Bisexuality vs. Pansexuality: Issues with Definitions

This is something that I’ve been encountering a lot both online and offline, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here about the difference in definitions between bisexual and pansexual – and how they’re not as different as some might think.

As I understand it and have had it explained to me, the history of bi/pan-sexuality is something like this:

-originally, bisexual was the only term around, and referred to anyone with multiple gender attractions of any form, since nonbinaries weren’t really talked about. 

-at some point, some people said “Hey! there’s more than two genders. Bi is a bit limiting” And so pansexual was suggested as an alternative to bisexual that would be more inclusive of all genders, not just male and female. Although I’d have to do more research to be sure about this, I believe “Pansexual” was not necessarily created as a different identity to “bisexual”, but rather was suggested as a new term for the same phenomenon. 

-Understandably, some people started adopting the term pansexual; others did not. As a result, there were now two distinct identity labels, and their meanings and connotations began to diverge.

-Over time, some people have began to interpret this to mean that bisexuals are people ONLY attracted to binary identities, and pansexual people are gender blind. But these definitions are too restrictive and don’t match up with how many people actually use these labels

In practice, things are much more complicated. It can work out several different ways:

-some people identify as pan because they are gender-blind when it comes to attraction
-some people identify as pan because they are attracted to not just cis-binary people, even if gender may still be a factor. 

-some people may be gender blind or nonbinary attracted by identify as bi because it’s a more well known term, or because they just like it better than pan.
-some people may be NOT attracted to nonbinaries and id as bi because of that.

-some people may use both terms interchangeably
-and probably some people may do something else

So overall there’s a lot of overlap between the two terms; pan- tends to be a more progressive label but bi- is a better known and more common label. 

When people do draw a distinction, generally pan is considered to be either “gender blind” or attracted to all genders, not just binaries, while bi may not carry that implication. Just keep in mind that not everyone makes that distinction, so just because someone IDs as bi doesn’t mean they aren’t attracted to nonbinaries or aren’t gender-blind. It will vary based on person.

In addition, I also see another split in definitions of Pansexuality: there’s the multiple genders camp, and the gender-blind camp.

-The multiple genders camp simply defines Pansexuality as being attracted to people of more than just two binary genders. However, gender can still be a factor in that attraction – how it happens, how it feels, how it plays out.

-On the other hand, there’s the genderblind camp, which defines Pansexuality as attraction to people regardless of gender – that is, a pansexual is someone who doesn’t notice or care about gender in their attractions, and experiences all attraction identically regardless of gender.

And of course, there is, as a result, infighting over who has the “real” definition of pansexuals. But I think it has to be realized that there is no one “right” answer here. The fact is that this label has been used by people in both camps, and neither can really be denied. So long as people are still using the label for both meanings, it remains a valid label for both groups, and it has to be acknowledged that there are (at least!) two valid and differing definitions.

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About Sennkestra

I'm an aromantic asexual and a bit of an [a]sexuality nerd, recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in linguistics. When I'm not reading stuff on the internet I like to cook fancy food, watch anime, and make costumes and other arts and crafts projects.
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One Response to Bisexuality vs. Pansexuality: Issues with Definitions

  1. I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone who experiences their sexuality as neither bisexual nor pansexual to be having this conversation, so I would not say either identity is illegitimate. I think the most important difference between pansexuality and other non-monosexual sexual orientations is that pansexuality does not involve gendered attraction at all. Bisexuality and polysexuality are “I am generally sexually attracted to persons of these specified genders” (or, “I am attracted to my own gender and [one/several] other gender(s)”) and pansexuality is “my sexual attraction happens completely without reference to gender.” It is also not uncommon for people to self-describe as bisexual because it is a more commonly-known term than pansexual. I take the position as a nonbinary person that bisexuality is not an inherently binarist identity, and that pansexuality is not an inherently “enlightened” identity. Some people experience gendered attraction, and there is nothing wrong with that.

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