European Elections 2014
May 22, 2014
The Difference Between An Insult And Systemic Oppression
June 19, 2014

A Critical Look At The Word “Pansexual”


Note: If you’re not deep into queer politics, you might not understand some of the words I use here. I didn’t want to clog up the article with definitions, but Google can help you out.

I suspect this post might not make me too popular with some people.

There’s a line I need to draw here between being critical on the one hand, and respecting people’s identifications on the other. Identities are a very big deal to many people, and I know the potential for upsetting them here is great. Still, I feel I shouldn’t censor myself.

Critical Of The Word Pansexual

Here’s the thing: I feel very critical towards the use of the word pansexual.

On the surface, it can seem a very harmless thing. We can use whatever word we want to describe ourselves, right?

However, looking at it a bit closer I think the word pansexual has somewhat problematic origins.

I see the word as part of a more general trend of distancing oneself from the word “bisexual”.

So many people who I would consider bisexual refuse to use the term and instead use one of these: queer, pansexual, omnisexual, lesbian, gay, straight, or *no label*.

Omnisexual, Queer, and No Label

Let me explore some of these briefly before getting into a more general exploration of this phenomenon:

“Omnisexual” is a variation on the word pansexual and seems to have the same meaning and connotations.

I think “queer” can be a useful label when the other labels don’t quite fit; for example when sexuality is fluid or when you’re unsure yourself if you’re monosexual or not. It’s also an umbrella term, so you can be both bisexual and queer (or gay and queer, or even straight, trans and queer). The vagueness and encompassingness of the term can be useful in many situations, though I am critical of it when it is used for no other reason than to avoid the term “bisexual”.

As for “no label”: while I agree that labels can sometimes be problematic in themselves, and I somewhat identify with the desire to give up using any labels, it’s interesting that gay, lesbian, and straight people don’t seem to worry about that when describing themselves, at least certainly not to the same extent. People who could be described from their behaviour as bisexual are disproportionately more likely to refuse to use any label at all for their sexuality, and I believe that there is something behind that, beyond simply having issues with labels as a whole.


Bisexuality: The Most Oppressed Orientation

So, as I said, I see pansexual, omnisexual, “no label” and so on all as a manifestation of the same phenomenon: that of people wanting to distance themselves from the word “bisexual”.

Let’s look at the context here. Bisexuality (which I define for this article as attraction to both men and women – not necessarily to the same extent, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily at the same time) is the most erased sexual orientation there is. While gay and lesbian people have made huge strides in recognition and representation, bisexuals are still basically ignored.

This phenomenon is endemic to such an extent that it’s normal to assume that any same-sex couple is actually a gay or lesbian couple, and to ask “Does this make me gay?” when it’s actually more likely that it – whatever it is -puts you somewhere on the bisexual spectrum. The term “gay marriage” is at least as common as the more correct “same-sex marriage” and very few people seem to realise that there is an important difference between the two phrases.

In the gay and lesbian community (which, I emphasise, is not usually called the gay, lesbian and bisexual community) it’s pretty damn normal for bisexuals to be shunned, erased (“you’re just confused”) and stereotyped. Many lesbians, for example, refuse to sleep with bisexual women because of all sorts of horrible stereotypes. I know one bisexual woman who decided to hide her orientation when spending time in the lesbian scene because of all the mistreatment she received.

And bisexual communities are rare. There are certainly no bisexual bars and clubs I know of in my city; and very few which explicitly state that they are open to bisexuals or bisexual culture. Bisexuals who go to such places are conditioned by the dominant culture which is not their own. It’s so hard for us to find our OWN culture, and to find people like us who can help us understand ourselves and give us emotional support. Many bisexuals find themselves isolated, as far as their sexual identity is concerned.

And these oppressions take their toll. Studies have shown that bisexuals are at significantly greater risk of suicide and other problems than gays and lesbians.

Disassociating From The Word

So bisexuals are significantly more oppressed than gays and lesbians. I suggest that this is why they often have a problem using the established word for what they are. Using a different word helps them disassociate a little from the negativity directed towards their own kind; self directed negativity included (or rather, especially). They also don’t have a community which can make them feel proud of a bisexual identity and secure in using it; because of this, there is little to be gained personally from defending their use of the term, and a potential for gain by distancing themselves from it.

The most common criticism people make about the term bisexual is that it reinforces the gender binary. My problem with that criticism is that “gay” and “lesbian” and “straight” reinforce the gender binary just as much. The traditional definitions of these words all refer to being attracted to just one gender. Yet gay, lesbian, and straight people often date non-binary-gendered people, usually without letting that challenge their sexual identities.

