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09 February, 2010

But Can I Afford It?

Some of you may be familiar with a concept in psychology called "affordance theory". The concept is basically that one can best understand behavior--interactions of agents, like you and me, with each other and the rest of our environments--in terms of what the environment affords the agent in question.1 An affordance is the inherent possibility that exists between an agent and something external to it. So, for me, this laptop affords a number of possibilities for online engagement, communication, pornography, and (in desperate circumstances) a last-ditch weapon to fend off hungry zombies. If I have a Twitter account, the laptop affords me the opportunity to satisfy my terrible addiction check my friends' updates; if you don't have an account, it doesn't have the same affordances when considered in relation to you. Affordances are a weird category because they exist in the world, you can't touch them, but they are integral to our experience of the world. They are a property that emerges only between agents and environments; an environment with no agents affords no-one anything.

So, how am I going to relate this one to polyamory?

Yes, keyboards by Howie Robbins! Of course! It's all coming together. No pun intended?

Sex is complex. We know this. But it's through affordance theory that I'm starting to realize a useful way to discuss that complexity with lovers. Sex affords different things to each of us, and looking at sex through that lens can be a powerful tool for communication. (One of my lovers will be reading this and thinking of an email exchange we just had.) Most people find that sex affords them bodily pleasure (e.g., orgasm), but that's hardly where it ends. For me, sex affords a necessary physical satisfaction; not everyone is as sexually driven as I am, or so my comrades have told me. It's also one of the major tools I use to gauge the health of a relationship, and it's an activity that brings me closer, emotionally, with my partner. Sharing a sexual experience, whether it's intense, silly, brief or long enough to leave us both exhausted, leaves me feeling as though I could just lie back with that person and talk or cuddle forever. It's a special space, emotionally, mentally, that I almost never enter except immediately after having sex.

That's a very specific affordance! It's not universal, either, as far as I can tell. I could get more specific--the way that affordance theory can inform attempts to consider condom use, for instance, or the way that affordance theory accommodates accounts of social meaning--but I think this is a hefty enough topic. What does sex afford you, and what does sex afford your partners? If you conceive of sex in different ways, see it as offering different opportunities or having different meanings, that might be the subject of an especially useful upcoming conversation.


1 From the Oxford English Dictionary, "to afford": "orig. To further, promote; hence achieve, manage to do, manage to give, have the power to give, give what is in one's power, supply, yield."

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