The Case Of Pansexuality 101 And The Sea Of Biphobia And Gender Erasure.

I am in the middle of writing a cheerful, if somewhat personal, post about several different labels (specifically bisexual, queer and pansexual) that people who fancy people of more than one gender use and why.

This is not that post. This is the post that I tried to shoehorn into that other post when I came across an article, but that couldn’t fit into it because holy fucking ignorance, Batman, and there is no space for all the swearing I would really like to do in an article like that.

That post will happen, but not today.

Today, you see, I’m somewhere between outraged and actively hopping mad at the biphobic, cissexist drivel dressed up as inclusivity that is this article from Kaylee Jakubowski at Everyday Feminism that claims to define pansexuality. Before we start on everything that’s wrong with the article, though- starting with the title- let’s take a look at what is perfectly reasonable. Like this definition of pansexuality:

Pan-“ is a Greek prefix referring to “all” or “every” coming together as one.

…Putting this together with “-sexual”, which I’m sure we recognise as referring to one’s own sexual desires and habits, creates a word that roughly means “someone who is attracted to all sexes and genders of people.”

 

Perfect. If Jakubowski had stopped here, I would have had zero issues with this article.

This is a perfectly appropriate way to refer to pansexuality, and it is definitely a specific kind of orientation. Many people who are attracted to more than one gender are not attracted to all genders- there are definitely gendered elements to the way I’m attracted to people, for example- and it’s good to be able to discuss the differences in how we experience sexuality, romance and attraction. I, for one, love talking to friends about how attraction works for us- whether or how we experience romance or sexuality, how these things are or aren’t connected to each other for us, how we integrate our desires (or lack of desires) into our lives and relationships, and the words we use to describe these things. As a word to describe a way of experiencing attractions, ‘pansexual’ is valid and it is interesting and having more ways to talk about our experiences is good.

It’s a pity that basically everything else in this article ranges from terrible to holier-than-thou to, as I said before, cissexism masquerading as inclusivity.

That Biphobia Thing

Let’s start with some biphobia, shall we? Jakubowski claims that it is impossible for pan people to be biphobic- which is ironic, in what as we’ll see as we go on is an article dripping with biphobia. Here’s what she has to say:

While some pansexual activists have been accused of denying the bisexual identity’s legitimacy for various reasons, including its transphobic overtones (note: bisexuality is not inherently transphobic), this is not an example of bi-phobia.

Bi-phobia, instead, refers to our society’s ignorance and violence toward people who are attracted to multiple sexes or genders of people—which refers to both bisexual people and pansexual people.

Since pansexual people also experience bi-phobia, a pansexual person critiquing the bisexual identity for specific reasons does not fall into this category.

The idea that pan people are immune to biphobia because they also experience it is mind-boggling in its ignorance. Just as women can have sexist views and queer people grow up steeped in the same homo/transphobia as everyone else, nonmonosexual people can be biphobic. In fact, as bi+ people, our internalised biphobia can take on a personal kind of intensity that is far more pervasive than that experienced by mono/asexual people. If we internalise biphobia, we know that it can be directed towards ourselves. Sometimes the ways in which we deflect that biphobia can themselves be biphobic- I’m not like all those other bisexuals. I’m different. Accept me. People in marginalised groups throw each other under the bus to save our own asses all the damn time.  

It is very true that pansexual people suffer from our society’s biphobia. It is also true that pan as well as bi people are part of that biphobic society. The way to tackle our internalised biphobia is not to pretend it does not exist. It is to acknowledge it, call it out for what it is, and deal with it as openly and kindly as we can.

A Small Matter of Definitions

Continuing on Jakubowski’s stunning lack of self-awareness, let’s take a look at the ways that she defines pansexuality and bisexuality:

Take this:

This word “pansexual” was originally coined by Sigmund Freud within his theories on psychoanalysis in the early-to-mid 1900s, but was instead defined as how sexual energy and desire is the basis for all human interaction in life.

However the modern usage of “pansexual” has very little to do with Freud’s definition or his psycho-sexuality theories.

And now take this:

For instance, while bisexuality (as defined by multiple organizations) is inclusive of all and every gender, pansexuality explicitly denies any binarist implications in its name, allowing it to draw more obvious ties to genderqueer, agender, and other non-binary people and politics. (Emphasis Jakubowski’s)

You see what’s happening here? Jakubowski is simultaneously saying that ‘pansexual‘ as currently defined has nothing to do with its dodgy origins, stating that bisexuality doesn’t currently solely refer to attraction only to men and women, and then barrelling on ahead with the implication that bisexuality is binary nonetheless. According to Jakubowski, ‘pansexual’ gets to be defined by pansexuals, but ‘bisexual’ somehow can’t escape the taint of definitions that the bisexual community have been explicitly rejecting for decades.

Seriously. Jakubowski says that bisexual organisations explicitly define bisexuality as being inclusive of all genders (true!), and in the very same sentence she says that unlike bisexuality, pansexuality is explicitly nonbinary. And then she does it again:

While some pansexual activists have been accused of denying the bisexual identity’s legitimacy for various reasons, including its transphobic overtones (note: bisexuality is not inherently transphobic), this is not an example of bi-phobia.

