PHOENIX GODDESS TEMPLE TIMELINE
1961: Tracy Elise was born.
1995: Elise divorced her husband, left her family, and moved to Seattle to pursue her spiritual interests.
2000: Elise began to develop the spiritual path that subsequently led to the establishment of the Phoenix Goddess Temple.
2002-2005 (June 21): Elise developed relationships with and credentials in a series of spiritually oriented groups.
2005: Elise established the Sedona Temple School of International Arts in 2005.
2008: Elise founded the Phoenix Goddess Temple in a residence in Scottsdale, Arizona.
2011: The Phoenix Goddess Temple received a conditional use permit from the Sedona city officials.
2011: Local police in Phoenix raided the temple based on allegations that the church was a brothel. Numerous arrests of Temple affiliates were made; the Temple was shut down.
2015: Elise received an honorary doctoral degree from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.
2016 (March): Elise was found guilty on a series of prostitution-related charges and sentenced to prison.
2019 (March): Elise was released from prison and continued her efforts to protest and overturn her conviction.
Tracy Elise [Image at right] founded the Phoenix Goddess Temple of Phoenix, Arizona in 2008. Fifty-year-old Elise, who serves as the church’s Mother Priestess, is a former housewife who previously resided with her devout Catholic husband and their three children in Fairbanks, Alaska. There Elise won Miss Harvest Queen at the State Fair and attended the local Pentecostal church, “where she says she spoke in tongues and served as precinct captain for Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential bid” (Best 2010). Largely as a result of her intense spiritual discontent, Elise reports, she divorced her husband and left her family in 1995. She has identified a particular moment that impelled her to relinquish her conventional lifestyle: “‘I remember I was in my little tract home, folding laundry, 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,” she says’” (Best 2010). According to her brief biographical statement, she
…began her temple healing work on the High Holy Day Imbolc, Feb. 2, 2000, entering a covenant to serve the Celtic Goddess of Healing Brigid. In 2002 she was ordained Healer & Guide by Spiritual Healers & Earth Stewards. The Venusian Church offered a charter & ordination to her Light Body Temple in 2003. She led a group practice in Seattle as the School of One, and founded the Mystic Sisters Priestess Path in 2005, which trains and ordains women to embody the sacred feminine in Whole Body Healing Magnetic Touch (Elise n.d.)
Elise established the Sedona Temple School of International Arts in 2005 and then opened the Phoenix Goddess Temple in Scottscale and subsequently in Phoenix, a Neo Tantra, non-denominational and multi-faith “life force energy temple” created “to teach people about the sacred feminine aspect of the creator” (McMahon n.d.). In 2011, the Phoenix Goddess Temple received a conditional use permit from the Sedona city officials (“Sedona Use Permit Upheld” 2011). The organization had already received IRS 501c3 non-profit status. It appears that the Goddess Temple operated openly and with limited opposition for several years. However, in March 2011 the New Times carried a cover story describing the Phoenix Goddess Temple as “nothing more than a New Age brothel” (Stern 2016), A police investigation of the Temple was then launched that led to the arrest of Elise [Image at right] and other Temple staff members and a shutdown of the temple in September 2011
The case dragged on for about five years before a trial was actually conducted. In 2016, after a trial that lasted over forty days, Elise was convicted on nineteen counts of criminal conduct. Sentences for the various offenses were allowed to run concurrently, which meant that Elise was sentenced to four and a half years. Since she had already served 305 days of jail time, her additional prison sentence was three and a half years. She was also ordered to serve four years of probation following release from prison. Elise was released after serving her sentence in March 2019.
Elise identifies her religion as Tantra and states that the church offers lessons in “whole body healing,” available through a variety of class offerings and with the aid of various practitioners or touch healers. The Phoenix Goddess Temple website describes the temple’s mission in the following way: “Our temple is an open source for all who wish to better know the Great Mother and her unique gifts for healing body, mind and soul. We seek to help women, men and couples discover their own divine connection between soul, light body and sacred vessel…. Our teachings are body centric, emanating from the resonating vessel, which is your own Sacred Self” ( Phoenix Goddess Temple n.d.).
In the Temple’s November, 2008 “Mother Sez” newsletter, Elise enumerated the church’s core beliefs and objectives as follows:
“We help people recognize, sense, play with, direct and finally master their life force energy.”
