What does it mean to be pansexual?

Rhalou Allerhand
·8-min read
Photo credit: beavera - Getty Images
Photo credit: beavera - Getty Images

Times are changing and how you choose to label your sexual orientation is more fluid but in some ways also more complex than ever. Are you gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, polysexual or any one of the wonderful LGBTQ+ identities in between? Sexuality is a broad spectrum and your understanding of what fits is entirely personal to you. But if you are romantically or sexually attracted to people of all genders and sexual orientations, pansexuality might just be the label you’ve been craving.

But how exactly do you define pansexuality, and how is it different from bisexuality? To answer your questions, we spoke to the experts and some bona-fide pans to find out if pansexuality is in fact a fetish for saucepan lids, media spin made up by Miley Cyrus or a bold 21st century love crusade we should all get on board with.

What does it mean to be pansexual?

Everyone’s understanding of their sexuality is as unique and personal to them as fingerprints. But in general, pan people aren’t limited by sex or gender when it comes to who they’re attracted to, so pansexual men, women and non-binary people love who they love (or fancy - if they’re not quite at the falling in love stage) regardless of their gender or sexuality.

‘Pansexuality is the attraction to people irrespective of their gender or sexuality; so you love or are attracted to the person for who they are as opposed to what they are,’ explains Marianne Oakes, lead therapist at GenderGP.com, an online health and well-being service for trans people and those who support them.

A good example of pansexuality is if you imagine a couple where one or both of them transition gender, explains Oakes. ‘Post transition, their gender is different to what it was when the relationship began, but the love is not changed by the act of transition,’ she says. ‘You always loved the person; their personality and character and you still love these qualities.’

There is no one single way to be pansexual, and it can be different for different people. ‘To me it simply means “people-sexual”,’ says Esther Lemmens, a creator, artist and budding writer who runs the podcast Fifty Shades of Gender. ‘Gender is irrelevant to me when it comes to attraction, and so is sex - as in another person's anatomy/biology.’

‘Gender and sex are all facets of what make people unique as an individual – and there are many facets,’ she adds. ‘I love a person, not just their body parts, or their “femininity” or “masculinity” – whatever that really is. They're just qualities, independent of gender.’

Photo credit: With love of photography - Getty Images
Photo credit: With love of photography - Getty Images

How does pansexuality differ from bisexuality?

Sometimes pansexuality is used interchangeably with bisexuality, but they are subtly different. Historically 'bi' meant 'two', so people assume bisexuality means being attracted to two genders. But language has evolved and bi organisations are fighting against this rigid definition because it implies that there are only two genders. So these days bisexual means being attracted to multiple genders, while pansexual means being attracted to all genders - or for some people simply not taking gender into consideration at all when forming attractions.

'Bisexual means men and women in the most common, binary way,’ says Esther. ‘That said, I have friends who would describe their attraction as bisexual but also include non-binary gender identities, so there can be an overlap of sorts.’

Jessie Gill, a Registered Nurse and founder of Marijuana Mommy, uses different terms to self-identify. ‘The more aware I became of the gender spectrum, the more I felt that the “bi” of “bisexuality” didn’t quite fit,’ she says. ‘Pansexual felt like a more accurate term for me.’

Jessie also uses terms interchangeably to suit the scenario. ‘Many don’t understand what pansexual is, so I often just self-identify as “queer” without any specific categorisation,’ she adds. ‘Sometimes I still use “bi”, to avoid having to explain what pansexual means.’

How do I know if I am pansexual?

When you think of traditional romance, Cinderella and Prince Charming springs to mind. But if you don’t fit into the heteronormative mould or find yourself attracted to both the Ugly Sisters and the King instead, discovering your sexuality and figuring out your orientation can be an incredibly confusing and stressful experience — not helped by the fact that society and the mainstream press is rather keen on fairytale romance and putting people in pigeonholes.

If you’re not sure how to tell if you’re gay, bi, straight, pan or anywhere in between, the truth is there is no right or wrong way to identify your sexuality and even if you do feel drawn to one particular term or community, nothing is set in stone. The labels you use to describe your sexual orientation can grow and evolve, so take all the time you need and don’t feel pressured to decide today – or ever!

