Pushing the boundaries: Erotic romance and the symbolic boundary nexus

Publication year

In Chapter 2 of her PhD thesis Michelson states that this chapter had been accepted "in slightly modified form, as “Pushing the Boundaries: Erotic Romance and the Symbolic Boundary Nexus” at Poetics." (65) Here's the abstract for the article in Poetics:

How do contested emerging subgenres become legitimated and institutionalized? This case illustrates the meso-level negotiation of community sense (Wohl, 2015) as stakeholders of a genre (romance fiction) debate whether genre boundaries include a new subgenre (erotic romance). Erotic romance upended conventions by introducing explicit and sometimes unconventional sex into the traditionally heteronormative romance genre. However, opposition to subgenre inclusion involved more than sexual content. Drawing on interviews (n = 40) and text data from Romantic Times (n = 360) and Romance Writers Report (n = 180), I find that mainstream incorporation of erotic romance involved community negotiation of multiple symbolic boundary debates: (1) What is acceptable sexuality? (2) What is a real book? (3) Who is a professional author? Erotic romance was fully institutionalized after best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey forced the community to confront all three boundary debates at once. Each debate represents a different symbolic boundary around the mainstream romance genre, but the case can only be fully understood by examining how they intersect. I conceptualize that intersection as the symbolic boundary nexus and argue that analyzing genre classifications as a set of intersecting boundaries is a productive approach for understanding how cultural communities negotiate contested classification processes.


RWA was also apparently concerned with image, for in early 2005 they had quietly implemented a “graphical standards” policy for materials bearing RWA logos or linked from RWA-affiliated sites. [...]

The graphical standards were tabled due to backlash, but RWA was negotiating boundaries in other ways. At the same time graphical standards controversy was unfolding, RWA asked its members vote on defining romance as “between a man and a woman,” even though a gender-neutral definition had been in place since 2000 (see RWR July 2005, survey insert between p. 4–5). No changes were made to the definition after outcry from members but the incident lingers in community memory.

One cannot separate these formal attempts to conservatize the genre from the expansion of erotic romance and non-normative sexual expression. Erotic romance pushed the boundaries of heteronormativity by depicting group sexual activity, and sometimes the happily-ever-after involved three people in a committed romantic relationship (McAlister, 2021). Though LGBTQ+ romance is a category to be explored fully elsewhere, the trajectories of erotic and LGBTQ+ romance classifications are intertwined, as many of the same people who objected to the graphic content of erotic romance also objected to same-sex romance. For example, one letter writer to RT complained about the erotica reviews section (“soft porn, as some like to call it”) and expressed how “shocked and offended” she was by an ad depicting two men in bed (Diason, 2007: 6). (In 2007 it was RT’s policy to advertise, but not review, same-sex romance).


RWA approved erotic romance special interest chapter Passionate Ink in 2005, and by 2006 most major publishers had an erotic romance line or imprint, including Avon Red, Berkeley Heat, Kensington's Brava and Aphrodisia, and Harlequin Spice (Patrick, 2006). By 2009, the existence of erotic romance was no longer actively debated in RT and RWR. However, there was continued resistance to institutionalization on several fronts, such as the lack of an erotic romance category in RWA's RITA awards and the contest ineligibility of e-book only titles, which disproportionately affected erotic romance.