Pansexuality: fluidity, stigma and mental health

Time to read: 10 min.
Author: Maysa Mariposa.

Podcast version

Pansexuality: fluidity, stigma and mental health

What is pansexuality? What does it mean? What are the prejudices and stigmatic beliefs about people who define themselves as pansexual? And what are the consequences of (interiorized) stigma on their mental and sexual health?

Pansexuality is a little known, little researched and little represented sexual minority, despite of the increasing ‘popularity’ of pansexuality’s label amongst youth in Europe and North-America. The internet provides the means for a growing community who find voice and recognition amongst social media platforms. This combined with famous persons coming out as pansexual creates more general awareness, understanding and acceptance of the pansexual identity. Media representation of sexual minority is linked to increased public awareness, identity affirmation, positive role modelling, normalization, and destruction of negative stereotypes.[1] But pansexuality is still little known and little talked about, contributing to a common ‘panerasure’ (as if pansexuality doesn’t exist). Besides, many pansexuals face various forms of structural, individual and internalized stigma.

Image 1

Pansexual: the non-binary non-label

Pansexuality is a sexual minority identity that ‘reflects individuals who feel they are sexually, emotionally, and spiritually capable of being attracted to any person regardless of gender or sex’.[2] Bisexuality is commonly used as the umbrella for pansexual, plurisexual and polysexual identities. Although this logic could be questioned as pansexuality is in theory much broader than bisexuality, proposing instead to see bisexuality as a part of pansexuality. There is no single definition that completely encompasses the embodied meaning of pansexuality, as each individual has a different understanding and expression of their pansexual (or bisexual) identity. This definitional fluidity of the term could be observed as a necessary trait of pansexual identity and the subsequent rising popularity amongst (Western) youth as it offers a broad spectre of possibilities to be oneself. The broadness of the pansexual label allows for freedom of choice regarding sexual identity expression. Moreover, it’s a label that bypasses the purpose of labelling. A non-label refusing to adhere to one single sexual identity characterizing the contemporary anti-labelling movement.

Besides this possibility to trick the labelling with a label that moves beyond the borders of any box, there is another reason for why this non-label is increasing in popularity amongst youth; namely its stance against the binary organization of gender and sexuality. Although it is often confused with bisexuality, pansexuality refers to a wide arrange of possible sexual attractions beyond any gender or sex binary. Binary opposites are engrained within contemporary cultural meaning making (male-female sex and straight-gay sexual orientation). These bifurcations are normalized within the monosexual and mono-gender discourse, privileging identities that encage clearly within the culturally defined boxes. Research showed that youth claims the pansexual label to express their authentic sexuality, and to problematize the restrictions of the fe/male binary.[3] They also found that students who actively define themselves as pansexual have a more nuanced understanding of bi- and pansexualities, meaning that they are not so confused as they are portraited to be.

The absence of uniform delineation of ‘pansexuality’ causes it to be confused with other orientations. A lack of common knowledge, combined with stigma, causes those who identify as pansexual to describe themselves as straight, gay/lesbian or bisexual toward others in order to avoid prejudices or having to explain their sexuality again and again.[4] As Skylar, a student in Canada, said about her sexuality: “My sexual orientation is pansexual, though I do identify as bisexual. It’s easier to explain bisexual to most people than pansexual because they automatically think you’re kitchenware. But unfortunately for them, it’s not pans, it’s people”.[5] Likewise, many who identify as bisexual will explain their own sexuality as being attracted to more than two genders because they don’t know about the pansexual label. Even though the embodied experiences of bi- and pansexuality blur the boundaries between them, they are still two distinct sexual expressions. They differ in theory, and in the prejudices toward them.

Image 2

Prejudices and internalized stigma

Sexual stigma is the cultural body of (dis)knowledge that is both embedded in society’s institutions and internalized by individuals. It’s useful to distinguish between structural stigma, sexual prejudice and self-stigma.[6]

(1) Structural stigma is society’s collective judgment that marginalizes people so that they become unseen by and unknown to the non-stigmatized group.

(2) Self-stigma is the psychological interiorization of those beliefs.

(3) Sexual prejudices are the attitudes by individuals towards a certain sexual minority.

