Some differences and similarities between bisexuality and pansexuality

This is my take on one aspect of the bi vs. pan debate. A lot of people on tumblr found this helpful, so I thought I might put this here as well. It’s important to remember that on tumblr, this debate is more like an ongoing flame war, so I’m responding based on a lot of prior discussion and knowledge. For a more basic (and comprehensive) post about the proverbial “bi is binary” debate, try this.

Bisexual and pansexual identities often look the same:

  • Both bisexual and pansexual people might feel desire towards people of any amount of genders. People who feel desire towards people of more than one, more than two, many, multiple or all genders can identify as bisexual or as pansexual (or really anything else): The word people use to name their sexual identity does not predict or convey the number of genders they might desire.
  • Both bisexual and pansexual people might be cisgender, transgender* or genderqueer*: Whether people identify as bi or pan does not predict or convey their gender identity.
  • Both bisexual and pansexual people can support transgender* and genderqueer* liberation/rights: Whether people identify as bi or pan does not predict or convey their levels of such support or their levels of transphobia/cissexism.
  • Both bisexual and pansexual people can support bisexual* liberation/rights: Whether people identify as bi or pan does not predict or convey their levels of such support or their levels of biphobia (and yes, people who identify as bi can be biphobic, too).

Bisexual identity and pansexual identity are not the same:

  • Bisexuality comes from a type of political thought based on sexual identity, pansexuality comes from a type of political thought based on gender identity: Talk to a bi person about bisexuality, they’ll often talk about sexuality and desire, and focus on biphobia; talk to a pan person about pansexuality, they’ll often talk about transgender and genderqueer identities, and focus on transphobia.
  • The definition of pansexuality is often dependent on the definition of bisexuality (and, dare I say, the rejection thereof): If bisexuality is defined as desire towards people of more than one gender, pansexuality can be defined as desire towards people of more than two genders; if bisexuality is defined as desire towards people of many genders, pansexuality can be defined as desire towards people of all genders; if bisexuality is defined as desire towards people of genders similar + different than our own, pansexuality can be defined as desire regardless of gender. But: both bisexuality and pansexuality can – and have – been defined as any of these things.

And herein lies the problem: many pansexuals feel the need to define bisexuality as attraction to no more than two genders (a definition which most outspoken bisexuals here on tumblr vehemently dispute) in order to constitute the difference as related to desire rather than as related to politics. This is where all the erasure and biphobia comes into play and where it gets fucked up, violent, silencing and oppressive.

Another problem here is that this kind of dependency on meaning and comparison erases pansexuality as an identity in its own right. I’d like to believe that pansexuality can stand quite well on its own [excuse my ableist language, I couldn’t find an alternative phrase] without being dependent on bisexuality like that.

My advice to everyone on this issue is to stop this focus on the desire-related differences between bisexuality and pansexuality: none can be defined in any way that can be agreed by everyone. Concurrently, I would also advise people to stop defining other people’s identities for them: they can do it perfectly well themselves. Since the pansexual side of the debate is usually the one doing these things, I urge pansexual people to consider the power relations here (obviously working against bisexuals), to take responsibility for themselves on the personal level, and to call each other out and encourage accountability on the community level.

To the bisexual side I would say… try not to assume that all pansexuals are necessarily biphobic or against us. Memes such as “police all the bisexuals” convey a lot of justified pain and anger, but they’re still in bad taste as they assume exactly that. Yes, many pansexuals really are biphobic, and yes we bisexuals have grown used to expecting a lot of bullshit coming from that direction… but then again, many are not, and we might find even more allies among them yet.

Really, my dream in that regard is to have an awesome shiny bi/pan movement to make an awesome shiny bi/pan revolution with.

Solidarity for all.

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36 thoughts on “Some differences and similarities between bisexuality and pansexuality

  1. This really made me think. I identify as pansexual, and recently debated with a bisexual about the meaning of the two — I didn’t think of it in this way, and you know what? Your probably right. I have yet to meet a bisexual who does not include genderqueer in their attraction spectrum, even if they do not make a point to make this clear as I do. Even when I identified as gay, I have always felt a strong political alliance with the genderqueer and trans community. More so than with LGB activism, even though I am cisgendered.

