Two cents on pansexuality

For about ten years, I’ve been hearing about this dispute between pansexuality vs bisexuality. In its most basic form, the contention is that the “bi” in “bisexuality” refers to two genders, which seems to entirely forget about nonbinary people. Some people propose using “pansexual” instead. Other people defend “bisexual”, or admit that it has problems but still prefer it as the more recognizable term.

I am neither bisexual nor pansexual nor nonbinary, so I’m just weighing in from the perspective of someone who has been hearing about it for a long time.

1. The meaning of “bisexual”

One of the common defenses of “bisexual” is that the “bi” does refer to two things, but those two things are not men and women, but “same” and “different”. In other words, “bi” is “homo” and “hetero” together.

As a claim about the historical meaning of “bisexual”, this is a stretch, to put it mildly. I briefly looked it up and “bisexual” dates to the 19th century. Even if people were thinking of “bi” in terms of “same” and “different”, for most of its history people would have thought of “different” as referring to men or women, not to nonbinary people.

That said, words are not bound to their historical meanings. (And if they were, then “pansexual” would be in trouble too since it dates back to 1917, when it meant something completely different.) If people are just asserting what bisexual means now, that’s acceptable.

2. The meaning of “pansexual”

Although it’s less talked about, “pansexual” also has definitional issues. In particular, pansexuality is described as attraction “regardless” of gender. This suggests equal attraction to all genders. This label may not resonate with people who experience different degrees of attraction to different genders, or different kinds of attraction (e.g. sexual or romantic) to different genders.

You can’t have it both ways.  Either pansexuality covers slightly different territory from bisexuality, or it functions as a more enlightened replacement for bisexuality.  If you have it both ways, then it seems to imply that certain people have a sexuality that is inherently less enlightened.

With the way things are going, I think people likely will maintain the semantic distinction between bisexual and pansexual, and drop the notion that pansexual is an enlightened alternative.

3. Recognizability

I am sympathetic to people who prefer “bisexual” because it is more recognizable. For “invisible” orientations, a significant amount of activism goes towards making our words recognizable, and that’s not something you just throw away so quickly. And you literally can’t. However much your favorite internet community might be aware of the criticisms of these words, it really takes a decade or more to get that message out to everyone else.

I suspect there are a lot of people who prefer “pansexual”, but switch to “bisexual” whenever the context calls for a more recognizable word. Rather than thinking of pansexuality vs bisexuality as an either/or question, it’s better to think of them as two words that mostly overlap, but have a few distinct use cases.

4. Nonbinary attraction

Is the problem bisexuality that bisexuals (supposedly) aren’t attracted to nonbinary people? Or is it that nonbinary people are an afterthought? I believe it is the latter.

It’s not like nonbinary people are going around saying “I’m interested in this person, but they’re bisexual, so it would never work out.” If someone is bisexual, we’d probably guess that they also have the potential to be attracted to nonbinary people.

And look, even if some bisexual individuals are indeed not attracted to nonbinary people, this is not morally wrong. I am not attracted to nonbinary people (or anyone else).

No, the problem is that nonbinary people are an afterthought.  And when bisexual people make the argument that “bi” refers to “same” and “different”, that doesn’t necessarily address the problem! Clarifying, afterwards, that “different” refers also to nonbinary people–to me that is an afterthought.  And to be clear, bisexuality is not alone here. “Gay” and “straight” labels also treat nonbinary people like an afterthought.

And there’s a certain honesty in that. Are most straight people attracted to nonbinary people? How would they know without meeting a lot of nonbinary people? If they don’t know, wouldn’t it be dishonest to say that they do know?  I think for most people, an honest sexual orientation label necessarily treats nonbinary people as an afterthought.

And besides, “nonbinary” is not even a gender, it’s more of a collection of disparate gender experiences. As far as appearance-based attraction goes, there is no single nonbinary “look”.  Many nonbinary people I’ve met are visually indistinguishable from cis people.  If a person says they’re attracted to nonbinary people, that’s clearly not the whole story, and it probably means something different to different people.

5. Etiquette for umbrellas

Earlier, I wrote an article about umbrella labels, which are intended to describe collections of experiences. The problem is that not everyone under the umbrella chooses to self-describe as such, and this causes the umbrella label to shift in meaning towards the kinds of people who opt in.

