Talks about sexual orientation have exploded lately, with options that let pretty much everyone pinpoint the right label for themselves. However, all those labels can also be confusing, especially if you’re coming out or exploring your sexuality.
For instance, what’s the difference between pansexual and bisexual? What do all those letters in LGBTQIA mean? We’ll go over all that, some common misconceptions, and how you can embrace and explore your own sexual identity.
Sexual Orientation Basics
Let’s start by talking about sexual orientation.
Sexual orientation is who you are attracted to — sexually, romantically, physically, or emotionally. Your sexual orientation is different from your sexuality; your sexuality is how you feel on the inside. Your sexual orientation is more about how you choose to “practice” that in the outside world. Both are for only you to decide and define.
It’s also okay not to define yourself. There’s nothing that says you have to give yourself a label. It could be that you can’t find a label that fits quite right, or you’d rather stay fluid.
Remember, labels can always change too! Just because you’ve picked a label doesn’t mean you’re locked into feeling like that or living that way your entire life.
How Is Sexual Orientation Different From Gender Identity?
Sexual orientation gets confused with gender identity, although the two are different concepts.
Sexual orientation is about who you are attracted to, while gender identity is who you are on the inside. Gender identity can be the same as the sex you were assigned by a healthcare provider at birth — referred to as “cisgender.” It can also be different, which many people self-identify as being “transgender.”
There are also other ways to define your own gender identity, especially if you feel like you fall outside of the gender binary. For example, non-binary people may identify as a different gender, more than one gender at a time, or no gender at all (known as “agender”). Some people fluctuate between genders, often referred to as genderfluid or genderqueer.
How you define your gender identity has nothing to do with attraction, however. This is a misconception. Transgender people can be attracted to people of any gender, as can cisgender people or those who define their gender with more fluidity.
For people of all genders, gender identity does not lead to sexual orientation.
The word bisexual means a person who is sexually or romantically attracted to both men and women. While it sometimes gets an unfair reputation for discounting sexual attraction toward people who don’t describe themselves inside the gender binary, most bisexuals don’t draw those black-and-white lines.
Some prefer the umbrella term bi+, which makes it clearer that they don’t care about the gender binary. Although bisexuals are attracted to men and women, it doesn’t mean they are equally attracted to both. Many bi people describe their sexual orientation in percentages — 30 percent to men and 70 percent to women, for example. There are even those who are 99 percent attracted to one gender, which still makes them bisexual!
More than any other sexual orientation, bisexual people have been subjected to unfair misconceptions about their ability to remain faithful. The bisexual community is no more or less likely to cheat on their partner than any other member of the LGBTQ community; just because they technically have “more options” doesn’t influence their personal code.
The word pansexual means essentially the same as bisexuality, only described in slightly different terms. Where bisexuality mentions an attraction to “men” and “women,” pansexuality (sometimes called omnisexuality) refers to a sexual or romantic attraction to all people regardless of sex or gender identity.
Some pan people call themselves “gender-blind,” stating that what’s in someone’s pants has nothing to do with their attraction to them. Like bisexual people, pansexual people do still have preferences.
However, instead of revolving around gender, many of these preferences are about gender presentation — being more attracted to masculine or feminine presenting people, for example.
The pansexual community is incredibly diverse, and you’re not likely to meet two pan people who experience their sexual orientation the same way. That’s the beauty of human sexuality, after all!
Other Sexual Orientations
One of the great things about how far we’ve come as a culture is that we have so many ways to define ourselves (should we choose to do that, that is). Long gone are the days when you had to pick between being “straight,” “gay,” or “bi,” although those are all still very valid sexual orientations.
Let’s start by breaking down the LGBTQIA spectrum:
- Lesbian - Lesbians are people who identify as women and are also attracted to people who identify as women.
- Gay - While gay may be a catch-all term, it is most often used to describe people who identify as men who are attracted to others who identify as male.
- Bi - People who are attracted to “both” genders.
- Queer - Queer can mean a lot of different things. Although people used to use it as an insult, it has been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA community as a term of power. Queer just means any sexual orientation or identity other than heterosexuality.
- Intersex - Being intersex isn’t a sexual orientation but is included in the community because of its concept of “otherness.” Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics that aren’t definitively “male” or “female.” Many intersex people were subjected to their parents “choosing” a sex for them at birth. The more we learn, the more we can encourage people to let their children make their own choices later in life.
- Asexual - Also known as being “ace,” asexuals experience very little to no sexual attraction to other people. This term refers solely to sex, as there are asexual people who are still interested in romantic connections with others (and vice versa).
But that’s not all! Here are a few other sexual orientations, but we strongly encourage you to research them. You might not feel like any of the terms fully encompass how you feel, but there’s likely one out there that does!
- Androsexuality - If you’re only attracted to people who express masculine characteristics, you might be androsexual.
- Demisexuality - Demisexuals are people who experience sexual attraction to others only after a strong emotional connection is present. Many people consider demisexuality to be part of the asexualsexual orientation spectrum.
- Gynesexuality - The opposite of androsexuality, gynesexuals are people who are strictly attracted to people with feminine characteristics.
- MSM/WSW - Although these terms are usually used in a healthcare setting, some people feel uncomfortable putting a label on their sexuality and prefer to refer only to who they have sex with. MSM means men who have sex with men, and WSW means women who have sex with women.
- Skoliosexuality - Those who are skoliosexual are primarily attracted to people outside of the “traditional” gender identity spectrum — non-binary, gender-fluid, or trans people, for example.
- Two-spirit - The two-spirit label is for Indigenous people who believe they have both masculine and feminine spirits.
How To Explore Your Sexuality
It’s important to explore your sexuality however feels right to you. It starts with getting comfortable with yourself. Just because you feel a sexual attraction to a new or different gender than you’re used to doesn’t mean you have to run out and sleep with someone.
If you’re in a loving, committed relationship, you may never want to explore a sexual encounter with another person. That is okay and doesn’t make your sexual orientation any less valid!
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t explore on your own or with your current partner. For instance, if you’re someone who was assigned male at birth and are curious about exploring anal play, invest in a sexual aid that can mimic that feeling of penetration (like a prostate massager).
But remember — being interested in anal play doesn’t say anything about your sexuality! There are plenty of cisgender, heterosexual men that enjoy the way a vibrating prostate massager stimulates the prostate.
If you’re not ready to explore your sexuality physically, there’s always porn! Enjoying some self-love while watching people you find attractive is super hot, and you’re not having to involve anyone else or even come out of the closet to anyone but yourself.
We hope you feel a little clearer about the difference between pansexual and bisexual. You may have found a few more terms to help you define yourself! Remember, sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity are very personal, but there is a whole community of people to support you.
Never be afraid of being true to yourself, even if that means starting in your own bedroom.