The Trouble With Sex: Why Phoenix Goddess Temple Founder Insists She's a Priestess, Not a Prostitute

The Trouble With Sex: Why Phoenix Goddess Temple Founder Insists She's a Priestess, Not a Prostitute
Allen Douglas/New Times Illustration

Tracy Elise thinks we have a sex problem in Arizona. 

As someone who has studied ancient sex practices for more than two decades and served as the head priestess at a Tantric temple in Phoenix, she should know. 

She thinks we don’t talk about sex and orgasms enough, and that when we do, the discussion is hampered by the conflicting teachings we get from religious authorities and pornography.

She thinks that the human orgasm is a religious experience, and that sexual energy has tremendous healing powers, but that we don’t take advantage of it.

And she thinks a lot of men don’t know how to honor, worship, or treat women like goddesses — a problem that fuels a cycle of women having bad sexual experiences that prevent them from attaining their orgasmic potential.

“Sexuality is natural, it’s necessary, and a lot of it happens with ignorance,” Elise says. “I’m sad about what’s happening with orgasms: They’re meant to be a shared experience, but people are having them alone, if they’re having them at all.”

These problems aren’t necessarily unique to Arizona, she says, but because state leaders lean so far to the political right, our chances of fixing these problems on our own are grim.

That’s not to say all is doomed. As a priestess, healer, and minister of Tantra — the religion she practices to further the sexual and spiritual health of society — she says she’s successfully helped many people overcome a wide variety of sexual and emotional problems.

Elise is 55, with wavy blonde hair, dark blue eyes, and a sort of magnetism that seems to draw people to her. She projects confidence, but not in an intimidating way. She’s tall and holds herself with strong posture, but is also prone to suddenly standing up on her tippy-toes when she gets excited or starts to laugh.

She moved to Sedona from Seattle in 2007 after falling in love with the city’s red rocks and thriving spiritual community. But after meeting so many men and women from Maricopa County who she felt could benefit from her sacred-sexuality teachings, Elise decided to open a Tantra church in the Valley. 

Just as there are many denominations of Christianity, there are many ways to practice Tantra. And Elise’s calling was the specific ministry she created at the Phoenix Goddess Temple.

Elise says she used Tantra to help heal hundreds of men in the ornately decorated rooms of the temple. She used physical touch and meditation to help them balance their sexual energy and she taught them how to honor, respect – even worship – women as an embodiment of the divine so they could become better lovers for their partners.

Elise also healed women, and trained others — some of whom were former sex workers — to perform Tantra, and before long, she had created a tight-knit community and beautiful temple sustained by the hundreds of dollars in donations left by visitors.

“We thought we were re-creating the ancient goddess temples [of past millennia], and I believe we were,” Elise says. “I’ve never felt so empowered as when I helped a man.”

Tracy Elise says she’s used Tantra to help many people overcome sexual and emotional problems.EXPAND
Tracy Elise says she’s used Tantra to help many people overcome sexual and emotional problems.
Miriam Wasser

But then it all came crumbling down. On an afternoon in early September 2011, a SWAT team of police officers raided the Phoenix Goddess Temple and two affiliated locations in Sedona. 

It was the dramatic culmination of a six-month undercover investigation into whether the temple was a house of prostitution disguised as a church — a question that first arose after New Times published a story in February 2011 accusing it of  being a New Age brothel.

Between the two cities, 18 people were arrested and taken in for questioning, though that number would climb to 39 as more suspects were detained over the next few days. 

For her role in operating the temple, Elise was charged with more than 100 criminal counts of prostitution, maintaining a house of prostitution, illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering, pandering, racketeering, and conspiracy. 

When the state looked at a session in the Phoenix Goddess Temple, it saw an often-topless practitioner (the person who worked in the temple) giving a seeker (the person who visited the temple) a sensual coconut-oil massage followed by some sort of sex act that usually included a “happy ending” (an ejaculate orgasm). 

There’s nothing technically illegal about two consenting adults having sex, but since seekers usually left money after their sessions, this was a black-and-white matter of prostitution as far as the state was concerned.

