Social media is rife with euphemisms for sex in books. Books are described as spicy, smutty, clean, dirty, sweet, and pretty much anything else you can think of when it comes to what to expect within a book. The one thing that everyone seems to agree with is that nobody agrees on the nuance of the spice rating systems used by book influencers.
For the sake of this article, spice will be synonymous with smut and will refer to how much or how graphic sex is within the book. It’s worth saying up front that no preference is wrong and that whether you like your romances to be sex-free or sex-filled your choice is valid and this is meant to help readers navigate the ever-changing spice scale and their preferences.
⛔ No Spice: Clean Romance
No spice books refer to books that are free of on page sex scenes. Even within clean romance there is a scale of acceptable spice levels, but on social media they generally mean there are no descriptions of the main characters getting it on.
Within the clean romance space there are high tension, no touch romances which could be the lowest heat level. These books specialize in making it known that the characters are interested in one another but never showing or describing contact. This is most frequent in YA romance as it’s generally frowned upon to put minors in mature situations and in Christian romance, but there are many clean romances outside these two subgenres.
🌶 One Chili Pepper: Fade to Black
The low level of spice features some contact by the main characters usually intense kissing. This intense kissing and sometimes touching typically fades to black. What that means is the author will lead the reader right up to the act, but then the scene usually ends and moves to a new chapter or a chapter break.
Low spice level is more frequent in the adult genre and occasionally in the young adult subgenre. The spice is more intimate and is still considered to be a clean romance, though not spice free.
🌶🌶 Two Chili Peppers: On page sexual acts
Two chili peppers is where sex starts to be described on the page. It’s called an open-door romance and means the reader is let in on the intimacy between the main characters. As with the prior categories there is a range of acts that can fit into this category, but the marker here is that the author doesn’t keep it to just clothes on contact.
Though this is still on the lower end of the spice scale it is definitely heating up. Two chilis are limited more to the adult genres. It’s a good place to start for anyone looking to move from less descriptive intimacy to more detailed intimacy without feeling overwhelmed by the upcoming categories.
🌶🌶🌶 Three Chili Peppers: On page sexual acts and descriptive sex
At this level on page sex becomes more graphic with lengthy descriptions. There are usually multiple sex scenes and they usually progress in their intensity. Here there is typically smaller scenes that lead up to one or two fairly detailed sex scenes. The door is definitely open and there is no holding back.
This tends to be the level that most popular romance novels sit at. It seems to be the standard for popular adult romance especially contemporary romance and historical romance.
🌶🌶🌶🌶 Four Chili Peppers: Lots of sex, possibly multiple partners
The heat is getting toward peak levels here so expect a lot of descriptive sex scenes. There will definitely be multiple open-door scenes and they will likely be graphic. This would also be where I would place most polyamorous romance stories, at least that I’ve seen. Many reverse harem, harem, and throuple romances are going to be in this category. But, don’t get me wrong, plenty of monogamous relationships will hit this category as well.
These books are still wildly popular but slightly less mainstream. With four chili peppers you can expect the story to revolve around the characters getting to have frequent sex. Their romance may start on a sexual basis or be highly sexual in nature, but you can expect lots of graphic descriptions.
🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶Five Chili Peppers: Nothing is off limits
You can’t not feel the heat. This is as hot as it gets. Five chili peppers means nothing is off limits. If you are at this level it does tend to get dark. Dark romance seems to veer into this section a little bit more, but multiple partners could be on the table (literally or figuratively). There could be toys, dark themes, kinks, taboos, and many other types of romance.
These stories also revolve around the characters definitely having graphic and in detail sex. The story feeds the need for them to have sex. There are less outside plot points and more plot points that revolve around the characters having sex. Sex will usually start early and continue to fuel the story the whole way through.
Choosing your spice level
It’s important to end this by saying this is generally how the levels of spice work on social media, but most people have their own description or interpretation of the spice levels. What does stay true are generally the top and bottom levels. But if you’re someone who only reads clean romance then any on-page sex can seem extra spicy. However, if you read tons of kinky polyamory books, my five chili rating may be too tame for you.
What matters is that if spice level matters to you, you should check out reviews and triggers for the book you’re deciding to read. If you consistently see that it has 4-5 chilis in social media reviews, but you’re only comfortable at a 3, you may find that the book you’re scoping goes further than you prefer.