Bisexual vs. Pansexual: What’s the Difference?
Finding the perfect label for human sexuality is like trying to find a perfectly tailored suit at a big box store. It’s borderline impossible. This is true whether you’re looking to describe your own sexual identity, or trying to understand someone else’s. Sexuality is complex, and labels are limiting.
Today we’re going to delve into the differences and similarities between Bisexuality and Pansexuality. Afterwards, when you, a partner, or your cool niece uses these terms, you can see the full, rainbow colored picture.
First, let’s start with the similarities:
Bisexuality and Pansexuality have similar meanings. Are you attracted to men, women, non binary people or any combination of these three? Congratulations! You could be either Bi or Pan or somewhere in between. It’s all about how you personally identify.
Bisexuality and Pansexuality are just two of many, many sexual identity labels. These labels indicate the capacity to be sexually attracted to more than one gender. Similar identifiers are omnisexual, ambisexual, polysexual, sexually fluid, queer, or refusing identifiers altogether. People denote varying degrees of homosexual and heterosexual attractions. This means you’re attracted to people of the same and different genders than your own.
Neither of these terms are trans exclusionary. Being inclusive of trans people when talking about sexuality is very important. However, there is controversy within the LGBTQ+ community around whether or not Bisexuality includes people who do not identify as a man or a woman. Some people reject adhering to a binary concept of gender. Which leads me to my next point:
The term Bisexual came first, followed by Pansexual
Okay, let’s get into semantics. The prefix “Bi” means “two or both”, while “Pan” means “all”. Therefore, at their driest definitions: Bisexual describes someone who is attracted to people of two genders. Whereas Pansexual describes someone who is attracted to people of all genders. The main difference is two versus all. It’s a subtle difference!
Some people think “Bisexual” is an outdated term. Some critics of the term Bisexual believe that because it references only two genders in it’s prefix, it reinforces the idea that there are only two gender in existence: men and women.
Terms like Pansexual were invented later in the 20th century as a way of acknowledging a more expansive gender spectrum. So, does identifiying as Bisexual mean that you’re not attracted to non binary people? Or anyone else who doesn’t identify as a man or a woman? Not necessarily.
Bisexual advocates believe the term can include a more fluid idea of gender.
Bisexual advocates prefer a less binary definition of Bisexual, like the one listed in the Oxford Dictionary: someone who is “sexually attracted not exclusively to people of one particular gender.”
As advocate Robin Oches defines her own bisexuality: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” She doesn’t say: men and women, but instead more than one gender. A bisexual person could be attracted to men and non binary people, women and men, or women and non binary people, or, more often, all of the above.
According to GLAAD, the term has grown and changed to be more of an umbrella term for many sexualities that are defined by attractions to multiple genders. They’ve even published this wonderful infographic by Shiri Eisner on their website:
So am I Bi or Pan?
Now that you’ve learned all this complex stuff, you might be wondering where you fall on the spectrum. I hate to sound like the stereotypical queer hippie that I am… But: you can be whatever you want to be. Your sexual identity is completely up to you to define. It is not contingent on your sexual history, gender identity of your partner, or, quite frankly, what anyone else thinks. You can use the terms interchangeably. Or you can use multiple identifiers. You are the master of your universe. Do whatever feels best to you at any given moment!
As the actor and LGBTQ+ advocate Nico Tortella told Rolling Stone in a recent interview “If I’m talking to somebody who’s more conservative and doesn’t believe in a nonbinary gender, then it’s easier to use the word bisexual, but if I’m talking to someone who’s invested in gender, queer theory, and understands the spectrum, then I’m more comfortable using the word ‘pansexual’ or the word ‘fluid.’” So what does this mean? It means you have every right to grow, change, and describe your sexuality however makes you feel comfortable. It’s up to you! There’s no right answer. No one gets to tell you how to identify.
Whatever the answer, talk about it!
If you want one term to describe you or your partner’s sexuality in its entirety, you probably wont. One term is nowhere near enough. These things aren’t that simple. As we grow and progress as a society we will need more and more words to describe the ways we live. And that’s a good thing!
As a queer person who’s used many of the identifiers on the LGBTQ+ spectrum at different times in my life, I can assure you one thing. Nothing is one size fits all. Just because your partner tells you that they’re bisexual or pansexual, it doesn’t mean you know everything about their sexuality. You couldn’t possibly! It’s best to think of yourself as a beginner when using these terms. That mindset leads to a more in depth, personal, and maybe even sexy, discussion. The more you know, the more you grow.
So whether you’re straight, bi, pan, or somewhere in between, I hope you understand a little bit more about the intricacies of bisexuality and pansexuality. Staying informed in sexy! And who doesn’t want to be sexy?
Tessa Skara is a writer and comedian. She is bravely bicoastal. She loves all things queer, including, but not limited to sex. Follow her on Instagram @tessafuckinskara.