    Hmm.

  2. Interestingly, I am someone with a passion for trans equality but ID as bisexual. Though that is not to say you’re wrong. Personally, I use bisexual because same/other is more accurate for me than all or no consideration for gender. My attraction map has one or two clear exceptions I am aware of, but genderqueer as a group is not among them. I would also note that many *but not all* pansexuals who try to phrase their sexual orientation positively keep making the mistake of defining trans people as a separate gender. That is something else broken about the growing pansexual identity that needs fixing. There are trans people who identify as male, female, and other. They are not all outside the majority genders, nor do all of them wish to be. If they can’t define their orientation without misgendering people, they’re doing it differently wrong than doing it by denying others’ capacity for loving people of minority genders.

    • I think the whole topic of misgendering of third-gendering is really tricky. I know quite a few trans people who only identify as “transgender”, not “trans man” or “trans woman”, but just “trans”. On the other hand, there are obviously a lot of people who think that this is problematic because many trans people do identify as man or woman. And on the other-other hand, “transgender” is also an umbrella term, and there are many people who identify as non-binary transgenders (for example, I’m a genderqueer person who also identifies as a trans person in its umbrella context).

      So how do you include those who need to be included without also lumping in those who don’t? I have no clue… Maybe “non-binary” covers all of that? But then, we’d be third-gendering people again, alluding to a sort of binary dichotomy of “men, and women and those in the middle”. So, no easy way out of it, really…

  3. this is a great post and i loved reading it, but i have one issue with it:

    “since the pansexual side of the debate is usually the one doing these things…”

    i think that depends on whether you’re bi or pan. i mean, i’m pan and it seems to me that bi people are the ones “doing these things”. you’re bi and it seems to you that pan people are mostly to blame. i think we all have the capacity to be lame— so let’s be awesome together!

    yeah. i like your brain.

    • Thanks ^_^

      As to “who is doing what” – I hear you that people from both sides are doing a lot of fucked up things. For example, I’ve heard bi people try to claim than pansexuals ought to be attracted to animals and children because “pan” means “all”, and that’s made me quite upset because the way it was said was an obvious attempt to delegitimize pansexual identity. So I definitely do acknowledge that side of things.

      However I have also found – and this is my personal experience, from stuff I’ve been exposed to, so yours might be different – but, in debates that I’ve seen, pansexuals are far more likely to claim that there is only one definition to bisexuality and that theirs is the right one despite what the bisexuals say. When bisexuals do the same against pansexuals, I’ve found that, within the context of these debates, it’s mostly in response to pansexual claims, trying to demonstrate how flawed their arguments are. In fact, most of these debates, it seems simply “obvious”, in an effortless way, that bisexuality is a “flawed” identity which needs to redeem itself (guilty until proven otherwise). Most of what I’ve heard bisexuals say on this matter can amount to “Please let us self-identify, thank you”. In contrast, I’ve never encountered a post (or any text) needing to defend pansexuality from bisexual allegations.

      And of course, we also need to consider the larger context of these debates, which are taking place in a culture that is not just monosexist, but also specifically biphobic. In most contexts, most claims against bisexuality and bisexual people will be well received, and that includes these debates (especially in the context of ‘politically aware’, ‘queer’ parts of tumblr). So I see a definite hierarchy at work here, and I think it would be a mistake to dismiss it.

      • “…most claims against bisexuality and bisexual people will be well received…”

        i really can’t argue with this. this is totally true, sadly. i encounter far, far too many ignorant and bigoted rants about the supposed “evils” of bisexuality both online and in person.

        i also encounter, equally from bi and non-bi people, simple pansexual erasure. i don’t encounter too many people who have a hate-on for pansexuals— just people who tell me that we don’t exist.

        if there’s a definite heirarchy at work, then pansexuals don’t even get to be at the bottom of it because so few people acknowledge our existence. then again, bi erasure is a huge deal and is pretty widespread, as far as i know. i think people just need to stop telling other people what they are and how to be.

        yeah. it’s all messed up and i’m stoked to have found some sane people online. i mean, pan and bi people face a lot of the same pressures and attacks— we might as well stand together.

        actually, “might as well stand together” isn’t good enough. we should stand together because we’re all people and because we all need each other to survive. plus, almost all of us, without regards to gender, sex, sexuality, race, religion, etc. are totally awesome. yay!

