People in the BDSM community will often say they understand consent the best because we regularly talk about it, and this is definitely true. But what’s also true is that, during BDSM, you’re in a heightened erotic state called the “subspace,” which can possibly blur lines. For instance, a Dom I know had a submissive who had agreed that there would be no penetrative sex, but when she was in a subspace, she was so lost in this transcendental state that she wanted to have sex—and he had to put up the boundary to stop the play in its tracks (ie. used their safeword).
As a sex researcher, I’ve rarely seen a deep dive into what subspace actually is: how a person gets to that place, and how healthy (or unhealthy) it is for your mental well-being. Yet, it’s a concept that fascinates me. Ever since I started researching and engaging in kink, this state of mind has been a favorite of mine. It’s a peaceful tranquility that someone who is crippling Type-A like myself barely ever gets to experience.
You might be looking at the screen thinking, What the hell is “subspace”? Oh, great. Another word to learn. Stick with me: I promise it’s super-interesting. And understanding the concept can help us better appreciate the importance of sexual boundaries.
So, what is it, how does one enter subspace, and what it means for our understanding of consent?
What is subspace?
Subspace is a state of transcendence that many subs go into during BDSM play. Through some combination of sensory deprivation (blindfolds, ball gags, restraints), and pain play (whipping, paddling etc.), the mind releases you into different mental plane. Many have described it as “floating on a cloud” or “a state of total peace”—sort of like the peak of orgasm. For many people who enjoy the role of sub, it’s the primary reason they engage in the play.
When pre-negotiated pain is being inflicted on the submissive, subspace is often a release from that pain, leaving the person euphoric.
“Subspace could be defined as the warm, fuzzy, nearly hypnotic physical and psychological feeling that people experience sometimes when they are in the submissive role,” explains Pam Shaffer, MFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “It is a space of high suggestibility and heightened sensory arousal, which is usually sparked by the adrenaline and endorphins that are released when engaging in BDSM activities.” In scenes where pre-negotiated pain is being inflicted on the submissive, subspace is often a release from that pain, leaving the person euphoric.
Lola Jean, a sex educator and professional dominatrix, points out that not every BDSM session results in subspace and that entering it is not a requirement for a successful BDSM scene to occur. It’s simply something that happens sometimes.
Why people love getting into subspace
For many submissives, subspace is the place they wish to reach in a BDSM scene. It doesn’t mean that if they don’t, they aren’t going to be happy with the experience, but because this state of mind allows for such profound release, it can give them a place to leave their troubles behind entirely.
“Mentally, there’s healing that comes from finding this space where your problems melt away and you’re forced to focus on the pleasures and pains your body is experiencing,” says Daniel Saynt, a sex educator and co-founder of NSFW, a BDSM-focused member’s club. “By incorporating blindfolds or other sensory deprivation tools, subspace can give you a moment to just breathe and calm your mind.”
Shaffer explains that having positive experiences with subspace can help people develop deeper bonds with partners and work through trust issues. “People who enter subspace and come out the other side can see how they can trust someone else to care for their needs and help keep them safe during an intense situation, as well as developing an appreciation for how resilient they are on their own,” she says.
Why boundaries matter when it comes to subspace
As Shaffer points out, subspace puts you in a state of “high suggestibility.” What this means is that the person is no longer totally in control of their minds. And that’s precisely the appeal. The possibility for subspace sets the stage for Doms to be trusted and responsible for a sub’s well-being—you often don’t have control when you’ve entered subspace and cannot make informed decisions about your well-being (for instance, if you’d like your Dom to have penetrative sex with you, if you want to be choked for longer or hit harder with a paddle).
It’s the Dom’s responsibility to care for the sub in their desired way.
“If you’re planning a BDSM session it’s very important to set your boundaries,” says Saynt. “While in subspace, you may want to ignore these boundaries, so having a respectful partner is important. Have these conversations before sex to ensure consent is always first of mind, even when you’re in subspace.”
The difference between subspace and a dissociative mental state
The responsibility a Dom has for their sub goes beyond subspace. Lola Jean tells me that subspace and dissociation can look similar in their physiological responses (closed eyes, non-responsive, dream-like).
Dissociation is when our minds black out what is happening due to a trigger response in the body. It’s our body’s “flight or fight” response kicking in to protect our minds from perceived danger. Because the two states look similar, it’s critical for Doms and subs to get to know each other, their boundaries, and their reactions to certain stimuli.
“If your submissive becomes non-responsive or incoherent in any manner, it is a good idea to halt what you’re doing and begin grounding exercises,” Lola Jean explains. “Ground them by bringing attention back to each of the senses, bringing awareness to touch, sound, smell. Assuming you have taken the time to understand what type of aftercare they respond best to, you can apply this here, as well.”
Both mental states can be disorienting to come down from, so it’s the Dom’s responsibility to care for the sub in their desired way.
How subspace can deepen our understanding of consent
While subspace may sound like a totally foreign concept to someone outside of the kink community, it teaches us something important about consent in all types of sexual relationships, in that consent and boundaries should be discussed beforehand and not pushed in the heat of the moment.
Even when you’re in a heightened orgasmic state during vanilla sex, you may ask for something or give into something that you will later look back upon and think, “I didn’t want that.” This goes for both partners. We need to be respectful of each other’s boundaries. If someone says, “I don’t want to have intercourse,” intercourse shouldn’t later be “pushed” or “suggested” to that person.
Boundaries are boundaries. And we need to learn how to set them, accept them, and respect them.
Gigi Engle is a certified sex coach, sexologist, educator, and writer living in Chicago.