What Does It Mean To Be Polysexual?

It's different from pansexuality, bisexuality, and polyamory.

Polysexual people may form physical, romantic, or emotional bonds with many genders. Take for example: A cisgender polysexual woman may be attracted to other cisgender women, as well as transgender women and non-binary people.

As the LGBTQ+ community grows, it's essential to stay educated about the different types of identities that you or others in your community may align with. 

So, what does it mean to be polysexual? Here's what you need to know about how polysexuality differs from other identities—including how you can advocate for the polysexual community. 

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What Does Polysexual Mean?

Polysexual Definition

Polysexual: An identity that refers to someone who forms physical, romantic, or emotional bonds with many genders.

Someone who is polysexual may be physically, romantically, or emotionally attracted to some or many genders. 

A cisgender woman may identify as polysexual if she's attracted to cisgender men and non-binary people. Or, someone might identify as polysexual if they are attracted to all genders except cisgender men.

Still, there might be subtle differences concerning how people choose to use and identify with the term polysexual personally, Melissa González, PhD, chair of the gender and sexuality studies at Davidson College in North Carolina, told Health.

So, while there is a basic definition of what it means to be polysexual, "people will define [the term within the LGBTQ+ community] in their own ways," Amney Harper, PhD, professor in the department of professional counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, told Health. "And so, it's always important to ask the person how they understand [polysexuality] for themselves."

Polysexual vs. Pansexual

While a polysexual person may show attraction 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 a polysexual person, gender is usually a factor in who they're attracted to, Harper explained.

Polysexual vs. Bisexual

Bisexual people may be physically, romantically, or emotionally attracted to more than one gender. According to Harper, some people might use the terms bisexual and polysexual interchangeably. 

But others feel that having the distinction between the two identities is essential, add Harper. The polysexual identity moves away from the male-female gender binary that people may mistakenly 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, told Health.

Although each is different, bisexual, pansexual, and polysexual fall under the same umbrella of being attracted to more than one gender, sometimes referred to as non-monosexuality or multisexuality, according to Harper.

You might feel overwhelmed with learning all the identities and anxious about using them correctly. But McNichols pointed out that understanding sexuality and being more accepting of those concepts doesn't have to be confusing.

"It just requires being open-minded and understanding that we need to respect people as individuals," explained McNichols.

Don’t Confuse Polysexual With Polyamory

You might have heard the prefix "poly," in other words like polyamory. But polyamory is not the same identifier as polysexual. In contrast, polyamory refers to 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,'" noted Harper.

Challenges That Polysexual People Face

According to Harper, the myths and stereotypes surrounding polysexuality are similar to those associated with other non-monosexualities. If you're attracted to everyone, you don't know how to make up your mind about your attraction. You're promiscuous. 

It's important to note: Those stereotypes are not true. Misconceptions can be stigmatizing and cause harm to polysexual people. 

People make assumptions about a person's sexuality based on their relationship. For example, people might assume a cisgender polysexual woman is straight if she's dating a man at that moment. 

"Our sexual orientation isn't defined by who we're with," explained Harper. "You can't necessarily know something about a person just based on who they're with."

Health Outcomes for Polysexual People

Those assumptions about polysexual people can have adverse effects when it comes to health and wellness. 

If a healthcare provider asks you if you are sexually active, they may refer to a straight relationship. And suppose they ask about the specifics of your relationship. In that case, they might assume that your current relationship is the only type of sexual relationship you've had. 

"So, then you're maybe not going to share all your information with them," explained Harper. "If that information is actually relevant to what they're doing, they're going to potentially make mistakes because they're making assumptions."

Those obstacles are why locating non-bias, LGBTQ+ community-friendly care is critical.

"You certainly would want to make sure that you have a [healthcare provider] who's accepting and understanding and educated about your sexuality," said McNichols. "I would definitely say you have to feel comfortable with who you trust. That goes for physical [healthcare providers] and mental health providers, as well." 

As McNichols pointed out, sexual minorities still face discrimination. Prejudice often leads to higher rates of anxiety and depression.

Word-of-mouth might be an excellent way to find a healthcare provider competent in treating people of different sexualities. But online directories can also help, like those from the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) or OutCare.

How To Be an Ally to Polysexual People

When someone first talks to you about their polysexuality, approach the conversation openly. 

"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," noted González. 

González also advised 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," added González.

The next step is to educate yourself, McNichols suggested. That may mean online research, talking to polysexual people to understand their experiences, and asking questions. It is essential to show interest and take the time to understand polysexuality and what it means to them. 

"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," explained McNichols.

There are also specific actions you can take to be an ally to those who are polysexual, according to Harper, which includes:

  • Understand and combat the myths and stereotypes about polysexual people.
  • Practice bystander intervention when you hear negative comments and see bias or harassment. Confront the instigator, create a distraction to defuse the situation, remove the victim, and alert someone with authority who can manage the situation.

A Quick Review

If you're seeking support as a polysexual person, surrounding yourself with people who are accepting is essential. 

"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," said McNichols. "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 advised 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. Those spaces allow you to learn more about polysexuality and how others in the community experience it.

And, of course, if you don't want to share that part of your identity with everyone, you don't have to. 

"You don't owe anyone to divulge what your sexuality is," noted McNichols. "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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