When it comes to the spectrum of sexuality, bisexuality and pansexuality are sometimes used interchangeably, but they're not quite the same. The main difference between bisexual and pansexual is rooted in the attraction felt.
The difference between bisexuality and pansexuality.
A bisexual person is someone who is attracted to two or more genders, whereas a pansexual person is attracted to people regardless of gender. The terms are closely related, and some people identify with both terms while others prefer one over the other to have a more nuanced description of their sexuality.
According to Anthony Freire, LMHC, the clinical director of the Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling, there are a variety of ways in which people define bisexuality—some of which are rooted in skepticism, prejudice, and assumptions, even within the LGBTQIA+ community.
There's a common misconception that bisexual people are people who are specifically attracted to men and women only, therefore excluding nonbinary people, whereas pansexuality is inclusive of all genders. But in reality, a bisexual person might be attracted to women and femmes, men and nonbinary folks, or any other combination of genders. Bisexuality isn't necessarily binary; it just means attraction to more than one gender. Some bisexual people describe their identity as being attracted to their own gender and people of other genders.
Pansexual people, on the other hand, are attracted to anyone regardless of gender. The prefix pan means "all," "of everything," or "involving all members" of a group. So a pansexual person is someone who is attracted to all genders, including cis, trans, and gender-nonconforming individuals.
"Anything and everything goes" when it comes to pansexuality, says Freire. But this shouldn't necessarily be mistaken for promiscuity: "It does not mean they are perverts in that they will sleep with anyone they can get their hands on," he notes. "It's a bit more 'no one is off the table when it comes to who I am able to be attracted to romantically and physically.'"
How gender plays a role.
One of the most important differences between bisexual and pansexual is the role of gender in determining who you're attracted to. Generally speaking, gender doesn't affect who pansexual people are attracted to—they can find themselves sexually and romantically attracted to just about anyone, regardless of gender.
But for bisexual folks, gender usually does play some kind of a role in who they're attracted to. They may not be attracted to all genders, but there may be some genders that they're into and some they aren't into.
That said, every bisexual and pansexual person has their own definition of these words, and how a potential partner's gender factors into their attraction will depend on the individual.
The controversy between bisexual and pansexual.
There has been some tension between the bisexual and pansexual communities, rooted in misunderstandings about each label. Sexologist Carol Queen, Ph.D., believes some of the tension is generational, at least in part, and stems from the emergence of the nonbinary community. She says there is "an assumption built in that the term bisexual is automatically not appropriate for nonbinary folks."
Since the prefix bi- means "two," some people assume the term is referencing the gender binary and describes "the two genders," i.e., men and women. Some people thus believe the term bisexual is therefore not inclusive enough, as it excludes nonbinary people and potentially trans people by perpetuating a gender binary.
"It's certainly true that if someone finds that language too binary, they shouldn't necessarily embrace the term. But it's a mistake to step past that and say that all bisexuals are only into binary gender notions," Queen explains. "That's just not the case for many—maybe even most—bisexuals, who may be attracted to some subset of women, men, and everybody else."
She notes there's even a newer, more inclusive term that some bisexual folk use: bi+, which seeks to remind people that there are more than two genders to love and desire and that bisexual people are not perpetuating a gender binary.
"The worst part of all this is that the discussion provokes biphobia," Queen adds. "Denying that it's OK for one to ID as bi and should ID as pan equals bisexual invisibility, full stop. Even if it isn't intended to diss bisexuals, it can hurt to hear this—just reinforcing the idea that bisexuals don't have a lot of support even from other LGBTQ+ people, which historically has often been the case."
On the other side of the coin, the push to call out any biphobia in the definition of pansexuality has led to some criticism of the pansexual community in general, with some people arguing that pansexuality itself is biphobic because the label was created on the biphobic assumption that bisexual people are exclusionary and binary-oriented.
Queen notes that the confusion between the two identities has contributed to more people switching to the more general term "queer." "This group may encompass all the folks who ID as bi or pan, TBH, because what attracts many to that term is how big-umbrella and overarching it is."
Pansexual versus omnisexual versus polysexual.
Omnisexual and polysexual are two other labels that bear some similarities to bisexual and pansexual.
While pansexual people can be attracted to someone without thinking about their gender, an omnisexual person is very aware of gender. Pansexuality is being attracted to people regardless of gender or without consideration of gender, whereas omnisexuality is being attracted to people of all genders. Freire says these two terms are "often used interchangeably because they are so similar, but there is a slight difference."
A polysexual person is attracted to multiple genders and can be considered a more umbrella term. Bisexuality and pansexuality might be considered categories under the umbrella of polysexuality, which might also include omnisexual, heteroflexible, and other labels that aren't focused on being attracted to one gender. Being polysexual isn't to be confused with someone who is polyamorous, meaning this person is able to love, have sex with, and be in a relationship with more than one person at the same time.
So, which term is right for you?
Choosing the word that best fits your sexual identity can feel like a daunting task, but at the end of the day, it comes down to what feels right to you. If you're emotionally and sexually attracted to a handful of specific genders, then bisexual might feel like a more accurate term for you. If you find yourself emotionally and sexually attracted to folks of any gender, then you might reach for the word pansexual. Queer is also a solid option if you still feel limited in any way by either of these terms.
Labels are only here to help you more easily describe your identity to others and find community with other people like you. They're not meant to be prescriptive or limiting, and each term might mean something different from any given bi or pan person. So just pick the one that just feels like it makes your life easier and feels good on your tongue.
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Stephanie Barnes is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She studied Information Technology from the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and spent several years as a front-end/iOS engineer. Her work has been featured at The Huffington Post, Healthline, The Lily, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, and more. She's passionate about all things mental health, technology, and binge-worthy television.