If bisexuals are criticised for being binarist but straight, lesbian, and gay people are not, we have a double standard. And I believe this double standard exists because people are uncomfortable with bisexuality itself. They attack the label, but their feelings are not really about the linguistics here.

Definition Of Pansexual

Now, for the word pansexual.

“Pansexual” has two, kinda different definitions:

Firstly, it’s supposed to mean people who are attracted to all genders, rather than just two.

The weird thing about this is, that bisexuals usually are attracted to all genders. I’ve been around a lot of non-binary people, and also around a lot of bisexuals, and never have I seen a bisexual find their attraction challenged by non-binary people’s gender.

If we need a word for this, then we also need a word for lesbians who date some non-binary people, gay men who date some non-binary people, and straight people who date some non-binary people. If we don’t do this, then we’re perpetuating a double standard.

I hear some bisexuals want, quote, “real men” and “real women” but nothing in between. So I guess those might be bisexuals in the literal sense of the word. (Though I theorise that they might still be attracted to certain non-binary people who happen to present butch or femme in accordance with society’s expectations for their gender assigned at birth). Even if these people do exist, they are clearly a minority. So it is pretty strange for people to use the word “pansexual” to describe themselves, as if they were different to most bisexuals, when actually this is how almost all bisexuals actually are.

Gender Blind Pansexuality

The other way the word “pansexual” is defined is something like: “I’m gender blind; I’m attracted to people, not genders.”

My problem with this is:

Most of us are attracted to people as people, as opposed to just their genders.

We’re attracted to the totality of a person.

Some people are very shallow, so I guess they might not be pansexual in this sense of the word.

But most people are not. Again, it seems strange for people to use pansexual for themselves as if they were different to the majority of bisexuals, when in fact they are pretty much the same.

I would say that many/most straight, gay, and lesbian people would say that they are attracted to people and not genders. The trouble is, they’re not bisexual, so they can’t take this to philosophical heights of unconditionality. Their body chemistry / whatever it is that makes us attracted to people, limits them. But they still love the person most of all.

This Matters

I think this matters.

I think it matters because I believe people want to avoid the word “bisexual” because they are uncomfortable with bisexuality. This constant tendency to find any other label or affirm none at all, then, could be considered a manifestation of (internalised) biphobia.

It matters because this splits us, preventing us from forming a proper community. For there to be a community, there needs to be some kind of identification for us to rally around. Our devastatingly sparse and invisible community prevents us from getting emotional support when we need it, as well as from making a political impact.

So when someone says that a label can be problematic, I agree. But I also put forth that NOT using a label can be problematic. In this case, refusing to use the term “bisexual” weakens our political movement and community. The consequences of that are serious, impacting directly on the health and wellbeing of bisexual people, sometimes even on their continued life itself.


Related

Bisexuality, And Discovering My Sexual Orientation

Against Bisexual Invisibility

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2 Comments

  1. Anon says:

    I see why people get “bisexuality” and “pansexuality” confused; they do have similarities. However, I think the distinction between the two lays in the word “bi-“. Bisexuals are only attracted to two genders. So, say I’m bi. I’m not going to be attracted to cisgender people, gays/lesbians, And trans people; I’m only going to be attracted to Two genders. Now, say I’m “pansexual” (which I am). I am attracted to all genders, binary and non-binary. As far as Denotation go, I think it’s a numbers thing. You seem more focused on Connotation though, and I hear you when you say that everyone has the ability to be “pansexual” as far as being attracted to non-binary genders.

  2. Anya says:

    Anon – none of those things you’ve listed are actually separate genders. Gay and lesbian refer to sexual orientation. Cis and trans have to do with bodies and assignment at birth. A ciswoman and a transwoman are both women.

    That confusion is part of why the “pan” prefix is frustrating for bi people. I am attracted to men and women (and most things in between). That includes transmen and -women, because, again, they are men and women. It’s actually somewhat offensive, to my mind, to imply that they’re not.

    Now, if we’re talking about actual non-binary identification, or non-binary presentation, then we have to get into what is actually going on when we talk about attraction. If someone is attracted to masculine and/or feminine sex characteristics and presentation, but doesn’t care how a person identifies gender-wise, then what is that? There are certainly people who lose attraction upon discovering how a person identifies (e.g. they think a person is a woman but lose interest upon discovering that he is a man), but a great deal of people don’t. Is that actually pansexuality, even if the attraction exists along a single axis (e.g. someone is only attracted to masculine-presenting people)? If physical attraction still presents along something of a binary, but attraction to the gender identity of a person does not, then which label(s) should be used?

    And that, I think, gets into why the slow dissolution of the distinction between sex and gender is kind of a problem. They are different things, and the discussions surrounding the bi and pan labels tend to elide that.

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