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.

Protocol Is Perfect For Me

An image of Morgan with a toothbrush in xir mouth, adhering to xir teeth-brushing protocol

I arrive at the train station, where I’ve agreed to meet one of my best friends. In my bag is a half-full bottle of vodka, saved from the last time she and I got up to no good, and clean clothes for tomorrow. (I already have a toothbrush in her bathroom – we do this a lot.) She’s waiting for me, and because we’re not huggy people, we just grin at each other, pleased to be reunited for an evening.

“How drunk are you allowed to get tonight, then?” she asks me, as we make our way towards the gates at the exit.

I think back to the conversation I’d had with my Daddy earlier that day, and to my self-written scale of drunkenness. “A seven, maximum.”

She nods, understanding, and we start debating the best place from which to purchase mixers.

My best friend is quite vanilla, but everyone close to me – including my mum, and the girls at my knitting group – knows the deal. My partner, whom I address exclusively as “Daddy” behind closed doors, sets protocols and rules for me, and I follow them.

Vanilla people who are new to this concept are sometimes alarmed by it. 50 Shades Of Grey has certainly not helped – as well as being a poorly-written, poorly-researched garbage fire, its treatment of rules and contracts is fucking appalling. For those who have avoided the series and its bullshit (lucky you!) the dominant arsehole, Christian Grey, withholds all affection from naïve, lovestruck/Stockholm Syndrome sufferer Anastasia, until she signs a contract she barely understands, which promises Grey all sorts of things that Ana doesn’t really want to deliver.

This is, of course, abusive.

(I won’t give you the tired “50 Shades isn’t real BDSM” spiel, because it’s fantastically unhelpful. The thing is, this shit does happen in the real world, and if we try to claim that “Grey isn’t a real dom, he’s just an abuser,” then we imply that the two are mutually exclusive. They aren’t. People can and do identify as dominants, be known and respected within their local kink circles, and still be abusive, opportunistic, predatory cunts behind closed doors.)

The relationship that I am in, wherein my dominant partner decides how drunk I’m permitted to get, ensures I brush my teeth every day and orders me to send him photos of my meals in order to prove I’m eating well – that’s not abusive.

Because I chose it.

Because I love it.

I’m autistic. For me, structure is key in every aspect of my life that I can control. Routine makes me feel grounded, safe and satisfied. I struggle with executive dysfunction, so being reminded to do basic self-care, and knowing that somebody besides me is invested in my wellbeing, can sometimes get me on my feet even when it feels like doing anything is impossible.

I’m also a service-oriented submissive, someone who thrives on pleasing others, which means that being given clear, measurable, achievable tasks to perform, and performing them well, brings me no end of joy. I love making my Daddy proud. I love being told I’ve done a good job. I especially love performing D/s-oriented tasks when I’m away from my Daddy, when I go back to my mum’s for the holidays or when he drives down south to see his parents. I love all the small ways that my protocols pull him to the forefront of my mind, and me to the forefront of his – and I love dipping, just a little, into subspace, feeling calm and centred while carrying out a task I know exactly how to do.

My interest in protocol grew out of necessity when I was in a long-distance relationship. I wanted to be on his mind at intervals, and to remind him that I was still devoted to him even when it had been weeks since we’d seen each other in the flesh realm. I also wanted to explore submission, and it seemed like the obvious way to kill two birds with one stone. I brought it up, we thought out some rules, and I started to follow them.

My in-the-know vanilla friends were quick to point out that I could break the rules, if I wanted to. I was supposed to ask permission to eat confectionery (a misguided rule to apply to someone with an eating disorder, but one I still honoured), and my friends would always remind me that my boyfriend, some sixty miles away, would be none the wiser if I just bought some M&Ms.

My response was always simply, “But I’d have to tell him.”

I couldn’t imagine not telling him. Aside from the fact that I told him everything (a habit that I have yet to grow out of, with partners, friends and the internet at large), I had asked for these rules to be set out for me because I wanted them. I wanted to relish making my boyfriend proud, and that joy would be muddied and hollow if it was born of lies, or withheld truths.

Plus, he’d have asked about my day, and I’m way too autistic to hold a poker face.

The trouble was, my friends were encouraging me to flout my rules for good reason. Confectionery, I could live without, but one of my rules that was more misguided still was the one where I had to text my boyfriend for permission to use the bathroom. My boyfriend, who had a) very different sleeping habits from my own and b) a job. I’d be shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other outside the bathroom, waiting for my boyfriend’s response, and my friends would be mystified by my insistence that I had to wait. Or I’d give in, go and pee, and then confess to my boyfriend, who would punish me next time he saw me in person.

Punishing a sub like me, really punishing them, is a much bigger deal than this boyfriend seemed to know. The physical side was basically fine – I’m a masochist, and I have a knack for endurance besides – but the psychological effect of a punishment fucking stung. Whether I was writing lines or being beaten, my little heart was heavy with disappointment in myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d let my boyfriend down, even after the punishment had taken place and all was forgiven.

It was unsustainable.

That boyfriend and I broke up for reasons unrelated to our kink dynamic, but I do wonder if our differing styles of D/s put extra strain onto our relationship. He was much more interested in what happened in the bedroom – S&M scenes, humiliating a consenting sub, etc – and for me, kink happened everywhere. It meant something to me in a way that it just didn’t for him.

(It is, obviously, fine for people to enjoy kink in the bedroom and not in a lifestyle setting; but for me personally, especially when I was doing monogamy, it’s a deal-breaking difference from what I enjoy and crave.)

I was a little bit jaded towards the rules thing for a while after that. I wanted to feel small and subservient, but I didn’t want to feel shitty about myself. It took time, as well as listening to other people talk about their happy, fulfilling D/s, to warm back up to the idea of letting somebody else structure aspects of my life for me.

But when I did… oh boy.

I told my now-Daddy that I liked the idea of rules. We sketched some out with the intention of gently trialling them… and I never looked back. I suggested more. I typed them into a meticulously-formatted Google doc and sent the link, excitedly, to my girlfriend, who was overjoyed for me. I wrote a clause into them which specified that, should I want or need a beating, a humiliation scene or anything else, I could ask for one, rather than breaking a rule and dealing with the psychological sting of letting my Daddy down.

Hungover, I shuffle into my best friend’s kitchen to get my Daddy-sanctioned energy drink out of her fridge. She hands me a quesadilla on a Star Wars plate (because she is The Best), and I place it on the table, so I can take a photo. She doesn’t bat an eyelid, and we eat our breakfast in sleepy silence, one of us vanilla and one of us as kinky as they come, and both as content as each other.