The Great Smut Debate

The Great Smut Debate: What Makes a Romance?

If you hang out in online romance communities enough, you’ll notice some of the same conversations pop up over and over again. One of those repeated conversations centers on the question, “Is this book a romance, or is it women’s fiction?”

Now, if you don’t know this, we’re going to be crystal clear. There’s nothing that enrages a romance reader more than the betrayal of picking up a book and discovering that it’s not really a romance after all. 

We take as a given that there are two hard and fast rules: there must be a romantic relationship and there must be a happy ending. However, beyond that, there are a lot of moving pieces that come together and really make a romance sing. 

To explore this issue further, we at the Smut Report are putting together a series of posts exploring the nuances of what makes a romance a romance. In doing so, we’ll be exploring some areas of discussion within the romance community (including HEA vs. HFN, 1st vs. 3rd POV narration, and how much sex is too much sex). Our goal is not to set rigid boundaries on the genre—romance is capacious, and there are many ways to tell a love story!—but rather to probe the grey areas that might make a reader throw up their hands in despair after reading a book.

Our discussion begins in earnest in February, with Ingrid proposing an additional defining characteristic of the romance genre. 

We’ll be eager to hear your thoughts on our questions and conclusions as we go on this smut journey. Let us know what you think by dropping us a comment or an email, or hitting us up on Instagram or Twitter

Welcome to the Great Smut Debate.

Smut Reporting

Orgasms from the Base of the Spine

Erin, Ingrid, and I text each other a LOT. About our kids, about what we’re drinking, but mostly, about smut. (I’m sure you’re shocked.) More than a year ago now, someone texted about the common phrase: “I could feel my orgasm building at the base of my spine.” Which sparked a whole discussion. What does that mean? Is that your butt? Your coccyx? Had any of us experienced an orgasm that we knew was coming because of butt spasms? Had any of our spouses? 

Since then, we’ve been collecting screenshots of the phrase, meaning to make a Pinterest page or something, I don’t know. But that never happened (even though we did start a Pinterest page with other stuff on it, and then immediately neglected it), so I’m writing a blog post instead.

Time for a poll! (Don’t worry! The results are anonymous!)

I personally am in the “no, never” camp, and I thought it was extremely weird that this was so ubiquitous in romance novels. 

To delve further into this weird phenomenon in the land of romance writing, let’s look at some examples!

Knots

Her strokes sped up and the knot at the base of his spine drew tight. He tugged at her hair. “I’m…close.”

Girl Gone Viral, Alisha Rai

The knot of his orgasm pulled dangerously tight at the base of his spine.

Bad Keys, J.B. Curry

Ok, so here we have the “tight knot” metaphor. If my muscles are knotted, I need a massage. If my stomach is in knots, I’m anxious. So knots—not super comfortable. But the release of orgasm is pretty meaningless if there’s nothing to release from. You need that build-up of tension and discomfort as a counterpoint, so a tight knot as a pre-orgasm metaphor seems pretty apt. 

Tingles

And then I feel that tingle at the base of my spine, the warm glow that tells me I’m getting close.

Promise Me Nothing, Jillian Liota

I’m literally on pure fire for him right now, that vaguely familiar tingle building at the base of my spine.

Venom, Dee Garcia

NOTE: this is a female narrator speaking here

He fucked Tris hard as he wanted, watching with spine-tingling rapture as Tristol came totally apart beneath him.

The 5th Gender, G.L. Carriger

Another set of examples that I can sort of get—the spine tingle. No explosions, but that feeling of something (or, uh, someone) coming. 

I can buy the spine tingle more than the spine knot. My tailbone—the literal base of my spine, anatomically—doesn’t seem like a place that holds a lot of tension, but tingles can happen in the weirdest of places.

It’s Electric

Within minutes, an electric charge built up at the base of his spine, in his balls, the imminent release he could not stop. – Joanna Shupe How the Dues stole Christmas

“Christmas in Central Park,” Joanna Shupe (in How the Dukes Stole Christmas anthology)

When his desire was back under control, he began again, building the rhythm gradually, while the voltage of lightning gathered in his spine.

Marrying Winterborne, Lisa Kleypas

Should we call the electric charge, the bolt of lightning, a more intense tingle? Does it presage a more intense orgasm? What does an electric charge in your body even feel like? Isn’t getting shocked by electricity painful—especially at the “voltage of lightning”?

Climbing the Ladder

And when I felt the climax pressuring the base of my spine, climbing up like a ladder…

Midnight Blue, L.J. Shen

The orgasm careened up his spine, hitting him the moment after she found hers, whispering his name over and over again.

