What Does Pansexual Mean? How To Know If You're Pan

mbg Contributor By Mary Retta
mbg Contributor
Mary Retta is a freelance writer covering culture, identity, sexual politics, and wellness. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, The Nation, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, Vice, Nylon, Allure, and other similar outlets.
Expert review by Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., LPCC, LMHC, CST
Clinical Sexologist & Psychotherapist
Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., LPCC, LMHC, CST, is a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist with 12 years of clinical experience. She is a licensed counselor in California, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. She is also a certified sex therapist, certified addiction professional, and president of the Therapy Department, a private practice in Orange County that provides counseling services throughout the United States.
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As sexual fluidity becomes increasingly normalized in pop culture and mainstream media, more and more people are identifying as pansexual. According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, 14% of respondents identified as pansexual, a number that has more than doubled since a similar survey ran in 2012. Here's everything you need to know about being pansexual, or "pan" for short.

What is pansexual?

People have defined pansexuality in a number of ways, but the most common answer is that pansexual people can feel sexual attraction to anyone regardless of their sex assigned at birth or gender identity. The prefix pan- means "all," so pansexual people can be attracted to people of all genders. That includes attraction to someone who identifies as cisgender, transgender, bigender, nonbinary, or any other gender.

"As someone who identifies as pansexual, I define pansexuality as being attracted to people who are located anywhere along the spectrum of gender identity," psychologist Akilah Sigler confirmed. "But I do want to say that most of the terms that define sexuality are expansive, and there are many nuances in the ways that different people define and experience their pansexuality."

Some pansexual people say that they're attracted to people based on personality, with gender playing no role at all. This isn't to say pansexual people are attracted to everyone, but gender just isn't the defining factor in who they are and aren't attracted to.

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A simple pansexual test.

There's no surefire test that can tell you whether you're pansexual—only you can decide that for yourself. That being said, here are a few signs you can look out for:

1. You're attracted to people regardless of gender.

If you are attracted to people of all genders, or if you can develop attraction to people without knowing their pronouns or gender identity, this is a good sign you may be pansexual. "This may mean that someone's gender is not a determining factor in desire to have sex with or date and possibly even that gender is irrelevant in terms of someone's attraction," Jesse Khan, LCSW-R, CST, sex therapist and director at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC, tells mbg.

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2. Other labels like "bisexual" just don't feel right.

If you know you are queer but terms like "bisexual" don't feel like they define your sexuality, this is another sign you may be pansexual. "Historically, bisexuality is used to describe attraction to both the same and 'opposite' gender, [and] the way it has often been used is very binary," gender and sex therapist Rae McDaniel tells mbg. "Many folks found that limiting and not inclusive of the vast spectrum of gender identities and expressions, so the term 'pansexuality' was born to talk about attractions to people of many different genders."

In reality, bisexuality means attraction to two or more genders—and so practically speaking, it can involve attraction to just as diverse a selection of people as pansexuality. Even so, it's possible that the term "bisexual" just doesn't align with you for some reason. That could be a sign that you're actually pansexual.

3. You feel comfortable with the label.

Ultimately, what matters most is that you feel comfortable with defining yourself as pansexual. It may take some time or experimentation to find out whether this label comfortably defines you, and that's totally OK! 

"There's no identity that is inherently better or more enlightened than others," Khan says, adding: "You're allowed to change the language and words you use to describe yourself. Some pansexual and bisexual people also use the word queer."

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The difference between pansexual and bisexual.

Pansexual and bisexual are two different sexual orientations, although they can sometimes overlap. Typically, while people who identify as pansexual are attracted to people regardless of gender, people who identify as bisexual are attracted to two or more genders.

That said, people in the LGBTQ+ community often use these terms fluidly. Some bisexual people define their bisexuality as being attracted to the same gender and other genders, for example, while others who self-identify as bisexual are attracted to people of all genders. A person might be attracted to men and women, women and another gender, several different genders, or just about all genders—all of it is bisexuality.

Practically speaking, some pansexual people and bisexual people might be attracted to the exact same types of people. The main difference is that being pansexual is specifically attraction to all types of people, regardless of gender, whereas bisexuality is simply attraction to multiple genders (which may or may not include all genders). Some people consider pansexuality to thus be one form of bisexuality, under which identities like heteroflexible might also fall.

Avoiding misconceptions.

Historically, there's been some confusion about the difference between pansexuality and bisexuality, and there's sometimes a bit of contention between these two communities. Some people worry that the rise of pansexuality is contributing bi-erasure, replacing bisexual identity with a new word that implies bisexuality is somehow inferior or less inclusive.

"There's the misconception that bisexual people are only attracted to cisgender people or may be inclusive of transgender individuals who fit in the binary, but that's not necessarily inherent in the definition," Khan explained. "There may be some bisexual people who that is true for, but there are also many bi people who that doesn't resonate for them."

Whatever your identity may be, it's important to avoid misconceptions about bisexuality—that it's inherently binary or only involves attraction to cis women and cis men. That isn't the case.

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Understanding your own identity.

"In addition to the actual definitions, a lot of times the differences and the importance of bisexuality and pansexuality is what it means to a specific person and why that word choice is most accurate or meaningful to them," Khan adds.

At the end of the day, identity is very personal. Follow your truth and pick whichever word feels right to you.

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