Bisexual vs. Pansexual: What’s the Difference?


This is an updated version of something I wrote on my personal blog last year.

There’s a huge debate online about the differences between bisexuality and pansexuality. Some who are just discovering their non-monosexuality aren’t sure how to identify, and there are a lot of misconceptions about what bisexuality actually is. Let me see if I can clear things up.

Traditionally bisexuality is defined as attraction to two genders and pansexuality is defined as attraction to all genders. The root word of bisexual is “bi,” meaning two, while the root word of pansexual is “pan,” meaning all. People believe that since bi means two, bisexuality means attraction to men and women only, therefore excluding those who identify outside the gender binary. This is why man non-monosexuals use the word pansexual to be more inclusive. While I have no problem with people identifying as pansexual, it gets really annoying hearing pansexuals constantly saying bisexuals like me are only reinforcing binarism. It’s simply not true!

First of all, while bi does mean two, it does not mean men and women necessarily. As Verity Ritchie explains:

Heterosexual comes from the word hetros, which means “different.” Homosexual comes from the word homo, which means “the same.” So if you were to apply the word bi–which means “two”–if we apply this in the same way we apply hetro-and homosexuality, then we’ve got “different” and “the same.” So bisexuals are attracted to people who are different and people who are the same.

Also, Ritchie points out that the term bisexual was first used to describe plants, not people. When the term was applied to human sexuality, people knew very little–if anything–about non-binary genders. So if someone had relations with people of more than one gender, “bisexual” was the only word available. As explains:

As a scientific term to describe sexuality, the word bisexual came into use during the late 19th century as a means of classifying people with both homosexual and heterosexual patterns of sexual attraction or sexual activity. The latin prefix bi- does indeed indicate two or both, however the “both” indicated in the word bisexual are merely homosexual (lit. same sex) and heterosexual (lit. different sex).  Let’s be clear, the scientific classification bisexual only addresses the physical, biological sex of the people involved, not the gender-presentation.

It’s interesting to note that very few bisexuals use the “men and women” definition of bisexuality. Activist Robyn Ochs, for example, says she identifies as bisexual because “I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” So most of this binarism and cissexism comes from outside the bisexual community. Yes, there are bisexuals who are cissexist, and we need to address cissexism within the bisexual community. But we in the bisexual community as a whole have evolved on our understandings about gender. In fact, many bisexuals, including myself, are non-binary.

“So if bisexuals and pansexuals can love men, women, and non-binary people, how should I identify?”

You get to decide!

That’s the beauty of sexual identity:  no one can define you for you. Your identity is your own. Only you can decide what label works best for you. Nobody can take that from you. For example, I identify as bisexual because I feel the word fits best for me. It means that my heart is open to anyone regardless of gender. That’s how I choose to identify myself, and I won’t let anyone tell me who I am.

Hopefully that clears things up.

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  1. “When the term was applied to human sexuality, people knew very little–if anything–about non-binary genders. So if someone had relations with people of more than one gender, “bisexual” was the only word available.”

    THANK YOU. I end up arguing this point with people who identify as pan and don’t realize that they’re more or less the same. For me, it basically comes down to “I am an Old, this is the word we had when I came out in the late nineties, and now I’m used to it.”

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