Not the Girl You Marry, Andie J. Christopher

My climax pushed from the base of my spine, spinning, circling, and pressing out and up. It went on and on until I was bursting out of my skin.

Mr. Mayfair, Louise Bay

Sometimes, the orgasm doesn’t stay in the base of the spine, but rather travels up. I think Bay’s description in Mr. Mayfair is perhaps more apt—not just pressure up, but pressure out. Feeling the orgasm also building in your general hip and pelvic region makes sense to me. Since I’m taking things to a literal extreme here, I’m not going to parse the whole “bursting out of my skin” metaphor. We might end up in some dark places.

Descending the Ladder

“Mi princesa, mi única estrella,” as she locked up beneath him, shaking and sobbing and coming, and his own helpless orgasm shot down his spine.

Hate Crush, Angelina M. Lopez

Ok, technically this isn’t a “base of the spine” example but I’m fascinated by this switch up. If the orgasm shoots down his spine, where does it start? Does this imply that there’s a greater mental component to this orgasm, since it comes from the skull or brain, rather than just from the groin?

Yikes

Some nights he would make me orgasm so hard my lower back would hurt the next day.

The Siren, Tiffany Reisz

I dunno, Nora, maybe your lower back hurts because Søren likes flogging you.


What have I learned? Well, the orgasm from the base of the spine image transcends romance subgenres. We have it in traditionally published and indie books. We have it in contemporaries, historicals, and paranormals.

I’ve also learned that it is almost only the male characters who experience orgasms this way (in romance novels, at least). The passages from Venom and The Siren are the only ones from my (admittedly small) sample that are from the point of view of a female character.

And, in doing some additional research, I’ve learned that maybe I’ve been too judgmental about this whole base of the spine thing, especially given the fact that the physical sensation of having an orgasm can’t be easy to describe. From an article on the science of orgasm from the LA Times

Orgasms are difficult to define, let alone reverse-engineer. A few blueprints, however, have already been sketched out. First, stimulating the genitals sends electrical impulses along three main paths — the pelvic, hypogastric and pudendal nerves. Next, these titillating signals enter the spinal cord at the base of the spine and zip up to brain regions that respond to genital sensations.

We’re talking about biological functions of the nervous system here, but we’re also talking about electricity and the base of the spine and those feelings traveling to other parts of the body. Orgasms are difficult to define, let alone describe. I don’t think I can actively feel the workings of my nervous system, but in the absence of other options, why not draw on the scientific language, and then make it more evocative?

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Grumpy Sunshine

Hello and welcome to Scrooge week. Ingrid wanted to talk about the Grumpy/Sunshine trope this year, and what better time to do it than during the week between Christmas and New Year when everything just seems to lapse into torpor until January 2nd?

Sad puppy with grumpy/sunshine.

Book covers of:
Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin
Promising Love by Sara Ohlin
At Attention by Annabeth Albert
Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Reviews coming this week!

Bottom line: Do you like the grumpy/sunshine trope?

Erin: What’s not to like?

Ingrid: It’s my favorite.

Holly: It can be fun, but I don’t go out of my way to look for them. 

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as the grumpy/sunshine trope?

Erin: When I think grumpy/sunshine, I think of the sunshine character as being really sunny and optimistic, and I feel like often that’s more limited than others use the tag. Grumps are pretty easy to find, but a really sunny protagonist is not so common. More often it seems like grumpy/well adjusted. 

Ingrid: Someone is grumpy and finds themselves being inconveniently drawn to a **GASP** sunny person!!!! Fight it! Fight the urge!! (I melt! I swoon!) (Hello, Sound of Music)

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It’s such a gentle way to do opposites attract. The grumpy one gets to be themself but can also be soft for the sunshine one, and the sunshine one, who is probably more socially likable in general, can see the beauty in the probably less socially likable grump. HOW DOES THAT NOT INSPIRE HEART EYES?

Ingrid: There are SO many ways to do this. My favorite is romantic comedy, but you can cross all moods and tones, really. It’s flexible, it’s fun, and I adore that it showcases different people falling for each other the way they are. (Hello, Bridget Jones’ Diary)

Holly: Oh hey, Ingrid’s example makes me realize that Pride and Prejudice is the original grumpy-sunshine book, and I do love me some Pride and Prejudice retellings, so maybe I have to readjust my thoughts about this trope. The P&P connection just highlights how flexible the trope really is—it works in any romance subgenre, and combines well with other tropes.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: NOTHING. IT IS AN EXCELLENT TROPE!

Ingrid: That there are not more of them?

