Help Wanted: How Does Service Space Feel For Me?

Image is a green Philips brand iron lying on top of a white item of clothing.

This post is part of a miniseries exploring the nuances of different headspaces I access through kink! You can find all the other posts in this series by clicking here, and I hope this one serves you well. (Get it? …I’m sorry.)

I grew up assigned female, disabled and queer in a misogynistic, ableist and queerphobic society. I also attended a fee-paying high school solely because of some inherited money that was tucked away in a trust fund, which did not automatically equate to living in a wealthy (or even, uh, financially comfortable) household. Society and my peers made it clear to me from day zero that there were aspects of my life and my identity – of the very foundation of my being – that were undesirable, unworthy or wholly unacceptable.

This did not make for a very sturdy foundation upon which to build self-esteem, as I’m sure you can imagine.

One of the most harmful concepts that our capitalist society presses upon us is that our value as human beings is directly and inextricably linked to our “productivity”. I’ve read a lot of leftist theory and done a whole lot more psychotherapy, but I don’t think it makes me a bad anti-capitalist punk to admit that it’s going to take me a very long time to truly unlearn this particular faulty concept. It’s everywhere.

I’ve already talked a fair bit about the relationship between my disability and my service, but I haven’t actually unpacked what service space feels like for me, or why I enjoy it. It starts with all of the above: in a society that values “productivity”, whatever that means, and with disability already holding me back from being productive in any sort of traditionally capitalist manner, I was desperate to be worthy.

This manifested in my vanilla life first. Some of the things I was doing were all well and good, like donating blood regularly and knitting for charity… but others, not so much. I continued emotionally draining, outright harmful friendships wherein I acted as an unqualified therapist and/or crisis worker because I was desperate to make a difference. I took on responsibilities I couldn’t or could barely carry out because of my disabilities, like staffing a bake sale (which my joints, anxiety and autism all prevented me from doing) and helping my mum redecorate her house from bottom to top. As a pattern of behaviour, it was unsustainable.

Enter service submission. I stumbled across the term during one of my many blog binges and realised I was already kinda-sorta enacting it in the relationship I was in at the time – when I visited my then-boyfriend, it made me feel a great deal less anxious and burdensome to tidy up a little, do some dishes or massage his back. I slowly came to notice that I was deriving a sense of satisfaction from these acts of service that was similar to that which I experienced when doing helpful things in vanilla life – but it felt more profound.

When I’m in service space, I often hyperfocus. In other settings, hyperfocus is a double-edged sword, because I can end up overexerting myself, or forgetting to attend to other things. Under the watchful eye of a dominant partner, though, I can hyperfocus for the length of time it takes to complete a specific task, and then be gently pulled back into reality. It borders on hypnotic. I can immerse myself in the minute details of a task with the safety net of being ordered to stop if it seems like I’m at risk of exhausting or hurting myself.

Within a 24/7 dynamic, my Daddy and I have been able to account for my tendency to hyperfocus even when he isn’t supervising. Sometimes, this involves him being very specific about the level of energy he wants me to put into a task – he might explain that he wants the kitchen “quickly cleaned”, which means that I load the dishwasher and wipe down the countertops – but only the countertops, not the microwave or the toaster or the cupboard doors, etc. Sometimes it also involves him reminding me to check in with myself about whether my joints are hurting and how many spoons I have left, and he specifically tells me that stopping when my mind and/or body want me to stop is included in the service task.

I feel useful when I serve, in the exact ways I was seeking to feel useful in vanilla life. Service space also feels a lot more psychologically safe because it’s so predictable and the parameters are so clear: I am given a task. My job is then to complete this task to the best of my ability, and/or to communicate with my Daddy about any difficulties I’m having with its completion. My Daddy commends me for my execution of the task and/or my insight and communication, and I glow with pride at having done a good job. My experience of service space is almost entirely psychological – the sensory components (like wiping things til they shine, or the smell of citrus dish soap) are a bonus, but entirely incidental to the headspace itself. With a partner giving me specific, achievable goals, I feel like the embodiment of that capitalist myth: a cog in a well-oiled machine. And because my service submission is entirely removed from capitalism, I feel like I’m at liberty to set boundaries and I can even run the risk of “failing” without worrying about the loss of my livelihood. I feel intensely, deliriously safe in service space.

I also feel genuinely pleased with myself for my tangible impact on my dominant’s life. Formalising acts like a back massage or loading the dishwasher by doing them within subspace can help to keep their significance in the forefront of both our minds, meaning that my partner rarely overlooks my labour and so I rarely feel taken for granted. My tangible impact on him and his praise in response to it starts to fill in the cracks in that foundation I mentioned earlier. It’s not a substitute or a replacement for self-worth, but it gives me somewhere safe and reliable to start rebuilding my self-worth all on my own.

