At the time of this writing, I am 53 years old. When I was younger—in my teens, my twenties, my thirties, and even my forties—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 about this (though I do lament it), and I never for a second think that my experience is rare or uncommon. The opposite is in fact true: those who are into “grannies” or older guys notwithstanding, the fact is that as one gets older and older, one becomes less and less sexually desirable. Sexual desirability and aging are inversely proportional. (Those who rail against sexual objectification often forget that for older people being sexually objectified might be quite welcome.)
If sexual attraction for older people is very uncommon, and expectedly so, what about for sexes and genders that do not match one’s sexual orientation? Straight men are not usually sexually attracted to other men, straight women not to other women, and gay people not to people of the opposite sex. Yet there are nowadays more than rumblings to the effect that not being attracted to some genders is a phobia of sorts. A YouTuber by the name of Riley J. Dennis did a couple of videos on why not sexually desiring trans people is transphobic. The philosopher Rachel McKinnon famously (or notoriously, depending on your point of view) tweeted in September of 2019 that because “sexual genital preferences [are] immoral,” any sexual orientation other than pansexualism is immoral (more on pansexuality below). And, in a more academic context, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan in her widely read essay in the London Review of Books (“Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?”) claims that although no one has the right to sex, we nonetheless must query why our sexual desires under patriarchy are the way they are—why many people do not sexually desire the fat, the disabled, and the trans. Referring to transwomen, she writes, “Transwomen often face sexual exclusion from lesbian cis women who at the same time claim to take them seriously as women.” The implication here—I think—is that if you, as a lesbian, claim to take transwomen seriously, why are you not willing to sleep with them?
Why not indeed? 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? This is where pansexualism comes in. If “genital preferences” are wrong, as McKinnon says, then we should work to change our sexual orientations to make them as inclusive as possible. We should, in other words, try to be pansexuals.
Is pansexualism plausible? Before we assess it, let’s first better understand it. (To my knowledge, pansexualism has not been fully elaborated or defended by philosophers. This post is a step in that direction.)
The “pan” in “pansexual” means “all,” which indicates that pansexualism is about finding anybody sexually desirable, regardless of sex, gender, age, body size, skin color, race, and so on, as long as someone is human—though even here there is no reason to draw the line at being human if we take “pan,” if not literally, at least seriously. However, this is not how the term is usually used, which is to refer to only gender and sex. Under its usual understanding, a pansexual is someone who is attracted to others regardless of their sex or gender (henceforth, “sex/gender”). This usual understanding does imply, at least implicitly, that a pansexual person’s sexual attractions to others could be limited by non-sex/gender factors, such as others’ age. In this respect, pansexuals are no different from gay, straight, and bi people in having limits to what their sexual desires might target. The only difference is that sex/gender is no obstacle to pansexual people. (Supposedly, they differ from bisexuals in that bisexuals are attracted to each sex/gender—it is important that the person to whom bisexuals are attracted is a man or a woman—whereas this is not so for pansexuals, whose attractions include genderqueer people.) I will for now assume that pansexualism is limited to sex/gender, though below I will argue that this limitation is arbitrary.
Right at the start, we should distinguish between pansexualism as a descriptive view and pansexualism as a normative view. The former merely states that that there are people who are pansexual, though how many or what percentage of the population they constitute is unclear. (Pansexualism can also refer to a possible orientation: that even though there are actually no pansexuals, there can be if our biology or social history were different. I will not be concerned with this.) That there are pansexual people seems to me to be neither surprising nor interesting. To those who are surprised by its existence, I can point them to even more bizarre orientations, with which pansexualism is very mild by comparison.
The more interesting version of pansexualism is the normative one. This is the view that says something to the effect that we all should be pansexuals or at least try to be. It is the view that seems to follow from MacKinnon’s tweet; after all, if having genital preferences is immoral, then we should work on getting rid of those preferences, which means that we should work on being pansexual. I will shortly explain some arguments that might motivate such a view.
In a recent essay in The Electric Agora, the philosophy professor Robert Gressis dissects and criticizes two forms of normative pansexualism, what he calls “uncompromising pansexualism” and “compromising pansexualism.” The former, according to Gressis, sanctions non-pansexual orientations and promotes pansexual orientations. Non-pansexualism refers to the usual orientations: a gay man who is not attracted to, say, ciswomen, or a straight woman who is not attracted to pre-op transmen. On the other hand, and as Gressis describes them, pansexual orientations are orientations to people regardless of whether they have penises or vaginas (or possibly something else).