Stigma can be defined as the simultaneous existence of labelling, stereotyping, separation, status loss and discrimination within a hierarchical power structure.[7] The hierarchized discourses on gender and sexuality are constructed around binary conceptualizations. Within these binaries there exists a power structure privileging male gender and straight sexuality, placing female gender and gay/lesbian sexuality in stigmatized positions. Bisexuality is generally depreciated by both hetero- and homosexual communities. Non-binary gender and sexual identities are outside the binary and consequently the most marginalized and disregarded.[8] Stigmatization is related to power and thus some groups are more stigmatized than others.[9]

The prejudices concerning pansexuality can be divided between ‘a lack of knowledge and understanding’ and ‘a lack of acceptance and validation’. Firstly, even though more and more pansexuals are coming out (including famous persons) there is still very little known about this sexual minority identity. This causes a first series of prejudices including things like ‘so you love kitchenware’ or a sense of promiscuity by the explanation that pansexuals love ‘all people’. This lack of knowledge about non-monosexual identities leads to confusion about what or who they are and whether they exist. Already here a certain form of ‘panerasure’ is at work. Secondly, ‘an entire mental network of negative beliefs and stereotypes’ is activated.[10] Pansexual identity is boldly erased as a valid sexuality. ‘Oh, but you are just confused about who you are’. This process of pan-erasure happens by both heterosexual and queer communities. As posted by one blogger: “I often feel ‘not gay enough’ to hang out in queer spaces; I feel like an intruder or a wannabe. I have had friends ‘jokingly’ tell me that I should ‘just pick a side already’”.[11]

The effects of these prejudices and stigma on a wide array of life chances of the stigmatized group are severe and highly underestimated. Research showed that the social marginalization of young bi/pan-sexual women affected their mental and sexual health in much higher rates compared to monosexual individuals (hetero, lesbian, gay).[12] Because marginalized individuals have internalized a sense of non-existence, they have less control over what happens in their lives.[13]

The structural pan-erasure (as not being a valid sexuality) is linked to a confused self-image, lower self-esteem and less confidence.[14] “Oh, there’s something wrong with me, there’s something wrong with my desires, my preferences […] who I am…”.[15] The self-loathing of bi/pan-sexuals is associated with anxiety, depression, higher rates of distress, suicidality and post-traumatic symptoms.[16] Moreover, there is also an effect on the ability to create sexual boundaries for themselves. This could be an internalization of the prejudice of promiscuity: ‘you have sex with anyone’. It seems to be a challenge for bi/pan-sexual women (and probably others too) to create their own sexual boundaries. Thus, prejudicial attitudes toward pansexual individuals as confused and promiscuous affect severely their mental and sexual health.

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Conclusion

The anti-binary fluid non-label of pansexuality finds itself in a grey zone outside of normative structures, attracting the youth of today with a wide variety of possible colours to freely express their sexual identity. Every bi/pan-sexual individual has a unique conception of what their sexuality means to them, hence blurring the boundaries between the different non-monosexual identities even though they are all distinct and valid in themselves.

Non-monosexual identities are highly more stigmatized than non-heterosexual monosexual identities (gay, lesbian). Prejudices on pansexual individuals as ‘just being confused’ and ‘having no boundaries’ affect severely their mental and sexual health. Erasure of their sexual identity happens by both heterosexual and queer communities and have a strongly negative impact on pansexuals’ self-image construction.[17]

Sources

Note: All the sources can be found on Limo. If you can’t access any academical database, and you would like to read the sources, you can contact Maysa Mariposa on Facebook to provide you with the pdf’s.


[1] Belous, C. K., & Bauman, M. L. (2017). What’s in a Name? Exploring Pansexuality Online. Journal of Bisexuality, 17(1), 58–72. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299716.2016.1224212

[2] See 1.

[3] Lapointe, A. A. (2017). “It’s not Pans, It’s People”: Student and Teacher Perspectives on Bisexuality and Pansexuality. Journal of Bisexuality, 17(1), 88–107. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299716.2016.1196157

[4] Flanders, C. E., LeBreton, M. E., Robinson, M., Bian, J., & Caravaca-Morera, J. A. (2017). Defining Bisexuality: Young Bisexual and Pansexual People’s Voices. Journal of Bisexuality, 17(1), 39–57. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299716.2016.1227016

[5]  See 3, p.97.

[6] Herek, G. M. (2015). Beyond “homophobia”: Thinking more clearly about stigma, prejudice, and sexual orientation. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(5, Suppl), S29–S37. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000092

[7] Link, B.G. & J.C. Phelan. (2001). ‘Conceptualizing Stigma’, Annual Review of Sociology 27: 363-385.

[8] See 3.

[9] See 7, p.97.

[10] See 6, p.36.

[11] See 1, p.65.

[12] Flanders, C. E., Gos, G., Dobinson, C., & Logie, C. H. (2015). Understanding young bisexual women’s sexual, reproductive and mental health through syndemic theory. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 106(8), e533–e538. https://doi.org/10.17269/CJPH.106.5100

[13] See 7.

[14] See 12.

[15] See 12, p.535.

[16] See 12.

[17] See 12.

Sources images

[1] https://www.mykidisgay.com/blog/defining-pansexuality

[2] https://twitter.com/daddy_clank/status/960000272989933568?lang=fi

UNDIVIDED for KU Leuven

UNDIVIDED is an intersectional student organisation in Leuven. We work on decolonization of academia, LGBTQ+ right and anti-ableism through research, policy, activism and community-building. Stay updated on our socials, participate in our events or reach out to us to join the team!

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