If the assumption that bisexual identity is transphobic, despite the fact that Jakubowski then says that it is not, isn’t biphobia, then what the hell is? Also, as many people have said before (and will say again, I’m sure), precisely why does bisexuality, as opposed to hetero/homosexuality, get tarred with the brush of transphobia? Particularly given the long-standing connections and overlap between bi and trans communities and people- and evidence that up to 25% of trans people themselves identify as bisexual. I’m not saying that bi+ communities are free of ciscentricism and transphobia, by the way. However, the implication that this is particular to bi+ communities is both inaccurate and, yes, biphobic. Biphobic as all hell.

To paraphrase Jakubowski? The modern usage of “bisexual” has very little to do with externally imposed definitions or binary theories of gender. And I’d appreciate it if she took that into account in more than a token way.

But that’s not all. Here’s her explanation of the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality:

pansexuality and bisexuality are different (but related) identities.

The most concise reason for this is because pansexual people can find attraction with any and all genders or sexes, while bisexual people may have limitations for which genders and sexes they know they’re attracted to.

Reading that on its own, I can’t find anything to argue with. Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bi person who isn’t attracted to every gender expression, so this rings pretty true to my own experience. What gets inconsistent, though, is when you skip up a few paragraphs and see this:

For some pansexual people… gender distinctions might be necessary to foster their attraction. Other pansexual people might just describe these distinctions as irrelevant information.

Right. So in one part of her 101 she claims that pansexuality is attraction regardless of gender, as opposed to bisexuality which allows the possibility of not being attracted to all genders. But in another breath, she states that pansexuality also allows the possibility that gender is a major element in (lack of) attraction. I hate to say this, but you can’t have it both ways. Either pansexuality is a distinct pattern of attraction to bisexuality (something I’m happy to get behind), or else pansexuality and bisexuality are simply two ways of saying the same thing- in which case a hell of a lot more justification is needed for the assertion that they are two entirely different orientations, as she claims.

Because it feels to me a lot like Jakubowski is clutching at straws to show how totally different from bisexuals she is. While, y’know, simultaneously saying that it is impossible for her to be biphobic, because she deals with biphobia. And also using functionally identical definitions for both, but arguing against definitions for bisexuality that aren’t used by any major bisexual organisations or communities.

Right.

Let’s move on to gender, shall we?

Gender is. We see it.

Here’s the thing about gender. It affects almost everything. Whether we’re men, women, or nonbinary, whether we’re cis or trans, whether we present as masculine, feminine or a bit of both.. the way our gender is experienced and perceived changes details of almost every interaction in our lives. In many ways, it shouldn’t. But whether we like it or not, and whether we would like to change it or not (I very much would), it does.

Remember those earlier definitions of pansexuality? The ones that made a bunch of sense, that didn’t depend on the denial of other people’s identities? Unfortunately, things are going to go further downhill.

individuals have… described their identity by saying that “they just don’t focus on gender or sex identity, but focus more on the person instead.”

 

At first glance, this seems lovely, right? That sex or gender don’t matter, but instead we should focus on who someone is. It’s a pity, then, that by doing so you actively deny a huge part of the person’s identity. Having the implications of gender recognised within all our relationships is important for everyone. Particularly for people who aren’t cis, or whose gender isn’t binary, or who are women, or a combination of all of those.

Listen, I wish gender didn’t have to be such an important thing in our daily lives. I wish it could have exactly as much or as little influence on us as we pleased, that it was seen as just another part of who a person is that was never taken for granted or led to assumptions about who we are or how we should be interacted with. I hope I help to work towards a day when that happens. But the only way that we can get to a stage where it isn’t a hugely important thing is by recognising the ways we are sexist, binarist, and ciscentric. It’s by acknowledging when we act in sexist/ciscentric ways, dragging our bullshit up into the light of day and dealing with it with eyes open. Gender blindness is no more an appropriate way to deal with gender variance than saying “I don’t see colour!” is to deal with racism.

As Danielle says so succinctly:

"Oh yeah, see, I identify as pansexual, 'cause I don't see gender! I see the person for who they really are!" says an excited young woman to her friend, also a woman, who is taken aback.   The woman who was taken aback smiles and sarcastically says, "Wow! Thank you for seeing past the aspect of my personality I fought for decades to legitimate! You're a real hero!" The initially excited woman has a look on her face that says, "Oh."  The formerly excited woman looks remorseful and dejected and says, "I may not have thought this through..." Her friend smiles forgivingly at her and says, "Lil bit."
“Oh yeah, see, I identify as pansexual, ’cause I don’t see gender! I see the person for who they really are!” says an excited young woman to her friend, also a woman, who is taken aback. The woman who was taken aback smiles and sarcastically says, “Wow! Thank you for seeing past the aspect of my personality I fought for decades to legitimate! You’re a real hero!” The initially excited woman has a look on her face that says, “Oh.” The formerly excited woman looks remorseful and dejected and says, “I may not have thought this through…” Her friend smiles forgivingly at her and says, “Lil bit.”

Yep. That.

It gets worse, though.

