What Does It Mean to Be Pansexual?

What Is Pansexual?

Pansexuality is a term that refers to people who are attracted to others no matter the other person’s gender identity or sex.

Pansexuality

A pansexual person may be attracted to men, women, as well as people who are non-binary, trans, gender-fluid, and more. Pansexuality is not just limited to sexual attraction but can also involve a romantic and/or emotional attraction.

Defining Pansexuality

While some categorize pansexuality under the bisexuality "umbrella," the two terms don't necessarily mean the same thing.

Pansexual vs. Bisexual

People who are pansexual and people who are bisexual may be attracted to multiple genders (despite the misconception that bisexual people are only attracted to two genders, or to men and women only). However, some find that pansexual is an updated and more inclusive term, especially for those who are trans or non-binary.

What about pansexual vs. omnisexual? Omnisexual describes attraction to all genders. Some people use this term instead of pansexual to emphasize that gender is an important element of attraction for them.

Other labels that describe multi-gender attraction include:

  • Heteroflexible: People use this term when they experience mostly heterosexual attraction with occasional "exceptions."
  • Homoflexible: This term describes individuals who are generally attracted to people of the same gender but sometimes experience attraction to people of other genders.
  • Abrosexual or Sexually fluid: People may use these terms to describe their sexuality when the genders they find attractive are constantly changing.

What Does Polysexual Mean?

Someone who is polysexual is attracted to multiple or many different types of genders. This may sound similar to pansexual; however, remember that pansexuality is defined by attraction having nothing to do with gender.

Also keep in mind that a person's sexuality does not define the types of relationships they have.

For instance, someone might be pansexual and monogamous—meaning they experience attraction to people regardless of gender, but they're currently in a committed relationship.

On the other hand, a person can be pansexual and polyamorous—meaning they are in more than one romantic relationship at a time (with the knowledge and consent of all people involved).

Panromantic is another related term you may have heard. A person who identifies as panromantic may feel romantic attraction to people regardless of their gender identity. Someone can be pansexual and panromantic, meaning they experience both sexual attraction and romantic attraction.

But a person may also be panromantic without being pansexual. This means they experience romantic attraction to people regardless of their gender, but they may experience sexual attraction only to specific genders or none at all (known as asexuality).

While there can be some overlap in the definitions of various sexual orientations, the most important thing to remember is that how someone identifies is completely up to them.

The History of the Term "Pansexual”

According to Google Trends, "pansexual" did not become a common search term until the mid-2010s, which also coincides with the increase in the usage of terms such as "nonbinary" and "agender."

“While the term itself did not become popularized until recently, the roots of pansexuality have origins in the field of psychology that far predate its popularity, " says Dr. Sera Lavelle, clinical psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. "Sigmund Freud, for instance, believed that all infants are born with ‘unfocused libidinal drives.' "

In other words, Dr. Lavelle explains, Freud believed that infants’ sexual drives could be directed not only to both men and women, but also inanimate objects. He posited that it was through the different stages of psychosexual development that children learn to direct those desires towards the opposite sex.

“One of the most notable theories of sexuality comes from Dr. Albert Kinsey, most known for the ‘Kinsey Scale.’ Kinsey believed that most people reside on a continuum in terms of sexual attraction,” explains Dr. Lavelle.

This scale ranges from zero being exclusively heterosexual to six being exclusively homosexual. Kinsey's original data suggested that many people fall somewhere in the middle of that scale.

How to Know If You’re Pansexual

The primary sign that you are pansexual is that you find yourself attracted to not just men or women or nonbinary folks, but to people all across the gender spectrum. It doesn't mean you are attracted to every single person, but rather that you are capable of finding people of any gender sexually desirable.

Dr. Lavelle says, “Those who are pansexual would say that their attractions were gender-blind or gender-neutral. As such, they wouldn’t feel that gender or sex were determining factors in their sexual or emotional attractions.” 

Generally speaking, pansexuality is something that you discover within yourself, often through thoughtful introspection and exploration of your sexual, romantic, and emotional desires in relation to connecting with others.

Sexuality and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)

“While pansexuality has never been in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—a manual used by most mental health clinicians—homosexuality and gender identity disorder have been included until recent years. It was not until 1973 that homosexuality was removed, and not until 2013 that the diagnosis of gender identity disorder was changed to ‘gender dysphoria,’” explains Dr. Lavelle.

She says that the gender dysphoria diagnosis is still hotly contested. Proponents of the term want to keep it in order to provide clinicians a diagnosis so they can provide mental health treatment for those who feel discomfort with their sex assigned at birth.

