Jul 102017

This week’s post is different from our usual. No exploration of health disparities, no risk-reducing tips. And no complicated studies. Instead, this week I wanted to take a moment and explore the bisexual vs pansexual definition debate.

I will admit that like most posts, this one was inspired by an article. But this was an exploratory article looking at the definitions of pansexual that were online, not a formal study that recruited participants. I’m not going to explore their published results here. Instead, let’s talk definitions.

Why does language matter? Why talk about this?

The purpose of language is to communicate. To communicate, we need a common set of ideas we all agree on. If I say that “That tree is red”, you and I would need to share concepts for me to be understood. If your concept of a tree is a bush and my concept is a giant redwood tree, I would have failed to communicate. The same is true if my red is orange and your red is purple. My sentence would not be understood in the way I intended it.

Language also matters in terms of identity and labels. We use words to self-identify. We intentionally put ourselves into boxes. By doing so, we can use labels to quickly communicate. We also claim an “us” group we belong to. We claim a tribe, one that gives us a psychological sense of wellbeing.

In addition, language can hurt. That hurt may or may not have been intentional. The connotations, or unstated associations, of words have as much impact as the words themselves.

So there are several reasons to talk about language and word choice.

What is bisexuality?
The bisexual flag

The bisexual flag

Bisexual is an older term than pansexual. Bisexuality was originally used to refer to plants with both male and female reproductive parts. The definition changed in 1892. Bisexual referred to humans who had sex with both male and female partners that year. By the 1970’s, groups of bisexuals joined with homophile (gay and lesbian) groups. They advocated for equal treatment and raise awareness.

Modern definitions of bisexual include:

  • a person who is romantically or sexually attracted to both men and women, or to people of various gender identities; ambisexual. [Dictionary.com]
  • of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to members of both sexes; also :  engaging in sexual activity with partners of more than one gender [Merriam-Webster]

Dictionary.com goes on to note that:

Traditionally bisexual has referred to romantic or sexual attraction to two, and no more than two, genders, specifically male and female. However, the term is increasingly being used to refer to a level of sexual fluidity in which an individual moves bi-directionally along a spectrum of sexuality. This newer sense accounts for attraction to people who do not fall within the gender binary.

What is pansexuality?
The pansexual flag

The pansexual flag

Pansexual is a much newer term. Sigmund Freud coined the term in 1926. Yes, that’s the “father” of psychology. He used the term to refer to sexual energy drives all human activity. Modern usage of the term seems to have emerged in the 1990’s. In particular, it became popular when Miley Cyrus came out as pansexual.

Today, the definition of pansexual includes:

  • of, relating to, or characterized by sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation [Merriam-Webster]
  • expressing or involving sexuality in all its forms, or sexual activity with people of any sexual orientation or gender identity. [Dictionary.com]

Some pansexuals also include gender-blindness in their definitions. Others explicitly include attraction to intersex and trans people in their definitions.

What’s the difference? They seem awfully alike…

And, in truth, there’s a lot of overlap. Both bisexuals and pansexuals are attracted to more than one sex or gender.

Bisexual is an older, more well established term. That also means it carries certain stigma. You likely know the stereotypes already — that bisexual people are promiscuous or can’t make up their minds. There’s discrimination from both the straight and gay communities.

Pansexual is new enough that it isn’t nearly as widely known. Ask an average person on the street and chances are they won’t know what it means. Pansexuals also face the stereotypes of promiscuity and inability to make up their minds.

What I’ve heard pansexuals say is that pansexuality emphasizes acceptance of genders and sexes outside the binary. That is, genders other than man/woman and sexes other than male/female. Some pansexuals explicit include attraction

The politics

And here is where the politics come in. Because of course there are politics.

Some bisexual people feel that term pansexual is an attempt to express the same sexual orientation as bisexual, only without the baggage of the term bisexual. Others argue that the pan in pansexual implies hypersexuality. Pan means “all”. Does that also mean attraction to all humans of consenting age? What are the borders of pan?

In turn, some pansexuals argue that the term bisexual refer to attraction only to two cisgender sexes. They say that bisexuals are not attracted to androgynous, transgender, and intersex people. Except that many people who identify as bisexual are attracted to those people. Those bisexuals resent being put into a box that implies transphobia.

Other pansexuals say they are attracted to “the person, not their parts.” Does that imply that bisexuals are attracted to the parts more than the person?

Yet others have argued that bisexual is an umbrella term that includes pansexual. In this scenario, bisexual might refer to anything other than straight/gay. And pansexual might specifically refer to attraction to all genders/sexes. Another term, as yet undefined, lumped within bisexual might then refer to someone who’s only attracted to a subset of genders/sexes.

But as you can see, there are a lot of minefields in this debate.


Yes. Yes it is. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. Debate over definitions can be confusing. I’m glad you’re still with me here.

I’d like to leave you with my personal thoughts.

Here is how I personally define and use bisexual and pansexual:

  • A bisexual person is attracted to more than one sex or gender. I used it as an umbrella term, including anyone who isn’t heterosexual/straight or homosexual/gay.
  • A pansexual person is someone in a subgroup of individuals within the bisexual group. In general the term refers to people who wish to explicitly welcome gender nonconformity and non-binary gender identities.
  • I tend to use the terms roughly synonymously.

Because of its age and flexibility, I prefer the term bisexual. It’s the one that I choose to use for myself. It’s also the term I default to when referring to people who are not straight or gay.

However, I don’t personally identify with the term pansexual. So I try to get my definition from those who do. I also try to avoid labeling other people with labels they themselves do not use. If someone prefers bisexual, I’ll use that. If someone prefers pansexual, I’ll use that.

Remember: Language needs to communicate. I try to communicate to as many people as I can. So I tend to default to terms that are commonly understood. It has the best chance of communicating. I use the same philosophy when it comes to bisexual and pansexual.

Although languages need to communicate, they also evolve to meet the needs of the speakers. The definitions of bisexual and pansexual are likely to change. I look forward to seeing it.


Want to read the original article yourself? The abstract is publicly available.