On a porch in Los Angeles last summer, my friend Liv told me her ‘only goal is to become proof that God exists’. I thought this was an improvement because before this Liv talked about becoming God. She was impatient with her station, she wanted to ‘transcend my person’. Liv’s ideas about Godliness had mostly come from outside sources – from the Good News Bible to professional motivational spiritual spokespeople, like Abraham Hicks and Mooji, or friends she met at satsang in India. She doesn’t believe she could become it on her own.
A few years ago, my life and Liv’s were cycling in parallel. We were in our mid and mid-to-late 20s (I’m older), and trying to learn to do nothing, after dead-ending in our ambitions to do journalism. We were both bedroom studying Western, non-Western, and Western appropriations of non-Western spiritual and religious teachings as we bopped between New York, Los Angeles, our respective hometowns, and self-sought retreats: she went to India, I got to the Bay, Baja and Oaxaca. We were smoking wads of weed, meditating, and using our femininity, more and less explicitly, to provide ourselves with rent, food, gadgets, travel, and ‘love’, or attention. We were also communicating, a lot. It was in the thick haze of this that I became fascinated with the Phoenix Goddess Temple.
In 2011, journalist Niki D’Andrea, writing for the Phoenix New Times, a free local paper in Phoenix, Arizona, published an article about a local establishment that offered ‘sacred healing’ and ‘teaching’. The leaders of this establishment, the Phoenix Goddess Temple, claimed it was a church; their religion was based on Tantra and Goddess worship. What D’Andrea witnessed and relayed was a prostate massage, a handjob and vaginal fingering, delivered and received by younger-middle-aged people, in a space filled with New Age art and suggested donation baskets. D’Andrea’s article likened the Temple to ‘New Age Prostitution’, which, according to later reporting, got the cops’ attention. They started an investigation, and within months the Phoenix Goddess Temple was raided.
By 2016, when I started reading about it, Tracy Elise, the Phoenix Goddess Temple ‘mother’, had already been convicted. Though dozens were arrested alongside her, they were either not charged or took pleas, so only Elise stood trial. She defended herself. Courtroom footage of a white blonde in her fifties interrogating a fellow sacred sex practitioner as witness to her defense includes the following exchange:
‘So do you agree that an orgasm is an energy event?’ Elise asked witness Nadine Sabulsky, a ‘Naked Life Coach’, and former priestess in her Temple, on the stand.
‘There are different kinds of orgasms …’ Sabulsky replied, sitting beside Judge Sherry Stephens, also white blonde and estimated by me to be in her fifties (she got her Bachelor’s in 1977). ‘And yeah, it’s always an energetic event. But there are also purely energetic orgasms. There are also other forms of orgasms, such as mental orgasms, which we call epiphanies. They all have the same effect, both energetically and chemically, in my … to my knowledge.’
‘So another way is …’ Elise rejoined, skipping words, as she was apt to do when she got excited in court, ‘something new comes in and we’re released from something that’s holding us in place? A new idea – an epiphany – releases you from being stuck in your brain?’
‘Yeah or it subtly clicks into place everything that you know separately,’ Nabulsky concluded. ‘It puts it into the puzzle, so you can see the whole picture’.
Tracy Elise was once a housewife in Alaska; a practicing Catholic, mother to three young kids.
‘I remember I was in my little tract home, folding laundry,’ she told Phoenix Magazine in 2010, ‘watching this A&E documentary about Simone de Beauvoir, about all the lovers she had, and thinking, “I’m never going to have that kind of life, that kind of excitement”.’
Elise left her husband in 1995, when she was 35. She moved to Seattle, where she began working as a masseuse and studying Tantra. She founded the Phoenix Goddess Temple in 2008. In an inaugural newsletter, titled ‘Mother Sez’, she laid out some of her Temple’s core beliefs:
‘We revere the human body,’ she wrote, ‘as our gift from the Mother Goddess, which gives the soul all opportunity to play and learn on planet Earth.’
