The Philosophy of Pansexualism

The Philosophy of Pansexualism

Raja Halwani
Raja Halwani
14 min read

The word “pansexual,” denoting those who are sexually or romantically attracted to others regardless of their sex or gender, has been around for at least a century. But the designation remained relatively obscure until about a decade ago, when a number of celebrities began using the word to describe themselves. It quickly became a popular self-identifier for young teenagers. And the idea of “pansexualism” is now increasingly being included in the vast and growing LGBT typology. Earlier this summer, when the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control published its COVID-19 Language Guide on “inclusive language for written and digital content,” for instance, the provincial agency exhorted readers not to use the term “sexual preference,” as it might be offensive to “pansexual people,” since they exhibit no “preference” whatsoever. (The agency offers a similar warning about offending bisexuals, which I distinguish from pansexuals as follows: While the former are attracted to each sex/gender, the latter may also be attracted to those whose genderqueer status removes them from the male-female gender dyad, or who report having no gender whatsoever.)

At the time of this writing, I am 53 years old. When I was younger—in my teens, my 20s, my 30s, and even my 40s—I never had a problem finding sexual partners. I managed to turn a few heads, as the expression goes. Whether in Beirut or in Chicago, finding other guys to have sex with was never an issue. But as I aged, fewer and fewer heads were being turned. Please understand that I am by no means complaining. The fact is, as one gets older, one generally tends to become less sexually desirable. (This is why those who rail against sexual objectification often engage in an unintentional form of ageism, as many older people would be only too happy to be sexually objectified.)

If sexual attraction to older people is relatively uncommon, what about attraction to those who do not match one’s sexual orientation? Straight men are not usually sexually attracted to other men, just as gay men aren’t usually attracted to women. Yet there are nowadays more than a few rumblings to the effect that not being attracted to this or that sex/gender is a symptom of phobia. A YouTuber by the name of Riley J. Dennis has appeared in popular videos telling lesbians why being put off by a trans woman’s penis is evidence of transphobia and “cissexism.” One academic claims that “sexual genital preferences” are “immoral.” And the philosopher Amia Srinivasan, in a widely read essay in the London Review of Books (“Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?”) argues that although no one has the right to sex per se, we nonetheless must examine why our sexual desires are the way they are—in particular, why many people do not sexually desire those who are fat, disabled, or trans, for instance. Referring to transwomen, she writes, “Transwomen often face sexual exclusion from lesbian cis women [i.e., non-trans women] who at the same time claim to take them seriously as women.” The question here—I think—is that if you, as a lesbian, claim to take transwomen seriously, why are you not willing to sleep with them?

The answer may seem obvious to many readers. But it is not obvious within progressive subcultures, in which the idea that “transwomen are women”—full stop—is generally accepted. Is the fact that some transwomen retain their male genitalia an acceptable reason for lesbians to not have sex with them? Or should lesbians work on their sexual desires and make them more inclusive (insofar as changing one’s desires is even possible)? This is where pansexualism comes in. If “genital preferences” really are immoral, then pansexualism isn’t just a category. It’s a moral ideal.

But if we are to understand the “pan” in “pansexual” as truly meaning all, then surely the highest form of pansexualism allows one to find anybody sexually desirable, regardless of not only sex and gender, but also age, body size, skin color, race, and so on, as long as someone is human—though I suppose that even that limit may be up for grabs. However, this is not how the term is usually used. It refers only to gender and sex (henceforth, “sex/gender”). This limitation on the term’s meaning offers an implicit nod to the fact that a pansexual person’s sexual attractions to others, as with just about everyone else, could be limited by non-sex/gender-related factors. In this respect, pansexuals are no different from gay, straight, and bi people. The only difference is that sex/gender is removed from the list of qualifying and disqualifying criteria for attraction.

Right at the start, we should distinguish between pansexualism as a descriptive view and pansexualism as a normative view. The former merely signifies the existence of such a thing as pansexualism. But the more interesting discussion relates to pansexualism as a normative category—which is to say, a category we should aspire to join.

