Trial begins in Phoenix Goddess Temple prostitution case

Terence P Ward —  February 16, 2016 — 44 Comments

PHOENIX, Ariz. –When the Phoenix Goddess Temple was raided for prostitution in September 2011, the ensuing perp walk made headlines. The idea of a religion embracing sacred sexuality in this heavily Catholic area was too much to resist. After more than four years, the case against the temple’s leader, Tracy Elise, has finally reached trial. She agreed to speak with The Wild Hunt about the case as it has progressed thus far. An unexpected hiatus — due to a medical problem faced by the judge — gave her the opportunity.

Phoenix Goddess Temple members. [Jamie Peachey.]

“I’m facing 70 years in prison,” Elise said during a wide-ranging phone interview, “but I think I will be found innocent.” That’s because she is confident that the jurors recognize that the Phoenix Goddess Temple was never the brothel that prosecutors claimed. Instead, it is simply a place where a religion is practiced, albeit one that is quite different from what is generally considered sacred in this heavily Catholic city.

Jason Pitzl-Waters covered the case when it first broke in 2011, making international newswires:

It is now revealed that charges include prostitution, pandering, and conspiracy. Most reports I’ve read seem pretty confident that this was nothing but a brothel with a veneer of spirituality painted on as a legal smokescreen. I’ve never seen so many scare quotes being used in a mainstream newswire report before.

Those quotes included some from county attorney Bill Montgomery, who said at a press conference, “This was no more a church than Cuba was Fantasy Island.” It also included a statement from police spokesman Sergeant Steve Martos, who framed the temple operations as only semantically different than a brothel: “Instead of johns, they were called seekers. Instead of sexual intercourse, it was called sacred union. The women were not called prostitutes, they were called goddesses.” Over 30 people were arrested in the raids.

What Elise has come to believe in the years since is that the case against her temple was driven by a distinctly Roman Catholic bias, as personified by county attorney Montgomery. He wasn’t appointed to that position until November 2010. Prior to that, while there had been concerns raised by neighbors, city officials seemed satisfied that the temple practices were protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. While some of the prosecution witnesses, including Montgomery, were asked if they were Catholic, Elise said that the line of questioning was halted by the judge.

As to what exactly was going on in there, Elise does not shy away from the concept of sacred sexuality and its healing powers. “If someone is sincere in their beliefs, has a doctrine, and follows it consistently, then the state has the burden of proof,” she explained. That doctrine wove together goddess-focused Pagan rituals, tantric sexual practices, and Native American ceremonies overseen by the temple’s sponsoring organization, the Okleveuha Native American Church.

“I can’t do a seven-chakra rebalancing and ignore the red ray,” Elise said, using one of the terms she has for the root chakra, where the genitals are located. “If a man is starved for affection for whatever reason,” a woman in the temple’s sacred precincts might “receive him and unburden him” in a ritual as sacred as that conducted within a confessional booth, she said, and it’s no one’s business exactly what occurs between them, emotionally or physically. “He may love his wife completely, but they are not sexual. We’re not interested in stealing him away from her.”

Among the core tenets in the temple, Elise said, are self-sovereignty and “unconditional loving witness.”

Some defendants interviewed after being arrested maintained that they were not engaged in prostitution, and that intercourse did not even occur.  Elise did not say anything to contradict those assertions. Instead, she pointed to the various traditions of sacred sexuality that temple doctrine stems from, and maintains that the raids and ensuing charges should be characterized as a “hate crime” for its impact on the religious and healing work which was being done at the temple.

During the trial, Elise has brought in expert witnesses to show that the temple was in fact a place of legitimate religious practice, not the thinly-veiled prostitution ring it was described as in media accounts at the time. It is a position that was first brought up publicly in an article published in the Phoenix New Times; Elise referred to that report as an “attack.”  She maintains that none of the people arrested — who were mostly, but not exclusively, women — were coerced in any way, which she believes is a key difference between temple practices and prostitution.

The trial is expected to conclude this week.  Despite the heavy interest in 2011, news coverage this time around is decidedly lacking, fueling Elise’s belief that there is an orchestrated media blackout of the trial.

Terence P Ward


Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I hope the best for Elise and her co-defendants. Arizona is not the state where I would choose to defend the legality of sacred sexuality.With the passing of Justice Scalia it is suddenly important which federal circuit Phoenix is in. If an appeal is necessary the US Supreme Court is temporarily impaired in its function as the court of final appeal.

    • Hecate_Demetersdatter

      Arizona’s in the Ninth Circuit. SCOTUS can continue to hear appeals, assuming they grant cert. to a given case. It’s just that, with 8 Justices, if there’s a 4/4 split, the legal decision below stands. Not sure this case would get cert. in any event.

    • Arizona may be the exact state for this.

      Our new associate justice of the AZ Supreme Court is a libertarian.