Jakubowski claims that, unlike bisexuality with its implied binarism (despite, yet again, the fact that we’ve been saying how we define the word till we’re blue in the face for, like I said, decades and it’d be nice to actually be listened to), “pansexuality’s more obvious anti-binary stance often feels more comforting to those who are particularly passionate about advocating genderqueer diversity and acceptance”. Let’s see how this matches up to what else she says in this article, shall we?

Check this out:

someone who identifies as pansexual, no matter what their gender or sex is, can potentially be attracted to cis men, intersex men, trans men, agender people, genderqueer people or any other non-binary person, trans women, intersex women, cis women, or any other combination of sex, gender, and gender performance.

Right. To be honest, I have zero idea what her point is here. Why do we have to specify that pan people can be attracted to cis, intersex, and trans men and women, as well as nonbinary people? This artificial separation of “men” and “women” into trans, intersex and cis is bizarre. For an article about inclusion, Jakubowski sure does seem intent on creating ciscentric divisions. Is she implying that straight, gay and bi people aren’t attracted to trans as well as cis people? I hate to say this, but holy invalidation of the legitimacy of trans identities, Batman.

This is.. particularly clear, when you combine it with this chestnut:

If monosexuality (attraction to only one sex and gender, e.g. straight, gay, lesbian) is at one end of the spectrum and pansexuality is at the other, could it be useful to create identities of specific combinations therein (such as if someone is attracted to people assigned female who might be any gender, or to men of any assigned sex)? (emphasis Jakubowski’s)

We have words for people who are just attracted to men of any assigned sex. That’s.. just plain straight, gay, or androsexual depending on what gender(s) you are yourself. Jakubowski seems to be implying clearly implies that there is something different about being attracted to both cis and trans members of whatever gender(s) you’re attracted to. Something special. Additionally, when it comes to her first example- being attracted to people assigned female who might be any gender? To talk about this without mentioning the rampant history ongoing problem of the inclusion of AFAB trans people and exclusion of trans women from queer women’s communities simply boggles the mind. If you’re going to talk the talk of trans/nonbinary inclusion, is it too much to ask that you first do a little research on what that actually means?

As I said just a few weeks ago:

Oppressions and marginalisations are never things that are solely done by privileged groups. They’re things that we all experience, which shape all of our actions and thinking processes, and which privilege some of us and marginalise, oppress and erase others. All of us, including those marginalised, are complicit in our own marginalisation. We live in a biphobic society that tries desperately hard to erase our experiences. We are part of that society.

I understand why people might want to distance themselves from the ‘bisexual’ label. It’s a word that is used to dismiss our experiences, thrown at us to harm us, and it comes at us filled with negative implications- slut-shaming, greedy, indecisive, attention seeking, not real. And because bi+ community is something that most of us take too damn long to find (hello, bi+ erasure!), those connotations are the only ones we see for a long, long time. It’s not surprising that we turn our back from the word in droves.

But just because it’s unsurprising, doesn’t mean it’s okay. I said at the beginning of this that I have no issue with the pansexual label, and that I think it’s lovely to have another word to add to the ways we talk about attractions and orientation. While I have no problem with the label itself, however, the ways in which it is justified here- as if it needed justification!- smack of genderblindness, biphobia, and an unwillingness to engage in the kind of self-analysis required to not trample all over other people. It’s not enough to simply pick a label that on first glance looks to you like it fulfils your activist cred, and then stick your fingers in your ears when it comes to critiquing the choices that you have made.

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The Case Of Pansexuality 101 And The Sea Of Biphobia And Gender Erasure.

5 thoughts on “The Case Of Pansexuality 101 And The Sea Of Biphobia And Gender Erasure.

  1. 1

    I have seen a few people specifically claim they are bi, not pan, because they aren’t “into” trans people, so I can see how someone could get the impression that bisexuality is binary and transphobic. But it should be obvious that being bi isn’t what made them a transphobic asshole… They kind of fall in the same category as gay men that like trans women but view them as men. I certainly wouldn’t assume all gay men are that way.

    If I have reason to bring up my sexual orientation I normally go with bi. Pan works too, but then you have to explain it to people who don’t know the term, and I really don’t see much of a difference between the two anyways.

    1. 1.1

      Exactly! People of all orientations, bi included, can be transphobic assholes. And especially because of bi erasure, people- even bi+ people- often spend a LOT of years unaware of bi+ communities, identities and history.

      Which is, of course, an argument for more awareness of bi history and communities, not one for erasing us even more!

  2. 2

    “I have no bias because people exhibit bias towsrds me.” Has always been the most shortsighted statement ever. Especially since much bias is subconscious, learnt to the point of feeling instinctive. I mean we *know* our brains use pattern-matching and associative learning machines.

    1. 2.1

      Also, it assumes that people are totally unaffected by the bias directed at them, and that it never makes people think less of themselves or warps their self perception in any way.

      Which is a truly bizarre point of view.

  3. 3

    The phrase ‘a pansexual person critiquing the bisexual identity for specific reasons’ bugs me, too. It’s exactly what TERFs say; they’re not being transphobic, they’re ‘critiquing trans+ identities’.

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