IT'S A STEAMY SUMMER NIGHT and the fetishists are out in force. Despite the heat, they are dressed up in their best, tightest leather and rubber, and have gathered at Moody's in downtown Portland. 300400who knows how many people fill the multiple floors of this surprisingly large club, and it's not even midnight.

Not far from the entrance a stage show is going on, where a succession of nude women are hoisted into the air via a network of elaborate rope riggings. In the more private play area, where sadomasochists enact their solemn rituals on each other, a dumpy man in a leather vest is applying clothespins to his girlfriend'serrexcuse me, "slave's" tits. Near the long bar, a man is applying green liquid latex to the naked torso of a beautiful blond exotic dancer in black leather mini skirt and matching black boots. A trembling, bland male is standing near her. He screws up his courage and asks her where she got her boots. As a come-on it's pathetic in such a sexually charged atmosphere as this, but what's even more pathetic is that he really only wants to know where she got her boots. He'd ask her permission to lick them but these things have to be taken a step at a time.

There's only one problem with the previous scenario. It all happened years ago. It's a portrait of what Portland's fetish nights were like in the mid-'90s. People who were conspiring, intentionally or not, to create a secret society utterly strange to the passersby on the street just a few feet outside. But that was then; this is now. Moody's has been renamed. Fetish Night is only on every third Sunday at Berbatis--and without public play areas or the sense of urgency and liberation. So what has happened to the blossoming SM scene we once knew and loved?

One person who resists this creeping blandness is Tushell Lieberman, of Bad Attitude--a store specializing in leather goods and sex toys on SE Belmont. A force of nature, this petite fireball was an original organizer of the Fetish Nights in the '90s, and she's keeping the spirit alive with a fetish show called Alice in Bondage Land on Saturday July 29th, at Pine St. Theater (215 SE 9th).

Like the events of the past, Bondage Land is a blend of play party, skits, disco, and carnival (see sidebar for a preview). Her goal with these events is not necessarily to promote her shop, but to "turn on the planet" and break down prejudices. She likes the idea of the "strangest, creepiest pervert standing next to an ultra-conservative person and they are laughing at the same things, showing how much they have in common."

Lieberman could have an uphill battle. The advent of Portland's fetish scene may have been a godsend to some, but a minority of onlookers ended up disappointed. Says one former scenester who relocated to California, "The SM community in Portland is relatively small. It's cliquish. They're exactly the kind of people who would have been loners in high school." When you get right down to it, he adds, "despite all the rules and rituals and consensual stuff, it's still about sex. It's trying to get laid. A different kind of laid, but still laid. It should be easier than it is."

Mr. California isn't the only embittered would-be slave. Says a still-local boy who tried the scene for a while, "It's fine if you are 'in.' I tried to get in and find what I wanted, but I didn't have the right look, the right clothes, the right personality to satisfy the insiders."

Pouty in Portland may be suffering from the upscale direction of the SM template. In a January 18 article, Annalee Newitz addressed the issue of SM going too mainstream. "Like other renegade subcultures, SM is gradually becoming gentrified. This is partly economic--getting flogged on a Friday night isn't as cheap as it used to be. Dozens of exclusive sex stores have popped up...Certain clubs even enforce a pricey dress code." SM gentrified? What kind of weird world are we living in?

Not everyone agrees that Portland fetish activity is in a lull. Mistress Tasha Valkris, for one, disputes the notion. "Actually, the local BD/SM scene has grown leaps and bounds within the past eight years. There are all types of local, private parties and group identification get-togethers." But does she think the public Fetish Night events are still vital? "If you're asking me about fetish nights at any number of local nightclubs, as opposed to some of the things I just mentioned, I'd have to say no. Most of the people who go to these public parties like to do a different kind of SM--Stand and Model. It's true that most newbies seeking out the local SM community find their way to these fetish nights first. But at this point Portland offers many other avenues that are safer for the person seeking out BD/SM."

Andy Mangels, longtime fetish community leader and activist, and publisher of IN UNIFORM Online (, offers an alternate explanation. "Some of the change has come about due to the Internet. It's now easier to meet people with like-minded interests in chat rooms and subscription lists, and more ability to discuss private interests and fantasies prior to face-to-face contact."

If there is a perceived reduction in public fetish night activity, there's a reason for it, according to Darklady, a local freelance writer. "Not to point out the blindingly obvious, but Portland isn't LA or San Francisco. Our sex-positive communities are different, more low-key and lifestyle- oriented." Michael Marks, secretary of the Portland Leather Alliance (www.pdxleatheralliance,org), a support organization for the leather/BDSM/Kink/Fetish community, agrees, and adds: "Financial considerations remain the chief reason why public play in Portland tends to be absent at present. Larger cities with larger SM communities are better equipped s sustain community play spaces. Portland has had community play spaces in the past. However, the relatively small population of the metro area makes this option unfeasible at present. For-profit clubs can attract undesirable types who have no connection to the organized SM community."

So what advice are we to give to angry, disappointed losers such as Mr. Bitter in California? "Obtaining an invitation to private play parties in Portland is not very difficult," Mark says. "As long as an individual attends regularly scheduled social events and/or educational forums such as the RCDC (Rose City Discussion Club), and gets to be known within the community, the hosts of at least one biweekly pansexual play party are happy to invite that person into their home."

There's also another factor that affects the core action of a public fetish party; SM practitioners are generally the sort of people who don't want a lot of attention drawn to themselves. Says one local dominatrix, "There's a certain thrill to going public that some of my clients like, but you have to be very careful. Private parties are 'public' in their own way, too, but in a much more controlled environment than fetish nights, where who knows what can wander in the door, and laugh at you in a way that isn't exactly erotic."

But regardless of the fun to be had at private parties, like everyone else, SMers still like to occasionally step out and have some fun. And Lieberman's Alice in Bondage Land is a perfect case in point. As Darklady says, "We still love a good show, and Tushell's certainly been serving them up whenever she's been able to do so. I think she provides valuable service to the community--and the shows are just a lot of fun for everyoneperformers and guests."