Bisexuality and pansexuality are both umbrella labels, and not everyone within these labels will choose to use them. So, what do we do about it?

In my article, I recommended some rules, so let’s go ahead and apply them to bisexuality and pansexuality:

  • You may disidentify with bisexuality/pansexuality even if the word accurately describes you.
  • You should understand that other people with similar experiences might choose to identify with a label that you do not.
  • If you identify with bisexuality or pansexuality for some particular reason, you should not assume that everyone else who identifies with the term does so for the same reason.
  • If you advertise a group for “bisexuals”, understand that some people identify as pansexual and not bisexual, and those people may or may not show up. (And vice versa.)
  • Bisexuality is not invalid just because you prefer not to use the term. Pansexuality is not invalid just because you prefer not to use the term.

6. Conclusion

I’ve said a few things on both sides of this argument, so some readers might be wondering which side I think is right. Nope, sorry, can’t give that to you. All I can say is that the concerns are legitimate, but not necessarily compelling.  I can’t tell you what to do about it, because I’m not the boss of you.

But remember that arguments about pansexuality have been around for at least a decade, and aren’t going away anytime soon. Let’s all live with each other’s choices in the mean time.


  1. anat says

    My son’s partner is a non-binary person. Both of them describe their respective orientations as ‘bisexual’ rather than ‘pansexual’. My son sees the ‘pansexual’ label as inherently transphobic – he thinks it is used to label transgender people (as a whole, not just non-binary people) as something other than ‘men’ and ‘women’ (and that the ‘bi’ in ‘bisexual’ should be thought as referring to ‘two or more genders’). I have no idea how true that has been historically or currently. I just try to avoid gender politics and try to follow the guidance of whoever I happen to be talking to (which is easier for me as a cis-het person who has few interactions with the LGBT+ community).

  2. says

    “bi” refers to “same” and “different”

    I don’t think this could work for me. I am female assigned at birth, but I consider myself agender and, for practical purposes, I prefer to live as a man. In my case, “same” probably would be other queer people, and “different” would be cis people. Which would be sort of weird.

    By the way, I’m sexually more attracted to masculine people, but I really couldn’t care less whether the person I’m dating has a penis. Trans men, butch lesbians, non-binary people, etc. also count as attractive for me. It also depends on the person a lot, I have been attracted also to some women who weren’t even that masculine.

    I am sympathetic to people who prefer “bisexual” because it is more recognizable.

    That’s what I do. I’m not interested in delivering a lecture about terminology every time somebody asks me about my sexual orientation.

  3. vucodlak says

    When I first started using a dating website, I identified as “bisexual,” because it was one of the three options they offered at the time (they have a great many more options now), and because that’s how I had identified for years.

    One the first people I contacted/dated was a trans woman. On our first date, she was very concerned that I might not be ok with dating a trans person because I identified as “bi,” and apparently some bi people are very firm that they’re only attracted to cis women and cis men.

    From that point on, I pretty much stopped identifying as bisexual. I still catch myself saying it once in a while, but I usually use pansexual when I’m referring to who I’m attracted to. Pansexual is a better fit, though it’s not quite right either.

    Basically, there’s a collection of traits to which I am attracted, which don’t necessarily align with specific genders. Or, to put it another way, gender is just another trait in the collection, and not a particularly important as far as my attraction to this or that person goes.

    Beyond who I’m attracted to and not, I identify as queer. I guess you could say I’m non-binary. I’ve lived all my life as a man, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it, and I’ve grown increasingly less so the older I’ve gotten, but I’m not quite sure what might be a better fit. So queer it is.

  4. Cracticus says

    I’m a biromantic enby and do find distinctions between pan and bi useful. I define myself as attracted to multiple genders, but not necessarily in the same way or to the same degree. I don’t find it necessary to justify the “two” in the bi prefix in any way. Words change meanings over time. Case and point, October isn’t the eight month of the year and no one is demanding we call it anything different. I personally don’t find the “same and different” definition useful. I have a hard enough time figuring out what my gender in on any given day, let alone if others are of the same gender or if I’m attracted to them. I think it’s wonderful that the multiple gender attracted community is so diverse and have so many different ways of describing themselves.