Erin: I suppose… There is an argument to be made, depending on the characterization, that the grumpy character doesn’t treat the sunshine character well and the sunshine character just puts up with it. Or maybe sometimes the sunshine character doesn’t respect the grumpy character’s boundaries. But generally this doesn’t seem to be a trope fraught with a baseline that should cause concern.

Holly: Ok guys, I’m gonna say it. The gender dynamics of this trope kind of rub me the wrong way.

Before I get started, obviously, #NotAllGrumpySunshineBooks. But the vast majority of grumpy-sunshine pairings are grumpy hero, sunshine heroine. And I just wonder what this says about our collective socialization that we (readers) love to see women who are just perky and happy and bring joy to everyone around them. 

Maybe I’m irked because the only book I’ve read that was specifically marketed as a grumpy heroine / sunshine hero didn’t actually have a sunshine hero who was a ball of optimism and joy, but rather a sad, lonely hero who put on a socially acceptable front.

Erin: This is a good point. Grumpy heroines seem to be very popular right now, though. Readers who are Very Much Online certainly get excited about them.

That said, what Holly’s saying about the sunshine hero’s characterization also speaks to my earlier point that often grumpy/sunshine isn’t really always grumpy/sunshine but is maybe wounded/sunshine or grumpy/sociable or grumpy/well adjusted or anti-social/social and grumpy/sunshine has simply become a catch-all for a certain kind of opposites attract dynamic. For example, people often cite Managed as a great Grumpy/Sunshine book and while I could see Scottie as maybe being grumpy (more uptight than grumpy though, tbh), I didn’t find Sophie to be particularly sunshiney. 

Also I’ve been reading a ton of M/M romance, so the gender dynamics of this trope haven’t been so apparent to me. Highly recommend.

Let’s talk more about the gender dynamics and how characterizations impact the trope. 

Erin: I was very much struck by Holly’s point re: heroines being the vast majority of sunshiney protagonists. I am fully in the camp of “give me emotionally constipated (and preferably also pining) hero,” so it’s not a characterization I’m bothered by when reading for fun, but I can see that it does tap into the Unlikeable Heroine problem. We’re more likely to be critical of a heroine’s reason for being grumpy or prickly or otherwise Unlikeable. I’m totally prepared to argue that it’s probably better for there not to be an underlying reason for a character to be grumpy because then the reader can’t be critical of that, it’s simply the way that character is. 

Now, I am also thinking of gender in the cis M/M romance I’ve been reading voraciously. As I recall, the sunshine characters are not more femme (or at least less…burly?) than the grumpy characters, but I can acknowledge that a lumberjack-type character is more likely to be the grump in the relationship. At least, I’m pretty sure I haven’t read a M/M g/s with the lumberjack type as the sunshine. I recently listened to an Esther Perel podcast where she discussed how people perceive the world – I’m alone vs. I will always find people – so I’ve been thinking of this dynamic more in those terms. One protagonist feels completely alone while the other feels that there is a community that can be relied on, and without the other social input re differing gender of the characters, it doesn’t get so complicated. 

Holly: Building on my grump about the gendered dynamic, I feel like sometimes it can go as far as infantilizing the female/sunshine character. Like “This heroine is so naive” or “Look at this silly heroine who loves sunshine and rainbows and unicorns.” The best grumpy-sunshine books play with this dynamic in interesting ways, but there are plenty of books that…don’t.

Ingrid: I think I can grudgingly admit to this premise. It kind of goes hand in hand with my romance theory that we often like to see the scenarios that don’t often work out in real life play out on the page. In some of these books we have a truly grumpy stick-in-the-mud who is miraculously transformed by his love for the sunshine–and I think some of us do like the idea that we can love someone so perfectly they’ll be transformed by that. Which is just…so unlikely in real life. 

What happens when the grumps aren’t really grumpy and the sunshines aren’t really sunshiney?

Holly: I think that Erin’s earlier point that grumpy-sunshine has kind of become a catch-all for a certain type of opposites-attract dynamic is right. With that said, however, I am not such a stickler for the rules that I don’t think of all these books as grumpy-sunshine books. When grumps are only sort of grumpy and sunshines are only sort of sunshiney, for me it just means that the extremes between their characterization is less pronounced, but you still see the same basic beats. 

(My irritation about the grumpy heroine I mentioned before was more that I wanted some himbo action and didn’t get it, rather than that the dynamic between the characters wasn’t enough of an opposites-attract situation. The book is His Grumpy Childhood Friend by Jackie Lau.)

