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 their 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," says psychologist Akilah Sigler, LMHC.
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. Some pansexual people say that they're attracted to people based on personality, with gender playing no role at all.
"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," Sigler adds.
A simple pansexual test.
There's no surefire pansexual test that can tell you your sexual identity—only you can decide that for yourself. That being said, if you agree with the following three statements, there's a good chance you may resonate with the term bisexual.
You're attracted to people regardless of gender.
You are attracted to people of all genders, or you can develop attraction to people without knowing their pronouns or gender identity.
For example, maybe you've experienced having a crush on men, women, non-binary people—kind of anyone. Or, you can at least imagine yourself doing so. The same goes with sex.
Other labels like "bisexual" just don't feel right.
You might know you are queer in some way, but terms like "bisexual" don't feel like they define your sexuality.
"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, LCPC, CST, 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, or you personally just like the nuance of "pansexual."
You feel comfortable with the label.
Ultimately, what matters most is that you feel comfortable with defining yourself as pansexual. If you like the label and resonate with it, then consider it yours.
It may take some time or experimentation to find out whether this label comfortably defines you, and that's totally OK too! "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."
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.
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.
Are pansexual and bisexual the same thing?
Pansexuality and bisexuality can have some overlap, but they're not necessarily the same thing. A bisexual person is attracted to two or more genders, while a pansexual person can be attracted to people of any gender. Some bisexual people are only attracted to a few specific genders (ex. only women and non-binary people, but not men), whereas other bisexual people are attracted to all genders. Some people use these terms interchangeably, while others strongly resonate with one over the other.
Who are some famous pansexual celebrities and characters?
Cara Delevingne, Janelle Monáe, Miley Cyrus, and Brendon Urie are some of many famous people who have come out as pansexual. Pansexual characters include Deadpool and Hannibal Lecter, among many others.
What is the pansexual flag?
The pansexual flag has three horizontal stripes, which are bright pink, yellow, and blue from top to bottom.
"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 says.
At the end of the day, identity is very personal. Follow your truth and pick whichever word feels right to you.
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. When she is not writing she can be found scheming, watching cartoons, or sending unnecessarily long emails. To see more of Mary’s work and adventures, follow her on Twitter (@mary__retta).