Bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, omnisexual, oh my! There are quite a few different terms to describe sexual attraction to members of more than one gender. If you don’t have your finger on the pulse of the queer community twenty-four hours a day, it is, inevitably, difficult to keep track of all the blasted terms used to describe those who practice non-monosexuality.
Which brings us to the first and perhaps most important of the many terms, monosexuality. Monosexuality is a word that is used to describe individuals who are only sexually attracted to members of one gender (i.e. straight people, gay men, and lesbians). Non-monosexuals are those who are not monosexual, and are attracted to more than one gender. This term is used very often in queer theory, sexuality studies, and other academic pursuits. I’ve only ever seen in it popular usage on Tumblr. Even though some immature individuals on the internet will use neutral and benign words like monosexual like an insult, which is far from its original intention. The word is only a benign moniker to describe those who experience sexual attraction to more than one gender.
The most commonly known of all terms describing non-monosexuals is ‘bisexual.’ The ‘B’ in LGBT stands for bisexual, as much as people will joke that it does not. There is something of a controversy surrounding the term bisexual, as it comes from the Greek word meaning ‘two.’ However, many bisexuals affirm that their sexual attraction is not limited to only two genders, regardless of what the word means etymologically, as language—like sexuality—is fluid. The term bisexual has been in academic use since the nineteenth century, and it was coined in the same academic setting as ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual.’ It has been in common usage since the mid-twentieth century. The bisexual pride flag, consisting of pink, blue, and purple horizontal stripes, was designed in 1999.
The only other term with the same historical reach in an academic space is ‘omnisexual.’ Superstar sexologist Alfred Kinsey used this term to describe the sexual desire that focuses on pleasure above anything else. Kinsey wrote extensively about how humans were born with sexuality pre-installed. He had observed that even small babies, who would be incapable of engaging in sexual activity, still masturbated, seeking pleasure. He concluded that humans, upon birth, are omnisexual, sexually desiring pleasure, and can remain that way into adulthood. Kinsey also theorized that our omnisexual desire for pleasure may make us naturally bisexual, seeking pleasure rather than a specific sexual partner. This is consistent with the socially constructed nature of sexual orientation.
Other terms to describe non-monosexuality are much more recent inventions. Perhaps the best known newer terms, ‘pansexual’ broke out onto the scene in the mid-to-late 2000s. The creators of the term argued that bisexuality, as a term, was limiting and reinforcing of the gender binary. They used the same basic model that the word bisexual employs, swapping bi (Greek for two) with pan (Greek for all). There has been a fair bit of controversy between the bi and pan communities, surrounding literal translations of familiar words, which I will write about in another post. Pansexuals, to draw distinction from poly- and bisexuals, often say that they experience sexual attraction regardless of gender; gender plays no role in sexual orientation.
Largely born out of the strife between bisexuals and pansexuals, polysexuals continued to interpret the words literally (rather than, I don’t know, listening to actual bisexuals). Essentially, polysexuality, which is another sexual orientation of entirely twenty-first century creation, is the sexual attraction to more than two, but less than all, genders. As someone who isn’t polysexual, it seems that polysexuality is a bit too specific for my taste.
Unfortunately—at least for the sake of clarity—there is another word in the realm of sexuality that begins with the prefix poly-. Polyamory differs from polysexuality (even though they are sometimes used interchangeably to mean polyamory) in that instead of being representative of being attracted to multiple genders, it is the proclivity to being in sexual and/or romantic relationships with multiple people at one time. Open relationships and multiple romantic partner relationships are both types of polyamory.
So, there you have it. A short primer on all things non-monosexual. I hope this helps cut through the confusion with the various terms that exist and often sound as if they mean almost the same thing. Because they do. Almost.