  5. Holms says

    Have you considered that bisexual, heterosexual, and homosexual all refer to sex (which total two) rather than gender (innumerable)? Thus the terms do not reference the identities of the people involved, but rather their physical bodies.

  6. anat says

    Holms, the people in my social circle use words describing orientation as referring to gender. When people start noticing their attraction to someone they don’t know what genitals that person had at the time of their birth, they know how that person presents themself in society now.

  7. says

    @holms #5,
    If there are only two sexes then I am confused what is meant by “sex”. There are more than two configurations of primary and secondary sexual characteristics.

  8. cartomancer says

    My problem with the term “pansexual” is that the “pan-” prefix comes from the Greek πάντα, meaning “all” or “everyone”. The sense from the Greek would suggest that a pansexual person is sexually attracted to all people (or even all things) without discrimination. Which is clearly not the case.

    One might point out that, technically, one could parse the other labels in a similar way – that a heterosexual finds all people of other genders attractive, or a homosexual finds all people of the same gender attractive. But neither of those labels has any linguistic element implying “all” or “every”. The other labels imply a discrimination of some kind on the part of the described, whereas the usual sense of πάντα is a complete lack of specificity or discrimination. When I hear it, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not a term meaning “will fuck anything that moves, and even anything that doesn’t”. But I guess plenty don’t get that sense from it. As I said, it’s my personal problem with it.

    Then again, I chafe at the fact they’ve chosen Greek prefixes for a Latin word. We should really be talking about homoerotic and heteroagapic, or idemsexual and alteramatorious!

  9. cartomancer says

    Even worse, they’ve chosen Greek prefixes for most of the orientations, but bi- is Latin. For the sake of consistency it should at least be duosexual!

  10. says

    Holms @#5

    Have you considered that bisexual, heterosexual, and homosexual all refer to sex (which total two) rather than gender (innumerable)?

    Only two sexes? Yeah, right. What about all the intersex people who are born as neither of the two sexes? What about queer people who get only some body modifications/surgeries without completely changing everything about their body? If by “sex” you mean the visual appearance of a person’s body, namely the shape of somebody’s genitals/chest/waist-to-hip ratio, their reproductive organs, etc. rather than their gender orientation, then you still get lots of variation in how human bodies look like.

  11. Owlmirror says

    Maybe instead of pansexual, pentasexual (cismale, cisfemale, transmale, transfemale, and othergendered).

    (I’m not actually serious.)

    More seriously, why not polysexual? Of course, that could make people think you only want to have sex with multiple partners. Hm.

  12. Cracticus says

    @Owlmirror , even though I know polysexual/romantic is a term that gets thrown around I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone identifying as such. Probably due to lack of visibility and if you call yourself poly everyone’s going to think you mean polyamorous.

  13. Holms says

    #6 anat
    I am not telling you and your friends how they must interpret the word, I am simply stating how I understand it. However, I would point out that while people may not know with absolute certainty the genitals of someone they meet, they have a pretty good idea from the very first glance.

    #7 Siggy
    Ah, I see the source of your confusion: the number of sexes is not simply the number of permutations of sex characteristics that can exist. That would certainly be a larger number than just two! Rather, it comes from the division of reproductive labour within the species. Reproduction is divided in two: one body specialises in producing the fast, small gamete; the other produces the large slow gamete and hosts gestation.

    Or to look at it another way, when we tally up the frequency of the various possible permutations of sex characteristics, the pattern that emerges is strongly bimodal, and those two peaks are the sexes.

    #10 Andreas
    They are not in themselves new sexes; see above.

  14. anat says

    However, I would point out that while people may not know with absolute certainty the genitals of someone they meet, they have a pretty good idea from the very first glance.

    First glance informs you more about gender, and you might assume a sex based on that. In most situations first class does not tell you directly what sex a person is.

  15. says

    @Holms #13,
    But gender is bimodal too.