      • I do have to say that in all the years I’ve identified as bisexual, I have never encountered so much contempt for the bisexual identity as I have among certain online pansexual communities. It wasn’t until I joined Tumblr that I learned what a binarist and transphobic piece of trash I apparently am, despite being genderqueer.

        • That’s funny, my experience has been somewhat reverse. I started out by taking up the pansexual stance, then slowly realized that I and my friends were being biphobic, and so I stopped and, after a long process, broke up with “pansexual”. At that stage, when I started defending bisexuality, I was accused of being transphobic/erasing by pan people in my local community (of course, while ignoring my genderqueer identity)… I only got exposed to the tumblr flame wars by back-tracking pages which linked to my blog post about the binary, and I was fascinated with the breadth and depth of the discussion. Yours was one of the first blogs I found there, by the way :) And I was really really excited to discover a community of bisexual genderqueers who felt the same way as I did and who argued so eloquently and confidently about something I was only beginning to think about myself. So tumblr was actually very empowering to me in that regard.

  4. I totally agree! And I think you touch 3 points that are fundamental:

    1) “Bisexuality comes from a type of political thought based on sexual identity, pansexuality comes from a type of political thought based on gender identity”.

    Most pansexuals do not talk about “panphobia”, they talk about “transphobia” or even “homophobia”. In this way many pansexual discourses invisibilise the oppression many non-monosexual identities experience, because, as I see it, these pansexual discourses reproduce monosexist/binaric frames. Many people that see bisexuality as binaric is because they look to the world through monosexism, people that do not do it ( eg many bisexuals) cannot understand this binarism.

    2) “I would also advise people to stop defining other people’s identities for them”. In Queer discourses, or at least the discourses we use in my community we respect the self definition right of each person. This right is curiiously reserved to people that have monosexual privileges, whereas bisexuals are continuosly questioned.

    3) “My advice to everyone on this issue is to stop this focus on the desire-related differences between bisexuality and pansexuality. I am tired people using non-monosexual identities such as pansexuality and bisexuality to create conflict against each other. I am bisexual, I am pansexual and those persons that either are monosexuals or they have a gender identity approach should reconsider in which terms they are discussing non monosexual sexual orientations.

    • Thanks for the comment :)

      1. I feel uncomfortable about making “most pansexuals”/”most bisexuals” types of divisions. You say that most pansexuals talk about “homophobia”, but so do most bisexuals. I think homonormativity is a problem with all of our communities, and I would be reluctant to scapegoat one certain identity group for it. Likewise with discussing biphobia and panphobia, which you say that pansexuals don’t – in fact, a lot of pansexuals do, and many feel affiliated with the bisexual community and the struggle against monosexism. And the same goes for binarism – reversing the accusation to say that pansexuals are binarist and bisexuals aren’t is just as problematic as saying the opposite. Obviously, many pansexuals are cissexist/transphobic, since most people in our culture(s) are, but the same goes for bisexuals, and I would be careful about vindicating the bisexual community of cissexism and transphobia so easily.

      2. Totally agree. This is definitely one of the most painful points about monosexism and biphobia: it seems that bisexuality is an identity constantly needing justification, assertion and re-assertion, especially within the GGGG community. People who identify as gay or lesbian often ask me “why I need all these labels” while obviously working a double standard regarding their own “labels”. Of course, this isn’t a double standard at all, but a single one: bisexual identity is always wrong.

