Once a relatively unknown word, more and more people are becoming familiar with the term “pansexual.” However, there’s still a lot of confusion over the definition of pansexuality.
Simply put, someone who is pansexual can be attracted to people of any gender identity.
The prefix “pan-” means “all.” Similarly, pansexuality means that you can be attracted to people of all genders.
This includes people who don’t identify with any gender (agender).
Many pansexual people describe themselves as being attracted to people based on personality, not gender.
Pansexual people aren’t attracted to all people. It simply means that they find themselves attracted to people of all sorts of gender categories.
To use an example, heterosexual men aren’t automatically attracted to all women — the people they happen to be attracted to are women. Similarly, pansexual people can find themselves attracted to people of any gender identity.
The prefix “poly-” means “much” or “many.” Polysexual people are attracted to people of more than one gender. In other words, they’re not just attracted to one gender.
Like the word “bisexual,” polysexual means you’re attracted to people of multiple genders. On the other hand, pansexual means you’re attracted to people of all genders.
“Polysexual” can be a sort of “umbrella term” that encompasses bisexuality and pansexuality.
Omnisexual also means that someone is attracted to people of all genders. In that sense, it’s quite similar to pansexuality.
However, many people in online forums seem to use omnisexual and pansexual to mean slightly different things. For some, pansexuality is associated with “gender blindness” (someone’s gender doesn’t matter or factor into your attraction) while omnisexuality is not.
There is a difference between pansexuality and bisexuality, although the terms can overlap.
Firstly, it’s important to define bisexuality. Because the prefix “bi-” means “two,” many people mistakenly think that bisexuality implies attraction to only two genders.
However, for many decades, bisexual activists have described their orientation as including two or more genders. The Bisexual Manifesto, first published in a periodical called “Anything That Moves” in 1990, pointed out that bisexual people can be attracted to more than two genders:
“Bisexuality is a whole, fluid identity. Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature: that we have ‘two’ sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders.”
So bisexual means attracted to multiple genders, and pansexual means attracted to all genders. These are different because “multiple” isn’t the same thing as “all.”
Let’s say you ask your friends what their favorite colors are.
One friend might say, “Actually, I like more than one color!” Another friend might say, “I like all colors.”
Now, the first friend might like all colors, but they might not. They might not like khaki or beige. Perhaps they like pastels but not dark colors.
This is because “all colors” is, by definition, more than one. However, “more than one” isn’t technically all.
Some people feel that pansexual falls into the category of bisexual because bisexual is a broad term that means more than one — but it isn’t the same thing, because “all” isn’t the same as “multiple.”
The controversy around this distinction often stems from a place of misunderstanding.
Some people assume that bisexual people are erasing nonbinary people. They assume the word bisexual implies that there are only two genders.
Other people assume that pansexual is a word invented solely because bisexual people are misunderstood and assumed to exclude nonbinary people.
The truth is that both orientations are valid in their own right.
Many bisexual communities do acknowledge nonbinary people — in fact, many nonbinary people are bisexual. Additionally, many pansexual people know that the definition of bisexual can include nonbinary people.
Again, bisexuality and pansexuality don’t mean exactly the same thing, and it’s completely valid to identify with either (or both!).
Yes! You can still be pansexual or bisexual if you find yourself more attracted to one gender than others.
In fact, surveys and studies show that many pansexual and bisexual people have a preference. This doesn’t make your orientation any less valid.
Yes. You might find yourself sexually attracted to one gender and romantically attracted to another gender. This is called “mixed orientation” or “cross orientation.”
For example, you could be bisexual but homoromantic — meaning you’re sexually attracted to people of multiple genders, but you’re only romantically attracted to people who are the same or a similar gender as you.
You’ll notice that this article focuses on sexual orientations. However, there are many different romantic orientations, including:
- Aromantic. You experience little to no romantic attraction to anyone, regardless of gender.
- Biromantic. You’re romantically attracted to people of two or more genders.
- Panromantic. You’re romantically attracted to people of all genders.
- Grayromantic. You experience romantic attraction infrequently.