Erin: If I’m really hungry for a grumpy/sunshine read, what I want in that read is for the grump to be my very most favoritest emotionally inaccessible grumpy sort of hero who needs a metric ton of sunshine fiber to get over that emotional constipation. And I want that grump to be inexplicably and reluctantly gooey cinnamon roll soft for the sunshine character that is ruthlessly upending their life. And I also want the sunshiney character to not be fully moored in emotional trauma and angst and simply using an outwardly sunny personality to mask their true feelings. 

So, for me, when I see an advert for grumpy/sunshine and that dynamic is less pronounced, as Holly described, I might not disagree that it still can qualify as grumpy/sunshine; however, my enjoyment of that particular trope in that particular narrative will probably not be what I wanted it to be. At the end of the day it’s an expectations issue. Just because something might technically be categorized in this trope doesn’t mean it’s going to be a satisfying version thereof. 

Ingrid: Well, I think having this trope be a slight spectrum is fine–what is grumpy to one may be perfectly pleasant to someone else. In some of these, we almost border on enemies-to-lovers–if the first interaction is really awful and antagonistic, the reader is going to need to see some work being done by the grump in order to buy in to that romance. And honestly, I’m ok with that, too. So I just feel like I have enough love in my heart for all KINDS of grumpy sunshine books.

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: Well crap. Okay. Role Model by Rachel Reid. Troy is miserable and unpleasant because his whole life has been unraveled. Harris is a walking ball of sunshine. Troy feels safe with and admires Harris, and Harris sees underneath all the noise to realize that Troy is struggling. So many warm fuzzies.

But also, like, if you haven’t read Managed by Kristen Callihan, you really should. Scottie!!!

Holly: Glitterland by Alexis Hall. I fully identified with misanthropic Ash, who went from disdaining Darian’s beautiful sunshine energy to discovering that he actually loved it. Plus the writing is just phenomenal. 

And since I am, by Smut Report Law, required to include a histrom in these let’s talk tropes recommendations lists, Dearest Rogue by Elizabeth Hoyt is a solid grumpy-sunshine bodyguard romance. Phoebe is one of those rare true sunshine heroines who just radiates kindness and joy to everyone—except her extremely grouchy bodyguard, who she resents (until she doesn’t). The plot is totally bonkers, but James and Phoebe are perfect in their longing for each other.

Ingrid: I realize I’m like a broken record about this book, but By a Thread by Lucy Score is a beautifully done, very steamy example of Grumpy/Sunshine. It opens with the Grumpy hero getting the heroine fired from her job, only to discover that his mother has hired the heroine to work at the publisher they own together. He’s so grumpy and it’s just so steamy and good. 


Media we mentioned in this discussion:

Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Kelly Bowen

Looking for a new author to try out? Here’s everything you need to know about Kelly Bowen, whose books include I’ve Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm, Last Night with the Earl, and A Good Rogue is Hard to Find.


What She Writes: 

Regency romance, usually with some suspense elements. 

Please note: Bowen’s most recent book, The Paris Apartment, is a split-time World War II / present-day story that is firmly historical fiction, not romance. We haven’t read that one because 1) we are smut-lovers first and foremost and 2) we suspect that it differs dramatically from her other books.

What Makes Her Unique: 

Bowen writes unconventional heroines – like, really unconventional. Not like, “Oh, I like horses and the outdoors instead of embroidery.” More like, “I like horses and therefore fix horse races to fleece unscrupulous nabobs who don’t pay their tailors.” Her characters tend to be very morally upright, though they also tend to operate outside the letter of the law. 

Writing Style: 

Alternating 3rd person POV. Gritty details. (Think: children dying of poverty or horses dying on the battlefield.) Steamy sex that is well integrated into the plot and character development. Humor breaks things up so that her books aren’t overwhelmingly broody (which they *could* be, given the other content). 

Why We Love Her: 

We like that her books tend to have a strong moral center without getting preachy. We love her bad-ass heroines. And she does an excellent job writing sex scenes with good steam that’s not just there for fun, but also works to advance the characters’ relationship. 

Her Books as a Gif:

She Might Not Be For You: 

If you like your Regency romances to stick to ballrooms, Bowen is probably not the author for you. Her characters spend a lot of time in the underbelly of society, and Bowen doesn’t gloss over these bits. 

Also, if you definitely prefer your book titles and covers to be relevant to the book you’re reading, you might find Bowen’s books challenging. Two of the books with “Duke” in the title are not about dukes at all. And both of the “Rogue” books are actually about aristocrats (including one very staid, responsible duke who is not a rogue at all). 

Notable Quotation: 

“Have you given any thought to the formula you would like me to run?”

Alex nearly lost his grip on the decanter. “I beg your pardon?”

