Photo by Caroline Brady

Dear Roe, loath as I am to give Miley Cyrus any more attention, I’m deeply confused by her statement that she’s “pansexual”. From what I can gather, pansexual means you’re attracted to people regardless of their gender…which is the same as bisexual, right?? Is pansexual just a new hipster term for bisexuality, or am I missing something here?

Dear Letter Writer, Miley Cyrus raises so many questions, doesn’t she? Questions like “Why the white faux locs, Miley?” and “Why the constant need to incorrectly whitesplain systematic racism to women of colour, Miley?” and “Miley, what’s good?” #nickiisqueen.

Though, in fairness, to little White Feminism icon Hannah Montana, her recent revelation that she is pansexual has opened up dialogue about a relatively new term for a not-so-new sexuality.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of pansexuality, let’s just address the motive for your curiosity about pansexuality. See, I love people who ask questions about sexuality in order to learn, and to support other people. I’m less of a fan of people who ask questions in the “Ugh, what the FUCK is this new term people are CLEARLY just INVENTING to be HIPSTERS? Tell me that it doesn’t exist so I can MOCK and IGNORE them.”

Now I’m not saying this is necessarily your intention, dear Letter Writer. But it is some people’s.

And to those people, I say this: Shhhh. First of all, acknowledge that we all know much less that we think, and far less than we need to, so it’s very unlikely that you have the authority to declare which sexualities exist and which don’t.

Secondly, why does it bother you so much that people identify with sexualities that you don’t share or understand? You don’t have to identify with it, and with an asshole-ish attitude like that, people won’t be fancying you anyway, so you won’t have to deal with it.

As we encounter new forms of sexual identities and expressions, let’s just remain self-aware of our own resistance, and explore why it exists. What does attempting to dismiss a sexuality do for us?

Is it so that we feel more secure in our own sexuality? Or do we just resent having to learn more about the world and the people in it? Neither are particularly good reasons, are they?

I digress.

The short answer: the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality is complicated. Because, you know, it’s sexuality and identity, so it’s always going to be slightly complicated.

There is a certain level of overlap between bisexuality and pansexuality, and so it’s not surprising that many bi and pan people feel a strong connection to both communities because of their similarities. However, there are also some differences between the two that should be acknowledged and respected.

In the strictest linguistic terms, bisexuality refers to the attraction to two or more genders, while pansexuality refers to the attraction to all genders – and so pansexuality sits under the broadest-umbrella definition of bisexuality, while also having a unique identity all its own.

The rising awareness of pansexuality is related to our increased awareness of gender identities.

We now know that many gender identities exist outside the limited binary of man/woman. There’s trans, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, intersex, third gender, Two-Spirit, etc.

So it makes sense that sexual identities now account for an attraction to a range of genders outside the two cisgender categories. (“Cisgender” means that you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth.)

Now, the term “bisexuality” became popular when there was much less discourse regarding gender-variant identities, and so has historically been associated with an attraction to cismen and ciswomen, rather than a wider range of gender identities. It is an important term that reflects its deviation from the commonly known monosexual identities (i.e. straight, lesbian or gay people, who are attracted to one gender only.)

However, many people in the bisexual community have pushed to expand this limited, reductive and oft-abused definition, as many bisexuals are also attracted to other gender identities, or don’t subscribe to tired assumption of a 50/50 split in their attraction to cisgender men and women.

Meanwhile, some bisexuals are completely fine with their sexuality being defined as an attraction to the two cis genders. We’re talking about people, here: labels rarely capture our gloriously nuanced and individual realities. Yet we’re still here insisting that they either encompass everything, or are utterly fictional.

Sigh. When will we learn.

Some of the differences between bisexuality and pansexuality expand past the realm of romantic and physical attraction, and are based in ideology and a form of political thought. Bisexual identities can often (not always or only) indicate a political thought/focus based on sexual identity, while pansexuality can often (not always or only) indicate a political thought/focus based on gender identity.

Bisexuality-focused activism or discourse often opens up discussions of sexuality, desire, bi-phobia and bi-erasure. Pansexuality-focused activism or discourse often opens up discussions of gender identity, including trans and gender-variant identities, transphobia and gender-variant erasure.

Pansexuality can therefore be a sexual identity marked not merely by its attraction to all genders, but by its conscious recognition of all genders.

There are some community markers that celebrate these differences between the two sexual identities. For example, their Pride flags are different. The bisexual pride flag is striped with the royal blue, magenta, and lavender, representing same gender attraction, opposite gender attraction, and attraction to both genders, respectively.

The pansexual flag is striped with rose, blue, and gold, representing the female gender, male gender, and third-gender, respectively. The third-gender includes those who are intersex, genderqueer, transsexual or androgynous, and others who identify as being both genders.

So, yes, pansexuality has some connection to bisexuality. No, that doesn’t mean they’re the same. Yes, Miley Cyrus is still hugely problematic. (You didn’t ask that bit, but I felt the need to add it.)

Ultimately, why anyone identifies as one or the other is down to their own feelings, as well as their personal relationships with those communities and labels. Which is kind of why we let people identify their own sexual identities, and don’t enforce labels on them or dismiss their labels as mere “hipster” terms.

People are who they are. In that sense, it’s actually not that complicated at all.


Dear Roe, I’m a gay guy who lives in an apartment with my best friend, who’s a straight woman, and another woman who is, in her words, “heteroflexible”. My friend and I only moved in with her during the summer, so we don’t know her crazily well, and we’re having a problem. We don’t know whether it is purely etiquette-based or if it’s a bit creepy and sexual.

Basically, this woman walks around the apartment naked A LOT, and she has also left her door open a couple of times while having sex – not so that we can see anything, but we can definitely hear EVERYTHING. (She tends to leave her bedroom door open because she has a dog who wanders in and out – but during SEX? Why would you want the dog in there during that anyway?!!)

My friend and I have so far just been avoiding looking at her if she wanders into the hallway or kitchen naked, and we haven’t mentioned the sex-soundtrack issue yet. At this point, we don’t know if she’s just a bit weird and overly comfortable, or if it’s a weird sexual ploy, showing us both that she’s hot and available?? Either way, we just really want it to stop. What do we do?

Dear Letter Writer,

Polite, subtle version: “Oh, I hope me and Friend didn’t keep you awake when we were talking in my room last night! I just realised how much sound carries in this apartment when the doors aren’t closed! We should all probably keep the doors closed when we have people over so we don’t drive each other crazy. We can always look after Rover so he doesn’t feel like he’s been banished from your room! Also, just shout if you ever forget your towel in the bathroom, and I’ll leave one outside the door; would hate for you to be caught in the nip if we have guests over or anything!”

Polite, not subtle version: “All the congrats to you for getting laid, glad you’re enjoying yourself, but would you mind closing the door during? It’s a bit weird hearing the soundtrack. Rover can chill with us, no bother – those innocent puppy eyes aren’t ready to see certain things anyway! Also, admire the fact that you’re clearly comfortable in your own skin, but me and Friend aren’t quite as nudity-friendly as you are and prefer to have a bit of choice and consent in seeing someone naked, so would you mind respecting this in the common areas? But now that you’re going to be closing your bedroom door more, you can be naked in there all you like!”

Sledgehammer: Walk up to door the next time she’s having sex, slam it shut. “NO THANK YOU. AND I DON’T CONSENT TO SEEING YOUR LABIA EVERY TIME I WALK INTO THE HALL, EITHER.”

Do you have a question for Roe? You can submit it anonymously at:

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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