I was in the middle of an interview for a business story when suddenly the banker who knows I have a background in writing about sex and relationships asked: “Hey Ruth, can you tell me, what does pansexual mean?”
He’s about the 10th person to bring up the question in the past month.
It’s bandied about in articles all over the web. Last year Shailene Woodley, star of the dystopian Divergent movie series and the teen weepie The Fault in Our Stars, confessed she is pansexual and “falls in love with human beings based on who they are, not what they do or what sex they are”.
Josh Hutcherson the 22-year-old Hunger Games actor, recently told Out magazine: “Right now I’m 100 per cent straight. But who knows? In a year I could meet a guy and be like, ‘Whoa, I’m attracted to this person.’ ”
Even Texas state representative Mary Gonzalez openly identifies as pansexual, becoming the first elected US official to be out as such.
So what is it, this pansexuality, omnisexuality or flexi-sexuality? Why has it gained such prominence? And how is it different from bisexuality?
It comes with the premise that “love is boundary-less”. It comes with the ability to love people of any age, religion, appearance and gender, including gender-mobile (androgynous, transsexual).
It is not to be confused with polyamory, the acceptance of multiple consensual relationships, and is regarded as more fluid than bisexuality in that it’s non-binary.
The book Sex and Society by Marshall Cavendish says pansexuality encompasses only consensual adult behaviours. On the Pansexual is Perfect website it states: “Love is my way of life: Love doesn’t know distance, gender, colour and race. It’s all-consuming and beyond compare … I hope everyone is blessed with special someones in life.”
So it’s queer, straight, bi, older, younger, but also being open to all behaviours: you can love an S & M master just as easily as a Buddhist master. It’s people.
Gen Y (the millennial generation) seems to be leading the charge. The flex-gen is flexible in every aspect of life, from working hours and locations to changing religions and careers. Fluidity is the catchcry of the “whateva” generation. They seek “opportunities”. So it isn’t surprising the concept has now reached the body and heart.
Some social observers are hailing a true sexual revolution — the biggest revolution since the free-love 1960s and 70s. It’s hip, and cooler than bisexuality ever was.
While females have always experimented with each other (up to 45 per cent, according to Boise State University), more interesting is a trend identified in The New York Times and elsewhere of an increasing number of younger guys who identify as “mostly straight” — as in not always straight.
Facebook is full of the images of the group grope, and more. A study in The Lancetfound that four times as many women report having had same-sex relationships compared with two decades ago.
Google Trends data shows that an internet presence for “pansexuality” began in September 2007. Since then it has gained significant hits.
But why now, and wasn’t it always thus? Kimberly O’Sullivan, a social commentator, historian, journalist and prominent pansexual, says the idea has been out there forever.
The Kinsey Reports found sexual preferences to be non-static.
When News Limited (now News Corp Australia) conducted a sex and relationships survey a decade ago, it showed couples in the suburbs fantasised mostly about threesomes, followed by more-somes.
Gender-bending has always been a favourite kink. But, O’Sullivan says, the revolution isn’t that pansexuality is happening.
“The Facebook selfie gen haven’t reinvented the wheel,” she says. “It’s that it’s becoming socially acceptable.”
She is sceptical about the dimensions of the phenomenon. “We’ll know the revolution has truly come when people aren’t just experimenting with their sexuality, as they always have, but when they are prepared to stand up in society and declare: ‘I love this person, I want to get married or defacto.’ People still care a lot what (others) think of their sexual choices.”
And pansexuals, if they have previously strongly identified with a particular sexual preference, can face significant ostracism from their social groups once their new preferences become known.
O’Sullivan, 58, is a dear friend. She was my researcher on my Triple M sex and relationships radio program in the 90s, and is one of the clearest examples I know of being pansexual. Her story is so fascinating it became the subject of a 1999 Australian Story episode, Kimberly’s Wedding, which I was involved in.
She was a hardcore lesbian, one of the original “dykes on bikes”, and the first woman in the Mardi Gras Hall of Fame. Enter biker Bob, a Hell’s Angel. He was one of my fans who listened to our radio show. He wrote me letters and Kimberly answered him, then met him for coffee. A short time later she tossed in her leathers for a dress and pumps, grew her hair long and married him.
She joked: “Well, if you’re going to go for a man, you might as well choose a real butch, not one who eats quiche — or why bother?”
A decade after the program aired, Kimberly, now divorced, answered the question herself — falling madly in love with a woman who was becoming a man. They stayed together through all the trials and tribulations of hormone replacement, but later broke up. Whereupon she met the love of her life. A conservative, rural “bloke”, and dad.
They live together in a little township in central NSW and she works as an archivist in a nearby library.
The last time I saw her she was in a floral dress, and had wavy curls. “Buddhists have a saying,” she says. “ ‘You should love like a blind man.’ If you couldn’t see someone and fell in love with them, you wouldn’t worry about their external appearance.
“Love sees no gender,” she adds. “There’s no real difference being with a man, woman or transgender. I’m amazed at how similar it all is, all the normal highs and insecurities — ‘Am I good enough? Will they leave? Will they ring?’ We need to concentrate on being healthy and happy in our relationships rather than limited to a preconceived type. Everyone wants love in their lives.”
A recent documentary project of mine featured “Karen”, a grandmother whose husband transitioned to a woman in his 60s with the full operation. She had stayed through the ordeal and went to gay marriage rallies.
She told me: “I’m not a lesbian. I fell in love with a person. And “Betty” is still the same person I fell in love with.” I know two other couples in the same position.
The time has come for the psychological professions to step in and be a midwife to these social changes that free us from labels, says Serena Patterson, a Canada-based women’s studies scholar. “Gender (can be) a jail, a gift, a rigid script … a key to unlock sexual passion, a life sentence to drudgery, a trap, or a chosen path,” she says.
Even the law is attempting to catch up. Last year, Norrie May-Welby, a Sydney-based gender-mobile person, won a landmark case to be legally considered gender non-specific, and now calls her/himself a “xie” or “hir” as opposed to she or he.
Canadian magazine Flare last year said of the pansexual trend: “Welcome to the sexual revolution . ‘Whatever’, with it’s open-ended implications and universe of possibilities, makes an awful lot of sense.”
COMMENTS IN THE AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER REPUBLISHED HERE