The term pansexuality was coined in 1917, using the Greek prefix ‘pan’, which means ‘all’ added to ‘sex’, from Latin. Pansexuality at the time did not refer to a sexual orientation or identity. It was used by other psychologists to critique Freud’s position that everything about human behavior was due to sex. This meaning is gradually fading from our language, as the word’s use as an identity term becomes more widespread.
The term evolved to refer to people who are open to a wide variety of sexual experiences, or even people who were sexually attracted to the Earth or to nature (for example). In the 1990s and early 2000s, the definition narrowed, essentially meaning that a person was attracted to people of multiple genders or regardless of gender.
The number of people identifying as pansexual has increased within the last few years as more people hear the term and see themselves in it. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) 2018 Youth report, about 14% of LGBTQIA+ youth respondents identified as pansexual, up from 7% in 2014. In addition, a whole host of celebrities have come out as pansexual, adding visibility and role models such as Janelle Monae and Miley Cyrus.
Lora McKnight, from Pittsburgh, uses the term ‘pansexual’, “because I am attracted to people that identify as non-binary, cis, and transgender, and it felt like the term that best described that attraction.” Many pansexuals feel similarly and consider the word more inclusive than ‘bisexual’, or that bisexuality is inherently transphobic because they feel it does not include nonbinary identities. Some feel that bisexuality supports the idea of a gender binary, while pansexuality challenges this notion.
Bisexuals, however, have vehemently disagreed, arguing that bisexuality can be defined as “attraction to two or more genders”. In fact, a magazine for bisexuals entitled Anything That Moves published a manifesto in 1990 that stated “Bisexuality is a whole, fluid identity. Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature: that we have “two” sides or that we must be involved simultaneously with both genders to be fulfilled human beings. In fact, don’t assume that there are only two genders.” Many bisexuals define the term as “attracted to people of the same gender, as well genders which are different”.
Both terms have their own connotations, as well as cultural and demographic differences. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Sex Research, pansexuals were more likely to be trans or nonbinary, women, and younger than those who used other terms. Some glossaries and definitions view pansexuality as “attracted regardless of gender” and bisexual as “attracted to more than one gender”. The differences are subtle and nuanced and there is more than enough room for multiple terms.
All non-monosexuals, whatever term they choose, seem to receive significantly less support from their families and communities than lesbians, gays, and straight people. This is supported by multiple studies, including a paper published by HRC called Supporting and Caring for Our Bisexual Youth, which reports that non-monosexuals are about half as happy, and much less likely to feel a sense of belonging. They may not feel comfortable in LGBTQIA+ spaces (despite the B and the Q) or in heterosexual spaces and feel discrimination coming from both sides.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC), one of the few organizations that collect data about sexual orientation, conducted their last study on the topic in 2016, which indicated that the number of people attracted to more than one gender in the United States had doubled since their previous study in 2013. When added together as a group, bisexual, pansexual, and queer people make up a majority in the LGBTQIA+ community, although they often do not feel welcome at Pride, in support groups or other social groups due to stereotypes and mistrust, especially when they have opposite-gender partners.
As awareness and acceptance grows, more people may identify themselves as bisexual, pansexual, or queer, and all should be welcome in LGBTQIA+ spaces.