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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Subspace, Fear and Survival

Clarisse Thorn recently wrote a gorgeous entry about subspace, a state of mind common to bottoms during BDSM play. For clarity, I'm going to call on Wikipedia:

During the scene, the intense experiences of both pain and pleasure trigger a sympathetic nervous system response, which causes a release of epinephrine from the suprarenal glands, as well as a dump of endorphins and enkephalins. These natural chemicals, part of the fight or flight response, produce the same effect as a morphine-like drug, increasing the pain tolerance of the submissive as the scene becomes more intense. Since the increase of hormones and chemicals produces a sort of trance-like state, the submissive starts to feel out-of-body, detached from reality, and as the high comes down, and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, a deep exhaustion, as well as incoherence. Many submissives, upon reaching a height of subspace, will lose all sensation of pain, as any stimulus causes the period to prolong.

I can't speak for the science of it. Anyway, I prefer Clarisse Thorn's description, and I feel great about quoting from it heavily:

When I’m starting to go into subspace it’s just soft and dark and slow. But when I’m really far under, I’m totally blank. Falling. Flying.

Somewhere else.


What is it, where do I go? It’s just submissive, masochist headspace. But I don’t always get into subspace when I submit, and I don’t always get into it when I take pain either. I’m not sure what the other ingredients are: some amount of trust, of course. And strong feelings about my partner make everything more intense … way more intense. Orders of magnitude more intense. Still, I’ve had new partners put me under with surprising thoroughness.

It’s a lot like deep sexual arousal — hard to think, hard to process, hard to make decisions — but the deepest sexual arousal does not put me anywhere near deep subspace. Deep subspace is. More. Than anything else.

This has been bothering me since I read it yesterday. I expect to be moved by her writing, and I was, but this piece left me feeling sad. A little lonely, a little mournful. And I realized, I was mourning, just a little bit. I haven't felt like that in a long while, and I haven't wanted to until I read that description.

Subspace can be risky. Clarisse addresses this, noting both that many people have trouble saying no or using a safeword when in subspace, and that there's a scary amount of emotional vulnerability involved. She talks about having to learn to slip in and out of deep subspace in order to respond to partners' check-ins.

For me, it feels very dangerous. Subspace feels like one big yes - like I want to say yes to anything. My defenses are down, and I am just happy to be being good. This can be exhilarating. If you, like me, are a person with a history of saying yes when a resounding No and fuck you would have been more appropriate, it can also be very, very bad.

For the last couple of years, anxiety that I might lose all control - that I might betray my best interests, again - has kept me almost entirely out of deep, trance-like subspace. This has been fine by me, since it's made it easier to look out for myself. On the rare occasions that it happened, it would be with someone I trusted utterly, who I knew wasn't going to push me, and who had proven, time and again, that they put a high value on my happiness. (I am thinking specifically of Mina.) Even this has been no guarantee, though. I have an ugly tendency to start to head into subspace, panic as I feel myself give up control, and veer abruptly into Trigger City. (See the sights! Bring the family!)

So, subspace: it is a loaded subject for me, apparently.

Instead of moping, though, I've tried to do some productive thinking. Like Pollyanna, I have been playing The Glad Game - that is, focusing on what I have to be glad about, rather than what I have to be sorry about. In the interest of my continued gladness, I'd like to extoll the virtues of my drug of choice: fear.

I want my BDSM play to be like watching a horror film. I want to be shocked. I want to be left in suspense. I want to be kept guessing. I want empty threats, and the creeping suspicion that they may not be empty after all. I want sharp and shiny, blunt and heavy, weapons I can imagine piercing and breaking me, and weapons that are all the more frightening because I've only glimpsed them out of the corner of my eye, and I don't know what they could do. I want to close my eyes, and then realize that just listening is worse. I want to be wretched, breathing shallowly, unable to look away. I want it to scare the pants off of me. I want to know, all along, in the rational part of my mind, that I'm going to be just fine.

Here is what I love about fear: the rush. I love getting hit with adrenaline. I love the alertness, the clarity of it. I love the way it narrows my focus to exactly what is going on in front of me (or behind me, or on me).

I love that it makes me feel helpless, in a way that's external. I can be afraid for myself, rather than of myself.

I love it for being the opposite of how I experience subspace. Subspace is about surrender. Fear is about survival. Fear reminds me that in spite of my socialization, in spite of my eagerness to please, and in spite of how difficult it can be to put my own needs first, my survival instinct is alive and well.

Subspace is about my play partner: what they do to me, how I feel about them, where they take me. Fear, in this case, is selfish. It is about me caring what happens to me. Right now, that feels incredibly powerful.

And now, since I'm taking care of myself, I am going to get some sleep.

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