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 wikia.org 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.