BDSM

When people think about BDSM and kink, they’re typically thinking about dungeons, whips, and chains. But BDSM isn’t all about the equipment. 

At its core, BDSM — which stands for Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism — is about fulfilling one’s more extreme fantasies. It’s about assuming roles that relieve you of your daily struggles and bring you into an entirely different universe. 

Kink is about how creative you can get with some rope, a few words, and the right tone. Pursuing those fantasies can be a choice for your whole lifestyle, or something you do every now and again. 

One of the best parts about pursuing kink, though, is that sometimes your fantasies can bring you into an entirely different headspace. And we call that subspace.

What is subspace?

Subspace refers to the trancelike state some submissives experience during BDSM play. While subspace can feel different for different people, many describe it as feeling “light,” “floaty,” or “like mush.” 

Does that mean “subspace” is just a fancy way to refer to dissociation? No! But there are some similarities. 

Both are out-of-body experiences that involve feeling disconnected from reality. 

The key difference is that most submissives claim subspace as a happy or euphoric rush, whereas dissociation can be a detachment from your whole being — including your ability to feel.

Why does it happen?

Although more research on BDSM and kink is needed, there are a number of theories about why subspace happens.

A 2008 review of two studies found that cortisol (the body’s primary stress hormone) levels rose significantly for participants who were bound, receiving stimulation, or following orders during consensual sadomasochistic (SM) play.

Adrenaline, also known as the fight-or-flight hormone, can be released by the body in response to a stressful, threatening, or even exciting situation.

Another type of hormone, endorphins, are known to boost pleasure and lessen pain. 

Endorphins are generally released when the body experiences pain or stress, or when its natural reward center is activated by things like working out, eating, or — you guessed it — having sex. 

For some, the combination of pain and pleasure experienced during a BDSM scene can result in reaching subspace.

A scene is a series of pre-negotiated acts/sex acts/BDSM activities that have been fully discussed and agreed upon from beginning to middle to end by all participants.

Is it safe?

“Safe” is a funny word when it comes to BDSM. 

Activities like breath play or knife play, for example, aren’t really “safe.” If you don’t take precautions and play responsibly, activities like these can be dangerous. 

That’s why it’s important to do your research before attempting any new kinks or engaging in otherwise unfamiliar play. You might even take a workshop online or at your local sex shop.

All that said, there isn’t anything to suggest that subspace is inherently unsafe. It’s just your neurochemicals feeding you some happy hormones! 

It’s important to note one thing, though: You can’t give consent while in subspace.

“Both of you should be aware that subspace can significantly affect the submissive’s ability to communicate and interpret their limits,” says kink educator Quinn B., founder of Unearthed Pleasures, an online coaching and kink education platform.

This means subspace — like being high or drunk — can affect your judgment. While in subspace, many people agree or ask for things that are out of their “sober” comfort zone.

“In general, all parties should take note of that submissive’s specific subspace behaviors and make adjustments to the scene to continue to ensure consent, communication, and safety,” she adds. “Most importantly, never negotiate or renegotiate any aspect of a scene when the submissive is in subspace.” 

The word “negotiate” is key here. In kink, a negotiation is a conversation between partners that happens prior to the scene. Partners will discuss how they want the scene to play out so there are no surprises (unless there are supposed to be!). 

During negotiation, partners often discuss desires, safe words, aftercare, and other sexual safety protocols, as well as hard (something you won’t do) and soft (something you might be down to try) limits. The aim is to be clear as possible, so nobody leaves the scene feeling like they were taken advantage of.

What does it feel or look like?

“This is the fun part about subspace because it can look so many ways,” says Quinn B. Think: “Lots of giggling, glazed eyes, a sort of daydream-like expression, the person going nonverbal, far-off gazing, a primal state.” 

Quinn B. continues, “a common theme when submissives describe it is feeling “floaty,” almost like being both in yourself and outside yourself simultaneously.”

Subspace is different for everyone, but it generally makes folks feel a little more relaxed. When experiencing subspace, you may feel like you’re in a trance, like it’s hard to articulate yourself, or even like you’re a little drunk (without the spins!).

What’s the point?

Well, mostly that it feels good! Sex in general can be a stress reliever. And so-called kinky sex can be a way to pursue that stress relief in more intense ways. 

Some research from 2017 suggests that subspace can evoke an “altered state of consciousness,” similar to hypnosis, mindfulness, or drug-induced calm. 

Preliminary research found that subspace — and, by extension, topspace — may align with different altered states of consciousness. Topspace was identified as akin to flow state (a.k.a. being in the zone). 

Researchers found that the same may be true of subspace, but that it’s more aligned with the transient hypofrontality theory.

This theory suggests that your levels of consciousness are layered, like an onion. By peeling back the layers containing your more complicated cognitive abilities, you may be able to slow down your brain for a period of time. In other words, you can turn the thinking part off. 

To sum this all up: Through kink, subspace can help submissives turn their brains off for a moment.

What’s more, research suggests that shedding your identity for a moment can be a stress reliever. This process can happen in a number of ways, but subspace, in particular, can help you release the constant pressure to maintain an identity. Subspace can be a form of escapism that allows many to release societies’ preconceived notions of self. 