“We work with many energy systems, the primary model being the Chakra Ladder of Light, which is recognized for over 5000 years by the Hindu, the Egyptians and Tibetan Buddhists.”
“We revere the human body as our gift from the Mother Goddess, which gives the soul all opportunity to play and learn on planet Earth.”
“We believe in the power of Now and in the power of authentic witness, one soul to another.”
“Orgasm is a Holy moment, when Heaven and Earth merge in the body as ‘ Paradise right now’, before, during and after orgasm we feel connected to God/Goddess and all of Creation.”
The Tantric emphasis of the feminine as well as the masculine aspect of God features prominently in Elise’s discourse. She notes that little is taught “about the feminine face of God” and avows that “we believe that sacred sexuality and wholesomeness in sexual energy emanates from the woman” (McMahon). She also maintains that the temple and its healing ceremonies empower women.
Elise emphasizes the centrality of Tantra to Phoenix Goddess Temple (Sitchin 2019):
Tantra practice is fully aware that the universe flows from 1 Source. The Divine One expresses through 2 types of energies as Yin, which magnetically attracts and receives and Yang, which actively sends forth creation power. Modern science and ancient mystery schools agree that duality/polarity is the foundational process through which all existence comes into form. In Magnetic Tantra, we bring these polarized energies into balance, within ourselves and in our relations with the outer world. This delivers the bliss of orgasmic connection to even the ‘ordinary’ events in our lives.
Magnetic Tantra is a kind of ‘instant bliss’ in which the chakra centers in your hands create immediate sensations of peace, unity and eternity.
In some cases, but infrequently, individual healers have claimed more extraordinary powers. One of the temple’s touch healers, Wayne Clayton, has laid claim to divine or miraculous powers: “He says one of his clients in Chicago lost a breast to cancer, and after several healing sessions with him, she grew her breast back. He says another woman in Chicago, this one suffering from cervical cancer and a subsequent hysterectomy, grew her female organs back through energy work” (D’Andrea 2011).
The Temple describes its rituals as follows: “As a Neo Tantra Temple, we bring together many traditions which guide us into right and loving use of the life force within our bodies. As Priests & Priestesses, we conduct this heavenly light into the physical plane, likewise, we lift form into higher frequencies of heaven! This up-down pillar of light exchanges continuously between heaven and earth, body, soul and Source ( Phoenix Goddess Temple n.d.)
The temple’s central rituals consist of the various Tantra classes or healing ceremonies offered to “seekers.” These are organized into introductory, intermediate and advanced levels and involve instruction from or interaction with a practitioner. Female practitioners are referred to as “goddesses” [Image at right] and generally assume goddess identities such as Shakti, Isis and Aphrodite. Male practitioners are commonly called “touch healers.” According to the Temple website, the church healers “seek to help women, men and couples discover their own divine connection between soul, light body and sacred vessel” and “offer group classes and one-on-one teachings and training, play shops and internships,” all meant to “make use of the gifts of the Goddess” and allow seekers to, among other things, “feel the light of your own soul” and “feel the chakra wheels spinning your self into physical existence.”
The ten thousand square foot temple houses a reception area, a Transformation Chamber which seekers enter to remove their clothing prior to instruction from one of the temple’s goddesses or male practitioners, and healing chambers, which contain “high altars” and “altars of light.” These sessions typically feature a lengthy massage with oils, sacred herbs and crystals, to stimulate the chakras, and frequently culminate in sexual stimulation and orgasm.
The centrality of sexual stimulation to Temple therapy is evident on its website. For example, the website listed (prior to its being taken down) a number of specific Tantra-based therapies:
Tantric Temple Dance:
The dancer channels her movements based on the energy you need, so it’s very healing as well. Once she raises your energy, she works with you one-on-one using massage, breath & undulation techniques to move the heightened sexual energy through your entire body. You may feel tingling sensations, or waves of orgasmic energy flowing from your head to your toes.
Double Goddess Sessions:
Almost all of the sessions can be ‘doubled’. But we don’t recommend starting off with a Double Goddess session if you are a novice in the area of Tantra. These sessions can be quite intensive, possibly dangerous if you are not used to running high levels of Tantric energy.
The Art of Divine Touch:
Level Three will teach you how to give your woman the 3000 year old Tantric Sacred Spot Healing Massage, (G-spot), opening her up to her full orgasmic potential. You will also have an opportunity to review the Yoni Massage as well if you have taken that session.