And: ‘Orgasm is a Holy moment, when Heaven and Earth merge in the body as “Paradise right now”.’
I met Tracy Elise’s son Benjamin Wade in August 2018 in Venice Beach, California. Nothing’s been published since Tracy Elise’s conviction in spring 2016, and what was published before then was mostly in local and trash news (FOX 10 News Phoenix, ABC15 Arizona, The Daily Mail).
I’d tried reaching out to many affiliated with the case, including witness Nadine Sabulsky, the journalists who covered it at the Phoenix New Times, as well as through all online portals branded ‘Phoenix Goddess Temple’. Tracy Elise’s son, Ben, who happens to live in LA now, was the only one to reply.
When we sat down, at Cafe Gratitude on Rose Avenue (my suggestion: there’s always seating, it’s relatively quiet, and I know where the exits are), I told him, ‘I’m going to take notes, and might start audio recording.’ Wade didn’t seem worried about it. This worried me. I always try my best to do no harm, but this is a treacherous profession.
Benjamin Wade stood close by his mother for the lead up and the whole of what he said was ‘a 200-hour trial’. He frequently spoke to the press and on social media on her and the Temple’s behalf, advocating for their freedom. I thought this might have given them credibility – America loves families – but my more cynical take is that they were screwed from the beginning. Tracy Elise was tried for prostitution and for running a brothel, among many other counts. She faced 70-plus years in prison at the beginning, and will end up serving around three. She was convicted in March 2016, when Trump was still one of three Republican Presidential nominees, and she’ll get out on March 11, 2019. ‘That’s time served,’ said Wade.
Throughout the trial, and to this day, Tracy Elise and her family of allies, who plan on appealing (‘and we’ll win,’ Wade believes, ‘at the Supreme level’) insist that what she and the Temple were practicing was not illegal (prostitution), because it was sacred (part of their religion). The ‘suggested donations’ they accepted were on behalf of their Church – tithings, not fees. And though they engaged in sex or sexuality, nudity and touch, it was all in a spiritual capacity. Elise wanted to claim ‘freedom of religion’, protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which also includes those bits about freedom of speech and of the press, as in:
‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’
But she couldn’t find a lawyer who wanted to risk leading such a case, and the local court wouldn’t admit the defense when Elise optioned to represent herself.
‘We’re not viewing this in any way as somehow protected by the First Amendment,’ Maricopa county attorney Bill Montgomery stated. ‘This is not religious expression. This is a criminal activity and those responsible thought they were being too clever by half by coming up with different terms.’
The terms he’s referring to include ‘seeker’, ‘sacred union’, ‘full body contact’, ‘tantric touch’, ‘goddess’, ‘priestess’, ‘wands of light’, and ‘donations’ – all used by the Temple and its practitioners. (‘Wands of light’ are penises, or rather the ‘energy’ or ‘light’ that moves through them. ‘The same light moves through us all,’ Wade told me.) By Montgomery’s take, these terms were designed to occlude what’s really going on: the direct exchange of sex for money, which is illegal in most of the United States, including Arizona. Elise, Wade, and others involved with the Temple persist in their belief that what they were doing is different, and that the language they chose to use is critical to that difference.
When I first came across the Phoenix Goddess case, I wrote an artist I know for his take. This artist is involved in sex worker rights and activism in Canada, where I’m from, and has made art on the subject. He also studies religion. This artist supports the legalisation of prostitution, and thought Tracy Elise’s want for a religious defense was a lost opportunity to strengthen the cause he supports. He would have preferred that Elise shocked the American public with a statement like: Yes, what I engaged with was prostitution, it was also sacred and safe, occurring between consenting adults, and this should be legal.
From the inception of her Temple through her prosecution, Tracy Elise frequently made affiliations to ‘temple priestesses’ and the long herstory of ‘sacred prostitution’ with its figures like Inanna, the Sumerian goddess and ‘Queen of Heaven and Earth’, of love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, war, justice and political power.
