In a video posted to YouTube in 2012, Tracy Elise introduced followers to a classic “transformation chamber dedicated to the great goddess” — a warmly lit bedroom with an altar bedecked with shells, candles and a framed portrait of her object of worship.
The “deity” in question was represented by a naked woman with a ball of light covering her pelvic area. “The S-U-N is the S-O-N,” Elise explained. The art as a whole represented the union of feminine and masculine aspects.
Flash forward a few years, and the self-proclaimed “priestess” had her own “S-O-N” by her side in Arizona’s Maricopa County Superior Court on Wednesday, when a jury found Elise guilty of 22 criminal charges.
The conviction included multiple counts of money laundering and pandering, as well as maintaining a house of prostitution.
“I never thought it would be like this,” Elise said upon hearing the verdict, the Arizona Republic reported. Clad in a fuchsia dress, matching shawl and silver ballet slippers, she hugged her crying son and daughter before being taken away in handcuffs.
Left behind on the defense’s desk — Elise represented herself — were an hourglass filled with orange sand, tarot cards and a sun-figure mirror. The makeshift altar hadn’t helped her case.
For years, Elise was a leader of the Phoenix Goddess Temple, which offered spiritual and sexual healing services in exchange for “donations” to the church. The temple was raided by local police in 2011, resulting in indictments for several members of the organization accused of partaking in prostitution.
But Elise has maintained that the sexual services rendered by her temple’s “goddesses” are part and parcel of their spiritual practice — that, in fact, the authorities were infringing upon her religious freedom.
“Sexuality is natural, necessary, and a lot of it happens with ignorance,” Elise said in her closing statement, the Phoenix New Times reported. “Please don’t let pornography and sex ed be the only thing people have.”
She implored jurors to see her sacred sexual healing practices as an asset to the city’s population. At the crux of her case was a bewildering question: What happens when sexual “healing” is your religion?
Deputy County Attorney Chris Sammons acknowledged in his closing argument that this was no ordinary prostitution trial.
“We’ve heard from goddesses, a high priestess, a Native American medicine man, a guru, a reality TV star, a porn star, two alien aficionados and a naked life coach,” Sammons said, according to the New Times.
No, Elise wasn’t “a common street pimp,” he said. But that didn’t excuse her crimes: running an enterprise, however “sacred,” in which individuals who engaged in sexual acts with others were subsequently paid.
It was the exchange of money that made the activities illegal, Deputy County Attorney Edward Leiter said, regardless of whether they were “spiritual.”
Elise and her business partner Wayne Clayton billed the sexual healing services as “donation only.” A 2011 Phoenix New Times cover story outlined the temple’s terminology:
There’s a euphemism for everything in temple-speak. There are no johns, but ‘seekers.’ No sex, only ‘sacred union.’ There are no handjobs, only ‘tantric touch.’ No payment is accepted, but hefty ‘donations’ are expected. There are no hookers, just ‘goddesses.’ They don’t work with penises, but ‘wands of light.’
Clayton pleaded guilty to a reduced charge last year and testified against Elise at trial. In his spiritual practice, he marketed his services to victims of sexual trauma as a purported path to healing.
Leiter characterized Clayton as a predator.
“He would act as a father figure,” Leiter said, as the Arizona Republic reported. “It was very damaging to the victims. It wasn’t helping; it was re-victimizing.”
Elise, who faces at least three years in jail (and as many as 70) when she is sentenced in April, chronicled her legal “journey” on a Facebook page called “Phoenix Goddess Temple: Return of the Priestess.”
In a video update last month, Elise stood in front of a fuchsia tapestry and held up an hourglass with orange sand indicating the short weeks remaining until the end of her trial.
She spoke cheerfully of holding public officials accountable to the Constitution, and directed supporters to join “Team Goddess Bless.”
“The state has to decide that this is in fact a real religion,” she said, “and we deserve protection.”
The Team Goddess Bless website calls on fellow goddesses to stand together as a “minority spiritual community to defend Healing and Justice for ALL!”
Speaking to the Arizona Republic following the decision, Elise’s son Ben Wade said his mother would be “continuing her ministry.”
“She is teaching women about the goddess,” he said, “and now she’s doing it wherever she’s at, which is in prison.”
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