Elise maintains seekers were told before a session that there was no guarantee anything sexual would occur and that any money they decided to leave was purely a gift intended to “bless the temple” and “further the ministry.” To her, the charges and the subsequent criminal trial weren’t about prostitution. It was a battle for religious freedom and the ability to help heal men and women through Tantra.

Elise was barred from using a religious defense argument in her trial because Arizona case law precludes it in situations involving allegations of prostitution. As such, the entire debate about the legality of the temple rested upon the nature of the so-call “fee arrangement” — was it really a donation system in which men could leave hundreds of dollars or nothing at all, or does the fact that most men left the recommended amount prove that there was in fact a price for certain healing ceremonies?

Both sides had compelling evidence, but on March 2, a jury found Elise — who had defended herself during the trial — guilty of 22 prostitution-related charges

She’s currently in Estrella women’s jail awaiting sentencing, but says she’s already started the process of filing for an appeal, optimistic that justices in the higher courts will be more sympathetic to her situation.

While her critics call her foolish for attempting to set up a Tantra temple in a conservative state like Arizona, and naive for thinking she could get away with it, what makes her case interesting is not the question of whether she was a prostitute and the temple a brothel. Far more compelling are the questions of why she set it up in the first place, and why she’s obsessed with defending it.

There is no doubt that Elise believes in the healing powers of the sacred-sexuality work she does — all of the evidence presented in the trial makes it clear that if she intended to run an underground prostitution ring, she literally did everything wrong.

It’s also clear that she didn’t realize what she was doing could be deemed illegal by the government since she advertised the temple and her healing sessions in local media outlets and all over the internet, and it’s obvious that she wasn’t in it for the money (or was a really lousy businesswoman), given that the temple was about $60,000 in debt at the time of the raid.

“If all I cared about was myself, I never would have been attacked,” she says. “I wouldn’t keep giving if this was just a job because there are better ways to make a living.”

“I am not a prostitute,” she’s been known to say. “I’m a priestess under attack.”

Every room in the Phoenix Goddess Temple had images of the chakra energy system on the walls.EXPAND
Every room in the Phoenix Goddess Temple had images of the chakra energy system on the walls.
Courtesy of Tracy Elise

On a morning in November 2015, Tracy Elise stands in a windowless, wood-paneled room in the Maricopa County Superior Courthouse, facing the jury in her criminal trial for the first time.

She wears a white dress made from a lace-like material and an orange shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Her curly blond hair is pulled back in a French twist and she wears, as she does every day, a bindi (decorative jewel) in the center of her forehead.

Elise has made the risky decision to fire her attorney and defend herself. After glancing at the papers and notes in her hand one last time, she looks up at the jury and smiles. This is the moment she’s spent years waiting for: the chance to finally tell her side of the story.

She starts by talking about growing up in Alaska around pioneers and being drawn to Christianity at a young age — “I campaigned for Pat Robinson when he ran for president,” she says — but then explains that as an adult, Christian teachings stopped resonating with her, and she began to look for spiritual fulfillment elsewhere. 

“I’m going to say right at the beginning of the trial, right now, my first words to you: Sexuality is sacred and it was part of my personal ceremonies,” she tells the jury, and “you’re going to learn [during this trial] that the state has simplified something very, very complex.”

A few minutes later, she shows them an illustration of a human silhouette. Running in an invisible vertical line through the center of the body are seven circles, each a different color of the rainbow. Each circle represents a different chakra, or energy center, in the body, she explains, adding that everything she and others at the temple did involved teaching people to “feel their energy and share their energy.”

The human chakra system is also the basis of Tantra, a strain of yoga that developed in the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago to help people achieve spiritual enlightenment through the back-and-forth exchange of energy. 

Tantra can be a little hard to define because it includes a wide variety of teachings and practices, but compared to other forms of yoga, it is notable for its emphasis on the healing powers of sexual energy and the holiness of women and female energy.

It might sound like New Age babble, but Elise is actually far from alone when it comes to practicing Tantra. In fact, during the last few decades, the community of people who have embraced the sacred-sexuality practices she promotes has exploded — there are estimated to be tens of thousands of people practicing some form of Tantra around the world.

