What it means to be pansexual

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on CNN.com in 2015. It has been updated to reflect a more accurate definition of bisexuality and its relationship to pansexuality.

Story highlights

Pansexual refers to sexual attraction without specific labels

Scholars say the term appeals to a younger generation that dislikes labels

CNN  — 

The concept of pansexuality has been around since the days of Sigmund Freud, but it took a shout-out from Miley Cyrus to bring it back into vogue for the 21st century.

The word has been among Google’s top search terms since the pop star declared herself pansexual in an interview with Paper magazine in July.

As she put it, “I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age. Everything that’s legal, I’m down with. Yo, I’m down with any adult – anyone over the age of 18 who is down to love me. I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.”

Scholars and sociologists say Cyrus’ description sums up the contemporary interpretation of pansexual, sometimes called omnisexual. It’s about as broad as it gets when it comes to describing who you’re sexually attracted to, which is why it appeals to a younger generation that’s comfortable with gender and sexual fluidity and doesn’t care much for specific labels.

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It refers to sexual attraction.

The term comes from adding the prefix “pan,” which means all, to sexuality, suggesting that people who identify as pansexual are not restricted in their sexuality to those of the opposite gender (heterosexuality) or to the same gender (homosexuality).

Pansexual is defined as “a person who has the capacity to form enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attractions to those of any or all genders,” according to LGBT media watchdog GLAAD. As such, pansexual people are typically considered part of the bisexual community.

The origin of the term “pansexual” is generally attributed to “pansexualism,” a term popularized by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s to describe the view that most human behavior derived from sexual instincts, said Justin R. Garcia, assistant professor of gender studies and research scientist at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

Most behavioral scientists today don’t believe that everything we do has a sexual basis. But Freud’s work generated important questions about the direction of sexual desires, Garcia said. And it gave us a word that has evolved with the times.

Today, the term pansexual is used to describe a romantic or sexual attraction focused on traits other than sex or gender. In other words, someone who identifies as pansexual is capable of being attracted to multiple sexes and gender identities, said David Bond, vice president of programs for LGBT crisis intervention group, Trevor Project.

“It might have to do with who you have romantic feelings for or who you have a sexual attraction for, and those two can be hand-in-hand or distinct,” he said.

It’s part of the bisexual community

Advocates say the biggest misconception about bisexuality is that it simply means you like men and women, full stop.

But bisexuality is a fluid identity. It’s not beholden to binary principles in the same way we think of heterosexuality or homosexuality. For that reason, advocates say bisexuality includes pansexuality.

GLAAD defines bisexual as someone with the capacity to form enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attractions to those of the same gender or to those of another gender. People may experience this attraction in different ways and degrees over their lifetime and having sexual experiences is not a requirement to be bisexual.

Binet, a nonprofit that advocates for bisexual communities, defines bisexual as a person who has the potential to be romantically or sexually attracted to people of more than one sex or one gender, and not necessarily at the same time or to the same degree.

It’s not new, but it’s new again.

The term tends to enter the public consciousness through celebrities, and Cyrus is the most recent to claim the title.

The pop star follows other notable people who have recently declared themselves pansexual, including transgender YouTube personality Jazz Jennings and Texas state lawmaker Mary Gonzalez.

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    Scholars attribute the word’s rise to growing acceptance – especially among millennials and “generation Z” – of sexual and gender diversity and gender neutral norms.

    “It is a broad word, and that is because people want to have the freedom to self-identify any way they want without being labeled by anyone else,” said psychotherapist and sex therapist Michael Aaron.

    “It has cultural resonance because it is so broad and allows for so much flexibility and choice.”