Bisexual and pansexual are two terms that are often used interchangeably and it is easy to understand why. For one, they are both sexual orientations that describe a person's attraction and they both describe being sexually attracted to more than one gender. But while using these terms interchangeably might make sense for some people (like most things when it comes to sexuality and gender) not everyone feels the same exact way, because the two terms are not exactly the same thing.
"A commonly-used definition of bisexuality is 'attracted to at least two genders' or 'attracted to genders like yours and genders different from yours," explains Radhika Nair who works in the area of gender and reproductive rights. While both the labels bi-sexual and pansexual are part of the bi+ umbrella there are nuanced differences to keep in mind.
"Essentially, a bisexual person may have gender preferences in regard to connecting sexually, whereas a pansexual person does not usually take gender into account and instead, focuses on other aspects of a person," says Madhu Kundra a therapist who works extensively with patients in the LGBTQ spectrum.
Incidentally the 'pan' in pansexual means 'all' in Greek, which is why the term describes someone who is attracted to any and all genders. "The key here is that gender does not determine attraction and pansexual people typically do not prefer one gender over another," says Radhika.
For example, a pansexual person may be attracted to their own gender as well as other genders. "It's important to note, however, that sexual orientation (such as pansexuality) is different from gender identity. While sex is typically assigned by doctors at birth depending on genitals, gender is a social construct. People are able to be whatever gender they feel best suits them, be it male, female, non-binary, genderqueer, or genderfluid, regardless of what the doctor in the birthing room says," explains Radhika.
For many pansexual individuals, gender identity is not what makes them be/or into (or not into) someone. "But again, everyone is different, so some pansexual people may have gender preferences—and that is totally valid. In short Pansexual can be seen as a vast spectrum with a variety of experiences," observes Madhu.
Both Radhika and Madhu say that incidentally many pansexuals and bisexuals often face an internal identity crisis (in relation to asserting their gender and sexuality). Therefore in a bid to ease things for such people, Madhu reasons, " Well if you are trying to determine the best label for you, think about which one makes you feel safe, comfortable and most importantly at home. Whatever that is, then that is the right label for you. And if you later decide that a different label feels better or your preferences change or language evolves, it is perfectly okay to change labels or even omit them completely as well."
"Not claiming a label does not make your sexuality less valid than someone who has a defined label," Radhika agrees and adds, "Your sexuality can change at any time and just because you 'finally found a label,' that doesn't mean it wont ever change. Ultimately, you can be pansexual, bisexual, queer, or none of the above. Any choice is valid—it just comes down to whatever resonates with you most."
Also Read: A Chiaroscuro of Emotions