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What Does It Really Mean to Identify as Pansexual?

Instyle logo Instyle 11/21/2019 Dr. Jenn Mann
a person wearing glasses talking on a cell phone © Phil Chester/Stocksy

DEAR DR. JENN,

I've gone on a few dates with a guy (who I really like!) who recently referred to himself as pansexual. Admittedly, it threw me for a loop. I've heard the term before, but I don’t really understand what it means. Is it the same as being bisexual? And, as a straight woman whose preferences aren't fluid, how do I navigate possibly continuing to date someone who identifies as pansexual? — In the Dark

DEAR IN THE DARK,

You are not alone in your curiosity and confusion. After Janelle Monaé came out publicly as pansexual, searches for the term went up 11,000 percent on Merriam-Webster — making it the most searched word of the day.

The term has certainly become more popular as other celebrities — including Miley Cyrus, Bella Thorne, Amandla Steinberg, and Jazz Jennings — have come out as pansexual. But despite the increased visibility, there’s still some confusion around pansexuality and what it means to identify as pansexual.

The first time I heard the term was on season six of my show Couples Therapy with Dr. Jenn when Adrian Torres used it to describe himself. Adrian started dating his wife Carmen Carrera, who was assigned male at birth, but transitioned to be and live as the woman she is. While she and Adrian met and fell in love before she transitioned, this did not affect his feelings towards Carmen.

“People like to label people. A lot of people want to label Carmen as transgender. For me Carmen is 100 percent woman. The whole label thing is not me, labels [are] not me. There are two people that are in love, that’s all that matters,” he said.

When asked what is means to be pansexual, he said: “[Pansexuality] is when you have no preference in gender. You like what you like.”

Someone who identifies as pansexual is someone who has the capacity to form enduring sexual, romantic, and/or emotional attractions to those of any or all genders.

So, how is this different from bisexuality? While being bisexual means you are attracted to more than one gender, being pansexual means you are attracted to people regardless of biological sex, gender, or gender identity. Those who are pansexual describe gender as being totally irrelevant to them in the first place, so they may feel the idea of "bisexuality" doesn't quite describe their experience.

However, both pansexuality and bisexuality fall under the umbrella term of bisexual +, which also includes people who identify as fluid, queer, omnisexual, and polysexual. It's important to note that, according to GLAAD, "some people prefer to avoid any label at all."

As your dating experience is showing, more and more people are identifying as pansexual. Even mainstream dating apps like OKCupid are now including it as a sexual orientation option.

So, what does this mean for your dating life? Well, knowing that the person you're seeing is pansexual doesn't necessarily have to change much at all. Of course, it's natural to wonder about their dating history or preferences in the same way you would with a heterosexual man, as long as you do so in a sensitive and respectful way.

And as with any relationship, it's important to talk about expectations regarding monogamy. One myth to bust: Just because your partner is pansexual (or bisexual) doesn't mean he's more likely to cheat. At the end of the day, regardless of your partner’s preferences, the most important thing is to be on the same page about exclusivity and boundaries.

Related video: Bisexuality is often overlooked in the LGBTQ+ community (provided by Refinery29)

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