- Demiromantic. You experience romantic attraction infrequently, and when you do it’s only after developing a strong emotional connection to someone.
- Heteroromantic. You’re only romantically attracted to people of a different gender from you.
- Homoromantic. You’re only romantically attracted to people who are the same or a similar gender as you.
- Polyromantic. You’re romantically attracted to people of many — not all — genders.
Let’s say a bisexual woman is in a relationship with a man. This doesn’t make her straight. Similarly, if she dates a woman, she doesn’t become a lesbian.
Unfortunately, many people think that bisexual and pansexual people need to “pick a side” — gay or straight. And when bisexual and pansexual people date someone publicly, it’s often assumed that they’re picking a side.
You aren’t defined by your partner’s gender.
The label(s) you choose to describe your orientation are only determined by you and your experiences with attraction.
“Queer” is a sort of blanket term used to include all people who aren’t heterosexual, or straight.
While it was previously used as a slur, it has since been reclaimed by many in LGBTQIA+ communities.
However, some people still feel uncomfortable with the word queer because it’s been used as a form of oppression.
It’s totally OK to use it instead of, or in addition to, another term.
Many people use queer because they aren’t sure how to describe their orientation, or because their orientation feels fluid and changes over time.
Others describe themselves as queer because it connects them to a broader political movement.
There’s no test to determine whether you’re pansexual (or another orientation entirely).
You can identify with whatever orientation fits you. Of course, figuring out what fits you might be tough.
To help you figure out your sexual orientation, you may ask yourself:
- Is there any gender that I don’t ever feel attracted to?
- Is there any gender — or group of genders — that I’m not sure if I’m attracted to?
- What word feels best?
- What communities do I feel comfortable with?
- Am I romantically attracted to the same people I’m sexually attracted to?
Remember, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. It’s about getting to know yourself better and figuring out what you like and prefer.
It’s also important to remember that it’s OK to identify with multiple terms — as well as change the way you describe your sexual orientation later on.
Of course! Some people identify with both pansexual and bisexual, for example. Some people use the terms interchangeably to describe themselves.
Yes! Identifying with a particular sexual orientation isn’t a lifelong binding contract.
You might find that your sexual orientation and your capacity for attraction changes over time, or you might learn of another word that better describes your sexual orientation.
No matter the reason, you’re allowed to change the way you describe your orientation.
That’s OK. Sexual orientation can change over time. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.
For example, it’s totally fine to identify with being pansexual at one point in time and then as heterosexual later on.
A lot of people assume pansexuality is a “stepping stone” to homosexuality, but this isn’t true.
Many people identify with being pansexual their whole lives. If you do find that your sexuality shifts, don’t feel ashamed because it “fits” into someone else’s misconception of what being pansexual is.
You aren’t perpetuating a myth by being who you are — another person’s misinformed opinion isn’t your burden to carry.
There are many ways to identify.
Beyond pansexual, there are other words to describe your orientation, including:
- Asexual. You experience little to no sexual attraction to anyone, regardless of gender.
- Graysexual. You experience sexual attraction infrequently.
- Demisexual. You experience sexual attraction infrequently, and when you do it’s only after developing a strong emotional connection to someone.
- Heterosexual. You’re only sexually attracted to people of a different gender from you.
- Homosexual. You’re only sexually attracted to people who are the same or a similar gender as you.
- Omnisexual.You can be attracted to people of any gender.
- Polysexual. You’re sexually attracted to people of many — not all — genders.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of sexual orientations — more and more words are being coined to describe people’s unique experiences of sexual orientation.
Remember, you don’t have to use any word or label to describe your orientation that you don’t want to use. How you choose to identify is entirely up to you!
There are a number of resources out there for learning more about pansexuality, including:
- The Asexual Visibility and Education Network wiki contains definitions of different words relating to sexuality and orientation.
- GLAAD has a number of useful resources and articles on their site.
Beyond that, you might find forums and Facebook groups for pansexual people. You might also be able to find a local social or activism group for LGBTQIA+ people.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.