Sexuality experts share what pansexuality means, how it's different than bisexuality, and what to know if you identify as pansexual.

By Gabrielle Kassel
August 26, 2019
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Self-made powerhouses Tess HollidayJanelle Monea, Bella Thorne, Miley Cyrus, and Kesha are rocking your social feeds and the stage with their badassery, authenticity, talent and...pansexual pride! Yep, you read that right. All these world-changing babes identify as pansexual.

The term 'pansexuality' has been around and in use for many-many-many years, according to gender, sexuality, and race researcher Della V. Mosley, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida. But (!) she hypothesizes that, because there's been "an increasing number of pansexual celebrities outwardly identifying themselves as pansexual, there's been a rise in exposure to the term."

Still, being able to list off some pansexual celebrities is different from actually knowing what it means. If you're scratching your head wondering, 'what is pansexuality?' you've come to the right place. Below, Mosley and Jamie LeClaire, a sex educator who specializes in sexuality and gender, answer all your questions, including: What is pansexuality? What's the difference between pansexual and bisexual? How do you know if you're pansexual?

What does pansexual mean?

In part, the definition of "pansexual" depends on whom you ask. That's because there are not one, but two (!) widely-accepted definitions of pansexuality, says Mosley.

"Sometimes pansexuality is defined as the attraction to someone regardless of their gender identity or sex," she says. "Other times it's defined as the attraction to all gender identities or sexes," she says, which more explicitly hints at the "pan" prefix, which means all.

Both pansexual definitions acknowledge that gender identity exists on a spectrum. Meaning, rather than being limited to just man and woman, someone's gender identity can also be agender, androgynous, bigender, or gender-fluid, gender-queer, or non-binary (to name just a few). And pansexuality means you can be attracted to people who identify as/with any of these gender identities. (See more: What It Really Means to Be Gender Fluid or Identify As Non-Binary).

"Being pansexual just means that you're capable of being attracted to someone and that it isn't dependent on gender or genitals," says LeClaire. In essence, pansexual folks can go heart-eye-emoji for someone of any sexual orientation, gender identity, gender presentation, or sex (aka genitals). (Fun fact: There's even a specific pansexual flag that includes a pink, yellow, and blue stripe.)

And, no, being pansexual doesn't mean you'll have sex with anyone.

If you read that as clap-talking, you read it right. "The pansexual community faces this myth a lot when they disclose their identity to individuals who don't know what it means," says Mosley. But pansexuality isn't synonymous with promiscuously or hypersexuality. (Related: How Often is Everyone Really Having Sex?).

Pansexuality ≠ polyamory

Mosley says another common myth she hears about pansexuality is that it's just another word for with polyamory. It's not.

"Polyamory has to do with being open to having or having more than one partner at a time—as opposed to monogamy, which is being in one committed romantic relationship at a time," she explains. Being pansexual doesn't dictate the type of relationship someone will have. Someone who is pansexual could choose to be, and be happy in, either a polyamorous or monogamous relationship, she says. (See More: Here's What a Polyamorous Relationship Actually Is—and What It Isn't).

Pansexual vs. bisexual

Curious what the difference between pansexuality and bisexuality is? Most people are. It's common for people to confuse non-monosexual (aka romantically attracted to more than one sex and gender) identities, says LeClaire.

It's true: These labels have some overlap, says Mosley. And just as 'pansexuality' has a few definitions, so does bisexuality.

First, what is bisexuality?

Historically, bisexuality was defined as the romantic attraction, sexual attraction, or sexual interest in both men and women. "Many of the definitions of bisexuality that you'll find in textbooks were created during a time where culture and the general public was still understood gender as a binary," explains LeClaire.

However, as understandings of gender have evolved, so has the definition of bisexuality. Now, according to The Bisexual Resource Center, bisexuality now means "being attracted romantically and/or sexually to more than one gender." Some people who identify as bisexual define it as being attracted to both genders 1) like their own and 2) unlike their own, Leclaire says, in a nod toward the "bi" prefix (which means two).

Wait, so what is the difference between being pansexual and bisexual?

Here's the best way to think of it: Pansexuality is the attraction to someone regardless of their gender, while bisexuality is the attraction to more than one gender.

If you're thinking "what if I'm both?" you're not alone; some people identify as BiPan (or both bisexual and pansexual). However, usually, those who identify as pansexual do so because it just fits them better than other non-monosexual identities, like bisexual.

Interestingly enough, there's also a huge cultural component to the use of these terms, says Mosley: "Things like age, race, and geographic location can play a major role in what term a person chooses." Anecdotally, she's noticed that people in their teens and 20s are more likely to use the term 'pansexual' compared to those are in their late 30s and up, who are more likely to ID as 'bisexual.'

"What it comes down to, really, is personal preference, and your personal right to assert your identity how you see fit," says LeClaire. "I personally identify as pansexual, but I see it as being under the larger bi+sexual community umbrella." Most folks who identify with non-monosexual identities agree that there is room for both/all identities to exist simultaneously.

Know this: Whether someone identifies as bisexual or pansexual (or any identity for that matter), it's their choice. As a general rule, if someone says they identify as something, believe them. If someone identifies as pansexual/bisexual/etc. but doesn't 'look' or act how you expect someone with that identity to look or act, that's a YOU problem. Policing someone's identity isn't cool under any circumstances. (Related: Why Asking Your Date If She's "Queer Enough" Is Not OK)

How common is pansexuality?

That question is almost impossible to answer, says Mosley. "There isn't enough research on pansexuality to know how common it is, and seldom research gives that option to participants."

One 2018 report by the Human Rights Committee found that 14 percent of LGBTQ+ teens identify as pansexual, which is much higher than a similar report from 2012, which suggests pansexuality is becoming increasingly common. However, there is no definitive data on what percent of the whole population is pansexual.

How do I know if I'm pansexual?

There's no Official Pansexual Test that you need to take and pass to identify with a label, and there's no test that can explicitly tell you if you're pansexual or not. Even if you're sexually or romantically attracted to or involved with people of different genders doesn't mean you have to identify as pansexual. You're only pansexual if that identity feels right (or feels the most right) to you. (Related: How "Coming Out" Improved My Health and Happiness).

Some people find that having a term or framework for what they are living and experiencing can be liberating, says Mosley. "In both my therapy and research with pan/queer/bi+ individuals, I commonly hear that having the label and language connects them to communities, reduces isolation, links them to resources, and can increase belonging," she says. LeClaire agrees, adding that "finding an identity that you feel like you can loudly and proudly state can be really empowering and liberating." But again, that's on your timeline. Trust, your community will be there for you when you're ready.

If you're wondering if you might be pansexual, Mosley says checking out gender unicorn is a great first step. "It's really interactive and will allow you to think through your different attractions (emotional, physical) alongside your own gender identity, gender expression, and sex."

LeClaire says the Bisexual Resource Center and the book How Queer! Personal narratives from bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, sexually-fluid, and other non-monosexual perspectives by Faith Beauchemin are also good resources.

Keep in mind: "The joys and challenges you may experience as a pansexual are not happening in isolation of your other identities," says Dr. Mosley. "So, I like to encourage people to do a little digging to find the sources that best fit their needs at the moment [and their other identities like gender, race, class, and immigrant status]." And for that, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram are tops. Seriously, hashtags can have some serious utility.

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