Why should we sanction non-pansexualism and promote pansexualism? Gressis’s answer is because it deprives both cis and trans people of “sexual opportunities and relationship-satisfaction.” If you were sexually attracted to only cis people but you are now attracted to all sex/genders, then you enlarge the pool of sexual partners. And if you were sexually attracted only to trans people but you are now attracted to cis people you also enlarge your pool of partners. (I will return below to this and two other arguments in support of pansexualism in more detail.)
Gressis replies to uncompromising pansexualism by arguing, convincingly, that unlike preferences to others based on their race or ethnic belonging, heterosexual orientation is probably genetically hardwired, given evolutionary theory: “the survival of the species kind of depends on it” (Gressis is silent on homosexual orientation, which seems to be as hard-wired as the heterosexual one, though whether genetically is unclear). Moreover, the attraction in question is not just to penises or vaginas, so that a straight cisman can be as easily attracted to a transman as long as the transman still has a vagina. Gressis writes, “It’s quite reductionist to think of straight men (or, for that matter, lesbians) as sexually attracted to just vaginas. 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).” Gressis is thus “highly suspicious of the idea that sexual desire is entirely socially constructed.”
Although I share this suspicion, a McKinnon-like stance on “genital preferences” can be understood to mean not a narrow focus on the genitalia, but that the genitalia are central to one’s attractions to others, such that although other bodily features matter, as Gressis rightly points out, they might matter in light of our beliefs about another person’s genitalia. For example, I might find a person’s arms sexually arousing in light of my belief that he has male genitalia. Think of it this way: our beliefs about another’s genitalia might centrally organize our attractions to that person’s body and its other parts. Gressis would be right that other parts matter, but only because (or especially because) we perceive them as connected to the genitalia. In this way, they retain a stronger connection to the genitalia than texture might retain to sweetness.
Be that as it may, the uncompromising pansexualist might reply to Gressis’s criticisms that even though it is difficult to change one’s desires, one might still be able to change them and to develop desires that one did not previously have. Such new desires might require some effort and cultivation, “but that would simply make it the sexual equivalent of scotch: an acquired taste.” To this, Gressis replies, again convincingly, that not everyone can develop such acquired tastes; some can, but others cannot. He argues that even if sexual desires are socially constructed, this “construction” might only go so far, and the 0’s and 6’s on the Kinsey scale attest to this. That many people are willing to undertake serious risks to satisfy their sexual desires (think gay male sex in countries where men can be put to death for this kind of activity) further attests to this unmalleability.
Uncompromising pansexualism is not a plausible view because not everyone’s desires are malleable. This shows that pansexualism is not obligatory for everyone. This, however, means that it is for some—for those whose desires are malleable. But now enters compromising pansexualism: everyone should at least try to be pansexual. If you fail, so be it, but at least you would have tried. (How hard and for how long we should try, however, is a sticky point that Gressis does not address: how much time and energy should I spend trying to find out whether I have a lingering thread of straightness in me? And when to know when to stop trying? I will return to this below.) If you succeed, it’s a win-win situation.
Gressis objects to compromising pansexualism on two grounds. First, it “stinks of the worst kind of social engineering,” and, second (and more importantly to Gressis), it assumes the idea that you should love people for who they are, and not for their looks. But “[t]aken to its logical conclusion, this position should condemn, not only heterosexuality or homosexuality, but also preferences for thinness, youthfulness, able-bodiedness, and so on.” This is the position that Gressis calls “Mind Over Body,” that romantic relationship decisions should be based on someone’s character traits, not their physical looks. Gressis rejects this view because physical traits are as much of the package as are character traits, so they, too, should count. In short, 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 is a false position.
Gressis is right that compromising pansexualism smacks of being one of the worst kinds of social engineering projects, although, I note, not the kind whose advocates think should be enforced by third parties (not yet, anyway), only by our inner sense of moral duty to make the lot of others better in the realm of romance and sex.
