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Once upon a time, people thought sexuality was pretty simplistic: You were either gay or straight, and that was that. Now, more and more people are learning that it’s not so simple…or binary. There are a slew of other identities, including pansexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, and demisexuality.
Despite the more nuanced understanding of sexuality, mix-ups still happen. A common point of confusion comes up when trying to pinpoint the characteristics that make bisexuality unique from pansexuality. “’Bisexual’ is a commonly known and understood term,” says Stephanie Buehler, PsyD, a psychologist and AASECT certified sex therapist, and author of What Every Mental Health Professional Needs to Know about Sex. “‘Pansexual’ not so much.”
Why? Because people often use the terms interchangeably, says Margaret Nichols, PhD, author of the upcoming book, Queering the Psychotherapy Room: the Modern Clinician’s Guide to LGBTQ+ Clients.
Language around sexuality is also changing quickly, as people who once identified one way discover there may be more accurate ways to describe and differentiate themselves, Buehler says. Here, experts break down the frequently misunderstood characteristics of pansexuality vs. bisexuality, plus the major differences to keep in mind.
What is bisexuality, exactly?
When someone identifies as bisexual, they usually also identify as a man or woman, explains sexuality expert and psychotherapist Lisa B. Schwartz, Ph.D. And they’re attracted to both men and women. So, in these cases, more inclusive definitions of gender don’t usually come into play. Bisexuality “originated in a time when gender was primarily viewed as a binary,” says Justin Lehmiller, PhD, a research fellow at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want. But the definition of bisexuality has changed over time to be more inclusive of people of every gender (including non-conforming)—depending on who you talk to, he says.
Okay, so what is pansexuality?
Pansexuality is considered a more “open” term than bisexuality, says Yvonne K. Fulbright, PhD, author of The Better Sex Guide. “It refers to a person who has the capacity for sexual attraction, emotional attraction, and/or romantic love toward people of any gender or sex identity,” Fulbright explains.
Then what are the major differences between the two?
TBH, it’s kind of tricky.
“Basically, what all of this means is that the difference between bisexual and pansexual is going to vary depending on who you ask,” Lehmiller says. “The fact that there’s so much variability in definitions is why we see a lot of confusion here.”
In some cases, it comes down to how people understand gender identity. “Many people believe there are only two sexes and two genders—male and female,” Buehler says. And based on that line of thinking, “someone who is pansexual is just like someone who is bisexual, but just using a different label for themselves,” she says.
In these cases, pansexuality would seem to be a more all-encompassing term than bisexuality is in that it defines attraction to all types of people regardless of gender and sexual identity, Lehmiller says. “However, some people define ‘bisexual’ in expansive ways that make it hard to distinguish it from ‘pansexual.’”
Sometimes, it boils down to age. “Older people tend to define themselves as bisexual and millennials and Gen Z use the term pansexual,” Nichols says. “Both are forms of sexual fluidity—having a sexual orientation that is context dependent—and can change.”
All of that said, “There’s no reason that someone can’t identify as both bisexual and as pansexual. And, in fact, many people do,” Lehmiller says.
So…how can I tell if someone is pansexual or bisexual?
Unless someone comes out and states that they affiliate with a particular label, you really can’t. “The identity labels you adopt are up to you,” Lehmiller says.
Fulbright agrees that part of identifying as pansexual, bisexual, or anything else means owning a label that feels right to you. “The other part of it, which I’m seeing more and more with my university students, is completely rejecting labels and being forced into categories,” she says.
So, whether you want to identify as gay, straight, pansexual, bisexual, something else entirely, or nothing at all, the choice is ultimately yours.