In a recent essay in the Electric Agora, philosophy professor Robert Gressis dissects and criticizes two forms of normative pansexualism—what he calls “uncompromising pansexualism,” and the less stringent “compromising pansexualism.” The former, according to Gressis, criticizes non-pansexual orientations and promotes pansexual orientations. (Non-pansexualism refers to the usual orientations: a gay man who is not attracted to, say, (cis) women, or a straight woman who is not attracted to (pre-op) transmen.) Gressis concedes that non-pansexualism deprives both cis and trans people of “sexual opportunities and relationship satisfaction”: If you were sexually attracted to only one group of people but you then become attracted to all sex/genders, then you enlarge the pool of partners. But he argues, convincingly, that unlike preferences to others based on their race or ethnic belonging, heterosexual orientation is probably genetically hardwired, given its evolutionary role: “The survival of the species kind of depends on it.” (Gressis is silent on homosexual orientation, however, though it seems to be as hard-wired as its heterosexual counterpart). Moreover, the attraction in question is not merely directed at penises or vaginas, so that a straight cisman could be as easily attracted to a transman as long as the transman still has a vagina. Gressis writes, “while genitals are part of the object of sexual desire, I suspect other bodily features matter a great deal, too (compare: when it comes to food, sweetness is important, but it doesn’t follow from that that everyone is completely indifferent to texture).” Like many, Gressis is “highly suspicious of the idea that sexual desire is entirely socially constructed.”

Although I fully share this suspicion, I would note that a moral attack on “genital preferences” can be understood in a broader way, which might not be dismissed so easily. It could refer, for instance, to the mental habit of focusing narrowly on another person’s genitalia as a baseline criterion for assigning attraction to other parts of their body or personality. As a gay man, for instance, I might find a person’s arms or legs sexually arousing, but only insofar as I already have assured myself that he has male genitalia.

And even if one expresses skepticism at the uncompromising pansexualist’s position that sexual desire is entirely socially constructed, it still might be argued that though it is difficult to change one’s desires, one might still be able to change them in some cases. To this argument (which Gressis analogizes to the idea of “acquired” culinary tastes) Gressis plausibly replies that surely not everyone can develop such acquired tastes. Even if it were theoretically true that sexual desires were socially constructed, any effort to reverse this “construction” might only go so far. (Surely, the fact that many gay men who live under homophobic governments literally risk their lives to have sex with other gay men attests to this lack of malleability.) And if not everyone’s desires are malleable, then pansexualism cannot be a morally obligatory goal for everyone, since it can’t be immoral to fail at an impossible task.

This gets us to the idea of compromising pansexualism, which presupposes only that at least some of us can become pansexual, and so we should all at least try—though how hard and for how long seems open to question.

Gressis objects even to compromising pansexualism on two grounds. First, it “stinks of the worst kind of social engineering” (some might even liken it to an inwardly directed form of conversion therapy). And second (and more importantly to Gressis), it assumes the idea that you should love people exclusively for who they are, and not at all for their looks. Which is a beautiful thought in theory. But, “taken to its logical conclusion, this position should condemn, not only heterosexuality or homosexuality, but also preferences for thinness, youthfulness, able-bodiedness, and so on.” Gressis rejects this view because physical traits are part of who we are. Insofar as compromising pansexualism “rests on the idea that it’s permissible to love people only for who they are, not what they look like,” it’s a false position.

However, Gressis’s criticism, which goes to the larger idea of whom we love, rests on a distortion of pansexualism, at least in the way the term is typically used. At its core, pansexualism is about sex, not love. And so the moral claim made upon us is more limited than Gressis suggests. We are simply being asked to try to find people sexually attractive regardless of their sex/gender. What’s wrong with trying? Perhaps we owe as much to others. Is this a plausible view?

There is a famous principle in philosophy, already touched on briefly above, which states that “ought implies can.” This roughly means that one does not have a moral obligation to do something if one cannot do that thing. A child, for example, does not have the moral obligation to take care of his ailing grandparents if he is too young to do so. Or one does not have the obligation to donate a large sum to charity if one does not have the money. The point is that if our sexual desires are not malleable, then we have no obligation to change them, not even to try to change them.

Now the question of the malleability of sexual desire is an empirical one, and we need more and better data on it than we currently have. However, at least a philosophical argument based in the nature of sexual desire can be offered in support of its malleability. The argument—eloquently described by the philosopher Seiriol Morgan in two essays, Sex in the Head and Dark Desires; and summarized in the comments section of Gressis’s essay by philosopher Duane Long—is that, unlike non-human animals, human beings experience sexual desire conceptually. This means that when we feel or undergo sexual desire, we do not experience it merely as an instinct, but as a mental process infused with ideas. For instance, someone’s stereotypes about a group of people might prohibit her from finding them desirable (“X people are dirty; he’s X, so yuck”), while their conception of another class of people might have the opposite effect (“She’s an actress, so she must be more attractive than I thought.”). The argument goes that if sexual desire is conceptually mediated, and if we can work on fixing those concepts, then we might change our sexual desires. Much in the same way that, through life experience, someone can learn to understand that X people aren’t all dirty, and not all actresses are bombshells.

