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Bisexuality vs. Pansexuality: Is there a wrong way to identify?

The difficulty of the right language

The topic of sexual identities and their labels has been a hot topic in popular culture for quite some time, including in the LGBTQ+ community. Though many of the terms we use today have existed for centuries, more and more labels have come to light in recent years, usually more specific and inclusive than their generalized predecessors. This phenomenon, coined “the alphabet soup explosion” by Robyn Ochs, the editor of Bi Women Quarterly, has led to the adoption of terms like “panromantic” and “demisexual” and, consequently, expanded the LGBT acronym to LGBTQQIAAP2+ (often shortened to LGBTQ+). In fact, according to a 2019 report by The Trevor Project, a survey of tens of thousands of LGBTQ youth aged 13-24 presented more than 100 different labels to describe their sexuality.

However, as we know, language continues to evolve over time, some words losing their original meanings entirely and eventually meaning the complete opposite. This fact, in addition to the recent influx of new labels, has led to a lot of overlap - and sometimes misunderstanding - in the LGBTQ+ community and society as a whole. A perfect example of this is the difference between the terms “bisexual” and “pansexual”. 

The term “pansexual” has picked up steam in the last few years, probably in part due to celebrities like Janelle Monae and Ali Wong publicly using the label to describe their own sexuality. The most commonly known definitions of the word, primarily used in this context by people outside the LGBTQ+ community, are: “attraction to all genders''; “attraction regardless of gender”; and, in some cases, “hearts not parts”. 

Though these definitions have some truth to them, the term has inadvertently placed the similar term “bisexual” into a box it never intended to belong in. It doesn’t help that mainstream media outlets like Cosmopolitan reinforces this misconception. In popular culture, someone who is bisexual is often described as someone attracted to men and women, which can wrongly insinuate that members of the bi community are transphobic and that folks of other gender identities are not included in their attraction. 

The Origin of “Bisexuality”

According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the term “bisexual” was in 1793, originally meaning “possessing characteristics of both sexes, especially both male and female reproductive structures.” Though over time the term has moved away from its biological meaning towards sexual identity, it’s still commonly assumed to only include two genders: male and female. 

The misconception makes sense - after all, the prefix “bi-” does mean “two.” However, as stated previously, language changes and evolves over time. Though genders outside the gender binary have existed for centuries, we only recently have tangible words to describe these identities. The word “transgender” didn’t even exist until 1974 - that’s less than 50 years ago. 

Even though many of the labels we know and use today weren’t yet developed or commonly used, the term “bisexual” was never meant to be restrictive in definition or in practice; bisexual activists have been trying to make this distinction for decades. Anything That Moves — an art, literature and media magazine produced by the Bay Area Bisexual Network (now called the Bay Area Bisexual+ & Pansexual Network) — published the “Bisexual Manifesto” in 1990, which details the true definition of bisexuality - fluid and all-inclusive.

“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,” the manifesto explains.

This misunderstanding has caused a lot of damage to folks in the bisexual community, who already face discrimination and bi-erasure from both inside and outside the LGBTQ+ community. Thankfully, in 2019, Merriam-Webster updated the definition of bisexual to read “of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to people of one’s own gender identity and of other gender identities.”

So… where does this put pansexuality? 

Well, bisexuality isn’t the only term whose meaning has changed over time. Originally, the word “pansexuality” stemmed from the studies of both Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey, the creator of the Kinsey scale. Freud used “pansexualism” to describe his theory that most human activities are driven mainly by sex. Because the prefix “pan-” means “all”, he connected it to his theory “all is driven by sex.” 

Kinsey, however, used the label to describe humans who fell somewhere between a (0) and (6) on the Kinsey scale, which intends to measure human sexuality. Someone who is purely heterosexual is represented by (0), whereas someone who is purely homosexual is represented by (6) on the Kinsey scale.

Now, Merriam-Webster defines the term pansexual as “of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Which label is correct?

With all of this being said - is there a right or wrong way to identify? Do we reinforce the misconceptions of one sexual orientation by identifying as the other? 

The short answer is no - there is never a wrong way to identify. In fact, isn’t that how this whole debate began? There are hundreds of ways to label your sexuality for a reason, and this is no exception. If anything, this unintentional rivalry between bisexuality and pansexuality is a lesson in how quickly - and sometimes inefficiently - language and culture evolves over time. The prefixes “bi” and “pan” hold these terms hostage, in a sense, making it difficult for their true and evolved definitions to easily shine through. 

So, with this information, choose the label that you feel the most connected to and wear it proudly, or choose both! No matter how you choose to present yourself to the world, you are valid and you matter. 
Do you agree? What’s your personal definition of bisexuality vs pansexuality? WWe'd love to hear your opinion via Instagram @kinkykarrot or write us an e-mail.

guest entry by Mary Beth McCauley

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