Stories and hymns to Inanna (also known as Ishtar) date back to 2000 BC. In one hymn, her father, Enki, the God of Wisdom, gets drunk and mouthy with his goddess daughter, and bestows her with a plethora of blessings:
‘In the name of my power! In the name of my holy shrine! To my daughter Inanna I shall give Truth! Descent into the underworld! Ascent from the underworld! The art of lovemaking! The kissing of the phallus!’
Inanna takes everything he has to offer, which in my Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer edition of the hymns amount to 70 gifts, among them: ‘godship, deceit, the art of power, the art of the hero, the art of kindness, travel, the secure dwelling place, the perceptive ear, the power of attention, fear, dismay, procreation, the giving of judgments, the making of decisions, the plundering of cities, the art of forthright speech, the art of slanderous speech, the art of prostitution, the rejoicing of the heart, and the cult prostitute.’
‘We thought we were re-creating the ancient goddess temples [of past millenia] ,’ Tracy Elise told the Phoenix New Times in 2016, ‘and I believe we were. I’ve never felt so empowered as when I helped a man.’
I got into the Phoenix Goddess Temple case during a phase when Inanna’s hymns lived by my bedside. Recommended to me by poet, artist and astrologer Ariana Reines, the hymns delighted me, and helped; Inanna is a feminine role model of having it all (in the holiest sense). She embodies a breadth of human experience, from pleasure and power to construction and procreation, giving and thinking.
I was also, around then, first reading Riane Eisler, a cultural historian and lawyer, who excavated and represented historical precedents of Goddess worship and ‘partnership culture’ (cooperative, respectful, interdependent, gender balanced society) in her books The Chalice and the Blade and Sacred Pleasure.
Following from that reading, I was underlining The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth by Monica Sjöö and poet Barbara Mor, with its passages like:
‘Mature development – does not come from severing the early infantile sense of unity with the Mother, but from reestablishing it. The holistic point of ancient women’s religion was that the Mother is not one’s personal maternal parent solely, but the entire community of women, the entire living earth, and beyond this the entire surrounding and ongoing cosmic process. One could not be alienated because one is always within this process, as it is always within the self. Unless, of course, such knowledge is suppressed from the outside, by patriarchal conditioning.’
When I hyperlinked to Tracy Elise’s YouTube channel, in 2016, I was prepared to be on her side. Like her, I now believed that sex is sacred, is a spiritual practice, and that what the world needs now is love of a maternal, Gaian force. I’d also had, by accident at first, started to practice what witness Nadine Sabulsky referred to as ‘energy orgasms’. Sensual more than sexual, but also sexual, though not so genital, these were experiences occurring in meditative/spiritual contexts, wherein it was as if my whole body, including a substance that feels like the soul, would rise, crescendo, and then swim in a pool of still pleasure. I came by my breath and instinctual pelvic contractions, alone, sober and mindful. After, I’d be blissful for weeks. My anger, anxiety and addictive tendencies abated. As I understood it, it was this level of spiritual-sexual encounter that the Phoenix Goddess Temple tried to offer.
While I tried to be lowkey about my new New Age-y I’m a Goddess beliefs because I knew the cliché, and how it sets you up to be written off, my friend Liv went off. She grew up Evangelical (me, intellectual/Agnostic), so proselytising righteousness was normal to her. Liv wasn’t embarrassed to quote religious celebrities, or declare that her only ambition was to become Godly to people she’d just met at a party.
Come 2016, we held similar beliefs, traded mystic poetry and prayers daily, but only Liv had the art of forthright speech. I appreciated both her and the kooky news figure of Tracy Elise, who happens to look a lot like Liv – Liv would be played by Laura Dern circa Wild At Heart, and Tracy by Laura Dern in Enlightened – for their earnest loquacious conviction, for boldly speaking truths I kept to myself out of fear or cynicism, or self-protection.
