Finding Space Part 1: Subspace

A lot of column inches within D/s and BDSM websites are given over to the subject of “subspace” (or “sub-space” or “sub space”, whichever you prefer). It’s also something you can hear a lot of chatter about in SL. But what exactly is it? What does it involve? What can the submissive anticipate, and what should the dominant look out for?

This essay is an attempt to roll back some of the mystery, and to provide guidance on the care and attention associated with explorations of subspace.

Whether subspace can be achieved within an environment such as Second Life is open to debate. As such, this is not a “how to” guide, rather, it provides pointers on levels of mental immersion in a scene a submissive might reach. One thing that should be kept in mind: “achieving” subspace is not a requirement of any scene, and neither a submissive nor a dominant should feel pressured into trying to ensure the submissive “reaches” his or her subspace. A lot depends on the level of interaction that can be achieved, the emotional involvement of both parties, whatever other distractions are going on, all of which can impact a scene. And just because the submissive perhaps only just brushes the surface of submissive should not be taken as a sign of “failure” by either party.

Defining Subspace

Broadly speaking, subspace is generally regarded as a moderate to deep, almost trace-like, condition experienced by a submissive during intense or erotic interaction with their Dominant. It exposes the sub to a range of emotions and feelings that can in turn trigger a heightened response to the Dominant’s manipulations, and equally leave the submissive emotionally and psychologically vulnerable and at risk. Submissives entering this space require careful monitoring by the Dominant throughout the scene to make sure they do not place themselves in danger, and require post-scene aftercare that eases them back to a rational state of mind.

Clinically, subspace can be defined as a sympathetic nervous system response to the intense pain / pleasure experienced during a scene which causes a release of epinephrine, endorphins and enkephalins. These in turn have a morphine-like effect on the metabolism, which increases the pain tolerance of the submissive while inducing the trance-like condition referred to above. This is often expressed by submissives as an almost out-of-body experience in which they feel as if they are detached from reality, observing what is happening to them, rather than participating. Many submissives reaching the deeper levels of subspace can lose all sensation of pain, as any stimulus causes this trance-like detachment to be prolonged. Hence the need for both care and attention on the part of the Dominant should a submissive enter this state, as it is only the Dominant who can keep the submissive from experiencing harm.

Within SL, the more physical elements of subspace are not easy to reproduce: there is no physical contact between Dominant and submissive for a start, so the submissive may not be aware of any physical detachment. Aural and olfactory stimuli are also missing, while the visual stimuli is far from perfect – external interruptions can all too easily break the submissive’s focus. Thus, the submissives journey into the deeper levels of subspace may not be easy or achievable to their fullest extent.

However, it is possible for submissives to slip into a mental state when engaged in SL scening wherein the glandular releases described above can occur and carry them into subspace. These in turn then heighten the submissive’s awareness and generate an increased responsiveness to the idea of pain and induce other reactions that are commonly associated with subspace (such as an apparent drop in IQ and the use of cruder language as discussed later in this piece). Thus, a feedback loop is created within the submissive that draws them into subspace as effectively as might occur in rl – and the caring Dominant will always look for signs of the submissive slipping into it.

One thing that should be understood is that subspace exists on many levels. Precisely how many and what they are called tends to vary according to the expert addressing the issue. If we were to look at things rationally, one might define the initial levels of subspace in terms of a number of levels.

Top and Marginally Down

The first two levels are what are popularly referred to as “top” (or “normal”) space and “marginally down” space within the real world, and both tend to exist in Second Life.

Top (or normal) space: This is the space that, I think it fair to say, gets most overlooked in Second Life. Put simply, top space is the “mundane” or everyday living mode for the submissive: getting up, going about the requirements of daily life, seeing to family needs, gawking at the television, and so on. I refer to it as the most “overlooked” in Second Life, simply because the decision-making processes involved in setting the needs of the day off to one side, powering-up a computer, starting and logging-in to Second Life tends to naturally move the SL submissive somewhat out of top space and more naturally into the next level down. Even so, top space still has an ability to impact our SL submissive lives, as simply turning on the computer cannot make it totally go away – not when there is a partner in the next room who might demand attention, or a pet running around that needs seeing to, or an unexpected telephone call that can shatter a mood, whether or not we opt to let the answerphone take it for us.

Marginally down space: in rl, this tends to be when the Dominant in a relationship directs attention on the submissive. This tends to be through the use of a recognised trigger – a glance, a touch, a sound – or a combination of such factors. The result is to drop the submissive out of top space and into a condition of listening and anticipation. In some relationships, the change in the submissive is very physical, if subtle: they stop talking or moving; their attention becomes focused on the Dominant, waiting to see if further signals are forthcoming. If they are, the submissive generally slips further into subspace; if nothing further is forthcoming, or if the Dominant deliberately eases back from directing attention on the submissive, the submissive generally returns to top space. This “marginally down” space is frequently the condition many submissives are in when they log in to Second Life: they are focused on their Dominant, attuned to the verbal / written cues (chat or emote) that the Dominant may give that can carry the submissive deeper into subspace.

Going Deeper

Beyond this, things get more complicated. How far “down” a submissive goes into subspace is dependent upon a variety of factors: the skill of the Dominant in understanding the submissive’s needs; the Dominant’s ability to constructively manipulate and feed such needs and desires; how well the submissive trusts and relates to the Dominant; and so on. Environment, setting and external stimuli such as sounds, music, scents, etc., also can play a significant part in carrying a submissive deeper into subspace. Many submissives aren’t actually aware that they are “in” subspace but rather only realise what has happened after the fact. The nature of SL, given the inherent nature of rl intrusions into our digital lives makes entry into these deeper levels of subspace somewhat harder to achieve and maintain – which is not to say they cannot be experienced in the right circumstances.