    @Owlmirror & Cracticus,
    I’ve heard polysexual, including from people who identify as such. It’s not very common though. Also, in ace/aro spaces, it’s common to strip off the “-sexual” suffix from these things, since people either want to replace it with something like “-romantic” or just leave it ambiguous. So the polysexual/polyromantic confusion seems especially significant to me. (ETA: I meant polysexual/polyamorous)

    Another word I’ve heard is “plurisexual”, which has the intention of being an umbrella term for bisexuals, pansexuals, polysexuals, omnisexuals, and whatever other terms people use. That one has the proliferating standards problem.

  16. Tree says

    In my experience, the people who want to insist that heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual ought to refer to “sex” in contrast to “gender” also have a deterministic understanding of bodies, sex assignment, and the role these factors play socially (including within sexual interactions). I can say for sure that gamete production has never played any role in my attraction to others, and neither has capacity to gestate or to impregnate as I am not looking to perform either of those functions. I’d think that the popularity of contraceptives suggests that sexual interest isn’t anchored to reproductive potential for many people.

    On the other hand, people express and embody their gendered self (and individual personality more generally) in ways that are more readily apparent and can therefore factor into my evaluation of them. A person’s appearance is a big factor, and that includes not only a person’s body per se (which can be modified, in ways ranging from hormones/surgery to haircuts, piercing, and tattoos) but also the way they clothe and style themselves and their mannerisms. Those things in turn can also be a way of broadcasting social information about a person (e.g. man, woman, gay/queer, straight, other cultural affiliations) that impacts how I interpret and judge them, and already represent a large number of possible permutations that don’t deterministically reflect sex assignment, hormonal makeup or history, gamete production, chromosomes, or whatever else people would like to isolate as that which essentially and enduringly constitutes one’s “sex.”

    And while people may make assumptions about a person’s genitals, I’d argue that those assumptions also extend to how a person would use their genitals during a sexual encounter, which may be part of what those people consider relevant. But these assumptions are shaped by social understandings of sex/gender (e.g. a man with a penis will have sex in some particular way(s) with a woman with a vulva, and that will define the sexual encounters which will certainly happen in their relationship). In reality, people may want to use their genitals in various ways during a sexual encounter (which might or might not match up with the other person’s expectations or interests), or not use them at all, or they might not be interested in sex at all. My point being that, if one’s interest in another person is shaped a set of interlocking assumptions about that person’s appearance -> their genitals -> their willing to have sex in a particular way, then one’s interest is very much mediated through social understanding of sex/gender. This is no less true even if those assumptions turn out to be correct. (In fact, those social understandings may make it more likely that those assumptions turn out to be correct, if a person’s understanding of their own capacities/possibilities are molded by those assumptions.)

  17. Laura G says

    From a non-binary perspective, I hate “same” and “different”. What is “same”? What is “different”? I certainly don’t know. To me, it’s just dressed up binary language pretending to be nb-inclusive and failing. Saying two or more is fine – I don’t think it’s necessary to try to justify the “bi means two” thing.

  18. says

    @16 Siggy

    I feel it is relevant to point out that Holms is such a virulent transphobe that he got banned from Pharyngula for refusing to stop spouting TERF talking points. “There are only two sexes!” directly in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary is such a behavior, and the subsequent bad-faith motte-and-bailey redefining of “sex” over and over to exclude each factual objection is another.

  19. Holms says

    #14 Anat
    Well… meeting a person means receiving information about that person, and however you feel like classifying it, one of the results is that you have a pretty good read of their sex.

    #16 Siggy
    I’m not sure what of my comment #13 you are disputing, or even if you are disputing it at all. At least, your comment does not appear to raise any objection to either description of sex that I mentioned.

    #17 Tree
    “I’d think that the popularity of contraceptives suggests that sexual interest isn’t anchored to reproductive potential for many people.”
    Way to miss the point! I did not say that people are attracted to the sperm/ova production of other people, but their sex, and that sex is easily discernable most of the time.

    #18 Laura
    “What is “same”? What is “different”?
    Same sex as your own / different sex to your own.

    #19 abbey
    weeoo weeoo the police have arrived. Virulent enough to be banned from Pharyngula is funny enough given how ready PZ is to ban people, but then ““There are only two sexes!” directly in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary” caps it. It is literal fact that there are two sexes and only two sexes.