During our Cafe Gratitude meeting, Benjamin Wade told me that he wants to make a TV show out of his mother’s court proceedings. There are over 200 hours of footage, including testimonies from James Warren ‘Flaming Eagle’ Mooney, a Native American from Utah, who blessed the Temple, as well as Dennis Hof, the brothel-owning star of the HBO’s Cathouse, who was recently, posthumously elected to the Nevada State Assembly. Hof owned seven legal brothels in Nevada, including the Love Ranch, where Lamar Odom, Khloe Kardashian’s N.B.A. star husband overdosed, and where Hof himself was found dead in October 2018, two days after his 72nd birthday. Pornstar Ron Jeremy discovered the body. ‘I think he died in the saddle,’ Jeremy told TMZ. They’d been partying all night. ‘He took this cute little Latin girl in the back… Said we’re gonna go have some fun.’ Cause of death is believed to be cardiac arrest.
When I first met Wade, Hof was still alive and running as a Republican for the Nevada Assembly, calling himself the ‘Trump from Pahrump’ (that’s the unincorporated town in Nevada). Like President Donald Trump, Hof was bloated, jowly, rich, white, and repeatedly accused of sexual assault and rape. The accounts, detailed in this New Yorker article, are horrifying. Despite these accusations, and despite being three weeks dead, Hof was elected on November 6, 2018. American utility executive Gregory Hafen II has since been assigned the position.
Hof was called in as an expert witness on brothels and prostitution by Tracy Elise as part of her 2016 self-defense. ‘I look at you as more of a healer or educator,’ he said to her in court. And after, Hof told the media:
‘I think my testimony, showed that Tracy wasn’t running a house of prostitution. If it’s just about sex, why would [guys] have sex with a 60-year-old when they could get it for the same price with a 20-year-old?’
In New York this summer, a week before I met Wade at Cafe Gratitude, I met a young woman who had recently helped brief would-be Governor of New York Cynthia Nixon on a bill that many activists, writers, and politicians are arguing will endanger sex workers, violate free speech, and make more difficult what it claims to be for: the prosecution of sex traffickers.
The ‘Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act’ and the ‘Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act’, aka SESTA / FOSTA, were passed in February 2018. The Acts make online platforms potentially criminally and civilly liable if they’re found to ‘promote or facilitate prostitution’. Meaning websites, like Craigslist and Backpage, where third-party users exchanged information on sex work, even if that information was harm reductive and educational, could be charged with something unknown as of yet, and so these sites are preemptively shutting pages and exchanges down. This risks leaving vulnerable populations all the more vulnerable.
Everyone I’ve known who has sugar babied, escorted, and even stripped relied on online blogs and forums to protect themselves: exchanging, for instance, their contact information with other babies/escorts so they could share their locations when going on dates, or calling out predatory, violent, and abusive clients, posting these men’s usernames, telephone numbers, and pictures, so people would know to avoid them.
Wade hadn’t heard of SESTA / FOSTA, but that didn’t surprise me. Tracy Elise and her cohort never aligned themselves with contemporary sex workers rights.
I asked Wade if he and his mom ever considered speaking the language of the local Phoenix criminal justice system, ‘playing by their rules, taking a plea, for instance, rather than fighting, so as to get served as little punishment as possible, and just move on?’ He repeated a version of what Tracy Elise kept repeating during her trial: ‘I’m doing this for spiritual purposes,’ Elise said, ‘what I think is going to affect the light of my soul, and where I go later. After life, before life, what does my soul have to do.’
Like Etty Hillesum and Joan of Arc, Elise felt called to a higher cause, to stand up for her beliefs, mother-martyr-like. I saw her as The Fool figure from the Tarot: arms and gaze stretched up to the sky, ignorant of the precipice at her feet that she risks stepping into. The cloaks Elise wore in court could’ve come from the Tarot: regal, colorful and comfortable. Female lawyers are already scrutinised for their appearance. Skirt versus pants, and heels versus flats, are judged as evidence of competence. I can only imagine what the jury, prosecution, and Judge Sherry Stephens made of Elise’s rainbow monochrome get-ups, and bindi.
When I followed up with Ben Wade in the first days of 2019, he told me that his mom has held her strength and her light throughout her time served, that she has been leading worship circles and is seen as a leader in the community. She has also been studying law in prison.
