The recent discussion at Dear Author about RWA's exclusion of erotic romance from its hollowed halls does bring up an interesting topic: how do you define erotic romance? We have historical erotic romance, fantasy erotic romance, contemporary romance... do we judge them all together side by side? And then there is another matter brought up: what makes an erotic romance such? For example, Lora Leigh started out writing for Ellora's Cave, but I hesitate to consider her Breed books for her current publisher "erotic" because they are nowhere near the spice level of her Ellora's Cave books. Same with Sara McCarty, Anya Bast, and other authors whose dead tree books are nowhere as "hot" as their electronic offerings.
The definition of "erotic romance", I suspect, will also differ from romance community to romance community. For example, the more conservative folks at All About Romance will probably consider Stephanie Laurens' books as an erotic romance because most of them have not or will not touch or will not admit to touching an Ellora's Cave book, judging from their "EEEEK!" to anything revolving the rear end. Dear Author folks will have a more "adventurous" perception of what erotic romance is. I bet the folks who patronize sites devoted to erotica/erotic fiction will have an even more "adventurous" perception - Ellora's Cave books probably make them yawn.
So how do we define "erotic romance"? By the amount and nature of sex acts contained within? I suppose we can produce our calculator and start keeping count of the number of words allocated to sex scenes and then set a minimum number for a book to meet in order to be considered erotic romance. But this is such a dry and clinical method, I'd let the accounting types out there tackle this matter. Just mentioning this makes me feel sleepy already, heh.
As for the nature of sex scenes, this is quite a touchy subject, since it allows people to judge sexual behavior and label them into what is "romantic" and what isn't. Still, it does seem for now that anal sex, BDSM lite, polyamory, and in some quarters, gay sex are automatically equated to erotic romance. Is this the right way to determine what makes an erotic romance? It's probably the easiest way, I suppose, but it's not one I am comfortable with as I feel this method invites some people to consider certain sex acts as "not romantic" and use that as a platform to judge people who enjoy reading such stuff. But "erotic" is such a subjective word. I've found, personally, Liquid Silver Books' "Sterling Silver" line, which is supposed to be a less explicit imprint, to be so far more erotic than their Molten Silver line because I find it more erotic when certain sex acts are left to the imagination and feelings come into play alongside the sexual mechanics. To me, such stories are erotic. But they don't fall into the category of "erotic romance".
I suppose we have no choice but to settle for the simple "anal sex, etc = erotic romance" definition or "more than X number of words are devoted to sex scenes = erotic romance" unless someone can come up with something better?
But even if we use sex acts as a parameter to determine what makes or makes not an erotic romance, where does that leave certain sex acts that are not arbitarily determined by the powers that be as romantic? For example, where does that leave a romance where the couple have a fetish for golden showers and let everything go, er, WHEEE!!!! during the happy moments? Even if the couple is in love, will this be considered erotica instead of erotic romance because of the kink present in the sex scenes? I have seen the same people defending erotic romance sometimes act in moral outrage when presented with actually perfectly acceptable kink in certain people, like golden showers, shaving of one's body bits, cream pies and other creative ways to finish a sex act, and such. (I also find it amusing that some female MM authors will go YUCKS! GROSS! at the idea of two gay men getting it on in a dirty toilet cubicle or against a back alley wall when these particular scenarios are pretty much stereotypical set-ups in gay erotic fiction. But that is a topic for another day - the differences between erotic MM stuff written by straight females versus that written by gay men.)
While I can't say I personally enjoy reading some of these more "alternative", let's just say, kind of sexual behavior, I don't think it is my right to condemn these acts as "unromantic" or assume that the practitioners must be deviants of some kind. But at the same time, I wonder whether, if erotic romance is ever established as a category for the award, we will have to find a way to accommodate the less mainstream kind of erotic romance.
And then we have MM erotic fiction. (There are some FF ones too, I suppose, but... oh, who am I kidding? "GLBT" is just a nice politically correct way for the publisher to say, "Look, gals, we have MM stories, woo-hoo!") Will they compete in the same category as MF erotic fiction? Also, anything MFM seems to be considered hot reads even if the sex scenes aren't explicit, so do we put them in the same category as MF erotic romances as well? Many mainstream romance readers and reviewers will act as if they are treated with a scene of a puppy being torn apart if they come across two guys holding hands, much less kissing or more, so do we then have to put warning stickers on the books being sent to the judges of the competition? "Warning: anal sex on pages 44, 168, and 334!" "Caution: boys rimming each other on page 55!" "Caution: the heroine initiates oral sex on page 183!" Will we get remarks from judges like, "Yucks! The heroine swallows! This isn't romance, this is Satanic trash!" or "I love my anal sex scenes, but this is so gross because the men are having sex on the floor of an adult theater. Think of the germs! The discarded popcorns! This is not romance, this is trash! The author must be a MAN in order to write such unromantic MM scenes!" or "I can't believe that hero actually reaches out to touch the big fat dong of the man standing in the urinal next to his! SEX IN A MEN'S ROOM IN A TRUCKER'S PIT STOP IS DISGUSTING! NO REAL MEN WOULD EVER DO SUCH A THING! I thought I'd be reading romance, not... this!"
So much complication, so many logistics to work out, and so many delicate souls in the romance reading community whose sensibilities must be taken care of. If the RWA wants to have erotic romance as a category, it has a lot of work to do. Perhaps it will be easier to take baby steps and try... say, legitimization African-American romances in its own category first?