Pansexuality, omnisexuality, and bisexuality, Oh my!

Pansexuality – A sexual orientation characterized by the potential for aesthetic attraction, romantic love and/or sexual desire for people, regardless of their gender identity or biological sex. (From Wordnik)

I’ve identified as pansexual for some years now, and for this pride month I wanted to settle some open questions that had been niggling in my brain. This involved digging in to some of the longstanding discussions about pansexuality, omnisexuality, and bisexuality and I wanted to share both what I’ve learned and my personal experience.

Bisexuality and pansexuality

So there’s the sort of armchair argument that bisexuality is the attraction to “two genders”, and by contrast pansexuality is the attraction “regardless of gender” or “to all genders” (more on that distinction below). This then leads to the claim that to identify as “bisexual” means that someone isn’t attracted to non-binary and genderqueer people.

However, as the Wikipedia article for pansexuality explains, the “bi” in “bisexual” actually derives from the idea of experiencing both homosexual and heterosexual attraction, not from “two genders”. Strictly speaking, heterosexuality then would include, for example, a woman being attracted to a non-binary person. But, I don’t think that’s how most people interpret “heterosexuality” these days.

So, both the academic and the armchair arguments are interesting here. The arena for the discussion is much broader than academia, so I find the academic argument to fall a bit flat.

There’s then also some academic debate about whether it might be appropriate to consider “bisexuality” as an umbrella that includes pansexuality, or “pansexuality” as an umbrella that includes bisexuality, or neither.

Ultimately, the terms we use need to communicate important things to each other “in the world”, because that is where the conversations that matter the most are happening. And out in the world, the number “two” adjacent to the idea “gender” can be uncomfortable to people who are underserved by the pervasive gender binary, even if the etymology is valid.

And yet, “bisexual” is the more recognized and popular term, it is the B in LGTBQ+. I see more value in asserting the more expansive definition of bisexual as being attracted to more than one gender than in insisting on the more narrow interpretation.

One thing is certain: there will never be a tidy answer, because sexuality is not tidy, nor should it be.

Ultimately, my opinion on this is that pansexuality and bisexuality are overlapping and interconnected identities, and though I think “pansexuality” communicates the most helpfully about my identity in most contexts (and I like the flag better, not gonna lie), I identify with the B in LGTBQ+.

All genders, or regardless of gender?

So while the hypothetical differences between bisexuality and pansexuality are around how many genders one is attracted to, the hypothetical differences between pansexuality and omnisexuality are around in what way one feels attraction to all genders.

Definitions like the WebMD page for omnisexuality propose the distinction that pansexuality as akin to being “gender-blind”, whereas omnisexuality is “attraction to all genders, with gender as a factor in the attraction”.

However, that doesn’t sit right with me. Being attracted “without regard to gender” or “without noticing/regarding gender” seems implausible. Much of attraction is unconscious, so it’s impossible to be sure that your attractions “disregard” all data related to gender.

The distinction between being attracted to all genders equally vs experiencing a preference makes more sunse, but even then, both “pan-” and “omni-” are roots that mean “all” (from ancient Greek and Latin, respectively) so this undermines the attempt at distinction. What’s gained from enforcing “omnisexual” as a separate term vs recognizing “with preference” and “without preference” as two valid ways to be pansexual?

The LGTBA wiki at provides a thoughtful definition of omnisexual, highlighting that “omnisexual” is often used interchangeably with pansexual. Some people use the term to emphasize that they have a preference for a certain gender(s), while other people don’t. My impression is that the terms evolved in parallel with slightly different emphases, and not because of any real need to differentiate them from each other.

“Pansexual” seems to have won out as the more popular term. Reddit’s sub-forums (or subreddits) are an interesting, public way to see how many people are gravitating towards different ideas. As of this writing, r/omnisexual has 4.8k members and r/pansexual has 119k members. (For context, r/bisexual has 387k members, r/lgbt has 753k members and r/actuallesbians has 336k members, not to be confused with the fetish subreddit r/lesbians at 832k members.)

Ultimately, as long as your goal is to find other people who understand and share an aspect of your sexuality, describing yourself as “pansexual with a preference for some gender(s)” or “bisexual and attracted to all genders” is more productive than choosing the more obscure term, “omnisexual”.