  • Alicia Mison

    I’m sorry, but I am pagan and I have trouble believing this is not just thinly veiled prostitution. And I’m sure when the men of the town found out you could get a happy ending chakra alignment, there were plenty of customers there solely for the sex. Of course I live two towns over from a Zumba prostitution scandal, so maybe I’m cynical

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Alicia, have you any information about the Temple or the case that hasn’t come out in The Wild Hunt, to base your opinions on?

      • Telna

        I do. I met one of them 7 years ago. She claimed to be a massage therapist. It turns out she was a hooker with a made up religion where they ope your chakras starting with the root, i.e.: handjob. She said she got $200 and hour and the man got to worship the goddess through her skanky body. It’s called prostitution. They call it a religion to look legitimate. I hope they get the full sentence.

        • Verity

          By “one of them” do you mean one of the defendants? A member of this temple?

    • kenofken

      The Catholic Church in many locales and at essentially every major metropolitan diocese, has been a thinly veiled child sex trafficking operation for most of the last half century (that we know of). None of those perpetrators were in serious jeopardy of 70 years of prison time. Most lived out their lives with absolute impunity. I have a real hard time summoning deep moral outrage or disgust for something which, at worst, was a commercial transaction between consenting adults.

      • Whenever I hear one of my Pagan kin smugly referring to child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church like this–as if it were a particular province of the Catholic Church–I shudder.

        While the Catholic Church absolutely deserves condemnation for its cover-up, we’re kidding ourselves if we think there was something unique about being Catholic that made them vulnerable to pedophiles… but not us.

        I completely agree that sexual abuse is an entirely different thing than what was being practiced here, and that there is no moral comparison to be made. However, the more we allow ourselves to think of sexual abuse as a problem specific to other religious groups, the more we train ourselves to be blind to abuse within our own communities.

        I’m confident the Catholic Church thought of itself smugly as above all that, too. Hubris… Let’s not suffer from it more than we must…

        • Baruch Dreamstalker


        • kenofken

          I should make clear that I in no way suggest that sexual abuse is unique to the Catholic Church. The scale at which that organization enabled such abuse is absolutely unprecedented in modern history, but neither we nor any other religious movement is inherently immune to the problem. I have called my own community out more than once here and elsewhere over the abuse and harassment we have failed to address properly at festivals and other venues. Abuse scandals can and will crop up anywhere you have the elements of go-along-to-get along groupthink, lack of transparency and deferential treatment of celebrity/authority figures.

          But all of that is really pretty tangential to the topic at hand. I hold contempt for Catholicism in the temple case not because they are the only religion to get it wrong on abuse. I do so because of the utter hypocrisy of their sanctimony and self-righteous outrage and pretensions to act as guardians of “family values” by the zealous prosecution of consenting adults and the threat of penalties far greater than most murders or even child rapist ever face.

    • Damiana

      Maybe the happy endings really did realign their chakra. Wow, I really did just type that.

  • It’ll be interesting to see how they use the federal RFRA and Arizona’s state-level RFRA-style laws in their defense.

    • Damiana

      Yes. Would it be the first case of its kind to do so in the US?

      • If they use an RFRA-based defense, then probably it will be the first case of its kind the US. It all depends, though, on whether or not they can get a judge and jury to agree that RFRA applies to them.

        • Damiana

          Oh yes – a judge or jury agreeing it applies would be a huge step.

  • zormpas

    Whether or not one considers this prostitution, this underscores ONCE AGAIN that legislating so-called “morality” doesn’t work. A waste of taxpayer money.

  • Telna

    Nope. No way. I met one of these people. I went to a meditation meetup and this woman starts telling me that she’s a massage therapist. I asked her questions any massage therapist would ask, and she finally admitted that she does anyone with $200, but it was on a massage table, and also it was her “religion”. I worked really hard to become a massage therapist and I don’t appreciate skanks like that making it hard to be taken seriously. She said in her sex religion she has to open the chakras starting with the root. It’s all a cover for prostitution, that’s all. Made up BS and all. If they say it’s a religion then they get protection and legitimacy. As a pagan I’m pissed off at them because people like that make alternate religions look foolish. I hope they throw the book at the whole lot of them.

    • kenofken

      So what exactly what is it about human anatomy (and Pagan religion) that makes their manual stimulation of the pudendal nerve and associated brain circuits a contemptible act worthy of prison vs what you do?

      • Telna

        Is this a joke or something? Moral compass, anyone

        • Sylv Taylor

          For pagans in traditions which don’t have prohibitions against consensual adult relations, the ‘moral compass’ arguments are pointless; it’s not part of our ‘moral compass’ to care one way or the other if some number of willing adults are having consensual sex. Money being involved has no impact if the participants willingly chose to have sex.

