BDSM 101: Subspace, Aftercare, and Sub-drop (and sometimes Top-drop)
Within the context of BDSM, “subspace” is a an altered psychological state that is often entered into by the person bottoming in a scene. It is not easy to characterize, because each person’s reactions to BDSM play can be quite different — and even a single person’s reactions to play can vary from scene to scene.
Most people associate BDSM with the physical aspects of the scene: The floggers, whips, rope, and the like. However, there are many mental aspects to a scene as well, and those need to be considered during every scene.
Subspace, in one sense, is much like an hypnotic trance. A trance is any period of narrowly-focused attention. If you’ve been “sucked into” a book or movie, such that the world disappeared for a time, you’ve been in a trance. During a BDSM scene, as you progressively focus more and more on the physical sensations of play, the entire world may disappear, leaving only you, the Top, and whatever is being done to you.
At the same time, BDSM quite often involves impacts to the body. During a scene, the intense experiences of both pain and pleasure trigger a response of the sympathetic nervous system, which causes a release of epinephrine from the adrenal glands, as well as a dump of endorphins and enkephalins.
These natural chemicals are a part of the body’s primal “fight or flight” response. They produce the same effects as a morphine-like drug. This dump of morphine-like chemicals into one’s bloodstream into increases the pain tolerance of the submissive as the scene becomes more intense — and also induces a euphoric, ecstatic floating feeling.
Subjectively, subspace is like getting drunk or getting high on drugs. You forget the pain, your problems, all your cares seem to drift away and be obliterated while you’re in this state. Some submissives, upon reaching a height of subspace, may lose all sensations of pain, or become incoherent, making safewords useless.
The euphoria of subspace (or some parts of it) can last anywhere from hours to days after play. Some people can carry a positive “glow” from play that lasts them for weeks.
However, it is also a state of mind that impairs rational thought and decision making skills. It’s a state that needs to be monitored carefully for the mental and physical safety and well being of all the parties involved. While it is important to take this into consideration during play, it is especially important to remember this as a scene is winding down and is stopped.
If a submissive goes far enough into subspace, they could injure themselves without knowing it, or continue to ask for play that could injure them without their knowledge. If the Top whom they’re playing with doesn’t understand the dangers of subspace, it can be even more dangerous for the sub.
The experience of subspace is a major reason that subs play within the BDSM world. Aside from exploring desires they’ve kept hidden from themselves, and experiencing a form of sexually-related play that operates on levels of explicit communication that they’ve probably never experienced before — learning to fly in subspace is a powerful and ecstatic experience. It is literally an incredibly powerful “natural high”.
When a submissive is in subspace, they usually don’t want to come down from it, since it is a feeling of bliss that they don’t want to lose. However, all play must end, and what goes up, must eventually come down. It is very important to understand that learning to fly involves learning to land in a graceful way, which preserves the flying experience — because the alternative to a graceful landing is sometimes rather like a mental airplane crash.
Since the increase of hormones and chemicals has produced a trance-like state, as play ends the submissive may feel out-of-body, detached from reality. As the sub’s system stops producing morphine-like drugs, and as the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in again, the sub may feel a deep exhaustion, a sharp drop in temperature, as well as incoherence and un-coordination. In the lifestyle, this is commonly referred to as “drop” or “sub-drop”
Drop is experienced by athletes and adventurers. Drop happens to Tops and Doms, (though this is often less-well-recognized) for pretty much the same reasons as athletes and adventurers. It also happens to people after high stress situations. After an emergency like a car accident or a break-in, people often find that they go through days where they have a feeling of being adrift, rather than how they are used to feeling.
Drop can also happen if play is stopped abruptly. BDSM play is a very vulnerable experience for people. It often involves exposing one’s inner-self in ways that one has never before done. Sometimes, inexperienced Tops will begin BDSM play, and then abruptly terminate a scene (perhaps because they rudely decide that someone else would be “more interesting” to play with) and walk away. This can leave the abandoned sub in a very down state — feeling that they engaged their sense of trust to allow a Top to play with them, and that the Top simply let them splatter on the ground.
There is also a different sort of drop, which is a function of encountering contradictions between the ingrained (and often implicit) “rules” that people live their lives by, and the discovery that various things in BDSM make them extremely happy. Usually the last thing that people do upon discovering that they are ecstatically happy doing things which harm no one but which might run contrary to a moral code handed to them as a pre-cognitive child, is to haul out the moral code and examine if following it actually leads to happiness.
Most often what people do is continue to do what makes them happy, but mindlessly accept their code’s condemnation of it and swim in a sea of guilt over the contradiction. While this form of drop is usually outside of the subject of subspace and aftercare, it can be relevant if it leads to unexpected and unanticipated feelings of guilt, perhaps a day or two after play. It can combine with other aspects of drop to leave someone feeling abandoned, off balance, or simply wondering and unsure about their worth after a heavy scene.
The majority of people recover from play in a matter of hours, but others could exhibit signs of drop for weeks after a very intense session. The more extreme forms of drop could feel like you have a hangover or partied too hard the night before. Some people have felt lost and depressed for hours or days. Some just want to sleep it off.
The BDSM community combats drop by teaching people how to land gently, and by being prepared to assist others whom they play with to gently transition from flying to being “on the ground”. We call this “aftercare”. It is important to not only know that one might need it, but also to know that it is something that one may want (and need) to negotiate receiving after playing.
As a general rule, play in a public dungeon tends to be less intense than private play. This is especially true if the play is casual (established during the party, rather than between existing partners). Even existing partners will often fail to push as many boundaries in public play as they will in private. So people in the lifestyle who are playing privately probably have a greater need to establish rituals of aftercare that fit their exact needs.
In public dungeons, aftercare is usually oriented towards recognizing the immediate physical needs of subs who have been playing. Because the sub’s body has been undergoing exertion, body temperature frequently drops sharply after play. This may require having a blanket or a robe for warmth as the sub can sometimes become chilly to the point of shivering, even if fully clothed. The sub may feel unsteady on their feet (sometimes barely able to move without assistance) necessitating a comfy place where they can sit or lie down and experience gentle contact and physical comfort for a period after play. Their cognitive functioning may be impaired (slow or disjointed) for a while after play.
Food or drink after play can be important: Water or sports-type drinks to re-hydrate, or juice to provide simple sugars. Eating some chocolate after play is recommended by some, as the opiate and cannabinoid effects of chocolate are similar to those of subspace, allowing a more gradual transition, and chocolate also contains several stimulants that can make mental processes feel more alert.
It is important to know that it is unwise to engage in heavy play (especially as a sub) and then drive too soon afterwards, as one might be far more “under the influence” due to subspace than if one were at the current legal limit for alcohol.
Aftercare, at it’s most basic, simply involves the willingness to continue being there with your play partner for a sufficient time period that they can feel safe, regain their emotional equilibrium, and no longer feel the need to cling to you. It is equally important to recognize that aftercare is for both the Top and bottom, Dominant and submissive. If either person leaves too soon, then their partner may feel abandonment or loss far exceeding the the obvious dimensions of the scene.
It is a good idea to have a network of kinky friends whom you can talk to if you find that you need to — one of the reasons that FetLife’s community is important. As a Top, it is often important to make sure that the sub you play with knows how to get in contact with you, so that if they need later reassurance, it can be provided.
Continuing to help the transition, especially if going home alone after play, some people find that assembling “aftercare supplies” helps them continue to land gently after they arrive home. Relaxing music, comfort objects, scented candles, bubble baths, favorite books or movies, incense, and other forms of self-pampering serve to continue to remind people that they are special and cared for, allowing them to bask in the gradually fading fires of their flight into subspace.