  20. anat says

    Well… meeting a person means receiving information about that person, and however you feel like classifying it, one of the results is that you have a pretty good read of their sex.

    If the person is cisgender you do. If the person is transgender and you don’t know it you have no idea. But in both cases you have a good idea of what gender they are presenting as, and if you don’t that may be the point.

    Sex is not discernible at most times, it may be hypothesized based on available proxies (if one finds need to do so). The only reasons it seems to work much of the time are that people undergoing social and/or physical transition are relatively rare, and even among those who do transition, there is a pressure to appear ‘passing’ (so even when you are quite confident about guessing someone’s ‘sex’ you may be very very off).

  21. anat says

    Also, Holms, I believe what Siggy was telling you in #16 is that bimodality does not necessarily imply ‘only 2 things exist’. bimodality can also be interpreted as ‘2 major things and many minor things exist’.

  22. says

    @Holms #20,
    You told me that there are many genders, and only two sexes. I asked what that meant and you said sex is bimodal, but gender is bimodal too, so this explains nothing. You know, I don’t really see it as my role to coax commenters to explain what they mean. The thing is, explaining your viewpoint is only the first step, and then I’d also need to coax supporting arguments out of you, and who has the time? I am perfectly happy to leave it here, where I don’t understand what you mean, but have an impression that if I did understand it I would disagree with it.

    I have a different comment policy than Pharyngula, and don’t consider anything in this thread bannable. But it definitely concerns me if PZ chose to ban you, and my official policy is that people with bad reputations receive heightened scrutiny. So, behave.

  23. Holms says

    #21 anat

    If the person is cisgender you do.

    So… usually?

    If the person is transgender and you don’t know it you have no idea.

    You may not enjoy hearing this, and of course it would be rude to say to someone, but the degree to which a trans person ‘passes’ as _____ varies.

    However, this is a bunch of quibbling over not very much. I said that meeting someone gives one a ‘pretty good idea’ of that person’s sex, but you seem to be pushing back as if I had said a ‘100% accurate read’. I will clarify: upon meeting someone, people will have a read of the sex of the other person that is not guaranteed, but is considerably better than guessing.

    #23 Siggy
    Ah I see, you were going from my wording in comment #5: “innumerable”. You took that to mean ‘too many to bother enumerating’, but I actually meant ‘cannot be numbered’, which is not the same thing.

    So to put it another way, anatomical / genetic traits have an immensely strong pattern, and this pattern maps with sexual reproduction – the division of reproduction into two body types. This pattern does have exceptions, – knowing that a person has a penis is not quite infallibly predictive that they also produce sperm – but those exceptions are not part of a new kind of reproductive strategy, and thus they are not in themselves new sexes. They are atypical presentations of human anatomy / genetics.

    Gender on the other hand cannot be enumerated, as gender fluctuates as cultures fluctuate. The ideas of ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’ behaviour, the expectations placed on people on the basis of their sex, the social punishments for flouting the norms… all of those parameters and more vary over both time and location. Historians and anthropologists will be able to point out many times and places where things were drastically different. And so enumerating genders depends greatly on the parameters a person uses to determine where the boundaries of one end and the next begin.

    Anyway, I will keep a loose eye on the thread in case you want to follow up on something.

  24. says

    @Holms #25,
    Fixed the blockquote.

    Well, there are variations in bodies, and variations in gender. From the variations in bodies you’ve constructed two types corresponding to the two clusters, accepting that these clusters do not include everyone. From the variations in gender, you have constructed “innumerable” types. But you could have done it the other way, talking about the two gender clusters. Or you could even talk about sex/gender clusters. Not sure if you know much about cluster analysis, but clustering is more effective when you use multiple features, so your insistence on a single feature (reproductive strategies) seems counter to your own goal.

    As I was getting at in the OP, there’s a reason why the most common sexual orientations refer to two types. It’s because there are two sex/gender clusters. And even as we’ve become cognizant of people outside of those clusters, most of us don’t have enough data to say whether we’re attracted to them. I’m taking an agnostic stance: we don’t know what people are attracted to exactly, and likely it’s not even the same thing for each person.

    You seem to be taking a similar approach, highlighting the fact that there are two clusters, but I think you could stand to be a lot more agnostic about what defines the boundaries of the clusters, and what defines the boundaries of individuals’ attractions.