“At least a few of your patrons will need to achieve moderate success, and the occasional player will need to achieve considerable success at the vingt-et-un table if you hope to attract those individuals whose pocket books match their greed and belief that the next hand will change their fortune. I will require instruction as to how you wish me to deal in order to maximize both prophets and popularity.” She withdrew a small square of paper from a hidden pocket somewhere in the folds of her skirts and held it out to him.

“I’ve run some scenarios, allowing for a margin of error that I will not be able to avoid. It’s all basic accounting worked into a matrix of probabilities, but I thought you might want to review it.”

Alex very carefully replaced the heavy crystal on the surface of his desk struggling to draw a breath. This was not good at all. Forget his alarming charge into the fray on a white horse, he was rather afraid he had just fallen in love.

—Between the Devil and the Duke

The Bottom Line:

If you’re looking for a well-balanced historical romance that includes humor, suspense, and sex, Bowen might just be the author for you!

Content Warnings:

Books include references to extreme poverty, spousal abuse, child abuse, and deaths of family members. Usually these references are not oblique. 

Start With:

I’ve Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm. Just ignore the cover.

Hot Takes by Holly

Let’s Talk about Big Peen

What’s the Opposite of a Size Queen?

Because whatever that is, it’s me. 

So, fellow smut readers, have you noticed that men in romance novels tend to be… well-endowed? That’s rhetorical. Of course you’ve noticed. 

Time for a poll!

What I find so interesting is that, even if it IS the case that an author is in the “angle of the dangle” camp, it just means that we aren’t given a lot of information about penis size. Where are my 5-inch long men in romances? (The average penis size is 5.1–5.5 inches, according to this article in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy.)

But let’s talk about those large dudes for a minute. I am yelling about this for several reasons. 

First, because it leads to those scenes where the heroine is like, “Oh my! Do you think it will fit?!?!” and then has a fit of the vapors. And I am over it. I love a good bodice-ripper, but 1987 called and they want their line back. 

But more importantly, we should maybe talk about the unrealistic expectations of male beauty that romance novels perpetuate. We recognize the beauty in a much wider variety of heroines these days than previously; the days of waifs with long hair and violet eyes may not be entirely behind us, but those waifs are joined by women of all ages and shapes and sizes—who all find heroes (or heroines!) who think they are just bangin’. But the men! Six packs, as far as the eye can see. Investment banker? Six pack! Criminal mastermind? Six pack! Duke? Six pack! Farmer? Six pack! Linebacker? Six pack! And along with that six pack, comes, of course, a giant dong that the waif can’t fit her fingers around. 

[Side note: As I was ruminating on this post, this Very Important Twitter Thread by Tessa Dare about having tiny hands happened. So maybe all of these heroines have tiny hands which make penises seem bigger than they are.]

Perhaps the giant dong is a residual of the “romance is for women by women” rhetoric, where they are catering to the female gaze (or, more accurately, the gaze that desires to look at male bodies). Why NOT make the hero a sex object, if no man is going to read about it and feel bad about his lack of endowment? Of course, this ignores the many men and non-binary folks who read romance—and ignores the insidious impact the portrayal of romance men has on everyone’s idea of male beauty. (See also any discussion of any actor who “bulks up” for a role and then reverts back to normal levels of ripped.) 

Let’s go back to some data (all from this handy article)!

The vast majority of men who seek penile-lengthening surgery are, in fact, “normal” (according to one study, 90% of those seeking such surgeries were 4” or larger)—but in male fantasy, the perfect penis size is a whopping 7–10”.

Interestingly enough, female survey respondants are better at accurately describing male penis size; futhermore, female survey respondants rarely list penis size as important for sexual satisfaction. That does bring into question my assumption that those giant shlongs in romance novels are catering to female fantasies, if it turns out I’m actually not alone in my preference for seeing how well the dude uses the dang thing.

Maybe this hot take is really about personal preference, about those twelve-inch monstrosities taking me out of the moment when things are getting sexy, and not about anything deeper.

(If you know of a good romance where a male main character explicitly has a *small penis*, I AM ALL EARS.)


This hot take brought to you by I Dream of Dragons by Ashlyn Chase. I read this book *several years ago* and I’m still mad about the scene where he pulls out his giant dragon penis, the heroine is like “OH NO HOW WILL IT FIT?!?!?” and then remembers that she’s a goddess now, so she’ll just *expand her vaginal canal so it’s the right size for his schlong.* RAGE SCREAM!!!!!!!

Addendum: If you’d like to read a book about a big penis where the monstrosity has negatively impacted the dude’s life, I recommend Learned Reactions by Jaycee Ellis or This is Not the End by Sidney Bell.