The Allure of Romance Novels

Sexy romance books are all over TikTok, which has led to a surge in demand for such spicy reads. Here's why so many women are reaching for them right now.

About a year and a half into the pandemic, 39-year-old stay-at-home mom of two Karen Whaley picked up a buzzy romance novel and zipped through all 300-plus pages in one evening. It was an unusual experience for her.

Whaley had been stuck in an all-too-familiar cycle: “I was doomscrolling all the time,” she says. “I had also totally lost my ability to focus on anything—I wasn’t reading books or watching TV. I couldn’t even bring myself to start.” But after hearing about The Hating Game by Sally Thorne on a podcast and being intrigued by its workplace-drama plot, Whaley downloaded the e-book—and then couldn’t set it aside. The sudden voraciousness for reading surprised her—she’d never been into romance books. In fact, she had thought she was “too good” for the genre. But while reading The Hating Game, Whaley realized it was fascinating to delve into the lives of women who were very different from her. After finishing the book, Whaley tore through 20 more romances in three months. “It opened me up to reading other genres. I was somehow getting my focus back.”

Turns out, many people found themselves revelling in steamy romance books during the pandemic. Romance fiction sales in Canada saw a 44 percent increase from June 2020 to June 2021, thanks in part to TikTok. In the first few months of 2023, the popular hashtag #BookTok, where readers share their recommendations and reviews, had passed 115 billion views. Most videos on #BookTok feature a reader who raves about a novel, often getting emotional. The intimate and honest tone of the videos encourages viewers to buy the book, leading to a massive boost in sales.

It’s word-of-mouth marketing cranked to a hundred: One viral video can garner millions of views—and sales. Rania Husseini, senior vice president of print at Indigo, Canada’s largest bookstore, says the chain has seen “an extraordinary surge in demand for books thanks to BookTok.” Picks from “Spicy BookTok,” the online community that’s gathered around sexually explicit romance novels, “have gained significant traction over the past two years” in particular, notes Husseini. From 2020 to 2022, the total unit sales of books at Indigo categorized under Spicy BookTok rose 3,104 percent. And despite their trendy-looking covers, these books don’t differ significantly from the bodice rippers of yesteryear (you know, the ones with Fabio on the cover). They’re still romance novels with fairly predictable plots involving two people (usually a man and a woman) falling in love and having outrageous sex. Plus, tropes that are common to BookTok favourites—like haters-to-lovers or second-chance romances—are the same ones that have been well-loved in Harlequin romances and romantic comedies for as long as the genres have existed.

Jenny Pool, owner of Happily Ever Books— Canada’s only romance-focused online bookstore—has heard from many readers who say they’ve turned to romance over the last couple of years because the books provide an escape. It’s the emotional interplay between a couple that draws people in, rather than any intricate plot, says Pool. “It’s not about the destination, what happens at the end of the book. It’s the journey that two or more characters go on—that’s what we’re interested in, that’s what the best part of a romance is. It’s getting to explore different dynamics.”

But the sexy content is a draw, too. Hanna Wheeler, a 41-year-old writer and translator in Toronto, says that other people’s desire is what draws her to these books. “It’s an inspiration, having these really open conversations about sexuality and turn-ons,” she says. The sexual content provides her with tools on how to initiate conversations about sex and relationships in her own life—especially those books with a lightheartedness in how characters approach their love life.

In addition to the escapism, readers can also be turned on by romance novels, says Jan Cioe, a registered psychologist and an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. For some, the books “can provide an idea of something new and different,” he explains. He echoes Wheeler’s notion that risqué reads can be a sort of inspiration. “Typically, most women—but certainly not all—need some kind of nurturing towards [sex],” Cioe says, “and that can happen in the context of reading these novels, because they create sexual arousal that can then be manifested in a physical encounter.”

(Related: Are Your Sexual Fantasies Normal?)

However, Cioe points out, trouble can arise when readers take their favourite novel’s content as reality. Some BookTok bestsellers, like Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us, depict rough and violent sexual encounters and toxic (usually male) love interests, which some critics say can romanticize unhealthy relationships. Rough sex is not inherently negative, but it shouldn’t be idealized or depicted as the best or only kind of sex, and expressing consent is key (something many of the books gloss over). “Unfortunately, in our culture, there’s pressure for women to…placate their partner,” says Cioe. Many romance novels are written by women with female pleasure in mind, but they are designed to be entertainment—not education. Conflating the sometimes extreme sexual content in a book with what you—or your partners—might want in real life can lead to unhealthy relationship dynamics. To prevent that, it’s important to know your own comfort zones. “Optimal sexual encounters are grounded in clear lines of communication,” says Cioe.

Pool notes that these reads give people the opportunity to explore situations safely—whether it’s a sweeping love story or a short-lived affair. “And, you know that it’s all going to work out okay in the end. It gives a little bit of relief, and you can really enjoy the journey the characters go on,” she says. “You know that there’ll be a happily ever after.”

Spicy Booktok SelectsImage: Christie Vuong

Hot in Here

Find your happily ever after with these popular-on-#BookTok titles—all available at Indigo or your fave indie bookstore like Happily Ever Books.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
This debut novel follows Stella, a math whiz who has done a lot less dating than the average thirtysomething. She hires a male escort to practice everything from kissing to more-than-missionary position. $22,

Neon Gods by Katee Robert
Inspired by Greek mythology, Neon Gods is a racy modern-day adaptation of the story of Persephone and Hades. $23, 

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
This rompy novel from British author Talia Hibbert is about a woman who’s tired of being “boring”—so she recruits her neighbour to help her experience things like getting drunk and casual sex. $21,

Book Lovers by Emily Henry
This novel by a favourite BookTok author revolves around a cutthroat New York literary agent and a brooding book editor who have a contemptuous relationship. $23,

Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren
This sultry read follows a rigid medical resident who thinks her life path is set—until she runs into her first (and only) love. $23,

It Happened One Summer by Tessa Bailey
This spicy read follows a fashionable It girl who’s suddenly sent away to spend the summer running her late father’s dive bar in rainy Washington State. She soon meets bearded sea captain Brendan, her polar opposite, with whom she has a fiery connection. $20, 

The Wall of Winnipeg and Me by Mariana Zapata
After the assistant-slash-housekeeper to a famous football player quits her job, she’s shocked when he begs her to come back…and do something unthinkable. $25,

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
Lucy and Joshua, two executive assistants to a pair of co-CEOs, are up for the same promotion, and the tension is reaching a boiling point. $20,

Twisted Games by Ana Huang
This is the second book in the Twisted series, which follows the forbidden (and steamy) relationship of a stoic bodyguard and a stubborn princess. $27,

Next: 18 Goodies That’ll Help Turn Up the Heat in the Bedroom

Originally Published in Best Health Canada