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When I was an undergrad, I took a course on altered states of consciousness. The professor who taught it was in his last year of teaching and had reached the “fuck it” stage of his career. He would begin each lecture talking about how “people” or “the subject” experienced an altered state. However, at some point in the lecture, would slip into first person. It became a game with me and other students to bet on how long into a lecture would it take him to shift to first person.
What was great about this, is hearing him talk about being high on marijuana or LDS or cocaine or peyote or meditation or whatever(I got the feeling he tried every drug he could get his hands on) lent to a deeper understanding of how different things really altered someone’s state of consciousness.
I start with this here, because in the kink community, we mention sub space a lot. When you read about bottoming/subbing or about how to care for a partner as a top, the topic of sub space arises. Sub space is an altered state of consciousness someone can reach when engaging in BDSM play. It does not happen for everyone, nor does it happen every time a person submits during play.
Sub space is not a well understood altered state. We know more about the psychological impacts of drugs and things like runner’s highs than sub space. However, because sub space as a form of altered conscious occurs for people engaging in BDSM play, and it is a powerful altered state, it needs to be discussed.
What is Sub Space, Exactly?
Sub space is a shift in consciousness. It is like being high or drunk in this sense. It occurs for the person submitting during a scene.
People experience sub space differently. Just like some people are friendly drunks and others are belligerent, sub space differs for people. Additionally, like drugs and alcohol, different partners, different scenes, different histories with sub space change the experience. Sub space with one partner may feel a bit different than with another partner.
What generally typifies descriptions of sub space is that 1) perceptions of pain are altered, 2) decision making is altered, and 3) emotional reactions are altered. It is critical to understand the basics of sub space if you engage in BDSM, both from a submissive and a Dominant point of view. Because one of the participants stops thinking clearly when they enter sub space, behaviors need to be modified to account for this.
Sub Space is an Altered State of Consciousness
Sub space, like being high on pot or really drunk, changes your capacity to process information and make decisions. Its not like having a couple of beers or a couple of tokes for a functional stoner. Its power is closer to knocking back eight shots of Fireball in less than two hours, or like me (a completely non-functional pot smoker) taking a few hits and forgetting I have legs.
Sub space is powerful and can eliminate or cloud certain brain functions. Like all my writing, I offer this from personal experience with the caveat that everyone is an individual and will experience things somewhat differently.
Sub space changes your physical experience. Like being really drunk, sub space alters concepts of pain. If you have been really drunk and fallen down, at the time you may not feel much pain. When you are sober the next day, you go to get out of bed and collapse in pain on a sprained ankle that is twice its normal size. You don’t remember it being that bad when you fell.
I have been in sub space and what I experience in a scene and remember is not mirrored in the physical evidence afterward. I have done scenes I really enjoyed and found quite pleasurable. I remember some of the pain that came with various behaviors, but on a scale of one to ten, I remember it being about a four or five. The evidence afterward, bruising that lasts more than week, skin that has been split open from a belt strike, would indicate there was significantly more force than I recall.
For me, there is a point during a scene where my brain clicks over into sub space and much of the pain disappears. Instead, I get ridiculously aroused. My reactions are very positive and encouraging to my partners.
This can make sub space dangerous. If I were to play with someone unaware of this shift and unconcerned about physical harm, I could both withstand and have very positive reactions to things that could cause long-term damage. For D-types and tops, you need to be aware of what you are doing. Your bottom or sub may not be able to give accurate feedback on the physical sensations.
For me, when I enter sub space, the concept of my own needs is eliminated. My ONLY desire is to serve. If I am in sub space, asking, “Do you want to continue?” is a nonsensical question. I literally don’t have the capacity to figure out the answer. Likewise, “Have you had enough?” makes no sense to me. I lose the capacity to connect with and express MY desires other than to please a partner.
Asking “Can you continue?” is a logical question. I can evaluate certain things – can I still support my own weight, are limbs numb from being tied, am I having problems breathing – can help me figure out if I can keep going. Questions need to shift to things that I can base a decision on pretty simple physical feedback. Asking a question about desire will get the reply, “Whatever you wish, Sir.”
Additionally, sub space can last a while after a scene. To be on the safe side, I need a full day before I can negotiate other parts of the relationship. My ability to figure out what I need emotionally, physically and psychologically is compromised in sub space.
What Is It About Sub Space That Eliminates Needs
For me, sub space leaves me feeling deeply loved and am highly valuable to someone. I do not have a permanent, primary partner. I am not someone’s priority in a long term relationship. I keep this in mind day-to-day when it comes to decision making. In sub space, I will treat my partner for the scene like I would a husband. Day-to-day, I am pretty good about things like determining if I can lend someone a few bucks, if I can pick someone up, if I can do what someone is requesting. This is filtered through my realistic understanding of what role I play in someone’s life.
If you have had the joy of being someone’s primary, you know you will do a lot more on all levels for that person than someone you are just a friend with benefits. In sub space, those lines get blurred for me. I am much more amenable to doing things and committing to things that I never would in my regular consciousness. Asking me for something when I am in sub space is the equivalent of asking your really drunk friend to pick up the bar tab for the entire bar. They may feel expansive and happy and max out a credit card, but the next day, they know that was a bad decision. Sub space is the same way.
Consciousness of Sub Space
The hard thing with sub space is that it can be tricky to know you are in it. I can be in a scene, really enjoying myself, talking, and replying, and all that, and not recognize I have slipped into sub space. I try to be aware of it, but it is not something with a hard demarcation of sub space/not sub space. Again, it is like drinking with someone. You may know they are drunk, but they may be very unaware of it. Sometimes, you may not even be aware of how impaired they are until they do something very uncharacteristic of them.
For me, sub space is hard to reach in the first place. It has only ever happened with D-types whom I have a tremendous amount of respect for, who I have a core belief that I am not their equal, who I care for and who use the right combination of protocol, discipline and pain during a scene. When I get to a point in our interactions and play where I start reaching sub space, I let them know. That way, they can be aware of it and try to monitor things as well.
D-types in all interactions need to try and monitor for sub space. If your partner starts tolerating pain more easily, if they start using your honorific without effort when they normally will miss one or two, if they agree to everything you ask, they may be in sub space.
Ethical kinksters all know the caveat of not to negotiate in sub space. Hopefully this clarifies a bit why it can be so dangerous to ask a sub to do things or agree to commitments in this altered state. Part of being an ethical kinkster is to respect boundaries. Sub space can eliminate boundaries that are there for a reason. It is never okay to renegotiate something with someone in this space.
However, as a sub, I have to say I love sub space. It is really powerful and I feel amazing for days afterward.
**Note: A version of this geared toward people already in the kink community has been posted on the Fetlife page. That post has pictures to accompany some of the explanations. See A_Vice on Fet.