However, Gressis’s criticism latches onto a form of pansexualism that is, strictly speaking, not part of the view. For if pansexualism is about sexual desire, and if sexual desire (and sexual activity and sexual pleasure) is different from love, romance, and relationships (even though sexual desire for and activity with others can be the causal initiator and maintainer of relationships), Gressis’s criticism that compromising pansexualism rests on the assumption that we may love others only on the basis of their character saddles pansexualism with a position about love that is not essential for the view. Perhaps there is a version of pansexualism about sex and love, but at its core pansexualism is about sex, not love, and we should address its core.
This means we need a better criticism of compromising pansexualism, one that does not construe it as being a theory about sex and love and relationships. And here, such criticism seems hard to come by. After all, what is so wrong with a view that says, as does compromising pansexualism (henceforth only “pansexualism”), “That it is not asking too much that you at least 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 (about which doubts have been raised) that 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 upward of a $100,000.00 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, we can also see how a philosophical argument based in the nature of sexual desire can be offered in support of sexual desire’s malleability. The argument goes as follows. (This argument is most eloquently offered by the philosopher Seiriol Morgan in two essays, “Sex in the Head” and “Dark Desires”; in the comments section of Gressis’s essay, the philosopher Duane Long gave a truncated version of it.) Unlike non-human animals, human beings’ experience of sexual desire is conceptual. This means that when we feel or undergo sexual desire, we do not experience it as merely an instinct, but as mental, as infused with ideas. For instance, someone’s stereotypes about a group of people might prohibit her from finding them desirable (“X’s are dirty, he’s an X, so yuck”), and someone’s conception of another might enhance their sexual desire (“She is a movie star! She is way hotter than I thought!”). Now, the argument goes, if sexual desire is conceptually mediated, and if we can “work on” fixing those concepts, then we might change our sexual desires. If I can convince myself that X’s are not dirty, I might start finding them more and more sexually desirable.
I think that this is an interesting argument. But it is limited because it assumes that sexual desires are always conceptually mediated, or at least mediated by concepts that are changeable. But this is not true. For one thing, human bodies might be attractive regardless in which culture they occur. Take a picture of a naked (young) man or woman (with a decent body), and show it to any person with the “right” orientation, and they will probably find the person sexually attractive, regardless of the time period or the culture of the person who is looking at the picture. Or consider encountering a person whose ethnic or racial belonging you cannot figure out. Does this mean that you will be unable to find that person good (or not good) looking until the data are in? Of course not. Sexual desire is often not conceptually mediated in this respect, and a lot depends on which concepts we have in mind. Stereotypes about cultural groups? Yes, these can be changed. Concepts about human desirable figures? Not so much, despite the range of variability we have witnessed across cultures and times. Because sexual desire might target 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 can be basic, perceptual ones.
In this regard, we should not be misled by improper analogies. First, we should not be misled with the analogy of sexually desiring or not desiring members of specific racial or ethnic groups. It is one thing to claim that sexual desires for ethnic or racial groups is malleable, it is another to claim that it is so for age or sex groups. Just because it is malleable for one group does not mean that it is (or as) malleable for another. I suspect that evolutionary mechanisms will help identify for which groups sexual desire is and is not malleable (or as malleable). There is nothing about being white, black, Asian, Latino, or Arab that should, from an evolutionary perspective, hinder sexual desire. But being old or very young, or being of the “wrong” sex/gender clearly does, at least in many cases.
Second, we should not 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 get rid of my anger. But this is not so clear with sexual desire. What will likely change 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 my desires. 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 remains resilient despite these beliefs, perhaps even because of them (e.g., finding “bad boys” attractive). And even if my desire for this man changes because I come to know that he is a thug, my desire will change for this man, not for men in general, let alone for beginning to find women sexually desirable. Sexual desire, unlike emotions, is essentially bodily, aroused often by mere images and perceptions. It can be felt as a twinge between our legs, our crotch telling us, “Hey! I see something I like!” No amount of conceptual re-engineering might change that.
To be clear, my point about the non-malleability of sexual desire does not concern sexual desires as manifested in particular situations. If Y pays X enough money, X might manage to go through with a sexual act (and with some success) with Y even if X does not find Y attractive, even finds Y repugnant. And if you put Z long enough in an environment with no other people of the “right” sex/gender, Z will be able to, and enjoy, having sex with others in that environment. Our imagination and sexual fantasies play a big role in seeing us through a particular sexual act. The point, instead, concerns a person’s sexual desires under normal conditions and during a longitudinal section of a person’s life, or a person’s sexual desires as they form a pattern, an orientation.
