Decluttering the Confusion Around Bi- and Pansexual Identities

By Amanda E.K.

When was the last time you had trouble deciding what to order at a restaurant? Or about what to watch on Netflix for an indulgent night of binge-watching? Was it a difficult decision because you weren’t sure what you liked, or was it because there were several options that sounded equally worth your time (and taste buds)?

Even if you prefer to binge the same show on repeat, you’re still watching a variety of episodes, with different storylines for each one. Our brains crave novelty—we’re wired for it—and there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained from having multiple interests.

And yet, for the bi and pansexual community, there still exists a prejudice that they can’t make up their minds. That it’s only a matter of time before they pick a side on the gay or straight end of the sexuality spectrum.

As a bi- and pansexual identifying person, I’ve struggled with projecting this shame onto myself as a result of these societal messages. Though I’m fortunate to have come out at an age when I’ve faced less direct discrimination and rejection for who I am because of the work of the queer community before me, that hasn’t stopped me from getting caught in the trap of believing that I’m in some in-between stage and I’ll eventually “figure it out.” Though it may be the case for some people who identify as bisexual to later decide they are gay, lesbian, or straight, that doesn’t mean it’s the path for all bisexuals. Bisexual activist Robyn Ochs has identified as bisexual for over 40 years, and though she acknowledges that in those years her attractions have been fluid, that hasn’t altered her orientation.

When I was a baby bisexual in my late twenties, I thought that I had to be as equally attracted to women as I was to men in order to call myself bisexual. But that was a misunderstanding—one that’s held by many people questioning their multi-gendered attractions. In the words of Ochs, “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

Let’s say your favorite movie is Bladerunner. You love everything about it—the futuristic visuals, the complex characters, the dystopian storyline. But are you in the mood for immersing yourself in such an intense storyworld every time you sit down to watch a movie? Probably not. Bisexuality is about wholly appreciating differences for what they are, and acknowledging that they bring different enjoyable experiences to the table. Maybe some days your movie of choice is Hot Tub Time Machine, and other days it’s Toy Story.

As a polyamorous bisexual with three current partners: my husband of 13 years, and two non-binary female bodied partners—having multiple partners allows me the space to explore a variety of social and sexual experiences, while fully enjoying the differences that each partner provides, and without any desire to “pick a side.”

So what’s the difference between bisexual and pansexual if bisexuality can encompass so much fluidity? According to an article on Healthline, bisexual means attraction to multiple genders, and pansexual means attraction to all genders. And what about the other terms that have surfaced into the mainstream these past few years, terms like demisexual, omnisexual, sapiosexual and panromantic?

The terms omnisexual and pansexual have similar connotations, but with enough of a difference to warrant them their own named days during Pride month. According to a 2017 article from Affinity Magazine, “The key difference being the fact that pansexuality is the attraction to people regardless of gender, meaning that they could date a man, a woman, someone identifying as non-binary or anyone else without said person’s gender playing a part in whether they date them or have the capacity to love them. Whereas omnisexual is the attraction to anyone despite their gender, meaning they could also date a man, a woman, someone identifying as non-binary or anyone else, while noticing their gender but not caring how they identify.”

Other terms include, but aren’t limited to:

Demisexual: experiencing sexual attraction infrequently, and when you do it’s only after developing a strong emotional connection to someone.

Sapiosexual: sexual attraction to intelligence

Panromantic: experiencing romantic attraction to people of all genders, but not necessarily sexual attraction

It’s possible to identify with more than one of these terms since many of them overlap.

For example, you can be sexually attracted to multiple genders (bisexual) and romantically attracted to all genders (panromantic), while also experiencing an extra rush of arousal during a discussion of Proust’s Swan’s Way (sapiosexual) with someone you may not have otherwise noticed. Considering that our sexuality is an ever-fluid spectrum, and no two people may have the exact same preferences or gender expression, these terms exist to allow each of us to name our unique identities.

Many people prefer to self-describe as “queer” because they aren’t sure how to describe their orientation, or because their orientation feels fluid and changes over time. There’s no reason you can’t change the way you describe your sexual orientation later on. As stated in the Healthline article, “You aren’t perpetuating a myth by being who you are; another person’s misinformed opinion isn’t your burden to carry.”

This spectrum of terminology is only the beginning. Maybe you’re graysexual, polyromantic, or asexual. The rising popularity of terms such as these reflects the urgency of our current times. We know that life could look differently in a month, or even tomorrow. There’s little security to be found in the outside world and so many of us have taken our quarantine time to reflect inward and assess what’s most important to us. If the world’s coming to an end anyway, why not be whoever we want to be?

Maybe you’re bicurious. There’s nothing wrong with exploring new things and still maintaining a straight identity if that’s who you feel you are. Just keep it consensual. If your type of label is no label at all, go with that—proclaim the power of non-identity so that more of us may learn to stop worrying about how to explain ourselves and to focus on being ourselves. It’s healthy to slide along the spectrum of sexuality for our entire lives. Maybe some days you only feel attracted to people of a different gender, and on alternating days you feel solely attracted to your same gender. Maybe you feel monogamous for the first three years of a relationship, but then you decide you want to invite other partners into your love. Maybe one night you want candles and music and strawberries to accompany your lovemaking, and the next afternoon you want to hook up with a near-stranger in the backseat of your car while wearing an animal mask. In all her years of research and living as a bisexual, Ochs has found that “any identity can be a phase.”

As a community open to a wide array of connections, it can be hard for us to find what we’re looking for on today’s social apps that tend to limit expression or cater to the ends of the spectrum.

We invite you to give Playlove a try—a dating and social connections app that’s perfect for people who spend time hanging out in-between.

For more on the history of bisexuality, check out my article in OUT FRONT Colorado.

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