Labels that pertain to sexuality and gender never cease to capture people's interest. Miriam Webster even named the gender fluid pronoun “they” 2019’s Word of the Year.
But understanding today's many labels can be confusing. As our ideas about gender and sexuality continue to evolve, a word that means one thing to one person might mean something totally different to another. "Bisexual" and "pansexual" are two perfect examples. What do they mean, and what's the difference between them?
Let's break it down.
First, what it means to be bisexual:
“Bi” means two or both. The classic definition of bisexuality is being attracted to both genders: male and female.
But this definition only really works in a strict gender binary. In today’s modern world, we are starting to come to the collective understanding that while people can identify as men or women, some people do not. People can be gender queer, gender fluid, non-binary, or even agender (people who don’t have a gender at all). That's why some people define "bisexual" as being attracted to at least two genders—but not necessarily all.
“These days, ['bisexual'] generally recognizes gender is on a spectrum and there are multiple genders, but for ease of communication, bisexuality is still used to describe erotic attraction to masculinities and femininities,” says sex and relationships therapist Cyndi Darnell.
There is a common misconception that bisexuals are attracted to different genders equally. This is not the case. You can be into men 10 percent of the time and women 90 percent of the time and still be bisexual. You can be into men 95 percent of the time and into women 5 percent of the time and still be bisexual.
And what it means to be pansexual:
“Pan” means all. Pansexual means that you’re attracted to people, regardless of gender identity or expression. It means that you’re attracted to people based on their personality, looks, sense of humor...anything! It's just that gender doesn’t play a defining or limiting role.
While meanings of "pansexual" and "bisexual" are expanding as our ideas of sexual expression and gender identity evolve, most experts agree that "pansexual" is the more inclusive term overall. “Bisexual is still used but may be seen as rigid, whereas, the term pansexual assumes the person is gender blind and therefore, normalizes sexual attraction,” explains Lisa Schuman, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializes in family building.
At the same time, we’d be remiss not to mention that pan means “all," not “everyone." Meaning: “You could be attracted to all people but you are not attracted to everyone,” notes Dr. Holly Richmond, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Just because someone identifies as pansexual does not mean they owe anyone anything or are required to be attracted to someone. Make sense?
Can you be bisexual AND pansexual?
Hell to the yes, you can be both! You do not have to “pick” a label. You can pick one label, multiple labels, or no label at all. Both labels are a step away from the idea that we can only be attracted to people of the opposite gender.
“What both labels have in common is a recognition of sexual fluidity in attraction at its core," Darnell says. "[Bisexuality] applies only to gender, [pansexuality] applies to broader, more conceptual erotic attractions, too." You may choose bisexual because you’re attracted to more than one gender. You may also choose pansexual because you’re also attracted people who don’t fall on the gender binary.
It's important to be understanding of one another and be willing to shift and change our definitions of these terms as cultural attitudes shift and change, says Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want.
What’s more, our own labels aren’t always fixed. They can shift and change throughout your lifetime. You might identify as bisexual when you’re in your 20s and decide that "heteroflexible" works best for you in your 30s. You can identify as gay on Tuesday and pansexual by Wednesday. You get to choose.
On top of all of this information we’ve handed you, identifying with and choosing to use a certain label is defined by the potential for attraction, not necessarily acting on that attraction. In other words, you can still be bisexual or pansexual while having only ever hooked up with people of the same or opposite sex.
The point is, it comes down to what works for you. There is no right or wrong answer. If bisexual works for you, awesome. If pansexual is better, great! If it’s both, dope. You do you.