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Pansexuality: What Is It?

If you’re dating in the modern era, then you probably want your dates to think you’re woke. And one important way to do that is by showing you’re in the know about the basics of sexual orientation, including pansexuality or “pan” for short.

Pansexuality is one of those words where once you hear it, you’ll start to hear it everywhere. And while the basic gist of its definition is straightforward—some form of attraction to all sexes and gender identities—its true meaning varies, depending on whom you ask. And with more and more celebrities coming out as pan—including Miley Cyrus, Janelle Monáe, Bella Thorne, and Brendon Urie, just to name a few—even if your dates don’t care, your friends will be impressed when you start dropping knowledge about this seemingly new sexual orientation topping the headlines.

Comparing Pansexuality to Bisexuality
One of the easiest ways to understand pansexuality and its many variations is to compare it with its popular sibling, bisexuality.

Now you may be thinking, “I know what bisexuality is,” (and maybe you do) but did you know that there are multiple ways to define bisexuality, too? The two most common definitions of being bi are 1) attraction to two genders and 2) attraction to more than one gender.

The first definition is the more literal one. The prefix bi- literally means “two,” so, logically, it makes sense that some people would define bisexuality as an attraction to two genders—male and female.

For people who follow this literal definition of bisexuality, the term pansexual is distinct because it’s more inclusive. If you believe that bisexual refers to two and only two genders, then you also believe that the term excludes people who are genderqueer or non-binary, whereas pansexual—with the prefix pan- or “all”—is decidedly inclusive of all people all along the gender spectrum. 

But… that’s not the whole story. English isn’t always a literal language. And just like the word “flammable” and “inflammable” both mean “this thing can catch fire,” some people follow that second definition of bisexuality and define it as having an attraction to more than one gender, which may sound an awful lot like pansexuality, which is why these folks tend to define pansexuality a little more narrowly and see it as someone who is, very specifically, attracted to all genders equally. Or, thought of another way, they say that pansexuals are attracted to the person, regardless of gender.

How Pansexuals See It
It’s not just bisexuals who define pansexuality in these two distinct ways. Pansexuals themselves don’t agree on the meaning of being pan and tend to use both definitions freely. 

The other thing to remember is that sexual orientation is not an either/or. Many pansexuals identify as both pansexual and bisexual (and sometimes as “queer,” too), or they’ll pick one to highlight, depending on who they’re talking to. Even if they don’t understand all the nuance of bisexuality, most people are more familiar with the term, so many pansexuals will identify as bi when they don’t feel like turning a dinner party into a gender studies class.

Why Can’t This All Be More Simple?!?
Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could agree on definitions for these terms? Yes, it would. But these words weren’t gifted to us like the ten commandments with definitions written in stone (assuming you even believe that). Instead they’ve evolved over time, and not over that much time, either. The word “bisexual,” in its modern use, has only been around since 1892 and “pansexual” was first used by Freud, albeit with a very different meaning, in 1917. 

But instead of getting frustrated at the complexity, why not embrace it? If someone says they’re a Steelers fan, that doesn’t tell you the whole story, either. For example, do they go to games or prefer to watch at a bar with friends? Do they know every player’s stats or just enough to win at trivia night? Sure, you can clarify by saying you’re a casual fan or a die-hard fanatic, but even within those subgroups there’s a lot of variation. 

The bottom line is if you’re trying to use a single word to describe every nuance of a large group, it’s going to be a futile exercise—always. So if you’re not getting worked up over ambiguity when it comes to sports fandom, then there’s no need to get all hot and bothered about the ambiguity around pansexuality. (Unless, of course, you’re getting hot and bothered in a good way.)

And with that, you’re now a seasoned pro when it comes to understanding pansexuality. At the most basic level, it means a sexual orientation where someone is attracted to people all along the gender spectrum, but a more astute observer such as yourself will know that someone who identifies as pan can mean they’re blind to gender or it can simply mean they’re looking for a term that feels inclusive for all genders. Either way, when they explain their take, you’ll now be ready to add yours.

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