Pansexuality and Gender-Fluidity: A Conceptual (R)evolution

It's remarkable how previously believed binary (or ternary) categories have seemed to evolve over time to impel people to rethink 'fixed' labels as more continuous. For a long time, sexuality and gender have been perceived as sets of mutually exclusive and non-overlapping categories. Initially, from heterosexuals and homosexuals to a wider, more comprehensive LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) form. However, terminologies and the reasoning behind them change quite frequently. Recently, a large number of people have been identifying as pansexual. We need to review these concepts in the current perspective based on the environmental milieu.

Although there is no overarching definition for pansexuality, it is widely accepted as a “sexual attraction, romantic love and emotional attachment” to (an) individual(s) (Jones & Hill, 2008), which is not bound by gender and is, therefore, gender-blind. The literal meaning may sometimes wrongfully convey “sexual attraction to all or anything”, but it excludes aberrations such as bestiality, pedophilia, and necrophilia (Cavendish, 2010). In a way, it is a customizable construct which permits the ‘user’ to design and decide what works for them without trying to fit into predetermined societal roles and labels. Similarly, gender-fluidity, another concept that is closely related to pansexuality and operates parallel to it, is an all-encompassing term which functions outside the normative categorization of the ‘men and women’ binary.

Social categorization is a vital process where people classify themselves and others into groups based on certain similarities and differences in order to reduce cognitive overload and systematize their surroundings. For example, Priya (a woman) is a doctor (profession) who specializes in the treatment of bones, muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons (type of specialization: orthopedist). Now, instead of retaining the entire sentence as it is, we have effectively narrowed it down into three categories of gender, profession and specialization/skills. In fact, this is not limited to just people and can be extended to events and objects, as well. When the brain is exposed to countless such information on a daily basis, social categorization helps in social identification (Ashforth & Mael, 1989) by assigning others into various group memberships.

However, distinguishing people and categorizing them into ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ can often result in prejudice and discrimination against certain groups. Intergroup conflict is often a product of evolutionary threat perception of others, heightened for different or foreign entities, where distinctiveness results in irrational negative reactions towards the out-group. (Schaller & Neuberg, 2008). With respect to sexuality and gender, hate crimes like the Orlando shooting, and the fact that same-sex marriage was not recognized until 2001, when Netherlands became the first country to legalize it, are just some of the facts that reflect the limitations of in-group/out-group categorization.

Additionally, social categorization and labelling often instigate formation of stereotypes and persistence of existing ones. Although stereotyping, like categorization, can be advantageous at times, it is definitely a dangerous heuristic and should be used with caution. For example, in the US presidential election campaigns, some have challenged Clinton’s credibility to run for presidency based on factors like age and appearance, rather than her policies and stance on political issues. Unlike predetermined gender and sex roles, pansexuality and gender-fluidity recognize the limitations of being boxed into stereotypes and challenge the parochial attitudes and behaviours related to them.

While Freud initially coined the term with a deterministic notion that all human behaviour and interaction relies on sexual instincts, the contemporary interpretation of pansexuality isn’t just a label-banishing avant-garde. It has been in existence in certain tribes in Kenya, New Guinea and Borneo, particularly in men, and is currently finding its way into mainstream through comic book characters like Deadpool and tv shows like Sense8 and How To Get Away With Murder, which feature their main lead(s) as pansexual. Conversely, sexual and gender multiplicity seems to complement the current wave of identitarian liberalism and adds another dimension to the growing body of identity expression channels.

It is truly a matter of preference— while some prefer the ease, comfort and dependence on certain labels which support identity formation and aid in kin selection and reproduction, for others, it may be too constricting and oppressive. What is imperative is the acknowledgement and acceptance of variance within these concepts.

Juhi Vajpayee