What pansexuality means to me

Okay, so other than that I find the flag (way) cuter for pansexuality, why do I identify as pan instead of bi?

“Pansexual” has a social connotation of a little more weirdness, a little more of the “beyond the human” than “bisexual” and that is of interest to me.

For example, I see a lot of fondness for pansexuality in the furry community, and I relate. The “allness” of pansexuality evokes the idea of attraction to more fantastical and allegorical beings, to anthropomorphic animals and spirits, to (sapient) mythical creatures and gods.

Especially as I approach more and more of life with deep, erotic grace, the “allness” of pansexuality is very important to me.

So, while I also identify as bisexual, leading with my pansexuality is a way of embracing and taking pride in the weird, wonderful “allness” of my sexuality.


Is it demisexuality or responsive desire?

In late high school, I identified as demisexual. This was really valuable to me at the time, for two key reasons. One, it assured me that there was nothing wrong with me. Two, it helped me be less judgy of my peers who were so much more compelled by sex than I was.

I hadn’t really thought about it recently, until I read Kate Sloan’s “So… I’m Demisexual!” and that brought me back to the question. Do I still think “demisexual” describes me?

I have now come to realize that I’m not actually demisexual (and I never was). I’m somebody who experiences primarily responsive sexual desire, and whose sexual “parking brake” was stuck on for many years thanks to evangelical christian purity culture. More on that part in a minute.

First, I want to share what I’ve learned about sexual attraction and desire, how this relates to demisexuality, and what it means for anyone exploring their sexual orientation.

What is demisexuality?

Demisexuality is a sexual orientation in which someone feels sexual attraction only to people with whom they have an emotional bond. Most demisexuals feel sexual attraction rarely compared to the general population, and some have little to no interest in sexual activity. (Source: Demisexuality Resource Center via Web Archive.)

Related to demisexuality is the asexual spectrum, which includes demisexuality, asexuality, and other related identities. The term allosexual refers to people who do not identify as being on the asexual spectrum.

What is sexual attraction?

So the definition relies on the idea of sexual attraction, but what exactly is that? Sexual attraction is physical attraction evoking a desire for sexual interaction with someone in particular (vs. general libido), but I find the boundary of “wanting sex in general” and “wanting sex with that particular person” to be pretty squishy.

In fact, sexual attraction and desire are multi-faceted in many ways. As Emily Nagoski brilliantly lays out in her book Come as You Are, sexual desire in general comprises both spontaneous and responsive desire, and sexual attraction and sexual inhibition are separate and each important.

Spontaneous desire and responsive desire

Both spontaneous desire and responsive desire are types of sexual attraction. Oftentimes, when people are trying to understand whether they experience “sexual attraction” to someone, they are thinking only of “spontaneous desire”. However, “responsive desire” is another type of sexual attraction that should be considered.

Spontaneous desire is the kind that’s commonly portrayed. The epitome of sexual attraction based on spontaneous desire is seeing someone across the room and getting an “I want to have sex with them right now” kinda feeling.

Responsive desire arises only in situations that are already sexual. Perhaps you’re not feeling in the mood until you watch a sexy scene in a movie, or after some cuddling, or agree that your partner should masturbate without you and then realize, “oh hey, I want sex now”. You may only feel specific, sexual attraction to someone after you are already in a (consensual) erotic context with them.

The gas and breaks of sexual response

The amount of net sexual attraction we feel is the net of whatever is sexually exciting us and what is sexually inhibiting us.

The sexual excitation system (SES) is the “gas” of the sexual response system. It says, “Sexy stuff is happening! Let’s GO!”

The sexual inhibition system (SIS) is the “brakes” of the sexual response system. It says, “Hey, now is NOT a good time to be horny, mkay?! STOP!”

You may be feeling neutral when neither system is activating, and you may feel neutral (or unsettled) when both systems are activating. The gas and the break can individually be sensitive or insensitive, which gives four archetypes of sexual response: sensitive gas and sensitive brakes, insensitive gas and sensitive brakes, sensitive gas and insensitive brakes, insensitive gas and insensitive brakes.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, so for a little bit more I highly recommend the Oh Joy Sex Toy overview of Come as You Are and for the whole shebang, read the book!

