What Is Pansexual?

Pansexuality is a term that refers to people who are attracted to others no matter the other person’s sex or their gender identity. That includes men, women, transgender, transexual, intersex, and generally anyone who falls outside of the gender binary. Pansexuality is not just limited to sexual attraction but can also involve a romantic and/or emotional attraction.

The Difference Between Pansexuality and Bisexuality

Pansexuality and bisexuality are often confused, but the two aren’t one in the same. If you think of bisexuality as a spectrum, then pansexuality actually falls on that spectrum.

A bisexual person is attracted to both males and females but may not necessarily be attracted to those who identify as non-binary or agendered, whereas a pansexual person is.

According to The Trevor Project, other non-binary sexuality orientations include omnisexual, polysexual, fluid, homoflexible, lesbiflexible, and heteroflexible.

The History of the Term "Pansexual”

According to Google Trends, the term pansexual did not become popular until the mid 2000s, which also coincides with the increase in those who identify as nongendered, nonbinary, or agendered.

“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,'" she says.

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 argued that most 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 and women, but also people who are transgendered, nonbinary, agendered, or any other gender outside of the traditional binary genders.

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 & the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)

“While pansexuality has never been in the 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 diagnoses of gender identity disorder was changed to ‘gender identity dysphoria,’” explains Dr. Lavelle.

She says that the latter is still hotly contended. 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 people with different gender orientations.

If you refer back to early and heralded experts, such as Sigmund Freud and Dr. Albert Kinsey, having attraction to more than just the opposite sex is both natural and common in humans.

Whether you personally agree with that philosophy or not, it’s in best practice to respect anyone’s sexual orientation and identity.

How to Discuss Your Pansexuality with Others

No matter your sexual identity, you do not owe anyone an outright explanation of how you came to discover that truth or what it means for your relationships. However, there are of course times when you might wish to speak with someone else 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. 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 permanent 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 anywhere on the non-hetero spectrum — 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 is 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.”

A Word From Verywell

Though the term pansexual is relatively new in our modern lexicon, it has a long history. Pansexuality indicates a sort of blindness to labels and norms, which is quite beautiful. Whether you’re pansexual or know someone who is or might be, practice love, kindness, and acceptance.

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