The specific form of Tantra practiced at the Temple is Magnetic Tantra, which incorporates elements from a number of tantric and other spiritual traditions. Elise highlights features of Magnetic Tantra as follows (Elise 2019) :
Feel the light of your soul in your solar plexus
Discover your light body & your chakra energy centers
Play with the magnificent polarity between 2 beings
Learn to deliberately create closed conduits for the flow of life force between yourself and your lover
Discern how the electric polarity between men & women affects everything that happens in our relating to one another.
Tantra practice is fully aware that the universe comes from 1 Source.
The Divine One expresses through 2 types of energies: Yin, which magnetically attracts and receives and Yang, which actively sends forth power.
Magnetic Tantra goes beyond philosophy and delves into creating energy awareness by opening the 3rd eye.
Elise considers her calling to be of a holy nature and regards sex as intrinsically connected to spirituality. She conceives of these whole body healing sessions as beneficial to the spiritual and physical welfare of the temple’s seekers. She has repeatedly extolled the healing power of the temple’s ceremonies, especially the sacredness of the orgasm. Furthermore, “she herself seems to believe most fervently in what she calls ‘direct downloads from God,’ immediate communication from the divine that can take the form of signs, omens and physical sensations” (Best 2010). Elise understands herself to be receptive to such downloads.
Elise serves as the Mother Priestess and Mystic Mother of the temple. She oversees the goddesses and touch healers, leads sessions and classes, and organizes events. [Image at right] Temple participants include guests (who seek information about the Temples activities), seekers (“who have a spiritual practice or have had in the past, and are now feeling led to find new sources of energy, direction and connection to the Higher Power”), initiates (“who have found genuine soul-food in our temple”), brothers and sisters (“who have decided to really support the Goddess Temples”), priests and priestesses (“who have a gift for channeling light into matter”), and healers and guides (who have “gifts to give as well as receive”) (Phoenix Goddess Temple n.d. “In Temple”).
The goddesses total about fourteen in number and “come from diverse backgrounds: They include a former accountant, paralegal, nurse, even a bank CEO, along with what Elise describes as at least three ‘runaway housewives’” (Best 2010). The goddesses typically work with male seekers, and the male touch healers provide instruction or healing for female seekers. In addition to the healing ceremonies, the church also holds a weekly Sunday brunch and worship service and offers Friday night sex education classes, Yoga Pain relief classes, Naked Life coaching and a monthly Healing Abuse/Trauma Circle. At the conclusion of the session, participants are instructed to leave a temple offering or donation. They are advised to “look for the lotus candle on an altar in your transformation chamber. Your love offering is an active way for you to help restore the balance of Yin / Yang energies here on planet earth as every Temple of the Mother provides much needed Yin to the Universal Web of Life” (Phoenix Goddess Temple n.d. “Offerings of Support”). The donation schedule stipulates amounts between two hundred and eight hundred dollars, depending on the number of participants and guides and the length of the sessions.
Phoenix Goddess Temple has encountered opposition from a variety of sources, including local residents, investigative journalists, therapists, and law enforcement agencies. Police visited the Phoenix Goddess Temple at its Scottsdale location in 2009 after residents complained. They charged the temple with city code violations, which resulted in the church’s relocation. Journalists have expressed skepticism about the Temple’s actual purpose. Journalist Jason Best interviewed Elise extensively for Phoenix Magazine and visited the temple in 2010. He wrote that while Elise asserts that she draws from the Indian philosophy of Tantra, “there is no single sacred text, no structured theology. In one conversation, Elise can toss off references to Buddhist philosophy, Biblical scripture and Celtic legend, throwing in a Taoist aphorism for good measure” (Best 2010). Another journalist dubbed it, “nothing more than a New Age brothel practicing jack psychology techniques” (D’Andrea 2011). The Temple seems to have anticipated some of this skepticism. For example, before engaging in services at the temple, seekers are required to sign a waiver stating, “‘I acknowledge I will not receive any type of sexual gratification in exchange for money during my session’” (D’Andrea 2011).
Professional therapists have expressed concern regarding the Goddess Temple’s healing techniques, especially the sessions for those who have suffered sexual abuse. The Phoenix New Times quoted licensed Arizona therapist Diane Genco: “If these non-traditional healers are not qualified or credentialed in understanding post-traumatic stress disorder and all the things that go with that — the ripple effects of trauma — it could be harmful” (D’Andrea 2011).