        • kenofken

          It’s a serious question, and your deflection of it rests on a presumption that Christian morality is self-evident to us. You came to the wrong place for that, at least where this Pagan is concerned. Everything about their sexual ethics and theology is sick, twisted and hypocritical as far as I’m concerned. They pathologize nearly every form of sexual expression. They craft laws to crush women who exercise their sexual agency for financial gain even as men rake in billions for doing the same thing.

          And yes, I don’t see where “legitimate” massage therapy lies in some higher moral dimension than prostitution. If you’re a licensed therapist, you deserve credit for earning the knowledge and the title and claims to specific therapeutic modalities that others don’t have. But dopamine and serotonin are what they are regardless of what sensory nerves trigger their release.

    • Verity

      Telna, Again, when you say you met “one of these people,” are you referring to a defendant in this case, a member of this temple, or are you referring to a prostitute disguising themselves as a massage therapist and faking a religion. For the people in this case, it is a major distinction involving imprisonment for the better part of the rest of their lives. If you met a defendant in this case, your testimony would be vital; if you met a member of this temple, your testimony would be pertinent; if you met no one involved in this dispute, your testimony would not be relevant.

      If the latter is the case, your generalization is the equivalent of saying that because some Catholic priests have proved guilty of child molestation, all priests should automatically be jailed, i.e. “have the book thrown at them.” Just because you met someone who admitted hypocrisy does not mean, should never mean, that anyone practicing a religion in which sex is involved is automatically a faker or doing something illegal. Your own moral compass is not the rule by which everyone must judge a religion or religious practice.

      If, on the other hand, you met a defendant in this case or a member of this temple who admitted to faking religion to hide questionable business practice (you don’t actually say this was admitted, just that you presume it), then please be clear.

      But when speaking of a moral compass, please remember that you are opening the door to allow someone else to judge you by their own moral compass. And yours and theirs might be worlds apart.

    • HeTells AStory

      I have to say that your revulsion seems stronger than your reason, here. And really, “skank”? It’s hard to take you seriously when your objections seem to be rooted in a subjective sense of disgust.

      By the way, as a Pagan myself, I’m much more concerned about alternative faiths being made to look “foolish” by the trippy white-lighter decorated with 2 pounds of crystals and other jewelry and a habit of speaking to thin air as though she is the focal point of the universe’s enlightened attention.

      Oh, and as an American, I’m a believer in “innocent until proven guilty”, and in the concept of the government having to prove compelling interest in these cases before they can even begin.

  • …am I the only one who thinks that, even if this is a “thinly veiled prostitution ring”, so what? As long as no one was forced to participate and all the age of consent, I don’t see what’s wrong with prostitution. It’s legal in other parts of the country, as well as in other modern countries.

    At any rate, was curious how sacred sexuality and sacred prostitution would translate into modern times.

    • Verity

      It is an aside, but yes. I have often wondered the same. As George Carlin said, “Sex is legal, selling is legal, why isn’t selling sex legal?”

    • Damiana

      Aren’t there still sacred sex temples in parts of India?

  • Also WAS money exchanged for sex? The Wild Hunt article doesn’t say if money was ever exchanged.

    • Pauline

      According to the linked article “donations” were made.”… police seized evidence showing that “male and female ‘practitioners’ working at the Temple were performing sexual acts in exchange for monetary ‘donations,’ all on the pretense of providing ‘neo tantric’ healing therapies,” Phoenix police said.

      The alleged brothel generated tens of thousands of dollars a month, Martos told CNN.”

      Not sure how that will be interpreted, almost every religious organization I know of accepts “donations/offerings.”

  • Baron of Beef

    As much as people and wishful thinking may want the girls to get off the hook, the law does NOT protect them from procusion. just like animal sacrifice, and the use of illegal drugs are NOT protected under the Freedom of Religion. Their goose is cooked.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Animal sacrifice is protected, per a US Supreme Court decision late in the 20th century. Some use of drugs that are illegal for non-members is also protected. It’s not at all a radical departure to suggest that sacred sexuality might also be protected.Allec above asks the key question imho, which I will rephrase as: Who is hurt? In actual prostitution some folks are indeed hurt, but a lot of that has to do with it being illegal in the first place. I’ve seen one assertion that where prostitution is legalized there is an increase in human trafficking but have yet to see confirmation. I’m not sympathetic with the argument that the Temple makes the rest of us look bad. There’s no bottom to that slippery slope.

  • Damiana

    Mr. Ward – do you know if Elise would prefer more media for the trial, rather than this alleged black out? If she does want more coverage, would that be hard to get it going?

  • Wolfsbane

    [italic]”(Elise) She maintains that none of the people arrested — who were mostly, but not exclusively, women — were coerced in any way, which she believes is a key difference between temple practices and prostitution.”[/italic]
    Well Elise sounds as bigoted as the people she claims are prosecuting her and The Temple if she thinks that only way people get into prostitution is by coercion.
    Maybe this prosecution is the universe is attempting to educate her.

