What Does It Mean to Be Pansexual?

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One of the beautiful things about being a person right now is that there are no limits to the ways you can express your sexual preferences. While there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of representation, people who identify with sexualities and genders beyond binaries are finding it easier than ever to find both partners and communities that support their needs. But since inclusivity, though extremely awesome, can also be a bit overwhelming or confusing for some who haven’t heard certain terms in the past, it can be a little hard determining exactly where you fit. So, for the sake of said representation, let’s look at a term that’s gaining more and more traction nowadays: pansexual.

So what does pansexual mean? It’s actually pretty simple: Pansexuality is a sexual identity used to describe those who could be potentially attracted to all people, regardless of gender. Some people who identify as pansexual put it in the most adorable terms possible and say they care about “hearts and not parts.”

The reason pansexuality is defined as a sexual identity, rather than a gender identity, says Becca Mui, Ms.Ed., education manager at GLSEN, is because “it describes people’s feelings of emotional, physical, romantic, and sexual attraction to others, [whereas] gender identities refer to people’s personal conception of themselves, which may include ‘female,’ ‘androgynous,’ ‘transgender,’ “genderqueer,’ ‘nonbinary,’ ‘male’ and many others, or a combination thereof.”

Obviously, there is a bit of overlap (and therefore some confusion) when it comes to different sexual identities. For instance, what’s the difference between bisexual and pansexual, since doesn’t bisexual mean potential attraction to both genders? It does, but they aren’t the same thing. The term bisexual refers to someone who is attracted to male and female people, or people who are on the gender binary. “Someone who is pansexual may be attracted to someone who is transgender, gender nonbinary, or genderqueer,” Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and clinical sexologist, tells Glamour. Pansexuality does not assume there are only two genders, rejects the binary, and embraces all people as individuals.

That’s not to say that identifying as pansexual means you aren’t attracted to people who do identify as male or female (i.e., within the traditional gender binary)—only that gender is not something you take into consideration when it comes to sexual attraction. If you find you’re attracted to all people, or most people, and gender isn’t something that dictates your desire for someone, you might be pansexual!

For some people, pansexual is a way to accept a sexual descriptor while leaving lots of room for interpretation. “[Pansexual] is the most inclusive type of sexuality and is not limited to attraction to men or women,” Alicia Sinclair, a sex coach and founder of B-Vibe, tells Glamour. “They may find their sexual attraction is much broader than the traditional identifications and labels.” Even so, it’s important to remember that labels are entirely self-regulated and are no one’s business but your own. Even if you may technically fit into a “box,” or some of your behaviors may fall under a label, you still may not be comfortable using any one term to describe yourself. For example, someone might be attracted to men and women, but not wish to be called bisexual. They may prefer the term queer, heteroflexible or homoflexible. Or maybe they don’t want any label at all. You don’t have to call yourself something just to make other people comfortable. Any label you choose should be strictly for your own benefit and self-identification.

Though there isn’t a clear stat on how many people identify as pansexual in the world—it’s a relatively new term and has been more widely accepted as a sexual identity only in the last decade or so (and we’re still working on it, tbh)—as more people feel comfortable coming out on a gender and sexuality spectrum, we’ll likely see a push for more comprehensive population statistics. According to the GLSEN 2015 National School Climate survey, 16.1 percent of the student participants identified themselves as pansexual. That’s a pretty significant number, and one that will probably grow as acceptance permeates popular culture.

If you are pansexual, some people want the next step to be explaining their sexual identity to family or friends. When you live in a world that generally expects that there are men and women, gay and straight people, falling outside of those parameters can be jarring for people you love. If you’re looking for some “coming out” ideas, Overstreet suggests writing a letter to family as a way of expressing who you are. “This is a great way to share your identify with them, as well as your feelings related to it, in a safe way,” she says.

Identifying on the sexuality spectrum may lead to some awkward moments in public. Though it can be disheartening, it happens to plenty of people. “Be prepared that some people may comment or ask inappropriate questions about your identity or your behavior,” Overstreet says. “Remember to keep your boundaries in place and don’t feel that you have to answer any questions that are inappropriate.”

Remember that you have agency, that your sexual identity is totally valid, and that how you choose to label yourself is nobody’s business but your own. We’ll say it again for the seats in the back: Any label you choose is strictly for your own benefit and self-identification.

You got this.

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