It’s an interesting argument. But it’s limited by the assumption that sexual desires are always conceptually mediated, or at least mediated by concepts that are changeable. Based on human experience, this simply doesn’t seem true. Because sexual desire targets different types of human bodies regardless of their cultural layers, and regardless of our beliefs about the specific people to whom we are attracted, then either sexual desire need not always be conceptually mediated, or the concepts that mediate it may be unamenable to correction. One need only think of all the legions of men who’ve been sent to conversion therapy over the eons—often, voluntarily—and ask oneself how many of those men managed to alter the “concepts” they find sexually attractive.

Certainly, the analogy with race (our conceptual understanding of which really can be altered with education and introspection) doesn’t hold up, especially in the context of straight attraction. There is nothing about a prospective mate being white, black, Asian, Latino, or Arab that should, from an evolutionary perspective, hinder one’s sexual desire. But being old or very young, or being of the “wrong” sex/gender—that’s a different story.

Nor should we be misled by analogies with emotions. Philosophers correctly argue that because emotions are belief-laden, if we change the belief we can change the emotion. For example, if I am angry at someone because I mistakenly believe that he has insulted me, realizing that he has not will typically help alleviate my anger. But how does this work with sexual desire? What will serve to reduce my sexual desire for a handsome man standing before me? My belief that patriarchy exists? That our sexual desires are socially constructed? That I should not be attracted only to cismen? It’s not clear that insisting on such beliefs, or repeating them to myself, will change anything. Probably the only thing that could change my desire is knowing something about this man that I find seriously off-putting—say, that he is a thug, a criminal, a rapist, a torturer (though it is a well-known fact that sexual desire often survives even the most extreme revelations about a partner’s character; and some people even prefer “bad boys”).

Moreover, even if my desire for this particular man changes because of some conceptual process, that won’t cause me to extrapolate the new feeling to men in general, let alone catalyze some newfound attraction to women. Sexual desire, unlike emotions, is essentially bodily, and tends to be aroused by mere images and perceptions. Read the published memoirs of authors describing the first stirrings of sexual desire in their teenage years, and you’ll see that the sensations were generally pre-conceptual: a twinge between our legs, telling us, “Hey. I like this.” No amount of conceptual re-engineering will change that, even if we may compromise our authentic desires due to financial concerns (as with the sex trade) or within heavily restricted environments (as with sex among straight men in prisons).

I am not suggesting that there are people whom no one finds sexually attractive. There are as many types of sexual desire out there as there are types of people. So there will always be “niche” desires and orientations. Nor am I precluding the possibility that, over many years, our patterns of sexual desire might change organically due to our exposure to certain kinds of people, experiences, and environments. With the passage of time, people could even become literally pansexual. I do not discount this possibility, but it isn’t relevant to the idea of becoming pansexual as an act of will.

But let’s return to the question that launched this inquiry: “Why should we try to be pansexual in the first place? What are the moral reasons? Life is short (and busy). If I find myself unattracted to a particular sex/gender, and very much attracted to another, why should I spend time, effort, and resources to change the situation—especially given the high likelihood that I (and others) will experience nothing but frustration?

There are three possible reasons—those based in consequences, those based in fairness, and those based in character.

Consequence-based reasons. The idea here is that we should try to be pansexual because being non-pansexual deprives shunned groups of, as Gressis puts it, “sexual opportunities.”

The first thing to note about this rationale is that, like the other two, it applies equally to every other group: the old, the fat, the (very) thin, the physically handicapped, the ugly, the too short, the too tall, and every other marginalized group in society when it comes to sexual favoritism. Indeed, these arguments arguably have stronger force when it comes to these groups, because while many trans people have no difficulty finding sexual partners (though love, which involves public dimensions that sex does not, might be different), members of those other stigmatized categories often are doomed to sexless lives. Moreover, while many people who are unattractive or frail wish that others would be attracted to them, I have yet to hear from ciswomen and cismen who (seriously) complain about losing sexual opportunities because (depending on their sexual orientations) there are straight or gay people out there who are not attracted to them.