      3. Yes.

      • @ miguel:

        i agree with bidyke on all accounts.

        i don’t think that generalizations do anyone any good. for example, i am a pansexual to whom none of the generalizations in your first point apply. personally, i DO feel affiliated with the bisexual community; this world is entirely monosexist and further dividing ourselves can only harm us.

        i agree wholeheartedly with your other points, though. yes! rock on!

  5. I’m a senior in high school, working on my anthropology research paper about what are the distinguishing characteristics of one who identifies as pansexual vs. bisexual. I chose to write about this particular topic because I recently found out that one of my good friends is pansexual. Since I mistakenly assumed that she was bisexual (I’ve seen her with both men and women), I decided to learn more about the differences between the two so that I would no longer be ignorant.
    Your post is most definitely the most thorough that I’ve found on clarifying what defines someone as bisexual and/or pansexual and for that, I’m grateful.

    • hi! you seem like an awesome friend. most of my “friends” say they get it and go on to prove that they just think i’m gay. you=awesome. just one little word of advice from a pansexual who used to identify as bi:

      i think the most important thing to remember is that the only CONSTANT difference between pansexuals and bisexuals is the label they identify with. there are other differences that apply depending on the individual; people usually have their own reasons for choosing one word over another. however, for some, “bisexual” or “pansexual” just feels more true.

      have fun doing your paper!

      • Much thanks to bidyke for giving me permission to cite this as a source and much thanks to mx. punk for the compliment and clarification!

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  7. Pingback: Some differences and similarities between bisexuality and pansexuality « Bisexual Alliance Victoria Inc.

  8. I think what I’m most confused about really is why use a phrase that seems to imply gender binary (with the word actually having bi, which you know, means two) you’re interested in all gender variations~ My issue isn’t with it being transphobic or anything, that’s absurd, and really there wouldn’t be anything wrong with a sexuality that isn’t interested in genderqueer or trans people, it’s all up to taste the same way it’s cool to be interested in just one sexuality. What I’m confused about really is just that it seems to misrepresent someones sexuality if they /are/ interested in any gender/lack thereof due to the binary in the phrasing~ Anyway so yeah I was just wondering why someone who is interested in all gender identities would explicitly go with bisexual rather than pansexual, because I guess I don’t really see the difference if they’re both interested in all genders identities and I guess pansexual just seems a bit more representative of the sexuality languagewise~ For the record I personally identified as bisexual for quite a while until I heard the word pansexual, at which point I shifted over because it just seemed a bit more precise ^_^ so yeah I guess I just want to know the difference between them if they are both being defined as interested in any gender :P

  9. So I think i’m going to get a SUPER HUGE FLAME for this but I just wanna post what i’ve seen throughout many blogs that i’ve gone through.
    CLEARING UP MY CONCLUSIONS WOULD BE MORE WELCOMED THAN FLAMES.

    Mono = One

    Homo = Own

    Hetero = Other Than Own

    Bi = Two

    Poly = More Than Two But Not All

    Skolio = Other Than Mainstream

    Pan = All(Either Equally Or Some More Than The Others)

    Omni = All Equally

    Demi = Diminished/Partial/Reduced

    Grey = Middle Ground/Between Black and White(Here Predominant)

    A = Without

    Now add ‘Sexual’ to these Prefixes.
    Voila! You Get a Sexuality.

    This Made Sense To Me but..

    ^ Is This Okay?

    And About Genders..
    So many People Identify as Genderqueer as in Two Spirit(All Equally In Mind) or Gender Fluid(Different At Different Times Mentally) or Agender(None Mentally) or Androgynous(Mix Of Two Mentally) and Intersex(Mix Of Two Physically) Maybe?
    Its just what my Conclusions Are.

    So Like..thats what I think it is like..

    • It’s likely that most blogs that you’ve seen which defined “bi” as “two” were written by non-bi-identified people. I invite you to read more about this here on my blog:

      Words, binary and biphobia, or: why “bi” is binary but “FTM” is not
      Why I identify as bisexual and not pansexual

      And, just so I don’t end up suggesting that no bisexuals ever define themselves in accordance with the binary:

      Cissexism and transphobia in bisexual communities

    • I read your other articles and they make a lot of sense to me.
      And I got your point.
      But the thing is..i identify with whatever you say and still feel very uncomfortable calling myself Bisexual.