  25. Cracticus says

    Here I was hoping for a nuanced discussion about various ways of describing multi-gender attraction and the pros and cons of the various labels and learning about why people choose one label or another. Instead it’s gotten sidetracked into a debate about gender.

  26. Holms says

    #26 Siggy

    Well, there are variations in bodies, and variations in gender. From the variations in bodies you’ve constructed two types corresponding to the two clusters, accepting that these clusters do not include everyone. From the variations in gender, you have constructed “innumerable” types. But you could have done it the other way, talking about the two gender clusters.

    No, not at all. The two peaks in the distribution of sex traits correspond to the two gametes required for reproduction. Those other permutations of sex traits do not match some new gamete, they are not a new method of reproduction; they are not part of the sexual reproduction strategy at all. They are what happens when something goes wrong with a person’s development.

    That sounds harsh I am sure, but it is true, if bluntly stated. An intersexed condition is the result of a genetic mishap, perhaps during gamete meiosis in a parent before conception; or the result of a cellular mishap during development. It is analogous to someone being born with extra fingers per hand – a cell divided too out of schedule during the embryonic stage perhaps, and now the person has an atypical presentation of the involved anatomy. The human species has five digits per appendage (but things can go wrong in development); the human species has two sexes (but things can go wrong in development). Same thing.

    #27 Cracticus
    I gave my interpretation of the word bisexual, and was then asked questions about that take. Should I have ignored those questions?

  27. anat says

    Holms @25: I have had multiple instances of discovering a person that did not look in any obvious way outside of the typical variation for the gender they were presenting was in fact transgender. So who knows how many people I, you, and everyone else have been mistaken about. Observation bias emphasizes those who look different, whether intentionally or not.

  28. Holms says

    Yes… you keep pushing back as if I had said ‘100% guaranteed’ and I don’t know why. You’ve had multiple misses, but presumably you’ve had a larger number of hits.

  29. anat says

    No, I am stating that your error rate is greater wrt ‘sex’ however defined than wrt gender as presented.

  30. Owlmirror says

    Hm. I just went to look up something, and noticed a whole page of relevant definitions.

    “Polysexual” is already a thing, and there’s a book cited which seems to take the “multiple partners” definition (rather than “sexually attracted to many genders or gender expressions”) for granted — [ Ed Christian, Polysexuality: When One Partner Isn’t Enough: Discovering Your Polysexual Orientation (September 9, 2010) ]. So.

    On the page for “polysexual”, there are related terms, some of which I’d never heard before.

      • proxvir — “boyish, but not boy”; “masculine, but not male.”
      • polycule — in the polyamory and BDSM communities, is a word that refers to all the people in a network of non-monogamous relationships (not being committed to one person at a time).

      • quoisexual — a sexual orientation on the asexuality spectrum. It can refer to a person who doesn’t relate to or understand experiences or concepts of sexual attraction and orientation. It can also refer to someone who feels confusion about their own feelings of sexual attraction and orientation.

    One of the citations for quoisexual:

    Person: you’re just confused
    Me, a quoisexual who struggles with telling the difference between aesthetic and sexual attraction: I mean you’re not wrong.


  31. says

    @owlmirror #32,
    Yeah, isn’t polycule a common word? I used it once yesterday, lol.

    Quoisexual is an ace word, so I know a bit about it. It’s derived from the more common term quoiromantic, which itself was derived from wtfromantic, which was coined by someone I used to blog alongside. It’s for people whose feeling about romance is wtf even is it?

    I’ve not heard of proxvir before. *checks survey data* well apparently a nonzero number of people use it. One can’t be too sure, just because it appears in a dictionary.

  32. Holms says

    #31 anat
    I doubt that. Of the people I have seen without clothing (which of course is a smaller sample size than those I’ve only seen clothed), I have been 100% correct. And then of course there is fact that most people don’t dress with an intentional ‘gender role’ in mind, and plenty of people have a more utilitarian (i.e. whatever clothing is useful for the task at hand) approach to presentation… Gender seems much more likely the ambiguous one to me, as it is by far the more nebulously defined concept.

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