Polyamory: Hierarchy or BYE-erarchy?

Image is of a number of chicken eggs piled up in a brown wooden bowl, with one egg lying beside the bowl on a small patch of jute cloth. The background is a pale blue with no other detail.

You may or may not be aware that I like rules.

I’m in a 24/7 lifestyle D/s dynamic with my Daddy. We have a lot of rules, formatted immaculately in a Google Doc that’s always at the tips of our fingers, should anything need to be edited or updated. In times of stress – near essay deadlines, or when things get complicated at home – I often ask for additional rules, tasks or check-ins, to help me feel grounded and to create a sense of security and consistency that assuages my anxiety and fills me with unique autistic glee.

By contrast, I have literally zero rules within my relationship with my girlfriend – at least, not in any formal sense. We generally try to avoid giving each other advice unless it’s specifically asked for because we’re both easily influenced, and we obviously both strive to be kind and considerate to each other at all times… but other than that, our relationship is as laid-back as it is loving. We update each other on new partners only when we’re particularly excited about them (or when it informs decisions about fluid bonding); we keep in touch however much our spoons allow; we lead intertwined but independent lives. It’s almost the opposite of the 24/7 power exchange I enjoy with my Daddy, but it’s equally as reassuring, as grounding and as loving.

I consider these relationships to be equal. Different, but equal.

I also see the benefits to hierarchical polyamory, especially as somebody who likes rules and structure. At the moment, my Daddy isn’t dating anybody else, and I’m only tentatively starting to explore new relationships after a number of heartbreaks last year, so I’ve sort of moved away from hierarchical polyamory by default. Their roles in my life are hugely different, but my Daddy and my girlfriend are as equal to me, as beloved and as necessary, as a pair of knitting needles. The right-hand one is doing a very different job to the one on the left, but they both play an irreplaceable role in creating each stitch.

On the other hand… what happens when a new party comes along? Will I consider someone I’ve been on two dates with to be on equal footing with my lifestyle Dom, or the girl I’ve been in love with for nearly four years? If not, does that mean I’m ‘bad’ at polyamory? At non-monogamy? At relationships as a whole?

In unpicking this concern of mine (whilst, of course, knitting, and relaxing into the meditative headspace that knitting invokes), I realised that I, at least, was conflating two ideas: hierarchies of partners, and hierarchies of people. Within a hierarchy of people, the people at the top hold power over the people lower down. This happens within capitalism, within workplaces, and within some polyamorous constellations – for example, primary partners holding ‘veto’ power over secondary or tertiary partners. I came to realise that I don’t want to create a hierarchy of people. I strongly dislike the idea of making anybody feel less-than, or threatened by my existing partners, or otherwise powerless within a relationship with me. I want everybody within my constellation to feel like equals as people, and I want everybody to be able to communicate about how they might be helped to feel that way.

Buut… I don’t have more than 24 hours in my day. I only have the spoons I have. I have boundaries I absolutely will not flex on: I won’t compromise on the lifestyle dynamic my Daddy uses to bring me comfort and stability to make a different relationship work – not without renegotiating with my Daddy, and closely examining why someone might want or need my lifestyle dynamic to change. If I had to choose between attending an emergency a new partner was having and attending an identical emergency my girlfriend was having, I’d choose my girlfriend every single time. In that sense, I guess I do create and maintain a hierarchy of partners – but I aim to treat every one of those people as people.

Even if I’m just seeing someone for sex, with no romance and very little friendship attached, I’ll still check in with them about their boundaries, their feelings, and how they feel about their place in my life. If a ‘secondary’ partner needed emotional support whilst my girlfriend was free to grab Starbucks, I would still go and support the ‘secondary’ partner, regardless of how I’d labelled their position within the hierarchy, because Starbucks is (probably) not as essential to my girlfriend as emotional support is to anybody else. The difference between a hierarchy of partners and a hierarchy of people is, in essence: within a hierarchy of partners, you still treat everybody in a loving, considerate way, but you do so within a framework that allows for the prioritisation of older or more intense relationship dynamics; within a hierarchy of people, power is wielded directly and indirectly in ways that can be miserable or outright destructive, and ultimately, people at the bottom can feel less like people than people at the top.

So, I guess I practice laid-back, communicative, flexible, loving hierarchical polyamory. And I think I’m okay with that.

The Disabled Service Sub’s Lament

Image of five clothes pegs on a clear washing line with a plain beige-ish background.

Content note: this post is a cathartic one for me, but necessarily contains references to ableism and denotes ableist slurs. If you need to skip this one, feel free, and look forward to next week’s Smut Saturdays post instead!