      I used to think i’m Gay Woman..thought that for years and years without a doubt.
      But the more I matured the more I realised about my attraction towards other genders..like Genderqueer Group…
      So basically I am attracted to all the genders..altho some more than the others but I still feel weird about calling myself as Bisexual.
      I’m mostly confused about why I am comfortable with calling myself as a Pansexual/Panromantic Greysexual Woman more than Bisexual.
      It just frustrates me immensely..

      If you could help me out thr..i’d be most grateful..
      :)

      Am I like some Biphobic Bisexual Chick or something?
      I dont mind bisexuality..i infact like bisexuals more..but I just feel like i’m Pansexual and not Bisexual.
      See..Confusion and Frustration.

  10. I do identify more as male bisexual but also find gender queer and some trans people attractive. My identity evolves over time but I tend to also have a deep emotional/sexual attraction to women and to have similar connection to a man he would need to be very femme otherwise there is not enough glue in the relationship. I can have sex with all sorts but can not have relationships with all sorts. But it gets complicated because the women including my current relationship tended to be a mix of masculine and femme.

    For Myers Briggs fans Three of my deepest connections with women: they were all ISTP and am IN(FT)P. The men deep connections were INFP. It is like I am seeking sameness with men and opposite with women in multiple ways. BUT for an IN(FT)P male I am actually really very butch and have a rather masculine mode of feeling.

    Sexual identities regardless of orientation from what I have seen are secretely complex and although monosexual people may be confused by bi or pan people I have more often found that gay and straight people often have similar complexities.

    The bottom line is we should all shut up and listen to one another.

  11. I’m sorry, but as someone who identifies as pansexual for different reasons than the norm, I am constantly insulted when people automatically jump down my throat for being transphobic or biphobic. Especially because my definition of pansexuality deals with neither of those things. (I see pansexuality as having a singular type that spans across all genders, where I find bisexual people tend to have different types depending on gender (blond guys, brunette chicks)) what have you.

    I definitely see A TON of pansexual slamming from bisexual people. I have been told time and time again that it is just a “hipster” version of bisexuality, that pansexuality doesn’t exist at all, I am constantly reading posts trying to invalidate my sexuality. Not even going to mention all of the “you love everything, so you’re into beastiality?” Jokes.

    I agree that the way a lot of people view pansexuality can be biphobic or transphobic, but I really don’t think it is intentional most of the time, it’s just that they are forced to compare the two in order to validate themselves, which is dumb!

  12. Pingback: Words, binary and biphobia, or: why “bi” is binary but “FTM” is not | Bi radical

  13. Pingback: Why I identify as bisexual and not pansexual | Bi radical

  14. Pingback: Cissexism and transphobia in bisexual communities | Bi radical

  15. This was a really good read! I identify as pansexual, but would have no problem also identifying as bi in a number of situations. I thought I WAS bi and identified as such until just six months ago. Turns out pan is just a more accurate describer for me. I like to think that the difference lies in what people assume when you tell them your sexuality. When you tell them you are bi, you are not automatically including those outside of the gender binary. (Although you may be!) Personally, I don’t believe in a gender binary, so I feel “pansexual” automatically inserts my beliefs therein. “People assume that sexuality is a strict principle of male and female, but actually from a non-ignorant, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly sexy-wexy stuff.” ;) I’m not saying bisexuals CAN’T believe this too, but with pansexuals, it’s just assumed. It’s a part of our sexuality. I’m really sad that phobias like this exist within the LGBTQ community, though. Because if we can’t get along with each other, how the hell can we get the rest of the world to get along with us? Just a thought :)

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  18. Hi, there! I hope everything is going fantastic for you. I would like to say that you’re right about everything you said. I myself am both Bisexual and Pansexual, as well as sexually Fluid!! I don’t believe that they have to be so mutually exclusive, but rather, extremely inclusive of each other!! What do you think??

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