"Romance novel" can mean or be a lot of different things to different people. Some people equate romance novels exclusively with gratuitous and explicit sexual content. Others go so far as to refer to them as "porn for women." According to the American publishing standard of a romance novel, the story is required to have a "happily ever after" at the end between the hero or heroine. Aside from that, there are many, many sub-categories of romance novels that carry their own rules and requirements from inspirational (Christian) romance to erotic romance. Porn is a separate category from erotic romance and is not considered romance.
The adult and young adult/teen romance genre has many sub-categories. John Green writes teen contemporary romance, such as The Fault in Our Stars. Stephanie Meyer writes teen paranormal romance with her Twilight series. Ally Condie wrote a teen sci-fi romance series starting with Matched. Brodi Ashton's Everneath series is teen fantasy romance. Even Suzanne Collins' dystopian Hunger Games trilogy doubles as a romance. There are Christian young adult romance authors as well, such as fantasy and historical fiction author Lisa Tawn Bergren or upcoming Christian contemporary romance teen author, Taylor Bennett.
For adult romance, there are as many if not more sub-categories. Inspirational romance is largely interchangeable with Christian or Mormon romance focusing on faith-driven conflicts between the hero and the heroine. Francine Rivers writes popular Christian historical romance, such as the Mark of the Lion series. Amish romance is a growing sub-category in the Christian market written by popular names such as Kathleen Fuller and Beverly Lewis. Kimberly Rose Johnson is another rising author in Christian contemporary romance, with her sweet romances and light mystery threads.
While there are exceptions, the majority of Christian romance defines itself as generally wholesome with a distinct lack of explicit sexual content. There is even secular "sweet" romance which focuses on very soft conflicts and little to no sexual content. On the other end of the extreme, adult romance can also fall under the steamy or erotic romance categories, which begin to skirt the edges of pornography.
Teen romance tends to be less explicit than adult romance, but that's no guarantee those novels are free from sexual content. Just to name a few, John Green's contemporary romances do have sex scenes, and Kiera Cass' dystopian romance The Selection has some pretty steamy moments. Young adult/teen romance is more defined by having teen heroes or heroines for other teens to relate to than being a specific standard for clean content.
As with all media choices, it's important to respect your parents' house rules. If they don't want you to read romance novels, you must obey their decision (Ephesians 6:1-3). When you are on your own, you'll have plenty of time to make those decisions for yourself, between you and God. (See guidelines below.)
If you have been given permission by your parents to make your own choices about what books you read, your friend might have been told by THEIR parents not to read romances. If that's the case, then don't push your fave series on them. Or perhaps the roles are reversed, and you're the one who isn't allowed to read something they can. Don't allow yourself to be swayed. Respect each other's convictions (Romans 14:13-23).
One Christian may adore Christian romance because it's clean and they find all the romantic themes they want and more. But another Christian might not be able to read any romance because the fictional relationship dredges up hurt and longing for something they don't have and further stirs up feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness. Sometimes the emotional pull of a fictional romance is too strong to experience while also staying grounded in what real romance looks like.
Be aware of how your media choices affect you. Be honest. Do your research. If you want to avoid certain topics, learn about a novel's content prior to reading. Talk to a trusted friend who has read that book already. When in doubt, ask God for wisdom (James 1:5).
If you've been given permission to choose your own books, the Bible can help you make a choice that aligns with the convictions God has placed on your heart (John 16:8). Philippians 4:8 gives us a good rule of thumb: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
The Apostle Paul directs believers to very carefully guard what they spend a lot of time thinking about. While there may be horrible things that happen in the world every day, we are instructed to focus on the beautiful things in spite of the darkness. Biblically, we are given a lot of freedom about the choices we are allowed make for ourselves. But with that freedom comes the responsibility to make careful choices in how much we intentionally expose ourselves to content that might make it harder for us to dwell upon goodness and positive things (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 10).
Romance novels are just another type of story, but not every story is meant for everyone. One person might be able to read a steamy romance and gloss over the sexual content—or just not be emotionally impacted by it—and instead focus on themes of loyalty, healthy conflict resolution, and sacrifice. Another person might get stuck at the graphic sexual content with discomfort, guilt, shame, longing, etc.
As always with these decisions, if there is any doubt on whether or not we should be reading or watching or listening to something, we need to take it to God in prayer (Philippians 4:6; James 1:5). Nothing is too small to ask God about.
Romance, just like any other genre, has its pros and cons. Some romances portray strong, biblical depictions of love, self-sacrifice, loyalty, compassion, grace, and kindness. But sometimes these novels have explicit sexual content. There are also Christian romances that are completely clean, but depict unbiblical, shallow relationships that reach happy endings without the work required in real life (or show poor theology in how spouses are biblically supposed to treat each other).
While many romance readers are aware that most romance novels are their own type of fantasy world, other readers are not quite as aware of that distinction, as with the example earlier. The important thing is to listen to the Holy Spirit and where He is convicting us (1 Thessalonians 5:19). We must avoid intentionally putting ourselves in places that will take advantage of our personal weaknesses.
Every person has their area of spiritual struggle. God is always there to listen to our requests for wisdom and guidance, and the Holy Spirit can give us that wisdom and guidance. Just be open to listening.
Romance novels have a wide variety of content from innocently clean to extremely sexually explicit. Teen romance tends to be less explicit than adult romance, but that's no guarantee they are free from sexual content. Romance stories affect different people different ways, so it is important to be aware of how your media choices affect you (Philippians 4:6-8). Be honest. Do your research. If you want to avoid certain topics, learn about a novel's content prior to reading. Talk to a trusted friend who has read that book already. When in doubt, ask God for wisdom (James 1:5) and conviction (John 16:8).
September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.