PSA: Being submissive or taking on a more submissive role doesn’t mean that you absolutely must experience or aim for subspace. Some people don’t experience subspace at all. 

If you aren’t able to or have no desire to get into subspace, that’s totally OK! Try not to let anyone guilt you into thinking you’re doing it “wrong” when you’re participating in consensual play that makes YOU feel happy.

How do you get into subspace?

It really depends! It’s kind of like having an orgasm: It’s a little different for everyone, but there are some common ways to get there. 

Often, subspace is triggered by the intensity of a scene. For some, this involves impact play like spanking or flogging. 

Others get into subspace via sensory deprivation, like wearing an eye mask and noise-cancelling headphones during a scene. An intensity of sensation (a.k.a. forced orgasm) can also cause this. 

At the end of the day, subspace is really about being overwhelmed.

Other activities that may evoke subspace:

  • Edge play: a form of orgasm control where one partner repeatedly brings another to the brink of orgasm
  • Bondage: rope tying that can include anything from binding the hands to full on suspension
  • Role play: assuming roles like master/servant or teacher/student to allow full immersion in the scene

“If you find that it’s difficult to tap into but you really want to experience it, try grounding and relaxing yourself before the scene,” explains Quinn B.

“Then, during the scene, use mindfulness practices to flow with your physical sensations,” says Quinn B. “See if you can begin to find a state that feels different, and then let yourself float into that without expectations.”

Like a runner’s high, subspace typically doesn’t last for long after the end of a scene. It can go away within the hour once you’re removed from the headspace of the encounter. 

What is sub-drop?

Sub-drop is the occasional downside of entering subspace or doing any sort of kink play. 

After a scene, some submissives may feel depressed, inexplicably exhausted, or prone to crying. This is because kink play can put your body through A LOT.

Common acts in kinky play (like impact, knife, or breath play) are designed to get your adrenaline pumping. So, sub-drop is similar to premenstrual syndrome (PMS) in a lot of ways. 

In both, you’re experiencing hormonal fluctuations and your body is kind of freaking out about it. Sometimes your body can figure it out, and sometimes you need a big ol’ tub of ice cream to cope.

Sub-drop is essentially a post-scene hangover, but it can be avoided or treated with aftercare.

Where does aftercare come in?

Aftercare is *essential.* It can help you can minimize — or totally avoid — experiencing the lowest of lows often associated with sub-drop. 

Any post-scene ritual that helps play partners transition from the headspace they entered during the scene can be considered aftercare. It can look different for everyone because everyone has different needs. 

“Maybe you like long cuddles after a tough scene, or you want to hang out with your Dominant partner for the rest of the evening,” says Quinn B. “Maybe you just need some check-ins the next day, or a nice hot bath to self-soothe.” 

She continues: “Drop is super normal! Just learn what your mind and body need to slowly acclimate back to your usual self after a scene.”

Some examples of aftercare rituals:

  • talking about your favorite parts of the scene
  • taking a shower or bath together 
  • sleeping together in the same bed
  • separating to allow for individual space, but checking in with each other via text or DM
Where can you learn more?

BDSM and kink are a seemingly endless rabbit hole. After all, there’s a kink or fetish for everything! 

Some ways you can begin to learn more are by following BDSM educators and practitioners on social media. 

Some of our fave Instagram accounts include:

  • @askasub: Run by 24/7 submissive Lina Dune, this meme account is designed to make you laugh and learn about the intricacies of being a submissive.
  • @venuscuffs: Venus Cuffs is a pro-domme who speaks about BDSM with considerations for intersectionality.
  • @afrosexology: Run by Dalychia Saah and Rafaela Smith-Fiallo, Afrosexology is a space for Black folk to learn and explore their sexuality. They also offer webinars on subjects like impact play and seduction.
  • @unearthed.pleasures: If you’ve enjoyed the input from our expert Quinn B., this is her page concerning all things BDSM and kink. Quinn has been teaching BDSM and kink for over 10 years, so there are tons to learn from her.

You may also consider checking online communities like Reddit (r/BDSMcommunity or r/BDSMadvice) where folks go to share resources and tips. 

And when you’re ready to break out into kink IRL, utilizing Facebook search can help you identify and connect with kink-friendly groups in your area!

SELF, Cosmopolitan, Greatist, Insider, Men’s Health, Teen Vogue, Essence of Nature Journal and various.  

Reference:
https://www.healthline.com/reviewers/janet-brito
Written by Gabrielle Smithon July 28, 2021
https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sex/subspace-bdsm
Ambler JK, et al. (2017). Consensual BDSM facilitates role-specific altered states of consciousness: A preliminary study.
apa.org/record/2016-45384-001
B Quinn. (2021). Personal interview.
Dietrich A, et al. (2018). The transient hypofrontality theory of altered states of consciousness.
apa.org/record/2019-06909-011
Pitagora D. (2017). No pain, no gain?: Therapeutic and relational benefits of subspace in BDSM.
org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/No-Pain-No-Gain-Therapeutic-and-Relational-Benefits-of-Subspace-in-BDSM-Pitagora.pdf
Sagarin B, et al. (2009.) Hormonal changes and couple bonding in consensual sadomasochistic activity.
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18563549
Photo Credit: Artem Labunsky

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