What does this have to do with demisexuality?

Demisexuality is not the same as choosing to only have sex with people you know well. Sexual attraction and sexual behavior are independent. For demisexual people, strong emotional connection is a prerequisite for sexual attraction.

For some, deep emotional connection is one of the few things that hits their gas. For others, they may find that the parking brake is just stuck on unless they have a deep emotional connection, at which point the parking brake is released and all sorts of things can hit the gas. Etcetera.

One of the things that I’ve seen Kate Sloan and other demisexual people mention is that they don’t get aroused by random strangers, while a lot of allosexual people do.

However, to make matters complicated, if an allosexual person experiences primarily responsive desire, they will also have the experience of not being aroused by random strangers!

Another common example is that demisexual people don’t like porn. However, an allosexual person may also not like porn because the acting or style or ethical issues with how porn is produced hit their brakes.

This distinction matters, because if you’re looking to enjoy some sexual arousal, the way to go about it may be very different for a demisexual person vs. an allosexual person with primarily responsive desire. A demisexual person is unlikely to be aroused by any kind of porn. An allosexual person worried about porn ethics might find themselves easily turned on by artsy, ethical porn like Erika Lust’s or by pleasure-centric amateur porn like at Make Love Not Porn. (Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience. 😉)

A bit of my story

I definitely had the flickers and glimmers of blossoming sexuality at developmentally appropriate times, though I didn’t quite know how to name them.

This was because I was very bought in to evangelical christianity at the time and purity culture was in full force. Crushes were “normal and acceptable”, but sexual attraction was “dangerous”. So, I didn’t feel comfortable to classify how I felt as “sexual attraction” even though, in retrospect, it clearly was.

One thing that made it easier for me to put everything under the “crushes” category is that what I felt wasn’t quite as strong as what my peers seemed to be feeling. Since I was going out of my way to avoid sexually relevant situations, there was nothing to trigger my responsive desire. At the time, I concluded “I just don’t get sexually aroused” when what was actually happening was “I’m not in any situations that evoke my responsive desire”.

Furthermore, despite thinking that I wanted to be in a relationship, I unconsciously didn’t actually want to be, because it was easier to avoid the issue than to risk the judgement of purity culture. And so despite the fact that I was paying quite a lot of attention to the boys around me, I never believed myself to be attracted enough to them, or if I was, there was always some other “insurmountable” obstacle to dating. (This realization came to me courtesy of Existential Kink by Caroyln Elliott.)

And on top of that, purity culture had taught me that my own body was the enemy, so anything explicitly sexual hit the brakes for me. I demurely closed my eyes during the sex scenes in movies. It was easier than feeling the bizarre discomfort of flooring the gas and the brake at the same time.

So in late highschool and early college, I would have identified as demisexual. If nothing else, it helped me feel less judgy of my peers, whose behavior was at times incomprehensible to me.

However, demisexuality was not what I was experiencing.

In retrospect, I can see the many flashes of sexual desire and interest for people I didn’t know very well at all. And then I would judge those feelings and react negatively towards them, suppressing them more deeply.

By college, I’d had these little sparks with other women, and I figured “everybody’s a little bit bi, right?”. (Nope, just my pansexual ass trying to navigate the heteronormative patriarchy.)

And that suppression had a very, very high cost including but not limited to vaginismus and anorgasmia when I finally did become sexually active.

Ultimately, I do have a lot in common with demisexual people. I don’t feel sexual attraction towards random people on the street. I’m picky about my porn. I frequently experience and deeply appreciate aesthetic and sensual attraction as separate from sexual attraction. Though emotional connection isn’t necessary for me to be excited, I am excited by it and it’s a core aspect of my erotica.

If you’re looking for more resources to help you understand demisexuality and the asexuality spectrum, the Am I demi? Links and Resources Master Post over on r/Demisexuality is very helpful.

In conclusion: demisexual is a great way to be, it just isn’t me!

Craving more sweet stuff? You can read more of my musings here, and if you’re interested in reading my erotica, head over to The Cookie Jar!

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