What exactly is «subspace» and … what is it not?

By: Hans Meijer – http://www.powerotics.com

Note: The author is the chairman of the POWERotics Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing reliable information to and about the BDSM community. This article is a team effort by the POWERotics team and includes input from medical professionals and psychologists. In fact, this is a «summary» of several much more in depth articles.


This word we use to describe the psychological (mental) and physical state the submissive can – but does not (always) have to – reach as a result of BDSM interaction. On the Internet especially you will a lot of stories and articles about «subspace». Most of these unfortunately got it dead wrong. This leads to a lot of confusion. For example «subspace» and orgasm are often mixed up.

Science is still a long way away from fully understanding «subspace». That’s no big surprise, since very little – actually hardly any – coherent scientific research has been done in this area. However, we do know more than enough to be able to do away with many of the misconceptions and misunderstandings.

Man or woman?

There is a big difference between the physiological (especially biochemical) reactions in the male and female body. As a result, male «subspace» is incomparable to female «subspace». Most importantly, female «subspace» usually lasts a lot longer. The explanation for this is in the fact that the male ejaculation (which is not necessarily always the same as an orgasm) puts an end to quite a lot of biochemical processes and – as a result – to subspace. On top of this, female sexuality in general is very different from male sexuality. And there is of course a major difference in the way, men and women deal with emotions.

Orgasm or «subspace»

Quite a few submissive women confuse orgasm, or even strong (sexual) arousal, with «subspace» – simply because they have no personal experience with orgasms. Global scientific research tells us that – unfortunately – probably as much as one out of every three adult women has never experienced an orgasm. There is no reason to assume these figures any different within the BDSM community. In other words, probably one out of each three submissive women does not know what an orgasm is, hence cannot distinguish the differences between orgasm and subspace and is likely to mistake one for the other.

Besides, there are different forms of orgasm (different orgasms, as some prefer to say).

One thing we do know: having an orgasm while in «subspace» is biologically next to impossible!

This is because the hormonal chain of events – leading to subspace – is quite different from the one – leading to an orgasm. In the early stages of the route to both «subspace» and orgasm these chains of events are quite similar. But at some point along the way the body has to make a choice: either go for orgasm, or go for subspace. One excludes the other. In other words, whenever a submissive tells you he or she «was cumming like there is no tomorrow» that is exactly what has been happening. But, no more than that. There is nothing wrong with an orgasm. On the contrary in fact. But it just isn’t «subspace».

The tall stories

The «Stages of Subspace» – as described on many Internet sites – do not exist!

What has happened is that somebody, somewhere took the description of the stages of the female orgasm, changed and twisted the wording a bit and thought it looked good. Fact of the matter is, subspace does not work like that at all.

Actually, while «subspace» is a state of being that develops gradually during its early stages, it is not a neatly ordered, gradual, «phased» development at all. The best comparison is to look at it as water, building up behind a dam. At some point the dam will break under the water-pressure and the next thing you know «all hell breaks loose». That is exactly, what happens during the development of subspace.

Besides, the «road to subspace» is a different one all the time and probably every time. Impulses and responses can change per day or even per hour. This is because your body is receptive to all sorts of impulses that have an influence on hormone production. This can be stress, anxiety, uncertainty, fever or the effects of alcohol, tobacco, nutrition, medication or drugs for example or, in the female body, the influences the monthly cycle, possible pregnancy and menopause.

So what exactly is «subspace»?

«Subspace» is a form of trance. Trance in its essence is a state of being, different from your «normal» state of being. During trance your mind excludes most of its input and concentrates on just one or only very few impulses, completely disregarding all others. There are many ways in which a trance can be induced. Prolonged dancing for example, or hunger, prolonged physical activity. Hypothermia, recreational drugs, high fever, lack of nutrition, dehydration AND BDSM-activity all can induce trance. Just like repeated physical activity (such as jumping from one leg on another for a long time – a modern technique used by psychologists).

Trance is the result of hormonal activity. Hormones are substances in your body, responsible for communication between the brain and the cortex and the rest of the body («blink your eye» is the result of a mini hormone cocktail. So is «pull muscle» or ….. «fall in love»). Everything your body does (or does not) is the result of these usually complex hormone cocktails. Hormones are being read by «receptors» and the availability and functionality of these receptors is genetically determined. That is why a hormonal reaction is not identical in different people.

For «subspace» a group of hormones, called «peptides» is important. Peptides are amino acids. Many look like morphine and have attributes, that can be compared to morphine. And yes – although natural – they ARE (to some extent) addictive! For subspace ENDORPHINS – a group of such peptides – are an important ingredient.

Where does it start?

Both «subspace» and sexual arousal start with ADRENALINE.

