What Does Bisexuality Mean – And How Is It Different From Pansexuality and Other Queer Terms?
I identify as bisexual and queer, although technically, I’m also pansexual and sexually fluid. My mother, although she tries, doesn’t understand. While she supports the living hell out of me—accepting that my date for Shabbat dinner may be a man or woman depending on the week—she still gets confused by all the labels.
Who can blame her? It is confusing—and even members of the LGBTQ+ community disagree on the exact meanings of these labels, making it even harder for allies to understand and use them appropriately.
Now I’m not saying these labels shouldn’t exist; it’s great that they do. They all have important (albeit slight) distinctions that can help a person further embrace their sexual identity. Still, there is one thing that binds all these labels together: They’re all used to describe someone who’s attracted (to varying degrees) to at least two different genders. In other words, these people aren’t gay or straight. With that, let’s take a deeper dive into these labels, starting with bisexual, since bisexual is in a label that encompasses many of the other terms on the list.
Renown bisexual activist Robyn Ochs came up with the modern definition of bisexuality.She says, “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.”
Here’s why this definition is so damn good. For one, it acknowledges that attractions can change over time. Second, the definition makes clear that you don’t need to be equally attracted to men and women to be bisexual. You can find yourself significantly more attracted to one gender than the other, but still, you get to call yourself bisexual. Third, you don’t have to be both romantically and sexually attracted to multiple genders to be bisexual. Either is enough to claim the label. Lastly, the definition is inclusive of people who aren’t just cisgender men and cisgender women. If you describe yourself as gender non-conforming, genderqueer, agender, or bigender, this definition embraces you. (Basically, just know the bisexual definition is inclusive of everyone.)
Pansexual means you’re attracted to all genders—plain and simple. You may notice that bisexual means you’re attracted to multiple genders, which could be inclusive of all genders, but doesn’t necessarily have to be. For example, I have a friend who identifies as a cisgender woman, and she says she won’t date cisgender men. So she’ll date transmen and gender non-conforming folks, along with cis and transwomen—but if it’s your run of the mill cis dude, she’s not down. She would be an example of someone who’s bisexual and not pansexual.
Sexual Fluidity Meaning
“I define sexual fluidity as a capacity for a change in sexual attraction—depending on changes in situational or environmental or relationship conditions,” Lisa Diamond, Ph.D., professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah told Women’s Health. We’re going to go ahead and use her definition because I studied her extensively in college and was obsessed with her, but also because Diamond literally wrote the book on the matter: Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire.
Now to me, bisexuality isn’t distinct from sexual fluidity. To Diamond, it is. We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. As Diamond told Women’s Health, fluidity connotes a change over time. “Someone who’s fluid, they aren’t necessarily going to consistently experience attraction for both women and men,” Diamond explained. “There may be times in their life that they are more aware of attraction toward one gender, and times in their life when they’re attracted to the other gender.”
Makes perfect sense, but Och’s definition of bisexuality allows for changes over time as well. So to me, a sexual fluid identity is actually encompassed by a bisexual identity. However, I’ve noticed that people who identify as sexually fluid rather than bi tend to have much more extreme pendulum swings with their attractions. One week they’ll be attracted to all genders, the next week only women, the next five years only men, then out of the blue, they’re back to being attracted to everyone again. Because of this, they don’t feel as if a bisexual identity accurately describes who they are, since at times they’re exclusively attracted to one gender.
Enough people label themselves as heteroflexible, that in 2014, added it as an option to pick for sexuality. Like many sexual orientations, there’s no set definition, but from what I’ve gathered, it’s characterized by having opposite-sex attractions the vast majority of the time; sometimes heteroflexibles are struck by same-sex attractions. These attractions can lead to sexual action, but not necessarily. If physical action does occur, it’s often while intoxicated and often “above the belt” (i.e., kissing, heavy petting).
Now again, you’ll notice this is 100 percent encompassed by the word bisexual, however, in my experience the men who claim the heteroflexible label are typically more masculine and have no desire to be part of the LGBTQ+ community. So for them, it doesn’t make sense to claim a bisexual identity. While I respect their choice to label themselves however they see fit, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if these heteroflexible men lived in a world without homophobia. I’d be willing to bet they’d embrace their attractions to men a lot more than they do currently.
Queer is an umbrella word for all members of the LGBTQ community. Queer is actually inclusive of both sexual orientation and gender identity. Personally, I use it as a way to address the whole LGBTQ+ community without going through all the letters. Queer, of course, was used as a pejorative to attack members of the LGBTQ+ community, but it has since been reclaimed—especially by the younger generation of LGBTQ+ people. The word is meant to foster a sense of community.
A final note on all the labels.
You may have noticed that excluding queer, the rest of the labels are in fact, some variation of bisexual, which begs the question, why do they all exist? There are a few answers to this question, but I’m going to focus on the major one: The word bisexual has numerous negative connotations associated with it. People assume bisexual folks don’t exist, or if they do think we’re real, they think we’re greedy, more likely to leave you for a person of another gender, incapable of being monogamous, never satisfied, or drunk college girls having fun on Spring Break.
While this obviously isn’t true, all these negative associations with the word impact whether or not many folks decide to embrace it. I couldn’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who like multiple genders but don’t want to label themselves as bi because “There’s just something I don’t like about the word bisexual.” Since the label has a bad rep, a lot of folks have gravitated towards other words that don’t share the same stigma, even though they could proudly identity as bisexual if they so choose.
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