What’s the difference between being pansexual and bisexual, and how do you know which label fits you best? Thousands of people Google these questions every month, and the answers aren’t exactly simple.
Labeling sexuality in the year of Our Lord, 2021, is still a hot topic, one that is regularly being discussed as our understanding of gender evolves. It would be great if labels were no longer relevant and we could all just float through the world, being humans who are into other humans, but this isn’t the reality. We live in a culture that constantly demands that we fit into boxes, making us easier to understand and therefore, easier to manage.
In a way, labels offer a sense of community in a time when gender is still mostly seen as binary. Instead of doing away with labels, we’ve created new ones that are more inclusive so that people can better define their identities. “Gender is a patriarchal social construct with limited language,” says Tiana North, a pansexual polyamorous educator, activist, and co-founder of The Sex Worker Survival Guide, a non-profit organization advocating for the rights and safety of sex workers. “As we have moved forward, more language has developed to include other identities.”
But understanding today’s many labels can be a bit confusing. As our ideas about gender and sexuality continue to change, a label that means one thing to one person might mean something totally different to another. This is one of the puzzling, albeit beautiful things about gender and sexuality: You get to be whatever you want to be and no one is allowed to dictate what your label(s) mean. “Bisexual” and “pansexual” are two perfect examples. What do they mean, and what’s the difference between them? Is there even a difference any more?
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What does pansexual mean?
“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.
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What does bisexual mean?
“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 percen