What Does Polysexual Mean?

Not to be confused with polyamory, polysexuality is a sexual orientation that just might be more common than you think.

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For those who don't adhere to heteronormative, monogamous relationships, it's a fantastic time to be alive. The notion of sexuality running the gamut is nothing new, having done so as long as human beings have been on the earth, but modern society has finally reached a place where, if you want, you can put an accurate name on any sexual orientation or gender identity.

Earlier generations didn't have the same luxury. Although such terminology has been around for a while, many labels didn't get the representation or respect they fully deserved — take pansexual, for example, which wasn't really known to the general public until Miley Cyrus identified as pansexual in 2015. The same can be said for polysexual, a term that was first used in the 1920s, but didn't make it to the mainstream until 1974, when Noel Coppage wrote an article for Stereo Review in which he references David Bowie, among others, as being polysexual. At the time, Coppage lumped this term in with asexual, bisexual, and pansexual, which isn't exactly accurate.

So what does it mean to be polysexual, really? Here's everything you need to know.

What Does Polysexual Mean?

If you're more familiar — or only familiar — with the term "polyamory," it might seem like it goes hand-in-hand with polysexuality, but that's not the case. The former is a type of non-monogamous relationship orientation in which someone engages in more than one relationship, while the latter is a sexual orientation.

"As with all sexual orientation and gender identity terms, the exact definition [of polysexual] may vary based on who is doing the defining and/or self-identifying," says queer sex educator Gabrielle Kassel, co-host of Bad In Bed: The Queer Sex Education Podcast. "The prefix 'poly' means many or multiple. So, generally, someone who is polysexual acknowledges that they have the potential to be romantically, sexually, and/or emotionally attracted to multiple different genders."

There's also a polysexual flag, which has three horizontal stripes of color: pink, green, and blue, going from top to bottom.

What polysexual looks like isn't set in stone. It differs from person to person, based on whom they're attracted to, which is also something that can shift over time. "One polysexual person might be attracted to men, non-binary people, and genderqueer folks," says Kassel. "While someone else might be attracted to men, women, and non-binary individuals." (See: What It Really Means to Be Non-Binary)

In other words, there's no one way to be polysexual.

Polysexual vs. Pansexual, Omnisexual, and Bisexual

It can be a bit difficult to understand the difference between these terms. While they're all sexual orientations and may share some similarities — namely, they all describe sexual orientations that mean a person is attracted to at least two genders — they're still separate from each other.

Bisexual: Bisexuals generally center their sexual orientation within a binary to their own gender and another gender, says Tiana GlittersaurusRex, polyamorous educator and activist, and co-founder of The Sex Work Survival Guide. Bisexuality can be seen as a form of polysexuality since it describes the attraction to more than one gender.

Pansexual: Meanwhile, "pansexual implies sexual attraction to anyone regardless of their gender beyond the binary of male and female." This attraction, explains Kassel, is for "people all across the gender spectrum." For those who are pansexual, gender plays no role in their attraction to a person. Instead, they look beyond gender, finding that their attraction is based on one's personality, their intelligence, how they see the world, their sense of humor, how they treat people, and other aspects of being a human being sharing this Earth with other human beings. Pansexuality differs from polysexuality because people who identify as polysexual may be attracted to some — but not all — gender expressions, and may factor those expressions into their attraction vs. being attracted to someone regardless of gender.

Omnisexual: Although different, omnisexual (the prefix "omni" meaning "all"), is still similar to being pansexual. Where the differences lie for these two sexual orientations is "due to the full awareness of a partner's gender, as opposed to having gender blindness," says GlittersaurusRex. It's this cognizance of gender that separates pansexuality and omnisexuality most of all. And omnisexuality is different from polysexuality in that people who identify as polysexual may be attracted to multiple — but not necessarily all — genders.

Polyamory vs. Polysexual

Yes, the prefix "poly" maintains its meaning of "many" whether you're talking about polyamory or polysexuality, but the big difference between the two is that polyamory is a relationship orientation, and polysexual is a sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is who you're sexually attracted to, whereas relationship orientation is the type of relationships you prefer to engage in.

"Someone who is polyamorous has the capacity to love multiple individuals at the same time, and chooses to engage in ethical, honest relationships where engaging with, cultivating, and loving multiple people at once is allowed (and even encouraged!)," says Kassel. Anyone, no matter their sexual orientation — including, but not limited to polysexuals — can be polyamorous.

On the other hand, those who are polysexual can find themselves in any sort of relationship, as sexual orientation and relationship orientation have nothing to do with each other, even if they overlap from time to time.

"People who are polysexual can be monogamous, monogam-ish, polyamorous, or any other relationship orientation," says Kassel.

Exploring Polysexuality

As any sexuality expert will tell you, the spectrum of sexual orientation isn't just very long, but you can also slide up and down it throughout your life. What orientation you are in your 20s might not be the same as the one you identify with in your 30s — and the same can be said about relationship orientation. As you grow as an individual, you can become curious, your preferences can evolve, and sometimes that can lead to other desires, on both a relationship and sexual level. So, if you've previously identified as something else, but feel called by the term "polysexual," then feel free to explore.

"Like any sexual orientation, your arousal and desire determine if you are polysexual," says GlittersaurusRex. Consider looking into polysexuality-related books and podcasts, and following queer educators on social media, so you can learn more and see what it looks like in context.

Of course, there's no one sexual orientation or relationship orientation that's better than any other. Granted, one may work better for someone, but that can be said about most things in life. It's just a matter of, in the here and now, realizing what's a good fit for your sexual and relationship desires, and leaning into it. (Also read: Why I Refuse to Label My Sexuality)

So much pleasure in life is derived from your sexual and/or relationship orientation, and different orientations can offer you new ways to experience love and sexual satisfaction. It's all about evaluating what makes you happy and allowing yourself to move toward that happiness even if it's into new and unchartered waters.

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