Those on the other side of the debate believe that having it in a manual for mental health disorders perpetuates the stigmatization of transgender and nonbinary individuals.

LGBTQ+ individuals, including pansexual people, have been unfairly pathologized in the past. As our understanding of gender and sexuality evolve, so too has the scientific conversation around those subjects.

How to Discuss Your Pansexuality with Others

You do not owe anyone a disclosure of your sexual orientation or how you came to discover that part of yourself. This is especially true if you believe that disclosure would be damaging.

However, there are of course times when you might wish to celebrate your identity openly and/or to speak with trusted loved ones about your orientation. This might be the case with close friends, romantic partners, and even the parents or parental figures in your life.

In such cases, be as honest and clear as you’re able to. You might need to break down the definition of pansexuality, since some people are unfamiliar with it. If you’re speaking with a romantic partner about this, explain how your orientation might (if at all) affect your relationship. From there, explain that the way you feel is not a phase and that this is a part of who you are.

Supporting a Loved One Who Is Pansexual

If you find yourself on the receiving end of someone coming out as pansexual, recognize that person considers you a monumental figure in their life. Coming out as pansexual—or any orientation that isn't heterosexual—can evoke a broad range of feelings for the individual who is coming out.

For some, it is extremely scary, and for others it may be less of a struggle. Either way, your reaction will impact your relationship deeply moving forward.

Dr. Lavelle

My biggest advice to any parent or loved one is to keep an open mind about pansexuality, particularly if it [involves] their child.

— Dr. Lavelle

"As pansexuality is only beginning to be accepted, the discovery can be confusing for young people, and they will need support when trying to understand their own feelings," says Dr. Lavelle.

She adds, “If someone you love is open and comfortable, ask them if they are open to discussing it with you so you can have a deeper and more inclusive understanding of how it feels for that person and what it means to them.”

Common Misconceptions

Myths about pansexuality abound, so education is crucial. The myths below have been debunked, so you can approach your understanding of pansexuality from an informed and open-minded place.

Myths
  • People who identify as pansexual are being indecisive. They don't know what they like.

  • Pansexuality is a new, "trendy" term and it isn't a real way of defining a person's sexuality. People won't be using it in a couple of years.

  • Pansexual people are attracted to everyone they meet.

Truths
  • Pansexual people experience genuine attractions that expand beyond gender.

  • Pansexuality was first used in a medical journal in 1914. Still, new terms are necessary so people can express themselves and their identities.

  • Attraction is based on a number of factors. Pansexual people aren't attracted to everyone (just like heterosexual people aren't attracted to every straight person).

Pansexuality in Pop Culture

A number of celebrities have come out as pansexual in recent years, and inspire others who identify as LGBTQ+ to embrace their unique journey with sexuality. The list includes Miley Cyrus, Janelle Monáe, Cara Delevingne, Kehlani, Bella Thorne, among others.

There are a number of pansexual characters represented in TV shows, like Ali in the animated show Big Mouth, Rick of Rick and Morty, Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, and David Rose in Schitt's Creek.

A Word From Verywell

Pansexuality indicates a sort of disregard for labels, which is quite beautiful. Whether you’re pansexual or know someone who is or might be, practice love, kindness, and acceptance toward yourself and others.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. LGBT Foundation. What it means to be pansexual or panromantic.

  2. Hayfield N, Křížová K. It’s like bisexuality, but it isn’t: Pansexual and panromantic people’s understandings of their identities and experiences of becoming educated about gender and sexuality. Journal of Bisexuality. 2021;21(2):167-193. doi:10.1080/15299716.2021.1911015

  3. The Trevor Project. National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2019.

  4. Harper AJ, Swanson R. Nonsequential task model of bi/pan/polysexual identity development. Journal of Bisexuality. 2019;19(3):337-360. doi:10.1080/15299716.2019.1608614

  5. Cardoso D, Pascoal PM, Maiochi FH. Defining polyamory: A thematic analysis of lay people's definitions. Arch Sex Behav. 2021;50(4):1239-1252. doi:10.1007/s10508-021-02002-y

  6. Cordon LA. Freud's World: An Encyclopedia of His Life and Times. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO; 2012.

  7. Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. Diversity of sexual orientation.

  8. Davy Z. The DSM-5 and the politics of diagnosing transpeople. Arch Sex Behav. 2015;44:1165-1176. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0573-6

Additional Reading
  • Janet P. Psychoanalysis. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 1914;9(2-3):153-187. doi:10.1037/h0075431

By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decade of experience covering health and wellness topics.