Certainly, law enforcement was the most consequential source of opposition that the Temple faced and the source that ultimately led to its dissolution. Law enforcement agencies consistently treated the Temple as a brothel masquerading as a church. In 2009, three of the Seattle Tantra temples that Elise had been affiliated with were raided by police. Elise’s former associate Rainbow Love was charged with promoting prostitution. Following a six-month investigation, police raided the Phoenix Goddess Temple in September 2011, “having obtained a search warrant after initiating several undercover deals and determining that the Temple Goddess employees had been trained to use evasive vocabulary,” including terms such as “seekers” and “sacred union” (Caron 2011). Maricopa county attorney Bill Montgomery stated that, “We’re not viewing this in any way as somehow protected by the first amendment. 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” (Caron 2011).
Initially at least, the Temple did not seem to have great concern about potential legal liability. Elise established the group located in Arizona rather than neighboring New Mexico where it was potentially possible to legally practice activities that authorities in Arizona subsequently labeled prostitution, openly advertised the temple in local news media, granted an on-the-record interview with a journalist, presented money received as “donations” and participants as “seekers, required participants to sign a waiver, and rejected a pre-trial plea agreement to serve only three months of incarceration.
The Phoenix Goddess Temple also vigorously defended its legitimacy. The Temple goddesses did not deny the existence of the Temple’s sexual practices; they simply asserted that “at the core, what distinguishes their ‘practice’ from common sex work is the matter of their intention” (Best 2010). Elise argued for the holiness of the orgasm: “You have absolute peace, you do not fear death, and you have no experience of lack or separation. The point of religion is peace of mind, returning the physical body to what is eternal, so I have to ask, how is what we’re doing not religion?” (Best 2010). As for her personal legitimacy, Elise has responded that she is “under the jurisdiction of the most high” (D’Andrea 2011).
The Temple’s defense notwithstanding, ultimately eighteen people were arrested; charges of prostitution, pandering and conspiracy were levied against over thirty members of the temple. Elise then was incarcerated in Maricopa County, with bail bond set at $1,000,000. She rejected an early plea offer from the prosecutor of three months in prison. Instead, she refused to admit that she was guilty of any crimes and chose instead to assert a First Amendment right to freedom to practice her religion. All of the other defendants agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges, leaving her as the sole defendant at trial.
When the trial began, however, Elise was not allowed to mount a religious liberty defense, which subsequently led to her decision to appeal the trial verdict. As a result, she presented a defense based on prejudice on the part of the prosecutor (who she depicted as holding extremely conservative Catholic views on legitimate sexual expression), a contention that the prosecution sought to prevent the teaching of Tantra, and the allegation that her conviction would lead to the eradication of goddess temples across the country.
Her defense also was unorthodox. She served as her own attorney. In preparation for her final argument to the jury, she set up a small alter on the defense table”with pine cones and goddess figurines, then told the court that she was “letting the holy spirit guide me today through this trial” (Brinkman 2016). (Image at right) Finally, she sang the Star Spangled Banner just prior to being sentenced (Walsh 2016).
At the conclusion of the forty-eight day trial, the jury found Elise guilty of twenty-two counts of prostitution, illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering, conspiracy, and related charges. County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens sentenced Elise to four and one half years in prison at ADC Perryville women’s prison, with sentences to run concurrently (Stern 2016). With credit for 305 days in jail, Elise ultimately served three and one half years in prison and was ordered to serve an additional four years of probation (Stern 2016).
At the end of the day, the case against the Temple turned on several issues: whether Elise was a “spiritual leader” or a “brothel madam,” whether the Temple “goddesses” were “priestesses” or “prostitutes,” whether “orgasm” was part of path to a transcendent “spiritual/healing experience” or “sex for hire” masquerading as religion, whether the money that was exchanged between “goddesses” and their “seekers” was a “fee for sexual service” or a “donation” to the Temple and its spiritual “healing” and “therapy,” and whether the Phoenix Goddess Temple was a legitimate religious “temple” or a “brothel.”