Actually, adrenaline is an incorrect name, since it assumes it is one hormone. Actually, it is a combination of two hormones: adrenaline (in biochemical terms epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine). These twins are being produced simultaneously, but they serve different purposes. Adrenaline – among many other things – makes certain that extra nutrients (sugars especially) are transported to the muscles, while noradrenaline (again among many other things) is responsible for inducing vascular contraction, so the veins help the heart to pump blood through the body faster.

You could say the adrenaline twins are your body’s first response team. As soon as anything happens that is different from what was – at that moment in time – the normal situation, the body starts to produce adrenaline. This happens in a split second and it brings the body to a «higher state of alert». Ready to fight, run, jump out of the way of a passing truck or … to enter into an argument for example. Your senses are wide open, information transport throughout the body increases and speeds up, muscles contract, the heart rate hightens and muscles are being filled with whatever «fast food» is available. And these are only a few of the processes, induced by the adrenaline twins. Besides adrenaline is one of your natural painkillers.

When your body decides it is time to produce adrenaline it does so, based on the principle: shoot first – ask questions later. In other words, adrenaline production is well under way before the brain has had a chance to analyze the situation. The reason for this is that the situation may call for a reflex action. And that is what you want. You don’t want your brain to go like; «Wow, that’s a truck coming at me, what shall we do about that?» No, hopefully you probably got yourself out of the way before you even realized the thing was a truck. That is a reflex and the result of adrenaline.

The «kick»

Back to «subspace».

Adrenaline production started well before you consciously figured out you were getting aroused. As soon as the brain notices the higher adrenaline concentrations have nothing to do with anything that requires an immediate reaction it has two options. It can either step down from the «red alert» phase and tell your body to go into «business as usual» mode. Or – if the impulse that triggered the increased adrenaline production persists without presenting any danger or other alarming situation – it may decide to continue production. Why? Because the brain like adrenaline.

The adrenaline twins can give your a «kick» (or a «high» as some like to call it). It’s the same «kick» you get from passing an exam, a bungyjump or a dive in the pool on a steamy hot day for example. In short, the «YES!» feeling. Your body can produce increased adrenaline levels for about half an hour. Oh, by the way, women can enjoy adrenaline somewhat longer than men, usually.


Nothing wrong with that. An adrenaline high as such can be great fun, but …… it’s got nothing to do with «subspace». It is an adrenaline kick. Fun, exciting, addictive is some way. In other words, from anything like a 15 to 30 minutes «quicky» you won’t enter «subspace», but you probably will get an adrenaline high. Oh, what most dominants describe as their «domspace» is very likely to be an adrenaline high as well.

This provides us with one clear, recognizable and physical insight in the different ways, people experience BDSM and it explains part of the different forms of BDSM. Those who are after the adrenaline high do just that and that’s fine. But it is physically and mentally very different from what we are going to talk about below. And the two cannot (and should not) be compared. It’s like baseball and football. Both sports revolve around a ball and are played by teams in a stadium. But that is where the comparison ends. Which doesn’t mean that baseball players are better or lesser sports people than football players. They’re just different and their abilities – if at all – should be compared to others in their own league.


The road to «subspace» is like a ladder. You go from one step to the next.

Adrenaline is the first step. The next one brings us to a different – much larger – group of hormones: ENDORPHINS. One important note: there are other endorphin highs (such as the «runners’ high»). They are, although similar, very different from what we call «subspace».

Endorphins are peptides too. They are a morphine-like group of substances (so far science has identified 39 different ones), that are relatively new to scientists. They were identified in the mid 1970s and are called endorphins since 1975. In very unscientific words they are known as «mood hormones», since they are responsible for our moods, whichever one. Regardless if you cry, laugh, get angry, happy, or sad or just bored …. all that is triggered by endorphins. They are produced in countless different «cocktails» and, just like adrenaline, work as a natural painkiller as well. They are also responsible for car- and airsickness and vomiting in general.

To understand the «road to subspace» the following is important. Your body HAS to produce adrenaline before it starts to produce endorphins and the endorphins – that contribute to «subspace» a- re only first produced after some 20 to 30 minutes. In fact they are the «next shift». Within the endorphins group there are some hormones we call «enkephalins». These do to cortex what endorphins do to the brain to create «subspace» and both need to be present.

All hormones have a chemically incomplete «forerunner», but for reasons of clarity and simplicity we will skip these.