One of the first major indicators that a submissive is slipping into a deeper level of subspace is that their IQ apparently starts to progressively diminish; the ability to process and understand what is happening to them become blurred; rational thought becomes elusive, and so on. Ask a submissive how they are feeling when in this state, and their reply is liable to be “I dunno” or similar. In rl scenarios, this admission of not knowing is liable to be true: at its deepest, this state leaves the submissive utterly dependent upon the Dominant to ensure no harm is done to them.

Another element that can denote the submissive is slipping into subspace is the use of language itself – their words become more and more crude, they find greater delight and arousal in being talked to and about in crude terms. Vulgarities trigger reactions as much as touches. Together, these two signs: the apparent reduction in their ability to process thought rationally and / or the use of cruder language tends to indicate the submissive is in what is referred to as blonde space.

A submissive slipping into the deepest levels of subspace many reach the level of primal space. Within rl scenes when in this condition, the submissive can become feral; words become grunts and snarls, they can show hypersensitivity to sound and light and movement. If not bound, the submissive in this state can become dangerous and will not stop short of scratching and biting – or worse.

Of these two states, Blonde space can be encountered within SL, even if the submissive is not deeply into the state, and tends to be most obviously demonstrated by the sudden excitement generated by hearing and using crude language and / or in being called names. Primal space is potentially the harder level to move a submissive into through the medium of SL; given the overall impact on the submissive and the lack of physical support, it is one I would caution against and Dominant trying to lead their submissive into such a state.

Sammy Space

There is one other aspect of subspace worth mentioning – although many in rl squirm when it is discussed, and many submissives will outright deny that it exists. This is sammy space, or what FRR Mallory calls “sprite space”; and it is one quite common in one form or another in Second Life.

In sammy space, which tends to exist somewhere between “marginally down” and “blonde space”, the submissive seems to become willful: clips may become undone, or the submissive will move from an assigned pose or will flirt or use cheeky retorts. Sometimes this reaction is borne of a need to test the Dominant to assess whether the Dominant is really paying attention; this is the negative aspect of sammy space, because if the Dominant is found wanting, it is taken as a sign that they do not “love” the submissive.

However, the kind of wilfulness that results from sammy space can be beneficial if the submissive is prepared to channel it properly. Rather than being used as a means of testing the Dominant, it can be used as a means of engaging in further play. By showing token resistance through playful interchange, the submissive is demonstrating both their trust in the Dominant (not to react utterly negatively to the play) and their willingness to be taken further into subspace. In turn, this kind of play can trigger the Dominant’s own progression into the oh-so-rarely talked about realm of Dominant space.

Care and Attention

Within rl, and throughout the subspace experience, the submissive needs constant attention – not just to heighten their experience and responses while in scene, but also to ensure that the submissive is not / has not reached a point where they can no longer differentiate between safe and dangerous play or use a safeword to show distress. Thus, the Dominant has the responsibility to watch the submissive through the scene and adapt and adjust their own actions accordingly.

As the submissive “returns” from subspace – as the scene concludes, for example – the parasympathetic nervous system responds, and the submissive can experience exhaustion, incoherence and feelings of emotional emptiness, all of which need to be dealt with through care, emotional support and – at it most basic – simple human contact through cuddles and caresses. In some cases coming out of subspace can trigger feelings of shame, self loathing or disgust within the submissive, and these to need to be identified by the Dominant and dealt with in sincere care to avoid the submissive Dropping.

How far a submissive can descend into subspace within an environment such at Second Life is open to debate. As I’ve indicated above, my personal view is that the medium itself means that the majority of submissives tend to operate in the “marginally down” through to “blonde space” (including sammy space). I certainly hold the view that trying to move into the deeper, more primal levels of subspace through the medium of SL is unwise and quite possibly impractical.

Speaking from my own SL experiences, I can openly admit that I’m not aware of taking a submissive much beyond blonde space of subspace; this may be through a lack of technique on my part – and I have to admit that until Second Life becomes truly immersive and allows us to replicate touch, scents, sounds, etc., as they can be used in rl, I doubt I’ll be anywhere near as effective as a Dominant as (I hope) I am in rl.

That said, just because the deeper levels of subspace may not be reachable within the confines of SL does not mean that a few basic precepts common to dealing with submissives in rl cannot be applied equally to SL. Indeed, I would go so far as to say they have equal meaning is SL as they do in rl:

  • Never leave a submissive alone in subspace without warning or for extended periods, and never abruptly end a scene in which you know the submissive is in subspace – however marginal – without taking time to help them recover to top space. This doesn’t have to be complicated: showing care through words, emotes and even the use of simple cuddle props, can help the submissive recover and give them visual cues to your care and love for them
  • Never impose responsibility on the submissive for any aspect of the play or for their descent into subspace. If you want interaction, keep the play to marginal space or sammy space. Go too deep into blonde space and the play can become too one-side as the submissive has moved to a state of mind where the ability to clearly communicate is lost.
  • Always leave time for recovery after a scene, even if you believe the submissive has barely dipped into subspace. The experience for the submissive doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, mind-blowing or any other hyperbole in order for it to have an impact – and nothing builds trust and commitment more than a sincere demonstration of love and support when helping a submissive return to top space.

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