What the heck is pansexuality (and is it even a thing)?

A while back I read an article by a woman purporting to be pansexual, entitled something along the lines of “8 common mistakes people make about pansexuals”. I’m not going to share the original article because, to be honest, I find linking to articles for the express purpose of disagreeing with their authors or the ideas therein decidedly uncool (that’s not say I’ve never done it but hey, we grow and we mature and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not into it).

It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. Then last week I was reading some initial thoughts on the Women & Equalities Committees report on transgender equality on the British non-binary magazine/website, Beyond The Binary and was thinking about genderfluidity and the human need to be recognised as someone and something, even if that’s only by being able to tick a “none of the above” box (one of the report’s recommendations is that the UK allows passport holders to mark their gender as X in addition to F and M).

This then set me off, tangentially, thinking again about what pansexuality is, whether we can call it a sexual orientation in its own right, and whether, given that the majority of people in the UK have probably never heard the word “pansexual” before, there are really likely to be any “common mistakes”, let alone eight.

I’m going to tell you right now that I didn’t come up with a conclusion. So if you were hoping to read this post and get an answer to the question in the headline… well, I’m not sure I can promise that. But if you’re up for thinking about the idea, taking it apart, questioning it, and then trying to put it back together, you’re in the right place.

First things first, though. The most important thing you need to know about pansexuality is that, the “pan” refers to sex, gender and sexuality. So folks who describe themselves as pansexual feel attracted to people regardless of whether they are men, women, cisgendered, trans, intersex, or non-binary. Love (and desire) is based on the individual and not in any way limited or inhibited by their biological sex, gender, or gender identity. But in that case, oughtn’t we all to be pansexual? After all, if you met someone who said they wouldn’t date someone who wasn’t cisgendered you wouldn’t think that was their sexuality, you’d think that was bigotry.

Ok, I understand that some people consider themselves to be exclusively straight or exclusively gay but what’s to stop a straight cisgendered woman feeling attracted to a trans man, or a non-binary or intersex person who she either misgenders as male or who she perceives as butch or otherwise masculine in some way*? What’s to stop that happening other than prejudice? In fact she may have already experienced this without knowing since few of us ask for someone’s gender identity before we eye them up on the tube. So doesn’t pansexuality basically translate as not being an arsehole? Maybe. But letting people know you’re not an arsehole can be useful.

We shouldn’t need a word to let people know that we’re not narrow-minded but the fact remains that sometimes we do. And this isn’t about “not needing labels” either. Personally, the “pansexual” label doesn’t appeal to me, despite the fact that I fit the description. But then neither do any of the alternatives, really. That’s just me. There are plenty of people who like identity labels, who find them useful and for whom labels — be they identities or merely descriptors — provide security, a sense of self, and solidarity with others. That’s totally cool.

Let’s not forget either that words mean different things to different people. One of the problems people have with the word “bisexual” is that by using “bi” as the preposition you accept the notion that there are only two genders (or gender identities), since this is what bi means — two. Of course plenty of bisexual people disagree with this assessment. It is perfectly possible to identify as bi and be attracted to all gender identities and none. There’s also the fact that a lot of trans people DO have binary genders (a trans woman is a woman and a trans man is a man) so even if you hold with the idea that “bisexual” as a term includes only two genders, many trans folks would be included in that anyway.

Recently, however, I was told about a trans acquaintance who wouldn’t contact or respond to people on OKCupid unless they specifically mentioned pansexuality in their profile or made clear in some way that they were open to meeting trans people. So I think that pansexual as a word and a concept can be helpful if it nudges people into questioning not just their own gender and sexuality but their preconceptions about gender and sexualities more generally. And I am all for being more inclusive and making other people feel included. Plus words are useful when it comes to explaining new concepts, for example, when you introduce a genderqueer partner to parents who have never heard anyone talk about binary gender, let alone questioned it. But still, I struggle to think of pansexuality as a sexuality rather than, well… a choice (although, one could argue, why should sexuality not be a choice?). And as such I’m not sure what it means for the pansexual-identifying person, other than being a virtue signal.

In the end, people are free to take on whatever identity label they like and interpret it however they choose and if the word “pansexual” speaks to someone and feels right for them then there’s no reason on earth not to use it. But I remain sceptical as to whether the “misconceptions” about it are unique to pansexuality or whether they are more or less the same issues experienced by all non-normative folks.

*There is a long list of identity terms used/reclaimed/coined by nonbinary folks HERE