What’s in a Name: On Bi and Pan Sexualities

A few weeks ago, I posted two pieces on Conditionally Accepted (see here and here) and one here on Write Where It Hurts exploring bisexuality in varied contexts and defined in varied ways. At the same time, Lain Mathers posted a piece here on Write Where It Hurts examining the ways these meanings and conflicts around bisexuality play out in lesbian/gay and heterosexual spaces. In this post, I want to reflect upon a question that regularly emerged in response to these posts – the relationship between bisexuality and pansexuality.

As I noted in the midst of some of the productive conversations that emerged in comment threads, the term pansexuality or pansexual (like bisexual, bisexuality and other fluid identity terms) is often rife with conflict. In my experience, this conflict arises as a result of the use of the term in three distinct ways by varied individuals and groups.

Before discussing these uses and the conflicts they contain, however, a little her-his-our-story may be useful. Initially, pansexuality was not coined as an identity term (i.e., like bi, homo, and hetero sexualities), but rather as a statement (often attributed to Freud and others at the time) on the presumed innate sexual desire of all humans. This elaboration is automatically problematic because it erases asexual existence and experience, but thankfully, this is not how the term is generally used at present. Rather, these days pansexuality is generally used as a form of sexual identification that dates back (at least) 3 or 4 decades. In this elaboration, it was initially established as a type or form of bisexuality wherein the person in question did not factor genital possession in the establishment of sexual desire and practice. In fact, many bisexual people I have known (myself included) use this term interchangeably with bisexual, fluid, and Queer among others to denote experience and identification with this end (i.e., lack of concern for genitals in matters of attraction and / or sexual activity and / or romance) of the bisexual spectrum (i.e., I may say I’m bi, pan, fluid, and Queer within a few breaths of the same conversation since for me (and historically) this is like saying I like guitars, fender guitars, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, and bass guitars = I like guitars and here are certain types of guitars that especially fit my needs).

When this identification practice emerged, bisexuality (even in general use) typically referred to those people attracted to their own body and / or genital type and the bodies and genital types of others who were not the same as their own (i.e., these were people who engaged in both homo and hetero sexualities, therefore bisexual). Within this umbrella definition, some bisexuals were (1) attracted to more than one type of genital set or sex, some bisexuals were (2) attracted to more than one type of physical form (i.e., size, shape, race, sex, gender presentation, etc), some bisexuals (like me) were (3) attracted to all types of bodies (i.e., like mine and not like mine) whether or not they looked like their own body type, and some bisexuals (4) fluctuated along varied points of this spectrum throughout their lives. Within this spectrum of possibilities between self (1) and other (2) body types (i.e., bisexuality) and between homo (1) and hetero (2) sexualities, pansexual referred to the third type noted above (as did ambisexual, polysexual, and other terms).

In fact, this spectrum still finds voice within bisexual communities and umbrella designations, and remains the most common definition of bisexuality I have seen among bisexual identified people. Other terms, such as fluid (noted as number 4 above), have even been established to make sense of bisexual people’s locations within this spectrum / umbrella. However, the last few decades witnessed systematic erasure and marginalization of bisexuality within lesbian/gay and heterosexual communities predicated upon transforming the word “bi” from an expression of two ends of a complex spectrum of human engagement and desire preference into a simplified binary articulation of the male/female genital binary homo and hetero sex norms are built upon. Instead of bisexual referring to both homo and hetero sexualities, people began linking it to sex / gender binaries to essentialize homo and hetero sexuality. To put this into perspective, imagine if we began saying homo and hetero sexual meant one sex only instead of preferences for a type of sexual engagement – you would have the same thing that has been done to bisexuality over the past few decades, and it would likely sound as silly to homo and hetero sexual folks as it does to most bisexual folks aware of this history. In the process of this extermination of bisexual complexity in the hetero-homo imagination, some people (not surprisingly) began to identify as pansexual in order to avoid biphobia and monosexism within lesbian/gay/straight communities.