Even to the extent that we limit the analysis to trans and genderqueer people, and not to cis people, we simply do not know how many trans and genderqueer people, out of the entire population of such individuals, are sexually marginalized—and how many of those are marginalized because of their sex/gender identity.

Moreover, even if there is some benefit to be had from a pansexualist expansion of net attraction in our society, it isn’t clear how we get from that fact to the creation of an obligation to try to cultivate pansexualism. If it is simply the volume of sexual opportunities we wish to expand, as opposed to the creation of loving relationships, then we should consider other means of permitting members of sexually marginalized communities to satisfy their sexual desires, such as a reliance on sex workers. At most, what follows from the argument is that society ought to attend to its sexually deprived members by setting up public institutions to help them satisfy their sexual needs (an idea that has gained traction in Germany, for instance). It is unclear why individuals would have to meet that need. And even if it were incumbent on individuals to satisfy the sexual needs of deprived individuals, why should pansexualism be the means of accomplishing this—as opposed to the practice of simply having occasional sex with someone out of a sense of kindness? (The philosopher Alan Soble has an interesting essay on this issue titled Gifts and Duties.)

Finally, because consequentialist arguments involve a consideration of costs and benefits, we need to look at the opportunity costs (to put it crassly) of the time and effort invested in cultivating pansexualism. Imagine a straight woman who is pretty clear that she is straight and attracted to cismen. As everyone knows, finding a decent partner can be tough, even when you aren’t trying to force yourself to bond with someone you’re not disposed to be attracted to. So should this woman spend time pursuing a man who will prove a worthy boyfriend, husband, and father—or put that on hold while she cultivates her (aspirational) pansexualism? And even if a case could be made that the latter course will provide a net benefit for all concerned, it is odd to claim that choosing this course is her obligation. It is more plausible to claim that it would be what philosophers call “supererogatory”—an action that goes beyond the call of moral duty.

Fairness-based reasons. One might argue that everyone deserves to have a satisfying sex life or a romantic (or domestic) partner, and so being deprived of this is unfair (though note, again, how this logic applies, arguably with even greater force, to categories that have nothing to do with sex/gender. Is it “fair” that some of us are ugly and others aren’t?) Now, it might be true that everyone deserves to have a decent sex or love life, and it might even be true that everyone has a right to such a life (though I doubt it, especially with respect to love). But it doesn’t follow from this that everyone has this right against a particular individual. Even if X deserves to have a good sex life or has a right to it, it does not follow that it is Y who should be X’s sexual provider.

Character-based reasons. One might argue that being a good person and morally improving oneself represent an obligation of sorts (certainly, Immanuel Kant thought so). Given that providing others with a good sex or love life is a good thing, we should then cultivate those desires that would enable us to do this.

But the success of this argument cannot be evaluated independently of the two others, because it is only if we presume to have an obligation to satisfy others’ sexual needs that we will have an obligation to cultivate those traits that would lead us to do so. To be sure, we have a Kantian obligation of sorts to be good people; and, in this regard, we should cultivate as much as possible such general virtues as courage, justice, moderation, wisdom, generosity, compassion, and so on, though none of these entail altering or expanding our sexual tastes. If we add further virtues to the list, such as open-mindedness and openness to others (an epistemic and a moral virtue, respectively), we reach the point that our sexual reactions or attitudes to others should be disposed toward openness, and not cruel, humiliating rejection (a point that Gressis raises in one of his replies to the comments on his post). But that’s about it, and it’s a far cry from mandating the cultivation of pansexualism.

* * *

Ultimately, though, when thinking about this issue, I keep returning to the arbitrary nature of the demand to cultivate pansexualism—because, as I’ve noted several times, an insistence that sexual desire is socially constructed has no less relevance to the old, the feeble, and the ugly than to the trans community. And yet no one (to my knowledge) extends the pansexualist argument much past the question of men and women, penises and vaginas. Ultimately, there is no obligation to try to be pansexual. And if such an obligation does exist, it would either have to be extended to all sorts of other categories that aren’t connected to sex/gender, or be supported by other reasons that neither I nor any other author in this field has (to my knowledge) yet identified.

We do have obligations, of course: to treat others respectfully, to accept them for who they are, and to understand that human sexuality is an important, albeit complicated, human appetite. Perhaps nurturing these attitudes of understanding and tolerance, while allowing for the possibility that at least some aspects of our sexual desire are socially constructed, will allow some of us to transform into pansexual beings. But that is where our obligation ends.

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Raja Halwani

Raja Halwani is a professor of philosophy in the Liberal Arts Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.