“Come back,” an S&M partner said softly, the other day, pushing my hair out of my eyes. I blinked and shook my head in a futile attempt to clear it.

“That’s weird,” I said. “Someone else used to say those words to me when I was coming out of subspace. I … that’s weird.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “It’s a natural thing to say to you. You go under so fast, and so deep. You’re so far away.”

“Not all the time,” I said. “And not with everyone. You’re good at putting me there.”

He smiled. “You bring it out in me.”

Subspace is so hard to describe. I’ve written about it before, in passing, in multiple posts, because it’s so important, but I’ve never come up with a good description for it; and when I Google for it I can see that other people have the same problem. 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.

Come back.

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.

Some S&M teachers tell people not to drive after an S&M encounter, not for a while; not until you’re over the subspace. They compare it to an altered state, like being drunk. Some S&M teachers caution that it’s dangerous for the dominant partner to suggest a new activity in the middle of an S&M encounter — something that wasn’t negotiated beforehand — because the submissive may not be able to think clearly enough to consent. (And because in those moments, the submissive will have a harder time than ever saying no.)

I sometimes think that when I was younger and less experienced, I abandoned myself to subspace more easily. I’m better at pulling myself out of subspace now, but I think the cost may be that it’s harder for me to really get into it. (Safety first?) I trained myself to be able to say, “Don’t stop,” when I wanted my partner to keep going. (Sound easy? Trust me, it took a while.) Playing with unfamiliar partners, I trained myself to be on guard. (One of my sex worker friends told me once, “I don’t care how deep the subspace is, I can always come out if the client tries to fuck me without a condom.”) I got better at calling my safeword before I had to — asking my partner to do something else or give me a break, rather than suddenly stopping everything once I hit my absolute limit.

I am nowhere near perfect, of course. In particular, I can rarely answer complicated questions, and sometimes my partners literally can’t get me to answer any questions when I’m subspaced. Sometimes it takes me a long time to come out, and partners may get nervous while I’m surfacing. But I’m not sure these aspects can actually be eliminated from subspace. And I’ve gotten better.

I’m sure that in an emergency, I could talk and function straight out of heavy subspace. I doubt I would be optimally intelligent and thoughtful, however.

When I was younger, I’d get frustrated with my partner if he tried to ask me questions or clarify things or otherwise check in with me when I was in subspace. Damn it, can’t you see I’m not here? Can’t you see I’m under? Don’t drag me back — Intellectually, I understood that my frustration was unreasonable, and I did my best to train myself to deal with the check-ins. To surface quickly, slip back under afterwards. But I had to experience subspace from the dominant side before I understood how hard it was to deal with.

I remember sitting with my arms around the submissive and occasionally asking him how he was; in response, he would murmur and snuggle up to me. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. I was processing my own dominant experience, and I had questions; I’d occasionally ask one. He’d murmur something softly. After a while I really wanted a glass of water and I thought he’d basically fallen asleep, so I said, “Hey, I’m going to go get a glass of water, okay?” and tried to move away.

“No,” he cried, and grabbed me. Holy shit, I thought, so that’s what surfacing from subspace can look like from the outside. Suddenly I understood exactly where his head was at: barely any time had passed for him at all, and he was still drifting up through velvety layers of consciousness. When I tried to leave, he’d felt sudden panic, a shot of pure abandonment, no no no you can’t, you can’t leave me alone when I’m like this, please I need your arms around me, I need you —

I knew exactly what to tell him. “Shh,” I said, “I’m here.”

A dominant friend once told me that he always informs his partners ahead of time that he has to move after a good scene, he has to go for a run, and he won’t stick around to guide them out of subspace. I’ve always wondered how his partners deal with it. Maybe it’s easier if you know it’s coming.

There are questions of consent, of negotiating new activities while a partner’s in subspace. Some people have told me they can’t even actually safeword when they’re in deep subspace; I can’t quite relate to this, but I imagine it could happen sometime. I myself have occasionally had trouble safewording in the past, but it wasn’t ever just because of subspace, it was because of pride or difficult emotions with the dominant partner. Subspace did complicate things, but I don’t think it was the reason I had trouble (though it can be hard to disentangle these things). But maybe someday I’ll go under so far that it will be.

I’m not saying it’s never okay to push further than you discussed, once they’re under — it’s just important to be careful, and not to do it unless you’re pretty sure you can read your partner … or that they have the emotional wherewithal to deal with it if you push too hard.

Because safety in subspace is a question of emotional safety, more than anything. The vulnerability and intimacy in those moments can be terrifying. The tiniest change in his tone can mean the difference between mindless fear and absolute trust. It’s so scary, and so intoxicating, and so weirdly unexplainably glorious.

Come back.

The best part might actually be coming back.

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Postscript: this person has a list of “stages of subspace” that describes reactions I can totally relate to.

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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