To fully explain «subspace» science still lacks a lot of data. Too many to pinpoint and explain the process precisely. But we do know quite a bit. One important thing to understand «subspace» is the recent discovery of different ways, in which the brain releases endorphins. Besides the normal «through the proper channels» way (via glands and the nervous system) there also appear to be small, apparently uncontrolled fountain like releases on the outside of the brain. These have been photographed and filmed. These «endorphin fountains» occur on specific occasions. Most parents will have seen their young kid simply staring at a ball or some object without moving or responding, but just looking at it – apparently fascinated by its color or shape. That is when endorphin fountains occur. Why they do, science does not know yet. But we do know these fountains are connected to the kind of emotional and physical responses, we call «subspace» in terms of BDSM. These endorphin fountains also seem to induce the «deer in the headlight» behavior. That is not fear, but fascination. A probably more familiar similar reaction are the LSD-trips from the hippie days.

Are we going to take a left turn, or a right?

Here we reach a crucial junction. Once the endorphins production gets well underway, there is a choice to make: are we «going into subspace» or will it be an orgasm today? Remember, one excludes the other. No one knows exactly how or why this choice is being made but – remember, hormone receptors are genetically determined – at least some of that has to be in the genetic code somewhere.

So, why is there such a crucial choice? Well, in order to follow the hormonal route to an orgasm the body now will have to start to produce a group of hormones called GnRH. These will eventually trigger the production of yet another hormone (genadotropine), which induces the production and release of steroids (the «sex» hormones). As soon as the GnRH production starts the endorphins production slows down and finally stops. In other words: no «fountains» – no «subspace».

Up to this point your body has produced quite a lot of these «mood hormones» and that is responsible for the feelings of bonding, attachment, affection, security and love. This makes sense, since these emotions – in females especially – are a necessity for the orgasm. This is what some people describe as «floating». No, that is not one of «stages of subspace». Actually that is pretty general, normal human behavior and quite necessary.

So, here is again a crucial difference in BDSM-experience – physically and mentally recognizable: if there now will be an orgasm, that is what you go for. And, orgasms are NICE! And very good to have. But …… THEY ARE NOT «SUBSPACE». The bonding and affection emotions however, can be a first step towards it.

Hallucination, trance and different levels of awareness

Now is where we can see the fundamental differences between «subspace» and other BDSM-experiences (driven by other motives). If and when the body decides not to go for the orgasm, but instead to go for «subspace» we are getting to the «deer in the headlights». And also the point where the dam breaks.

If endorphins production continues – remember, we still do not know exactly why – trance and light forms of hallucination occur. THAT is «subspace»!

Someone «in subspace» is easy to recognize from the outside. They are no longer able to drive a car, or even a bike. They seem silent, absentminded, slow responding, uninterested. In other words «not really here». That again is not the same as the warm, glowy, dreamy feeling after an orgasm. Somebody «in subspace» is «not on this planet», so to speak.

«Subspace» is dangerous in some ways. People «in subspace» have very different levels of perception and awareness. They will see a traffic light as interesting colors that changes all the time. They do NOT see it as a warning signal. To them, a house is a fascinating stack of bricks with intriguing patterns – NOT something people actually live in. If you would slit the throat of someone «in subspace» they’d probably tell you they’d consider that an interesting and fascinating experience. They do NOT recognize the life threatening situation. Someone «in subspace» is INTOXICATED! Intoxicated as in: under influence of drugs.

If you have ever been given morphine for medical reason you will know that morphine creates a colorful, happy, peaceful world without fear or pain or discomfort. Endorphins in high concentrations create EXACTLY THAT EFFECT.


«Subspace» can last for anything from several hours to several days. For the duration of «subspace» reflexes slow down severely (this is the result of the slightly intoxicating effects of enkephalins on the cortex) and much of normal, everyday logic no longer works. Someone in subspace cannot make responsible, consensual decisions.


As said, subspace is easy to spot from the outside. Pupils widen, responses slow down, appear illogical or simply do not occur. Food and sustenance is no longer important, people hear you, but do not understand you, they cannot find the right words and some submissives even stop breathing temporarily. Someone «in subspace» – as far as physical behavior and signals are concerned – is very similar to someone, under the influence of recreational drugs. The trance itself is important to them, feeds them and leads them. Nothing else matters and that – for example – includes sexual arousal. Colors, sounds, scents are individual, seemingly incoherent experiences. if you have never been here, you haven’t been «in subspace» (yet). And that’s fine. It is just that «subspace» is very different from everything else.


There are no «stages of subspace». There are however very different ways in which people experience and response to BDSM-activity. Much of that is biochemically determined.

Orgasm and «subspace» are two different, biochemically largely incompatible experiences.

Different biochemical reactions create different experiences (not levels of experience!). One is not better than the other. They are just different. it is important to understand these differences, because the wants and needs are different.

«Subspace» is a form of trance and should be dealt with accordingly.

«Subspace» is not without risk.