Until recently, Tantra was studied and practiced primarily in India, but beginning with the first English translation of the Kama Sutra in the late 19th century, and continuing with Osho, the Indian “Sex Guru,” whose teachings found their way into American pop-culture during the mid-20th century, many Tantra principles arrived in the West. 

Yet it was a New York native named Charles Muir who first began to teach Tantra in a way that was both authentic and palatable to Americans; for example, he says, many find the concept of deities off-putting, so he played down some of the more religious aspects of Tantra in favor of some of the more physical aspects.

Muir, who is often called the Grandfather of American Tantra, says that “Tantra yoga  awakens consciousness through the use of sexual energy, sexual energy being the most creative form of energy. It harnesses that energy and makes it move to parts of the body it doesn’t always go to, like the brain, to facilitate the process of enlightenment.” 

Muir and his wife, Caroline, operate what is probably the largest and most successful Tantra school in the country, the Source School of Tantra Yoga, and are famous for teaching “sacred massage.” 

To put it simply, sacred massage is the manual stimulation of the G-spot in a woman’s vagina — that highly sensitive area located on the front vaginal wall. And while “great ecstatic pleasure” — i.e., an intense orgasm — is a byproduct, Muir says, “the goal is spiritual awakening.”

In the four or so decades he’s been teaching Tantra, Muir estimates that he’s worked with more than 60,000 men and women, many of whom have gone on to teach it themselves. The people that come to his classes are of varied ages and walks of life: lawyers, doctors, social workers, stay-at-home moms. Therapists often refer couples on the verge of divorce to him, and his website is full of testimonies from people who have used Tantra as the foundation to repair their relationship or from women who experienced their first ejaculate orgasm because of his teachings. 

But Muir’s approach to teaching Tantra is different from Elise’s in two big ways: First, he teaches mostly in Hawaii and California, states that on the whole are much more welcoming to what he has to offer than a conservative state like Arizona. 

And second, while he and his wife demonstrate certain Tantric practices to students (always fully clothed), as a policy, they never touch their students or offer one-on-one healing sessions. 

“I know Tracy, and I have great compassion for this lady who is very brave and a little bit foolish,” he says. “I think the work of Tantra is beneficial for anyone that undertakes it with a good teacher, but one doesn’t have to get into bed with a student to teach it.”

Muir then backtracks and clarifies his statement: “I don’t know exactly what went on behind those walls [and] I don’t trust what the police have said since they obviously had an agenda with her … But I think they should legalize whatever it is she did there as long as it’s not hurting people.”

To Muir, it doesn’t matter whether Elise accidentally ran a brothel, because the real questions we should all be asking about the Phoenix Goddess Temple, he says, are “Was there truth there, and did it help people?”

A classroom in the Phoenix Goddess Temple.EXPAND
A classroom in the Phoenix Goddess Temple.
Courtesy of Tracy Elise

Tracy Elise (née Tracy Elise Johnson) was born in Pullman, Washington, in December 1960, and spent the first few years of her life living on the Washington State University campus while her father, Carl Johnson, was finishing a degree in forestry. Her mother, Judi Johnson, supported the family at the time by working various jobs as a waitress or housekeeper around town. 

Elise was a toddler when the family moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, and in the next few years, the Johnsons had three more daughters. Elise always acted “like their second little mother,” Judi says. “She’s always been the kind of person who, if you called, she would come. She’s a very giving person – giving to the point that, well,” Judi pauses, “I don’t always know if it’s a positive thing.”

The Johnsons were Methodists – a Protestant denomination known for its focus on social-justice issues – and as Elise grew up, she became more and more active in the community, later describing herself as being “deeply into Christianity.”

But between church functions and singing in the church choir, she was also endlessly fascinated by “spiritual healers” of the world like Mahatma Gandhi.

She also often surprised adults with the questions she’d ask about why God is a man and why “Eve is evil.”

“She’d ask ‘Why is just God in charge? Why isn’t a woman also in charge?’” Judi says, smiling at the memory.

