Subspace & After Care
by Sue Rozen
photos by Janice Jupiter
During mentoring sessions with new or less-experienced Dommes, when I mention subspace, the reply I often get is, “What is that?”
The subspace and aftercare are topics that tops playing in SL are often unaware of. To ensure everyone is safe and happy, however, Dommes need to have a working knowledge of what subspace is, what causes it, how to identify if a sub is in subspace when playing and how to spot the signs of sub-drop.
D/s is all-encompassing in the sense that it’s not just about scenes, highs, fun, pain, control, and all the exciting things we do. It’s about real people, and their needs and wants. A conscientious dominant will know that she is responsible for her submissive’s well-being and care. Part of that responsibility involves knowing what can happen to her sub when he interacts with his dominant. As a scientist who has both personal D/s experience and the benefit of research into subjects such as human physiology and biochemistry, I’ll try to share practical tips while working in the science-y stuff.
Firstly, what is subspace?
Subspace (also called headspace, flying, or floating) is the name given to the state the submissive’s mind and body is in during a deeply involved play scene. It is an elusive and sought after space that is the holy grail of many submissives. Many types of BDSM play invoke strong physical responses. The psychological aspect of BDSM also causes many submissives to mentally separate themselves from their environment as they process the experience. Deep subspace is often characterized as a state of deep recession and incoherence.
Deep subspace may also cause a danger in newer submissives who are unfamiliar with the experience. The experience requires the dominant to keep a careful watch to ensure the submissive isn’t placing him- or herself in danger.
How does this happen? [Hold on to your seats, this is the science-y bit!]
During the scene, the intense experiences of both pain and pleasure trigger a sympathetic nervous system response, which causes a release of adrenaline in the sub’s body. Other chemical messengers such as endorphins and enkephalins (natural pain relievers) are also released, and these natural chemicals, part of the fight or flight response (the stress response of the body), produce the same effect as a morphine-like drug.
These chemicals have the effect on the brain of increasing the sumbissive’s pain tolerance as the scene becomes more intense. A sort of trance-like state is produced in the sub due to the increase of hormones and chemicals. The submissive starts to feel out-of-body, detached from reality, like he or she is floating or flying. Many submissives, on reaching a height of subspace, will lose all sensation of pain, as any stimulus causes the period to prolong. As the high comes down, and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in (to counteract the effects of the aforementioned chemicals), a deep exhaustion, as well as incoherence may result. This is when aftercare becomes important to the well-being of the submissive.
Ok, that’s all well and good, but what does this mean in reality?
Submissives that are deeply in subspace can often have their ability to communicate impaired. This means that they may not be able to use their safewords/safe-signals when they are heading into dangerous territory. In fact they may not even be aware they are heading into dangerous territory!
This reduced or impaired ability to communicate with the tops, combined with the fact that the subs may no longer be able to feel pain due to the high levels of endorphins rushing through their bodies, could mean that subs could be hurt or damaged during scenes. If, for example, a less experienced top is dealing with a sub who has gone deeply into subspace, and doesn’t know what signals to watch for, that top may take the physical aspect of the play too far, all the while waiting for s safeword from the sub that the sub is incapable of giving.
So, what do I look out for? What are the signs that a sub is in subspace?
Just like anything else, signs of subspace can vary from individual to individual. The length of time taken to go into subspace, and the types of activities that can take a sub into subspace are often specific to the individual sub. For some, it takes a long time and quite a deal of physical stimulation, whereas for other subs, merely hearing their tops’ voices or being touched by the tops can have them floating off.
But there are a few tell tale signs: The submissive may become less verbal in communication as he enters the more “feral” state of subspace. The top may notice that the sub’s ability to speak and to use words to communicate how he or she feels is reduced, and the sub may only communicate in grunts or moans (which, let’s face it, are difficult to interpret). There are often changes in skin tone; eyes may roll back in the head. The body may go limp and floppy (which is at odds with the muscle tensing that would generally be expected with physical punishment). After a time with a sub, the top will come to recognise the signs of that individual’s subspace.