    • Damiana

      She’s actually making a distinction between what she did and pumping/pandering, not prostitution. With regard to prostitution, absent pimping/pandering, if there’s no pimp or madam, prostitution is very similar or maybe even the same as what is being alleged happened in the temple. It’s hard to know since the public doesn’t have access to where the money trail leads. But look at the charges – prostitution itself isn’t a serious charge, but organized prostitution is the real problem in this case, because that triggers conspiracy and other felonious charges.

  • Wolfsbane

    I think there a really simple way to determine whether these sort of operations are legitimate or not taking a practice from the British legal tradition. Barristers were paid by their clients slipping the payment in a pocket in the back of their robe so the barrister could not see how much they were being paid so it didn’t influence their performance. They had no recourse if they didn’t like the sum the client remitted.
    This could work for these Goddess Temple operations. Require them to have a locked box which their clients slipped payment sealed in a plain identical sealed white envelope containing whatever the client felt the service was worth to them. At the end of the month the box is opened by obtaining the key held by the key of the local LEO who inspects the box for signs of tampering so there’s not way to know which client paid what amount.
    My bet is that if this was what was required, you’d find that these Goddess Temple operations would just quietly fade away. No surprise there.

    • kenofken

      Generally the way to stay out of trouble with prostitution laws is to make sure you aren’t creating a direct linkage between the exchange of money and the delivery or guarantee of particular sexual services. There are swinger and other alternative sexuality clubs operating out of fixed buildings, homes and hotels all over the United States, including in the most prudish conservative states. When you go to one, you pay anywhere from $40 to $100 or more, with the higher prices usually reserved for single men. Some do have you put the “donation” into an envelope and place it yourself into a deposit box, others take the money directly. But they know what they’re getting in terms of dollars and they know who pays.

      The important thing is that you’re paying for the use of the facility and the party planning work of the host. Once you’re inside, what happens is a matter of private negotiation between people who are not giving or receiving money among themselves for sexual activities. Operators who stick by this model almost never get prostitution busts. The local cops are fully aware of their presence, and usually well-represented among the attendees. The local authorities sometimes find all sort of other creative ways to try to harass them out of business – zoning, liquor laws etc., but the financial dynamic is entirely legal. The only scenes I have known to get busted are those where the organizer contracts and pays women, usually professionals, a cut of the take or a flat fee to do everyone who buys a ticket.

      The smart way to do this within the context of a temple would be to make sure any money flows around, and not directly into, provision of sexual gratification. Have people pay a set annual membership and make sure that any additional freewill donations are made in times and ways not directly connected with sex or therapy sessions or private one on one rites or whatever you want to call them.

      If you want to do all this with additional protections of freedom of religion, you better make sure the whole thing functions as a religion the way the IRS measures it. Is there some discrete theology that gets into the big questions of existence? Is there some regular ritual calendar, teaching and pastoral activities, etc.? Religious freedom defenses are a tough shot under the best of circumstances, but the courts will at least have to consider them if you can show some depth and sincerity of belief.

      • Damiana

        The more serious legal repercussions have to do with tax evasion, lying on your tax forms and conspiracy. This is why it’s adding up to 70 years for this woman. Absent human trafficking, drugs and/money laundering (the latter often going hand in hand with tax evasion and conspiracy), being charged with conspiracy is very common, and so is tax evasion.

        • kenofken

          True, but none of it would be happening but for prostitution laws. Certainly legal businesses do get themselves in trouble for tax evasion, but when your core activity is criminalized, you more or less have to engage in tax dishonesty and conspiracy simply to avoid detection.

          • Damiana

            Yes – that’s exactly the point of keeping prostitution illegal, according to those who prefer to criminalize. Or rather, it’s one of many points.

    • Damiana

      That wouldn’t work because any payment for sexual touching as defined by law is illegal. This is why some BDSM work is legal. I don’t recall the specifics, but some years ago I did have a talk with a prosecutor about the illegal vs legal work.

  • Segomâros Widugeni

    How exactly does one tell a brothel from a neo-tantric temple? How does one tell sacred sex from prostitution masquerading as sacred sex? How does one tell which people had sincerely held beliefs, of what kind, and which did not? Unless the police have developed the power to read minds, these perps should walk.

    • “Perps”? And you don’t see that as rushing to judgement?

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      If I were turned loose in a suspect institution and asked to discern if it was a brother or a neo-tantric temple I would look for ritual that seemed serious to its participants, staff facilities for meditation, the affect of the off-duty staff, the actions one could secure if the payment were high enough, the affect of the management in communicating with the staff — stuff like that. Of course I’ve simply elaborated the classic “I know it when I see it” definition of obscenity, but it’s the best answer I could come up with.

    • Perhaps by an unbiased and transparent investigation?