By Emma McGowan
Most of us grew up knowing about three different sexualities: heterosexual (opposite sex), homosexual (same sex), and bisexual (both sexes). It was a clear structure that fit firmly within the gender binary, which is the idea that the only genders are male and female.
However, in the past 10 or so years we’ve seen increased acceptance of the fact that gender is more fluid that just male and female. Some people’s gender is outside concept the of male and female; some fall somewhere between; and some have identities that shift day-to-day. And, of course, a lot of people’s gender still falls under male and female, which is also totally okay.
But this is where pansexuality comes in. Pansexuals are attracted to people regardless of their gender identity. That means they don’t care if you’re a woman, a man, non-binary, agender, bigender, transgender, transmasculine… You get the idea. Pansexuals are potentially attracted to people of all genders.
In order to bring even more clarity to this sexual orientation, I spoke with a few people who identify as pansexual. Here are some top things they want you to know about their sexuality.
It’s not a new thing.
Just because we have a “new” term for it, doesn’t mean pansexuality is a new thing. People have been attracted to people of all genders for as long as there have been people.
And, yes, there have been multiple genders for longer than we’ve had an internet to talk about them. Check out this awesome map from PBS that illustrates all the ways cultures around the world have recognized a range of genders throughout human history.
It’s similar to bisexuality… but not the same.
I’ve identified as bisexual since I was 12 and my first question about pansexuality was “How is this different from being bi?” I mean, I’ve been attracted to people who fall outside the gender binary and I’ve heard a lot of bi people say they’re “not attracted to gender.” Joey, 32, explained it succinctly for me.
“Bisexual makes the assumption that there are only two genders you could be attracted to,” she says. “Pansexual encompasses attraction to all people, including non-binary folks.”
Okay, got it. But what about bi people like me who have just kind of… expanded the definition?
“This is something I still struggle with,” JP, 39, says. “I call myself bi in some circles because it is just easier, but pan feels more authentic. Personally I see bisexuals as being attracted to multiple (possibly even all, depending on the bisexual) genders, and pansexuals’ attraction not being gender based at all.”
Kelly* puts it a slightly different way.
“Pansexual is more all-encompassing, and non-binary genders are explicitly included,” Kelly* says. “They are not excluded in bisexuality, just pansexual kind of makes it more obvious.”
Pansexuals aren’t automatically into you.
There’s this funny thing that happens to people whose ideas about sexuality are expansive: People assume they’re DTF anyone, all the time. It happens to bi people, to kinky people, to sex workers. And it happens to pansexual people.
“Love and attraction can happen with anyone,” McKenna, 35, says. “But that doesn't mean it happens with everyone.”
Friendly reminder: Just because someone can be attracted to all genders does not mean they’re attracted to all people. (Meaning they may or may not be into you, same as anyone else, so don’t make assumptions in the way you approach them.)
It’s not about being pretentious.
Just like the other three sexual orientations that most people are more familiar with, pansexual is a legitimate sexual identity.
“[It drives me nuts] that [people think] we’re just a more pretentious version of people who identify as bisexual,” Joey says. “This causes me to identify myself as bisexual because mentioning pansexual to most heterosexual people causes them to throw up their hands with confusion and cry, ‘I can't keep track of all these orientations!’”
As outline above, folks, pansexual and bisexual are different. (Also, unless you’re interested in dating or sleeping with a person, their sexuality kind of has nothing to do with you, anyway.)
Pansexual doesn’t necessarily mean polyamorous.
Are some pansexual people polyamorous? Sure. And some are monogamous — same as people from every other sexual orientation.
Lara, 39, finds that people think that “just because I'm attracted to lots of different people that I must have multiple partners all the time and I'm incapable of monogamy.” That’s frustrating because it conflates two things that are not necessarily linked: who you’re attracted to and the type of relationship structure you prefer. No entire group of people who identify with the same sexual orientation also prefers the exact same relationship structure. Including pansexuals.
Ultimately, just like every other sexual orientation, pansexuals come in all races, ethnicities, genders, relationship structures, and ages. Not to make anyone feel less special, but they really are just like everyone else, living their lives, going to work, loving the people they love. And, really, isn’t that all you need to know?