I am disabled.

It’s still a hard part of my identity to own and love. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of fourteen (but have since shunned that particular label for multiple reasons and now refer to myself exclusively as “autistic”). Fourteen-year-olds rarely want to think of themselves as being disabled in any context, in part because they’re young and adventurous and don’t want to think that there are limitations on their potential, and partly because (in my experience at a fee-paying secondary school in England, at any rate) there is ableism everywhere. Remember that time Trump mimicked and mocked a disabled reporter? That shit was the height of comedy to my classmates. Ableist slurs were very much in vogue, particularly slurs relating to developmental disability (“retard”, “spesh”, “spoon“, etc.), and were said with either pernicious laughter or outright vitriol alongside them. In an environment where it felt genuinely dangerous to be perceived as disabled, I worked my arse off to be perceived as neurotypical, and I refused to identify as disabled until a few years ago.

I’m also super mentally ill, and that has always felt disabling. I missed weeks of school, even at age fifteen, because of depression (which exacerbated my autistic executive dysfunction) and anxiety – leaving the house felt impossible. I struggled with self harm, an eating disorder, suicidal ideation… you name it, it was there. Trauma after trauma built up (my stepdad pushing me with force towards the top of a staircase, bullying, being groomed, a violent family member…) and when I realised that I could refer to my ongoing mental illnesses as disabling, and maybe even a disability, it made sense. It was sort of a relief.

However, trauma and depleted self-worth and my autistic assumption that everyone experiences the exact same things I do in the exact same ways meant that I didn’t notice the other way in which I’m disabled: I’m always in a fucktonne of pain. I legitimately thought this was normal until I was about sixteen. I’m hypermobile, which is fun at parties when I touch my left wrist with my left thumb, but which also means that things shift around in ways they aren’t meant to. Like my hips. And my shoulders. And my goddamn ribs. I have reason to believe that it’s a connective tissue disorder (and have tentatively labelled it Ehlers Danlos Syndrome in my head) on account of my terrible healing speed, weird scar formations and my soft and oddly stretchy skin, but whatever it is, it fucking sucks.

And you know what else fucking sucks? Being a service sub, and being disabled, both at once.

Service is a big deal for me. Because of the autism, I don’t always express adoration or devotion in ways that other people understand, so acts of service make me feel like I’m very clearly stating that I love someone. I have a 24/7 power exchange dynamic with my Daddy, so mundane acts of service can pull me into subspace, make me feel like a good sub, and help me to feel closer to him even when we’re both hella busy… but they can also be more challenging than they would be for the average sub.

A real-life example of this: it took me two hours to muster up the spoons to go and do some cleaning for my Daddy. I desperately wanted to – really! – but executive dysfunction had me frozen in my armchair, staring into space, unable to initiate the task. Once I finally dragged myself into an upright position and talked myself through all the necessary steps in minute detail (like, “take one foot and move it forwards. Repeat with the other foot. Continue until you reach the bathroom” level of minute), I managed to get one toilet cleaned. I went into the second bathroom, tried to open the bleach, and found that the childproof cap was threatening to sublux my thumb, rendering me unable to open the bottle and sending pain halfway up my damn arm. The pain was a sensory input I hadn’t expected, and I couldn’t open the bottle.

I cried.

There is no foolproof workaround for this sort of thing. I can take anti-inflammatory painkillers for my joints, but then my meds-related paranoia flares up. I can write out step-by-step instructions on how to load the dishwasher, but that requires so many more spoons that I won’t have the energy left to take the bin out. Being disabled is hard enough, but being multiply disabled increases every difficulty tenfold.

The only thing I’ve found that truly helps is finding a dominant who understands the significance of your disability and of your submission. My Daddy knows that washing dishes is sensory hell for me, so finding that I’ve done two plates without being prompted blows him away – even if I’ve left five bowls and some cutlery to do another day. Take stock of what your disability makes extra hard and communicate that to your partner(s), and don’t be afraid to set limits, or to ask for more praise if you’ve pushed yourself – even if that looks different from other people’s pushing themselves.

It is uniquely saddening, frustrating and isolating to be unable to carry out all the service tasks you’d like to because of a disability. It sometimes leaves me feeling cut off from my Daddy; it depletes my self-esteem, making me feel “useless”, and I struggle to accept my own limits when I really want to serve.

It helps to bear in mind that these difficulties make your submission more powerful, not less. If you did a service task in spite of brain fog, or pain, or a lack of spoons, or dyspraxia, or whatever else, then you went an extra mile for your dominant, and you should celebrate that. Disabled service subs deserve to celebrate our accomplishments.