It’s understandable; most of us have heard little about this sexual orientation, and those who have remain confused by how it differs from bisexuality, and whether it’s the same thing as being non-binary or gender fluid (it’s not).
There is so much confusion about this topic that pansexual writer Lana Peswani quipped in an article for Cosmopolitan UK that she still gets asked whether she’s attracted to frying pans.
We can assure you that there’s no cookware involved. The “pan” in pansexual comes from the Greek prefix for “all.” That Merriam Webster definition that was searched so many times explains that the word means “of, relating to or characterized by sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation.”
This definition, however, doesn’t necessarily do much to answer our questions, or advance acceptance of pansexuality.
To do that, we have to go back to the beginning—to what you may, or may not, have learned in high school sex ed—and make sure we are all using the same language for understanding sexuality and gender.
How many of us have seen the viral videos of over-the-top gender reveal parties? The ones where parents-to-be slice into blue cakes or pop pink balloons in front of family and friends who are just dying to know whether they’re having a boy or a girl?
Whether you find these trendy new parties adorable or absurd, you should know they are misnamed because when a baby is in utero we have no way of knowing what its gender is; only its biological sex.
Biological sex is based on our chromosomes and reproductive anatomy. With normal prenatal development, babies with XX chromosomes will have a vulva, vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes, and will be pronounced a girl at or before birth.
Those with XY chromosomes will have a penis and testicles, and be called a boy from minute one.
But this is not their gender because gender is not a scientific fact; it’s a social construct, and a person’s gender identity is theirs to determine.
Society expects people who are born with vaginas to behave one way, and people who have penises another. In truth, though, as we grow up, we each get to decide whether we identify as masculine, feminine or somewhere in between. And we get to tell the world about it through our gender expression—whether it’s wearing makeup, cutting our hair really short or donning a three-piece suit every day.
For most people, their gender identity and biological sex match. They may be a biological woman who prefers to hit the beach in board shorts rather than bikinis, but they still have an internal sense of being a female.
In the 1990s, the term "cisgender" was coined to describe people whose biological sex and gender identity are the same.
Transgender individuals feel differently, like their body simply does not match their own sense of gender.
They may choose to transition and start presenting themselves to the world in a way that matches their gender rather their biological sex. As part of that transition, they may (or may not) change their name, take hormones to help them develop outward characteristics of their gender like a beard or breasts, or have surgery to alter their appearance or their genitals.
But there is another option, as well, which is becoming more widely accepted: identifying as gender fluid or non-binary. Some people just don’t feel male or female. They experience gender as a continuum, and don’t want to choose one label or another.
Pansexual is not a gender identity; it’s a sexual orientation. While gender is all about each of us, sexual orientation is all about other people.
Specifically, it’s about who turns us on, gives us butterflies in our stomachs and maybe even makes us want to dress up in our finest outfit and declare our undying love in front of everyone we know (not that we’d know anything about that).
As we all know at this point, heterosexual refers to people who are attracted to those of the opposite sex/gender, homosexual (usually called gay for men and lesbian for women) refers to people attracted to those of the same sex/gender and bisexual refers to people attracted to people of both the same and other sexes/genders.
Sexual orientation also falls on a continuum—people do not have to identify as either/or; they can be attracted to people of different sexes or genders, and they can change how they identify over the years.
Pansexuality is one of many terms that have gained popularity over the last few years as a way to describe where a person falls on this continuum. Other terms, according to GLAAD, include bi-curious, heteroflexible, homoflexible, fluid, polysexual and queer.
The answer to this one depends a little bit on who you ask. The term bisexual has been widely used for a long time, and some people, like bisexual advocate Robin Och, use it to mean that they are attracted to people of more than one gender.
“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,” Och said in a Rolling Stone article last year.
The issue is that, when we started using the term bisexual, we were really focused on biological sex and not gender, and people only had two choices. Just like “pan” means all, “bi” means two.
Some people, like Och, believe that our understanding of bisexuality has expanded to focus on both sex and gender, and to include a wide-variety of gender identities beyond simply male and female.
Others, however, feel that the word bisexual is too limiting and focused on gender, and that it is restricted to a person who is attracted to cisgender men or cisgender women, and doesn’t make room for gender variety or fluidity.
This is one reason why the term pansexuality has risen in popularity lately.
Lana Peswani, who refers to herself as a Pansexual Princess, told Cosmopolitan that essentially, pansexuals don’t see gender.
“Gender is just not a thing that comes into it at all for me as this overall 'picture' of the person is what creates the attraction,” she said in the article. “I believe that there are more than two genders and that gender works along a spectrum. My attraction spans the entire spectrum and my brain just does not divide people up into categories.”
Janelle Monáe used slightly more colorful language when she came out as pansexual. She told Rolling Stone that she first identified as bi, but it didn’t feel quite right.
“Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women—I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker,” she said in the article. “Later I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too.’”
Former Disney star Miley Cyrus also came out as pansexual. In 2016, she told Variety, “I always hated the word ‘bisexual’ because that’s even putting me in a box. I don’t ever think about someone being a boy or someone being a girl.”
The irony of all of these new labels is that the ultimate goal may really be giving everyone the freedom to live a life without any labels at all.
Most of us strive for a society in which we are able to exist anywhere on a spectrum between masculine and feminine and have sexual and romantic relationships with others who exist anywhere on this spectrum as well.
The problem is that it’s human nature to want to put people in boxes. Whether we are on a first date or walking down the street, we tend to take a mental inventory of everyone we meet—is that person a man or a woman, straight or gay, tall or short, fat or thin, Democrat or Republican, etc.?
But the truth is, variety exists within all of these categories—a man may be shorter than average, but taller than anyone else in his family. And politicians are always courting the Independent voter.
We just need to get more comfortable with not forcing people into any one column and not assuming there are such a limited number of columns to begin with.
The rise of pansexuality is part of a movement to let people identify their own sexual orientation in the same way we are just starting to let people assert their own gender identity. As all of this becomes more accepted, we may be able to move away from needing any labels at all.