I should also be clear that none of the above implies that there are people whom none finds sexually attractive. There are as many types of sexual desires out there as there are many types of people, so there will always be “niche” sexual desires and orientations (but, alas, they are niche).
Nor am I am precluding the possibility that with years and years of social change, our patterns of sexual desires might change. Yes, evolutionary biology plays a big role in our sexual desires and how they are formed. But we are continuously evolving, and our environment, which is shaped to a large extent by our own minds and ideas, plays a role in this evolution. So it is entirely possible that with the passage of time many or most people become pansexual. I do not discount this possibility.
The point is that in general, and for a large majority of people, sexual desires and orientations do not extend to certain groups of people, and that there are probably social explanations for this limitation, some of which have an underlying, deeper evolutionary explanation for why some sexual desires but not others are unshakeable (though this is not a reason to stop us from examining, as Srinivasan wants, the political underpinnings of our sexual desires).
Let us grant, however, that sexual desire, with some effort and work, can be made pansexual—let us, that is, put the “can” issue aside and address the “ought” one. One might reasonably ask, “Why should we try to be pansexual? What moral reasons do we have for doing that? After all, life is short (and busy).” More specifically, if I find myself not attracted to a particular sex/gender, and very much attracted to another, why should I spend time, effort, and possibly money to change my sexual desire when (a) I am likely to be busy, (b) I already find the prospect of having sex with the “right” sex/gender extremely appealing and satisfying, (c) there is no guarantee of success in changing my sexual desires, and (d) I do not know when to stop trying?
I will address three reasons in support of trying to be pansexual: those based in consequences, those based in fairness, and those based in character. Note that each of these three reasons (or arguments), whether successful or unsuccessful, shows the arbitrariness of confining pansexualism to sex/gender, because each argument is equally applicable 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 have much stronger force when it comes to these groups, because most trans people have no difficulty finding sexual partners (though love, which involves public dimensions that sex does not, might be different owing to the social stigma attached to sexual and gender minorities), whereas the physically handicapped and the very old, for instance, have a hard time indeed. In this regard, it is a mystery as to why pansexualism should be understood in such a way as to be confined to sex/gender, though probably the reason is not philosophical but genetic, having to do with its origin in finding support among some trans people.
Consequence-based reasons. The idea here is that we should try to be pansexual because being non-pansexual deprives groups of the “wrong” sex/gender of, as Gressis puts it, “sexual opportunities.”
Note (again) how much it strongly applies to sexually marginalized groups on the basis of traits other than sex/gender—the old, for example, seem to be as worthy of having sexual opportunities as any other (and lest you think that being old is not a good reason because old people were once young and would presumably have already had plenty of sex, think of other groups, those who are physically deformed or morbidly obese, for instance). And note, second, that I have yet to hear of ciswomen and cismen (non-jokingly) complain about losing sexual opportunities because they are ciswomen and cismen and because there are straight and gay people out there who are not attracted to them.
Finally, note, third, that if we are thus referring to trans and genderqueer people, and not to cis people, we do not know how many trans and genderqueer people, out of the entire population of trans and genderqueer people, who are sexually marginalized, and how many of those are marginalized because of their sex/gender identity (after all, just because X does not desire a trans person does not mean that the trans person is undesired because of their trans-hood).
Having noted the above, the main difficulty with the argument is that it does not seem to generate an obligation to try to cultivate pansexualism. If it is sexual opportunities we have in mind, then members of sexually marginalized communities can have recourse to other means to satisfy their sexual desires, such as hiring a sex worker. At most, what follows from the argument is that society ought to attend to its sexually deprived members by setting up institutions to help them satisfy their sexual needs (maybe even have them covered by health insurance). So it is unclear how an obligation that individuals become pansexual follows from the idea of increasing the sexual opportunities of members of sexually marginalized groups. More importantly, even if obligations for individuals do follow, it is unclear why the obligation is to try to be pansexual, as opposed to sucking it up (no pun intended) every now and then and having sex with someone with whom you would ordinarily not want to, out of a sense of kindness and compassion to that person. (The philosopher Alan Soble has an interesting essay on this issue titled “Gifts and Duties.”)