Elise graduated from high school early and enrolled in the University of Fairbanks in the late ’70s, which is where she met her future husband. (He declined to be interviewed and asked not to be named in this article.)

The two married when Elise was 21, and she became what she describes as the quintessential “good Christian” wife. They had three children, Benjamin (Ben), Sylvia, and Daniel, and enrolled them in a private Christian school. 

“She was a Christian mom in the ’80s, making us snacks and taking us on field trips,” says Ben, now 31. “But she was probably never that normal compared to [other] moms.” He tells a story about seeing her do a strange dance in the backyard when she thought no one was looking, and he waves his arms wildly in the air and lets his torso sway back and forth to demonstrate, laughing at the memory.

But as “deeply Christian” as Elise was, the religious questions she had as a kid still plagued her as an adult. She was unsettled by what she saw as the patriarchy of Christian churches and by the notion that God was a male figure. In search of something different, she began reading about goddesses, chakras, and other ancient religions, many of which were female-centered.

One night in 1989, she woke up to a “vision of Lord Jesus as pure white light,” she writes in a document she submitted to the court about her personal spiritual and religious journey. “He said, ‘Tracy, stop running back and forth between two houses, it is all one.’” 

Not long after, she had a Kundalini awakening, a sort of spiritual enlightenment that according to Dr. Sasha Lessen, a licensed psychotherapist and Tantra teacher based in Hawaii, often “looks like a person’s quivering, almost like they’re having a seizure.” A similar thing can happen to people’s bodies when they have intense orgasms, he adds.

Elise’s kids remember it being around this time that she started reading tarot cards, holding healing ceremonies, and studying various New Age philosophies and practices like those of Osho and Deepak Chopra, the Indian American guru most famous for promoting alternative and holistic medicines.

But the mid-’90s weren’t just a time of great spiritual change for Elise; she left the Christian church and her family in 1995 and moved to Seattle. (She also had her last name legally changed to Elise.)

Elise has described the move as “a family tragedy,” and Judi says it devastated Elise’s now ex-husband and their children, declining to go into more detail. More than 20 years later, all three of Elise’s kids concede it was a tough and abrupt transition, but say they’re proud of their mother, and understand why she had to leave Alaska.

“After her Kundalini awakening, everything changed to ‘I have a path, a mission, I’m here to do something’ …  She really had faith in people,” Sylvia, 30, says.

Elise began combining the spiritual things she was learning with her inclination to nurture others, and she started a women’s healing group called the Mystic Sisters in 2003. 

About a year later, she and a friend opened their own goddess temple in Seattle, but ended up parting ways in 2006 because, as multiple witnesses testified during the trial, Elise’s partner wanted the temple to make money whereas Elise’s focus was on healing and Tantra.

Shortly after the split — or, to use Elise’s term, “the schism” — Elise and her children took a trip to Sedona with Elise’s parents. She fell in love with the red rocks, and decided to leave Seattle and move to the area.

In time, she met women in the Phoenix area who were also interested in a similar spiritual path and whose desire for a place like the temple she had in Seattle convinced that her setting up a goddess temple in a conservative state was not only a good idea, but a way to help those suffering from sexual problems.

The entryway of the Phoenix Goddess Temple.EXPAND
The entryway of the Phoenix Goddess Temple.
Courtesy of Tracy Elise

“Oh boy, here come the peacock feathers,” Elise’s mother, Judi, murmurs to herself as she watches Elise carry a vase of tall feathers and a big basket full of other objects into the courtroom one morning this past February.

Elise places everything on the small tabletop of the witness stand and takes her seat inside the box. The jury is still out on a break, but once they come back in, she will resume her testimony. 

A few feet away from her, Judge Sherry Stephens types on a computer, while the prosecuting attorneys sort through paperwork and jot down some notes on their legal pads.  It’s quiet in the courtroom except for the sounds of typing and the flipping of pages, when all of a sudden Elise grabs a bunch of peacock feathers and starts waving them in the air.

“The Phoenix Goddess Temple opens again,” she shouts. “Wooooo!” She’s smiling and laughing until she realizes that everyone in the courtroom is staring at her, totally dumbfounded. 