The endorphin-mixed-with-adrenaline high that is experienced by the submissive is often compared to a drug-induced high and can be addictive for the submissive. Think of it as something akin to “runner’s high.” Indeed, a sub in subspace can often beg for more of the physical stimulation that got and keeps him there without the knowledge that this could result in harm. This is where the dominant needs to keep control of the situation, and bring the sub safely down from the high.
Now that I know what to look for, what should I do?
It can be damaging for a sub in subspace, to just be left, cold-turkey as it were, without being brought safely “back down to earth.”
A dominant that is unaware of subspace and its physical and psychological impact on her sub, may just up and leave after a scene, with the sub possibly still in subspace. It’s not good enough to just untie the binds, and leave. It is the top’s responsibility to spend time bringing the sub back down: gradually lessening the stimulation, talking the sub back to earth, giving the sub affection and reassurance, telling him that he’s done good job, and giving lots of hugs and kisses to accompany the sub’s journey back down, for example.
Exhaustion will often accompany the sub coming down from subspace. So the dominant may have to provide a safe environment for the submissive to sleep and regain strength. Leaving a sub in subspace, where the sub’s still flying and buzzing in an out-of-body experience, can be dangerous. For example, imagine a sub, still in subspace trying to drive a car. They sub doesn’t have the requisite concentration and ability to perform such a complex task, and by not grounding the sub before letting him or her leave, the top could be putting the sub in danger.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well I only interact with my submissives online, I don’t need to worry about this.”
But that’s not necessarily true. Subs in cyber-relationships enter subspace just as easily and fully as those in RL situations. And as the domme in a cyber D/s relationship cannot often see her sub, she needs to rely on other methods to determine if the sub is brought down again after a scene. In this case, the voice is the best tool available to the Domme – she needs to get to know her sub’s voice intonations and how they change while in subspace, so that she can safely determine when the sub is again grounded. Where a scene is done in text alone, the communication that occurs in-scene and following the scene, in aftercare, between sub and Domme is similarly critical to the sub’s well-being.
I got the picture — But what is subdrop?
Even after the most carefully applied aftercare, some residual effects of the subspace experience can still remain with the submissive. The phenomenon of “sub-drop” is the name given to the drop or low that a sub (or indeed a dominant, but that’s another discussion) can experience in the hours or even days after an intense BDSM scene. The term subdrop is generally applied to the ”negative” effects or depressive state that a sub can experience after a scene. The causes are manifold, it can be a physical reaction to the adrenaline and endorphins leaving the body. For those raised in a very traditional environment the resulting drop may be associated with feelings of guilt or shame.
Subdrop may manifest itself in may different ways – there could be tears, irrational fears expressed by the sub, or a sub may feel sad or lonely in the hours or days after leaving the dominant. Subdrop could be compared to shock in a way, and the treatment is much the same. The dominant should provide as environment for her submissive in which the sub can express his or her feelings and receive the domme’s attention (after all, the dominant is at least party responsible for getting the sub into this place). The Domme should watch for signs of distress, and try to understand what the sub needs from her – bearing in mind that this may be different depending on the sub.
The point of aftercare is to make the sub feel accepted, wanted, safe, secure and comfortable. With consistent application, good aftercare will help grow the trust between Domme and sub, and will help the relationship to blossom and reach new heights, as the sub will know that the Domme has his best interests in mind, has an understanding of what’s happening to him and will do her best to alleviate any negative situations that may develop.
A good and caring Domme will always have the care of her sub foremost in her mind. By all means take the pleasure, that’s what D/s is about – but don’t take and give nothing back. The D/s experience should be rewarding and pleasurable for both the dominant and submissive. Dominants and submissives equipoise each other – and this balance cannot be dismissed or forgotten. It’s about mutual trust and understanding, and while both parties are charged with trying to understand each other, in this case much of the responsibility lies with the Domme to provide the lead, and the consistency which the submissive craves so much in life. The submissive however is not without responsibility in relation to subdrop and aftercare, the sub must communicate needs and feelings to the Domme openly and honestly, so that the Domme can take the necessary actions to care for her sub.
By providing good aftercare, the sub will know that the Domme provides a safe environment in which these topics can be discussed without fear and in full honesty. A Domme who understands subspace – its thrills as well as its pitfalls – can get the very best from her submissive, and therefore the best experience for herself, from which everyone wins.