‘She’s filing her motions,’ he said, ‘learning to speak the language of the law rather than that of logic and truth.’
I wondered why there wasn’t more news coverage of the Phoenix Goddess Temple case, something at least semi-serious in the Times or New Yorker, or a leftie or feminist hottake on a blog? When I mentioned this to Wade, he replied: ‘Media blackout. The good ol' boys club. You can’t have a woman in court going, “I’m a sovereign!” It raises way too many questions.’
‘Note that the State didn’t charge any of the men,’ Wade continued (‘the men’ meaning ‘the seekers’ the Temple serviced). ‘They only pursued us.’
I’d forgotten to note this, because it was so obvious. What I had noticed was that most of the men described in early articles about the Temple as ‘seekers’, as well as those pictured in photo documentation from its pre-raid years, looked like the police officers and prosecuting court attorney in Phoenix, like Donald Trump, Dennis Hof, and all the prospective ‘sugar daddies’ I had met.
‘When this happened to us,’ Wade went on, ‘the people who run the city of Phoenix, were all old white men, all Catholic. Arizona’s still a good ol' boys club, but that’s changing. Now at least, in Phoenix, there’s a Native American woman on the city board of directors. I feel like we’re part of the new world, the new way of being. We’re a solution to all the chaos. When the world crumbles, what we were doing at the Temple is gonna be like, this is how we be together.’
‘On the last day of the trial, the prosecution said, “If Ms. Elise walks out of here, there will be a Goddess Temple on every corner of America.” So let’s do that! Let the free market decide! We're here to empower women, and that's through their sexual authority.’
It is January 2019. Tracy Elise will be released from the Perryville prison in Goodyear, Arizona in two months. It takes longer than that to get approved to make calls to an inmate, so I asked Ben Wade if he could help me secure a statement from his mother. All I know about the area of Arizona that Elise is in is what author Natasha Stagg told me – that it’s very beige, and very hot. I know it’s likely that something I’ve quoted in this piece about Elise, a fact from local news or a spiritual blog, is wrong. What I want is her voice. On January 11, 2019, Wade recorded the following statement:
‘Hello beloved Temple family and strangers who care. This is Dr. Tracy Elise, mystic mother of the Phoenix Goddess Temple and elder of the Oklevueha Native American Church. It is indeed darkness before the dawn, but please do not be discouraged. We are seven years into a legal challenge, which is the only way to set precedent for our religion to exist in larger society.
‘To win in court, you must refuse a plea bargain, and I did. To win, you must endure running at the Superior Court level, and I did. Upholding constitutional protection for our religious freedom can only be accomplished through our current appellate process. To establish our healing Temple in all 50 states requires us to take this case all the way to the Supreme Court, and I stand ready to accomplish this.
‘I’m proud to say that the physical exhibit and sworn testimony in the trial record are exactly what is needed to prevail in this appeal. The seven year delay says more about the broken criminal justice process than it says about the viability of our case. I know that the Goddess Justitia, Roman goddess of justice, will eventually overturn the two thousand year old prejudice against the sacred feminine. I am honoured to serve our community and ask for your prayers as I continue on this mission.
‘First of all, we will return to the healing power of nature with the Oklevueha Native American Church. We will restore women’s wisdom and spiritual authority by rebuilding the Phoenix Goddess Temples and we will rebalance male and female energy and resurrect the ancient Tantric teachings of sacred sexuality that can stop sex abuse worldwide. Visit GoddessBless.org for updates and to lend your support. Hashtag Team Goddess Bless. Hashtag goddess in exile. Hashtag mystic mother priestess Tracy Elise. Hashtag mystic mavericks. The world needs these temples.’
Fiona Alison Duncan is an LA-based Can-American writer, bookseller, and organizer. She is the organizing host of Hard to Read, a monthly lit series, and Pillow Talk, community organising on sex, love, and communication, both held at The Standard hotels in Los Angeles.