What Does It Really Mean to Identify as Pansexual?
And how does it differ from bisexuality?
DEAR DR. JENN,
I've gone on a few dates with a guy (who I really like!) who recently referred to himself as pansexual. Admittedly, it threw me for a loop. I've heard the term before, but I don’t really understand what it means. Is it the same as being bisexual? And, as a straight woman whose preferences aren't fluid, how do I navigate possibly continuing to date someone who identifies as pansexual? — In the Dark
DEAR IN THE DARK,
You are not alone in your curiosity. After Janelle Monaé came out publicly as pansexual in 2018, searches for the term went up 11,000 percent on Merriam-Webster — making it their most searched word of the day.
The first time I heard the term was on season six of my show Couples Therapy with Dr. Jenn when Adrian Torres used it to describe himself. Adrian started dating his wife Carmen Carrera, who was assigned male at birth, but transitioned to be and live as the woman she is. While she and Adrian met and fell in love before she transitioned, this did not affect his feelings towards Carmen.
“People like to label people. A lot of people want to label Carmen as transgender. For me, Carmen is 100 percent woman. The whole label thing is not me, labels [are] not me. There are two people that are in love, that’s all that matters,” he said.
When asked what it means to be pansexual, he said: “[Pansexuality] is when you have no preference in gender. You like what you like.”
In the years since, the term has become widespread as other celebrities — including Miley Cyrus, Bella Thorne, Amandla Steinberg, and Jazz Jennings — have come out as pansexual. And recently, the term has yet again become a popular search term.
So far in June, YouTuber Tana Mongeau came out as pansexual in a tweet for Pride Month and Madison Bailey, star of the Netflix hit show Outer Banks, came out as pansexual in a TikTok video. Cara Delevingne also said that she identifies as pansexual in a recent interview with Variety about her sexuality.
“I always will remain, I think, pansexual,” Delevingne said. “However one defines themselves, whether it’s ‘they’ or ‘he’ or ‘she,’ I fall in love with the person—and that’s that. I’m attracted to the person.”
But despite the increased visibility, there’s still some confusion, even in the LGBTQ community, about what it means to identify as pansexual. Ahead, the definition of pansexuality — and how it differs from bisexuality.
What does it mean to be pansexual?
The prefix “pan-” means “all” — so pansexuality means that you’re attracted to people of all genders — and those who don't identify with any gender.
According to Merriam-Webster's definition from May 2020, a "pansexual is someone who can be attracted to males, females, transgender people and those who identify as non-binary (not female or male)."
Someone who identifies as pansexual is someone who has the capacity to form enduring sexual, romantic, and/or emotional attractions to those of any or all genders.
How is pansexuality different from bisexuality?
While being bisexual means you are attracted to more than one gender, being pansexual means you are attracted to people regardless of biological sex, gender, or gender identity.
In other words, those who are pansexual describe gender as being totally irrelevant to them in the first place, so they may feel the idea of "bisexuality" doesn't quite describe their experience.
However, both pansexuality and bisexuality fall under the umbrella term of bisexual +, which also includes people who identify as fluid, queer, omnisexual, and polysexual. It's important to note that, according to GLAAD, "some people prefer to avoid any label at all."
So, what does this mean for your dating life?
As your dating experience is showing, more and more people are identifying as pansexual, and mainstream dating apps like OKCupid are now including it as a sexual orientation option.
Knowing that the person you're seeing is pansexual doesn't necessarily have to change anything at all. Of course, it's natural to wonder about their dating history or preferences in the same way you would with a heterosexual man you're interested in, as long as you do so in a sensitive and respectful way.
And as with any budding relationship, it's important to talk about expectations regarding monogamy. One myth to bust: Just because your partner is pansexual (or bisexual) doesn't mean he's more likely to cheat. At the end of the day, regardless of your partner’s preferences, the most important thing is to be on the same page about exclusivity and boundaries.