While the state won the day at the initial trial, Tracy Elise and her allies continued their quest for exoneration. Upon her release from prison they pursued their goals online through postings on The 8th House Productions and Patreon.com that contain testimonials, legal documents, video of trial proceedings. These resources are being gathered in support of appellate court appeals based on constitutional rights and, according to Elise with the blessing of Justicia, the Goddess of Law (Duncan 2019).
‘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.
Image #1: Tracy Elise.
Image #2: The 2011 arrest of Tracy Elise.
Image #3: The “goddesses” in Phoenix Goddess Temple.
Image #4: Phoenix Goddess Temple logo.
Image #5: Tracy Elise presenting her defense at trial.
Best, Jason. 2010. “Oh, Goddess: Tracy Elise is Preaching Her Gospel of Transcendence Through Pleasure to the Valley, Which Raises One Big Question: Can Sex Be a Religion?” Phoenix Magazine. March 2010. Accessed from http://www.phoenixmag.com/lifestyle/valley-news/201003/oh–goddess/2/ on 21 October 2011.
Brinkman, Susan. 2016. “Priestess Blames Catholics for Goddess Temple Woes.” Women of Grace Blog, March 7. Accessed from https://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/?p=48051 on 15 May 2020.
Caron, Christina. 2011. “ Phoenix Goddess Temple Raided as Alleged Brothel.” ABC News. 9 September 2011. Accessed from http://abcnews.go.com/US/phoenix-goddess-temple- raided-alleged-brothel/story?id=14481945 on 21 October 2011.
D’Andrea, Niki. 2011. “ Phoenix Goddess Temple’s ‘Sacred Sexuality’ Is More Like New Age Prostitution.” Phoenix New Times. 17 February 2011. Accessed from http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/2011-02-17/news/feature/4/ on 21 October 2011.
Duncan, Fiona Alison. 2019. “Phoenix Goddess Temple.” Mal Journal, January. Accessed from https://maljournal.com on 15 May 2020.
Elise, Tracy. 2019. “Tracy Elise & Her Covenant to Serve the Mother.” Patreon.com. Accessed from https://www.patreon.com/user?u=20488979 on 15 May 2020.
Greene, Nick. 2011. “Phoenix Temple Has Great Website, Allegedly is a Brothel.” Village Voice, September 10. Accessed from https://www.villagevoice.com/2011/09/10/phoenix-temple-has-great-website-allegedly-is-a-brothel-update/
McMahon, Pat. n.d. The Pat McMahon Show. Accessed from http://www.phoenixgoddesstemple.org/index.php/home/temple-in-the-news/603-mother-priestess-tracy-elise-wpat-mcmahaon-hard-questions on 21 October 2011.
Oklevueha Native American Church. 2016. “Sexual Healing or New Age Brothel? Sword And Scale. Accessed from https://www.swordandscale.com/sexual-healing-or-new-age-brothel/ on 15 May 2020.
Phoenix Goddess Temple. n.d. “In Temple.” Accessed at http://www.phoenixgoddesstemple.org/index.php/in-temple on 28 October 2011.
Phoenix Goddess Temple. n.d. “Offerings of Support.” Accesses at http://www.phoenixgoddesstemple.org/index.php/in-temple/offerings-of-support on 28 October 2011.
Phoenix Goddess Temple. n.d. “You are Well-Come.” Accessed at http://www.phoenixgoddesstemple.org/ on 28 October 2011.
“Sedona Temple Use Permit Upheld: Sex Therapy to Remain in West Sedona. 2011. Sedona.biz, July 18. Accessed from https://www.sedona.biz/news-from-sedona/sedona-temple-use-permit-upheld/ on 15 May 2020.
Sitchin, Zecharia. 2019.”TANTRA* TEMPLES AS LEGAL CHURCHES?” Accessed from https://enkispeaks.com/tantra-temples-as-legal-churches/ on 15 May 2020.
Stern, Ray. 2016. “Phoenix Goddess Temple Priestess Tracy Elise Heads to Prison.” Phoenix New Times, May 20. Accessed from https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/phoenix-goddess-temple-priestess-tracy-elise-heads-to-prison-8306220 on 17 May 2020.
Walsh, Jim. 2016. “‘I Am a Priestess. I Am Not a Prostitute’: Sex Priestess Sentenced to Four Years.” Vice, May 20. Accessed from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mgm8zp/i-am-a-priestess-i-am-not-a-prostitute-sex-priestess-sentenced-to-four-years on 15 May 2020.
22 November 2011
20 May 2020