderful. It was portrayed as life-changing and even tragic. Those stories actually taught lessons and as long as we didn't "witness" the sex and the sex wasn't treated as a desirable thing outside of marriage, it was worth reading.I, for one, don't want a play-by-play of what should be private and intimate.

  10. Hi Teri! My definition of clean romance is that there is no suggestion of sex. The problem is there are so many books that have romance and they may not be "sexua"l in nature but the descriptions are very vivid and there are certain young adult books that I would die if my daughters or son read. My personal taste is that if it helps the story and I don't get a play by play then I'm up for it!

  11. Thanks, Marci! Yes, some young adult books really push the line into "dirty." That's why its good for parents to read a lot of YA too – know what's out there and what they can safely recommend.

  12. Great Topic. I don't read erotica, but pre-marital scenes in other genres don't bother me most of the time. Skilled handling by the writer is key. One of my favorite Dean Koontz books is "Watchers." The non-religious protagonist and girl fall in love and wait until they're married. Mr. Koontz handles the sex after marriage skillfully and in a way that was consistent with the story and characters.

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