So the above argument does not establish individual obligations to try to be pansexual. The argument would be on much stronger ground if it were about relationships and love, not just sex, because the two goods of love and relationships cannot be properly supplied by direct social mechanisms or by mere outward behavior. Obviously, to have love or a relationship, one has to be with the right person, with someone who loves or makes one happy.
But because being with or loving someone is a deep investment, we need to look at the opportunity costs (to put it crassly) of the person who spends time and effort cultivating their pansexualism. Imagine Marge, a straight woman who is pretty clear that she is straight and attracted to cismen. As everyone knows, finding a decent partner is tough and requires spending time and effort, and even when one finds a person who is promising, spending time with that person is necessary to make sure that he is Mr. Right. But all this might come at the expense of cultivating one’s pansexualism. So should Marge spend time pursuing cismen or cultivating her pansexualism? (Although these two are not mutually exclusive in a conceptual sense, they are in a practical sense, especially in those cases when one is not in doubt about one’s sexual interests and when one does not have much time to spare.) Now, although it would be morally good of Marge to devote herself to pursuing both avenues, and although it would be even morally better for Marge to pursue only the avenue of cultivating her pansexualism, it is odd to claim that this 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 duty. (There is also the question about which motivation Marge should act from when she embarks on cultivating her pansexualism, because some motivations might very well be patronizing and condescending to trans and genderqueer people, but I set this issue aside.)
Fairness-based reasons. One might argue that everyone deserves to have a satisfying sex life or a romantic (or domestic) partner, and being deprived of this is unfair. (Note, again, how this reason applies to everyone, not just on the basis of sex/gender, again indicating the arbitrariness of the way that “pansexualism” is used.) Now, it might very well be true that everyone deserves to have a decent sex or love life, and it might 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. For example, 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 (unless they have a pre-established specific arrangement). So the kind of fairness in question is not one that generates obligations on the part of specific individuals.
One might reply that perhaps we have obligations to cultivate pansexualism to try to provide others with more opportunities for sex (and love), thus a higher chance of giving them what they deserve, even if they cannot claim this of anybody in particular. Think of it this way: the more people are pansexual, the more people can have their deserving sexual and love-related needs met. By cultivating pansexualism, we are closer to a fairer system for the distribution of sexual desire.
True. But it does not generate obligations on individuals given the time and effort considerations I brought up in the case of Marge. At best, such a cultivation would be ideal, wonderful, over-and-beyond, but it is too demanding to claim that it is obligatory.
Character-based reasons. One might argue that being a good person and morally improving ourselves are obligations of sorts (certainly, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that we had the duty to morally improve ourselves). 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.
However, this argument’s success depends on the success of the two previous arguments, because it is only if we have an obligation to satisfy others’ sexual needs that we will have an obligation to cultivate those traits that would enable us to do so. If no such individual obligations exist, then we have no obligations to cultivate specific sexual desires or orientations. To be sure, we have an obligation of sorts to be good people, and, in this regard, we should cultivate as much as possible the virtues: courage, justice, moderation, wisdom, generosity, compassion, and so on, though none of these virtues entail that we develop a particular sexual orientation. 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 ones of 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 cultivating pansexualism. In other words, even if we have a moral obligation to cultivate the virtues of openness to others and of open-mindedness, they at least imply that we should not hurtfully reject someone based on their being of the “wrong” sex/gender, and they at most imply that we should give them a chance, neither of which is an obligation to cultivate pansexualism.
I would like to go back to age and use it to flip the above arguments for pansexualism on their heads: If there is an obligation to try to be pansexual, then there is an obligation to try to sexually desire the old. But there is no such obligation to try to desire the old (which is not to be confused with possible obligations to have their sexual needs met). So there is no obligation to try to be pansexual. And if there is an obligation to be pansexual but not to desire the old, the obligation will have to be supported by other reasons, and I cannot think of any good ones.
We have obligations (with exceptions, of course) to treat others respectfully, to accepting them for who they are, and to understand that human sexuality is an important albeit a complicated matter. Perhaps these attitudes, along with the possibility that sexual desire is partially socially constructed, will with enough time transform most of us into pansexual beings. Until then, either we can institute social programs to help the sexually needy or/because we should accept the fact that there will always be people who are not sexually desired by a large majority of others.
(An edited version of this post appeared in Quillette under the title “The Philosophy of Pansexualism.”)