What Does It Mean to Be Polysexual? Here’s How Experts Explain This Sexual Identity
Yep, it's different from pansexuality, bisexuality, and polyamory.
As language evolves, so do the terms we use to describe sexual and gender identity. Some terms are more widely known, but others are relatively new; you may have heard them but aren't 100% clear on the definition. One of the newer terms is "polysexual." What exactly does polysexual mean? Here's how it's defined, and what you should know about it.
What does polysexual mean?
Polysexual is a term that describe sexual orientation. The "poly" part means "many," so someone who is polysexual is attracted to many genders. For example, a woman may identify as polysexual if she is attracted to men as well as those who are nonbinary. Or someone might identify as polysexual if they are attracted to all genders except men.
Still, there might be subtle differences concerning how people choose to personally use and identify with the term polysexual, Melissa González, PhD, chair of the gender and sexuality studies department at Davidson College in North Carolina, tells Health.
So while there is a basic definition of polysexual, "people will define [the term within the LGBTQ community] in their own ways, and so it's always important to ask the person how they understand [polysexuality] for themselves," Amney Harper, PhD, professor in the department of professional counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, tells Health.
Polysexual vs. pansexual
While someone who is polysexual is attracted to many genders, they aren't necessarily attracted to all genders. That's where pansexuality comes in. The prefix "pan" means "all." So somebody who is pansexual is attracted to all genders, or they are attracted to people regardless of gender. For someone who is polysexual, gender is usually a factor in who they're attracted to, Harper explains.
Polysexual vs. bisexual
People who are bisexual often say they are attracted to genders like their own, as well as genders different than their own. Some might use the terms bisexual and polysexual interchangeably, according to Harper. But others feel that having the distinction of the two identities is important, she says, especially because using polysexual moves away from the male-female gender binary that people (wrongly) associate with bisexuality.
"[Having the term polysexual] allows people to really have a more accurate word that feels like a more honest representation of what their sexual orientation is," Nicole McNichols, PhD, an associate teaching professor in the department of psychology at the University of Washington, tells Health.
Although each is different, bisexual, pansexual, and polysexual do fall under the same umbrella of being attracted to more than one gender, sometimes referred to as non-monosexuality or multisexuality, according to Harper.
While you might get overwhelmed with learning all the identities and feel anxious about using them correctly, McNichols points out that understanding sexuality and being more accepting to these concepts doesn't have to be confusing, "it just requires being open minded and understanding that we need to respect people as individuals."
Don't confuse polysexuality and polyamory
You might have heard the prefix "poly" in other words, like polyamory. But polyamory is not just being attracted to more than one person, but being in a relationship with more than one person. "We often might say 'bi-, pan-, poly- umbrella,' but we really try not to just leave 'poly' by itself because it can get confused with a couple of different identities that use the term 'poly,'" Harper says.
Challenges that polysexual people face
The myths and stereotypes surrounding polysexuality are similar to those that are associated with other non-monosexualities, according to Harper: that you're attracted to everyone, that you don't know how to make up your mind about your attraction, that you are promiscuous.
There are also the assumptions people make about a person's sexuality based on the relationship they're currently in. If a polysexual woman is dating a man, people might assume she is straight. But "our sexual orientation isn't defined by who we're with," Harper points out. "You can't necessarily know something about a person just based on who they're with."
How these challenges affect health outcomes
These assumptions about polysexuality and sexual identity can have negative effects in a doctor's office. If a doctor asks you if you are sexually active, they usually mean in a straight relationship. And if they do ask about the specifics of your relationship, they might assume that your current relationship is the only type of sexual relationship you've had. Says Harper: "So then you're maybe not going to share all your information with them. If that information is actually relevant to what they're doing, they're going to potentially make mistakes because they're making assumptions."
That's one reason finding a culturally competent doctor is key. "You certainly would want to make sure that you have a doctor who's accepting and understanding and educated about your sexuality," McNichols says. "I would definitely say you have to feel comfortable with who you trust. That goes for physical health providers and mental health providers as well. As McNichols points out, sexual minorities still face discrimination, which leads to higher rates of anxiety and depression. While word-of-mouth might be a good way to find a provider competent in treating people of different sexualities, there are also online directories that can help, like those from GLMA or OutCare.
Here's how to be an ally to polysexual people
When someone first talks to you about their polysexuality, approach the conversation with openness. "I think a golden rule of interacting with other humans is, if someone tells you something about themselves, to begin from a place of believing them and trusting them," González says. She also advises that you have humility about what you do and don't know. "Do not assume that you know more about sexuality than somebody who has been doing self-reflection and self-examination and learning," she says.
The next step is to educate yourself, McNichols suggests. That may mean doing online research, talking to the polysexual individual to understand their experiences, and asking questions. Showing interest and taking the time to understand polysexuality and what it means to them is important. "If your intention is to learn, your intention is to be accepting, it's OK if you don't know everything from the start, it's just about wanting to be accepting and wanting to provide support… Validating them is your main job as a friend," explains McNichols.
There are also specific actions you can take to be an ally to those who are polysexual, according to Harper, including:
- Understanding and combatting the myths and stereotypes polysexual people face
- Practicing bystander intervention when you hear negative comments and see bias/harassment. That means confronting the instigator, creating a distraction to defuse the situation, removing the victim, and alerting someone with greater authority who can manage the situation.
How to find support if you think you might be polysexual
Surrounding yourself with people who are accepting is important, says McNichols. "I really encourage a person who thinks they may be polysexual to try to link themselves and connect with people who are interested in them, who understand, who are accepting," she says. "And this may be friends who haven't even heard of the term or don't know the term, but those friends [should be] willing to read about it and learn about it and be supportive and also acknowledge tremendous individuality within polysexuality."
González's advises going beyond the first page of a Google search to dig deeper and find the right community that resonates with you. You can find conversations about polysexuality on Reddit, Wikis, Twitter, and Instagram. These spaces give you the opportunity to learn more about polysexuality and how other people in the community experience it.
Of course, if you don't want to share this part of your identity to everyone, you don't have to. "You don't owe anyone to divulge what your sexuality is," McNichols says. "That's a personal quality that you have the right to choose who gets to learn about that and who doesn't."
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