Subspace is a psychological state of mind associated with BDSM scenes or activities. It is often described as floating or detached. A BDSM submissive or bottom can enter into subspace as a result of the experiences or sensations imposed on them by their dominant or top.
Subspace is typically a state of intense focus, and a submissive in subspace can lose all awareness of everything going on around them except for the immediate actions of their partner. For many submissives and bottoms subspace is a highly pleasant and desirable state.
The feeling of floating or detachment can occur when a submissive or bottom is intensely engaged by the actions of their partner. This draws their concentration towards both what's being done to them by their partner and their reactions to it. At the same time this draws their attention away from everything else. This can mean that they lose awareness of what's going on around them and, in some cases, even they can lose awareness of other parts of their body.
This detachment which occurs affects the submissives's psychological state and can lead to a number of positive outcomes. For example, any previously pressing or urgent problems in their lives can be pushed out of awareness, at least for the duration of the scene and for shortly thereafter. This allows the time in subspace to act as a form of literal recreation where the submissive escapes from worry or stress and can recharge their batteries.
Feelings of physically floating can occur when a submissive or bottom loses awareness of the parts of their bodies on which they are standing, sitting, laying or being suspended. The most favourable conditions for this to occur are when the temperature is not too hot or cold, and when the submissive or bottom is stationary and resting on a comfortable or soft surface. These are the best circumstances in which their attention can be drawn away from their bodies and the feeling of floating can occur.
In all of this what we see is an inward direction of awareness and focus at the expense of awareness of what's happening in the immediate physical vicinity, and at the expense of awareness of parts of their bodies and thoughts.
Going hand-in-hand with the intense focus of subspace is an often-intense psychological vulnerability, at least during the course of scene, due to the submissive striving to open themselves up more and more to their partner.
They do this because the more they let their defences drop, the more they subject themselves to the experiences and emotions which are taking them into, and keeping them, in subspace. And, as noted, subspace is often highly desirable. But as their defences drop, the submissive or bottom makes themselves vulnerable to other things at the same time.
Trust plays a big role here as a submissive or bottom will only let their psychological or physical barriers down when they are confident that their partner will act appropriately, and that things are touched---emotionally, physically, sexually, and psychologically---which are supposed to be touched.
As mentioned above, one result of intense focus is that a submissive or bottom can lose some or all awareness of parts of their body because they are focussing so much on something else. This can have physical, medical or physiological consequences because a submissive in such a state may not notice problems themselves. They may not become aware of blood circulation problems during a bondage scene and their leg, for example, may start to go to sleep and they may not notice it themselves, or they may start to bleed during a flogging and not notice it, or they may strain a muscle while struggling against restraints (as some submissives are wont to do) without realising.
It's often up to the dominant or top to be waiting for, and acting appropriately to both prevent problems occurring in the first place, and reacting appropriately when they do.
What triggers subspace?
Subspace often, but not always, occurs as a result of intense stimulation of the submissive or bottom. This intense stimulation can come from:
- Pain play, such as cutting, or impact play, such as with whips, floggers, or canes;
- Strong sensation, such as temperature play, rough handling, tickling, or wax play or
- Intense psychological activities such as humiliation, interrogation, piercing or mind fucks.
All of these are imposed on (or inflicted upon) the bottom or the submissive by their partner. Subspace can also be "self-inflicted" when the submissive or bottom has a very strong reaction to something which isn't, in itself, intense. For example, a collar is very symbolic in BDSM as it represents ownership, surrender, obedience, and commitment. Simply putting a collar on a submissive can sometimes trigger subspace, as can some acts of control-taking such as grabbing them by the back of the neck, or speaking firmly to them.
Subspace as a physiological response
Subspace can also be purely a physiological response without any intensity involved. Researchers have observed, for example, that some forms of bondage and mummification can lead to feelings of floating or detachment even without the involvement of the pain usually associated with physical BDSM engagements, or even without a BDSM context at all.
Intense physical or psychological experiences may also trigger reactions or changes in brain chemistry. The exact neurochemicals involved are subject to debate, but adrenaline and related chemicals are likely involved. These can heighten awareness and help the submissive or bottom be very "in the moment".
In addition, when prolonged pain is involved, endorphins and the body's own natural pain suppressants are likely to be released to help the person deal with the pain. These latter can produce a natural high.
Characteristics of subspace
Subspace necessarily involves a change in the person's state of mind. Beyond obvious consequences of the floating or detachment previously discussed, subspace can also have the following characteristics:
- Someone in subspace may be unable to communicate or verbalise (even if the play in which they are engaged doesn't obstruct their mouth (see gags)). Their state of mind may simply be such that they can't think enough to construct sentences.
- A wider consequence of this is that they aren't able to deal with complex situations and challenges, and often display a child-like simplicity in the way they deal with things. Teasing may be taken the wrong way.
- The detachment they feel may cause an inability to determine when they are being harmed. In other words, the person experiencing subspace may not be able to judge when to stop. They may not even be aware of any pain they are physically experiencing.
- Inability to concentrate on anything external. Amongst other things, this means that someone experiencing subspace should not operate heavy machinery, drive, or make important decisions.
Safety and recovery aspects
As noted earlier, someone experiencing subspace is often quite vulnerable. Their focus is inwards directed and they usually aren't readily able to deal the same sort of rich, challenging, or complex environment they normally can easily handle. For their own psychological and emotional well-being things need to be kept simple during the experience and for the time afterwards while they are recovering.
Recovery from subspace will usually take up to 30 minutes from when the actual activities which triggered it are removed---i.e., the end of the scene. Recovery best occurs in peace and quiet. Many submissives find the presence of their partner during recovery to be highly desirable.
Frequently subspace is a happy place, but it's possible for someone to have a bad subspace experience and find themselves in a not-so-happy place (such as when a play rape scene triggers unexpected reactions or unpleasant memories), or when humiliation goes awry.
Avoid creating challenging situations for someone in subspace and avoid teasing them. Teasing can be taken at face value by someone in subspace and this may lead to a poor outcome.