What Does Polysexual Mean?

Not to be confused with polyamory, polysexuality is a sexual orientation that just might be more common than you think.

By Amanda Chatel September 06, 2021

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For those who don’t adhere to heteronormative, monogamous relationships, it’s a fantastic time to be alive. The notion of sexuality running the gamut is nothing new, having done so as long as human beings have been on the earth, but modern society has finally reached a place where, if you want, you can put an accurate name on any sexual orientation or gender identity.

Earlier generations didn’t have the same luxury. Although such terminology has been around for a while, many labels didn’t get the representation or respect they fully deserved — take pansexual, for example, which wasn’t really known to the general public until Miley Cyrus identified as pansexual in 2015. The same can be said for polysexual, a term that was first used in the 1920s, but didn’t make it to the mainstream until 1974, when Noel Coppage wrote an article for Stereo Review in which he references David Bowie, among others, as being polysexual. At the time, Coppage lumped this term in with asexual, bisexual, and pansexual, which isn’t exactly accurate.

There’s also a polysexual flag, which has three horizontal stripes of color: pink, green, and blue, going from top to bottom.

So what does it mean to be polysexual, really? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Does Polysexual Mean?

If you’re more familiar — or only familiar — with the term “polyamory,” it might seem like it goes hand-in-hand with polysexuality, but that’s not the case. The former is a type of non-monogamous relationship orientation in which someone engages in more than one relationship, while the latter is a sexual orientation.

“As with all sexual orientation and gender identity terms, the exact definition [of polysexual] may vary based on who is doing the defining and/or self-identifying,” says queer sex educator Gabrielle Kassel, co-host of Bad In Bed: The Queer Sex Education Podcast. “The prefix ‘poly’ means many or multiple. So, generally, someone who is polysexual acknowledges that they have the potential to be romantically, sexually, and/or emotionally attracted to multiple different genders.”

What polysexual looks like isn’t set in stone. It differs from person to person, based on whom they’re attracted to, which is also something that can shift over time. “One polysexual person might be attracted to men, non-binary people, and genderqueer folks,” says Kassel. “While someone else might be attracted to men, women, and non-binary individuals.” (See: What It Really Means to Be Non-Binary)

In other words, there’s no one way to be polysexual.

Polysexual vs. Pansexual, Omnisexual, and Bisexual

It can be a bit difficult to understand the difference between these terms. While they’re all sexual orientations and may share some similarities — namely, they all describe sexual orientations that mean a person is attracted to at least two genders — they’re still separate from each other.

Bisexual: Bisexuals generally center their sexual orientation within a binary to their own gender and another gender, says Tiana GlittersaurusRex, polyamorous educator and activist, and co-founder of The Sex Work Survival Guide. Bisexuality can be seen as a form of polysexuality since it describes the attraction to more than one gender.

Pansexual: Meanwhile, “pansexual implies sexual attraction to anyone regardless of their gender beyond the binary of male and female.” This attraction, explains Kassel, is for “people all across the gender spectrum.” For those who are pansexual, gender plays no role in their attraction to a person. Instead, they look beyond gender, finding that their attraction is based on one’s personality, their intelligence, how they see the world, their sense of humor, how they treat people, and other aspects of being a human being sharing this Earth with other human beings. Pansexuality differs from polysexuality because people who identify as polysexual may be attracted to some — but not all — gender expressions, and may factor those expressions into their attraction vs. being attracted to someone regardless of gender. (Related: The ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Moment That Made Emily Hampshire Realize She Was Pansexual)

Omnisexual: Although different, omnisexual (the prefix “omni” meaning “all”), is still similar to being pansexual. Where the differences lie for these two sexual orientations is “due to the full awareness of a partner’s gender, as opposed to having gender blindness,” says GlittersaurusRex. It’s this cognizance of gender that separates pansexuality and omnisexuality most of all. And omnisexuality is different from polysexuality in that people who identify as polysexual may be attracted to multiple — but not necessarily all — genders.

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