Having said that, finding your tribe and the right words that fit your sexuality can be incredibly empowering too, so experiment and see what works for you. If you discover that you are romantically and/or sexually attracted to people of all genders and sexual orientations, pansexuality might just be the glass slipper that fits.

Photo credit: Nikita Vasylchenko / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Nikita Vasylchenko / EyeEm - Getty Images

Pan people

For Esther, falling in love was the first step and the label came later. ‘I've always considered myself open-minded in my attractions but didn't think much of it when I was younger,’ she says. ‘I met my transgender partner about 8 years ago, and they introduced me to the term pansexual. I felt like a good fit; more inclusive than bisexual, so I adopted it. I would say that, rather than it being a new thing I discovered about myself, it gave language to who I've always been.’

Jessie agrees, ‘To me pansexual means being romantically and/or sexually attracted to people regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum,’ she says. Miley Cyrus also played a small part in helping Jessie define her sexuality, after coming out as pansexual in 2016.

'I realised at age 9 that I was different,’ says Jessie. ‘I’ve always struggled to define, categorise, and understand it. I went through a period of dating just men, and a period of dating just women. I also dated people who didn’t completely identify with one gender or the other. I self-identified as bisexual for much of my life. It wasn’t until 2016, when Miley Cyrus came out as pan that I realised what pansexual meant and how relevant it was to me.’ Several celebrities have since followed suit including Jameela Jamil, Cara Delevigne, Janelle Monae and Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran.

The sexuality spectrum

Sexuality is a broad spectrum and the notion that once you've discovered your orientation you should then stay in that lane for life doesn’t necessarily fit everyone’s wants and needs. According to Oakes, pansexuality is a welcome 21st century response to changing times, and one that we could all benefit from.

‘Sexuality and gender are constantly evolving,’ says Oakes. ‘We are finding new ways to live, new ways to love and pansexuality is becoming far more common, thanks to its fluid nature and the freedom it affords for those who prefer not to be constrained by social norms.’

‘People’s sexuality is determined by who they are attracted to. But just because we apply a label to ourselves does that mean we can never wander outside of these boundaries?’ she asks. ‘If we are gay but find ourselves attracted to a trans woman does that make us less gay, or if a lesbian has feelings towards a man, does that automatically make them bisexual? The answer has more to do with our own sense of self, and how we want to be perceived by the world, than anything else.’

If you decide to join the pan-party or you feel strongly drawn to any one label, irrespective of your sexual orientation, Oakes urges you to keep an open mind. ‘There is always contention when it comes to sexuality,’ says Oakes. ‘People with a fragile sense of identity will hold fixed and rigid thought processes in relation to their sexuality and what it means to them, they will judge others with distaste and will have a hierarchy of sexuality rules, according to which they judge others. The truth is, sexuality can be fluid and should exist without fear of judgment, whoever you are attracted to and whatever you choose to do about it.’

Photo credit: discan - Getty Images
Photo credit: discan - Getty Images

Love is the answer

In the hunt to find the glass slipper that fits your sexuality, it can be easy to forget the ultimate goal. Pansexuality is an inclusive 21st century response to the blurred lines of sexuality, with one important factor at its heart: Love.

So, if you’re at all confused about how you feel, try and put love at centre stage. ‘Follow your heart, not other people’s rules when it comes to love,’ advises Oakes. ‘Open your mind, are you attracted to a person? Are they attracted to you? Then, honestly, trust yourself. It doesn't mean you’re losing your identity, quite the opposite, in opening your mind you are finding your identity.’

‘You don't have to conform to any standards or tick any of the boxes,’ agrees Esther. ‘Your life, your rules; find your own path, even if it's different from everyone else's. You can't be wrong about your experience. And be open to things evolving – you're never stuck with anything and you're free to change your mind.’

‘You don’t have to define yourself to appease others,’ Jessie agrees. ‘Try not to get too caught up in the terms. Just live, love, and explore yourself. I often look back in my own journey and wish I’d grown up in a time more like now, when self-exploration is more encouraged and sexual-fluidity is more accepted.’

Last updated: 12-03-2021

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