It is within this context that (at least) three uses of pansexuality have emerged as regular components of normative or mainstream sexual politics. In the first case, people adopt a more traditional interpretation of pansexuality as a type of bisexuality that refers to sexual attraction and / or engagement regardless of genital consideration. In such cases, pansexuals stand along side other bisexual people against monosexism and biphobia (and in many cases hetero and cis sexism), sometimes refer to themselves as bi-pansexuals or pan-bisexuals though just as often simply say they are pansexual and / or bisexual (or any other terms within the bi spectrum) in varied contexts and with varied others, and often find comfort and security in larger bi communities while working to provide the same for other bi people in lesbian/gay/straight communities. In such cases, pansexuality is not problematic at all – it is simply someone exercising their self and bodily autonomy to identity in the way that best fits their experiences and desires. They are harming no one, and often, as members of larger bi communities, helping others. In such cases, their identification efforts are similar to working class people who prefer homosexual or heterosexual when identifying themselves, but do not have issues with or fight against middle class people who prefer to use the terms gay or lesbian or straight to identify themselves – they are merely identifying as they see fit within a larger umbrella of binary sexual (homo and / or hetero) others who they support and embrace.

The second most common way I see pansexuality used, however, is deeply problematic. In this case, people identify as pansexual to distance themselves from bisexual communities and avoid the marginalization of these communities within lesbian/gay/straight (i.e., binary sexual) communities. In such cases, these people will call themselves pansexual in a positive way, but then repeat biphobic notions of binary bisexualities used to marginalize bisexuality (however termed) within gay/lesbian/straight spaces. In so doing, they will generally receive affirmation and better treatment from binary sexual communities (lesbian/gay or straight identified) in exchange for supporting monosexism (i.e., sexual binaries) – a process referred to as trading power for patronage in inequality studies (i.e., the process wherein a subordinate accepts subordination on certain terms to gain a more comfortable location within a given matrix of inequality). In such cases, pansexuality is incredibly problematic because it is used as a form of sexual inequality reproduction that further marginalizes other forms of bisexuality and non-binary existence. In such cases, pansexual identification efforts are similar to some working class people who prefer homosexual or heterosexual to identify themselves, and then say those using the terms like gay or lesbian or straight are misguided or wrong or not “really” authentic and / or middle class and above people who prefer the terms like gay and lesbian and straight, and then say those using homosexual or other terms are misguided or wrong or automatically hurting them or not “really” authentic – they are using their own preferred terminology as a mechanism for demonizing people who prefer other terms for describing similar (in many cases the exact same) sexual desires and identities.

Within the aforementioned uses of pansexuality, there lies another common use that actually demonstrates the importance of the first two patterns. In this case, people grow up in spaces and communities devoid of bisexual our-his-her-story and understanding, and as a result, learn binary sexual (lesbian/gay/straight) perspectives of the world only. In such cases, they are taught horror stories and insults and jokes about bisexuality that reproduce monosexism and biphobia, and then adopt pansexuality as a term for themselves because they don’t look like or want to be like the negative depictions they are taught by those who benefit from monosexism. In such cases, they rarely know that pansexuality emerged as a form of bisexual identification, or the patterns of ongoing bi-erasure, marginalization, and just plain fear embedded within many contemporary binary sexual (lesbian/gay and straight) communities. Without access to this backstory, they simply identify in the way that appears “acceptable” to the people around them and embrace the biphobia promoted in the same circles. In such cases, pansexuality is once again problematic for the same reasons noted above, but it is nuanced because some of these people will change their behaviors and / or identities and / or politics when they meet bisexual communities, learn about bi-pan-Queer-fluid backstories, and / or continue to encounter marginalization (though often in a more polite form) within lesbian/gay/straight circles due to their non-binary sexual desires and practices. Others, however, will have grown accustomed to the comfort achieved by contributing to bi oppression, and thus slide into pattern two noted above over time. Finally, still more may never become acquainted with bi-pan-Queer-fluid backstories, perspectives, and / or communities, and remain ignorant of these dynamics or the ways their own self presentation and politics speak to these long term patterns. In such cases, pansexual identification efforts are similar to people who only grow up hearing heterosexual perspectives on the world, and internalize these depictions of dangerous or scary gay/lesbian/homosexual people and wrestle with these depictions whether or not they ever encounter gay/lesbian/homosexual backstories, perspectives, or communities in their own lives – they adopt terminology (i.e., I do this, but I’m not gay/lesbian/homosexual/bisexual/pansexual/etc) due to the fear, guilt and shame they were taught by others seeking to preserve their own position within binary sexual politics and power structures.

With these patterns in mind, I return to the conflicted positions of contemporary pansexual identification. As suggested in my use of gay/lesbian/homosexual conflicts I’ve observed over the years, the use of pansexuality as an identification term is complicated, nuanced, and not a new issue for sexual minority communities (i.e., one only needs to look back at previous conflicts between homophile and gay identifications or conflicts over lesbian and gay woman to see the exact same patterns play out in binary sexual minority (i.e., lesbian/gay) communities in the past). As a result, I tend to interpret these conflicts in much the same way I do in relation to the gay/lesbian/homosexual conflicts noted above.  As Queer scholars have long suggested, I focus on the actions tied to the label instead of obsessing over whether or not someone identifies in a “specific” way (i.e., I focus on sexual justice instead of identity politics).

As such, if someone identifies as pansexual while embracing and working for other types of bisexual people, then I see no problem, welcome them to the club, and stand beside them in any way I can. This is the same way I approach bisexual, lesbian/gay, heterosexual, or asexual people – if they identify as their chosen term while embracing equality for all beings of varied sexual identifications and working for such equality, I want to support them in all ways I can.

If, on the other hand, someone identifies as pansexual while demonizing and working against (intentionally or otherwise) other types of bisexual people, then I see a problem, oppose them in any way I can, and call them out on their biphobia, monosexism, and / or heterosexism. This is the same way I approach bisexual, lesbian/gay, heterosexual or asexual people – if they identify as their chosen term while demonizing other beings of one or more sexual identifications and working against such people, they are facilitators the pain of many other people, and I oppose them in all the ways I can.

I take a similar approach – no matter someone’s sexual identification – in relation to cissexism, racism, sexism, ablism, classism, colorism, nationalism, religious oppression (maybe religism?), and other forms of inequality. If the person in question is working to oppose these systems that cause so many people so much pain, then I stand with them whether our identities match or not and / or whether or not I agree with their chosen identification terms, but if they (intentionally or otherwise) feed these systems I stand against them, do my best to call them out, monitor myself to make sure I don’t slip into such practice or catch any practices like this in my own activities I’m not aware of yet, and otherwise seek to end (in any way I can with my one life) these systems and their power.

As a result, my ultimate suggestion in regards to differential sexual identification terms is to focus on equality and justice for all beings regardless of sexual identification. Do you identify and act in ways that support the equality of others? Do you identify and act against monosexism, heterosexism, biphobia, homophobia, and other forms of sexual violence and marginalization? Do you identify and act in ways that support the right of other people to exercise autonomy in self identification and activity even when such autonomy leads them to prefer different identifications and practices than your own? Do you identify and act in ways that support consent, bodily autonomy for all, sexual freedom for all, and the dignity and respect of all people who embrace and support these ideals? For me, these are the important questions regardless of the term one prefers to use to describe their own sexual practices and desires.

J. Sumerau


3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name: On Bi and Pan Sexualities

  1. Thank you so much for this. You speak the truth with clarity, compassion, and brilliance. Having the non-monosexual community at war against itself for the last decade or more has been such a tremendous waste of time, when we could have been using this energy to build community, and fight the high rates of suicide, poverty, domestic violence, rape, and all the other ills that beset us. We really cannot afford these label wars any longer.

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