 “Sorry, it’s the spirit,” she says, quickly regaining her composure. “It comes through at random times.”

“As long as it doesn’t come through when the jury is in here,” Judge Stephens says, clearly trying to stifle a laugh. She signals to the bailiff to get the jury, and as they file in, many look confused by the sight of Elise sitting in the box completely surrounded by what look to be random objects. 

But, then again, as the prosecution often noted, there was nothing normal about this trial. 

Elise sounds excited as she tells the jury that she’s going to teach them how to build an altar like the ones she and others constructed throughout the temple. She takes out a large square blue cloth — the “altar cloth” — and lays it out on the edge of the witness stand.

“You can change it out depending on your mood or the seasons,” she says, “but I chose blue today because I wanted to flow like water.” From there, she takes a moment to orient herself in terms of cardinal direction, and then places a ceramic pot in the north corner of the altar to represent “the earth”; a mirror and candle in the south corner to represent “the sun”; a little plastic fan in the west corner to represent “the element of air”; and a glass water jug in the east to represent “water.” 

Next she removes a few seashells from her basket and places them in the center of the cloth, and says that they represent the hope that her positive intentions will “spiral out and grow bigger and bigger.” 

For the next five or six minutes, Elise continues to remove objects from her basket — stones, a small stick that has something to do with an ancient form of keeping track of time, and other trinkets that represent the cycles of the moon and sisterhood. 

“There’s not a wrong way to make an altar,” she says, and launches into a discussion of how various ancient religions differed in their construction of altars.

The two prosecuting attorneys, who usually objected to the more esoteric things Elise said in the trial, were silent during her presentation. They just stared at her as if to ask, “Is this really happening?” 

The altar-building exercise was part of Elise’s strategy of proving her religious sincerity to the jury in order to get across the point that her intentions in maintaining the Phoenix Goddess Temple were altruistic.

What happened in the temple “was not about something sexy, it was about surrendering to someone else’s magnificence,” she explains. The whole reason she did what she did, and why she’s willing to defend herself all the way up to the Supreme Court if necessary, is that she believes she’s making the world a better place.

Tracy Elise’s family and friends supported her through the long trial.EXPAND
Tracy Elise’s family and friends supported her through the long trial.
Courtesy of Tracy Elise

The Phoenix Goddess Temple was beautiful, says Janet Lessin, a Tantra teacher who operates the School of Tantra in Hawaii with her husband, Dr. Sasha Lessin. “It had paintings and art, and all these sacred symbols of the church painted on the walls. It was a temple, and it was absolutely amazing.”

The Lessins have known Elise for many years, and frequently came to Phoenix to teach seminars and workshops at the temple. Both testified on her behalf during the trial.

“The primary goal of what we teach is healthy relationships, be that with sexual partners or family and friends,” Janet says. 

Sasha, who holds a Ph.D in psychotherapy, explains what Tantra does to the body and how it teaches people to reprogram imbalances in energy that are often the result of trauma. 

He says, “we tend to internalize trauma into the body, specifically in the second chakra area” — the genital region. In men, a blocked second chakra can manifest itself as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, or the inability to have healthy relationships. And in women, it’s often the inability to have a whole-body orgasm. 

“Wherever a person is traumatized, they hold that in their body,” Sasha says. “We teach the person to exaggerate that feeling, to re-live what it was that traumatized them. But we do this in a way that doesn’t shut down their sense of protection.”

To actually release this energy in a woman, for example, the “giver” begins by giving her a massage to relax her, and then he puts his fingers inside of her vagina. He “sensitively and slowly” massages every surface of her vaginal wall, paying close attention to areas that are tight or tense because those are the area, the Lessins say, that are holding the blocked energy.

And with men, after the sensual massage, the “giver” might unblock the chakra with a prostate massage or by manually or orally stimulating  the man’s penis right up the point of orgasm. Then she might back off, before starting again. The process is repeated a few times so that when the man finally ejaculates, it’s an orgasm that releases all of the blocked energy. 

The work Elise did to heal her seekers is very similar to what the Lessins do, except that the Lessins teach couples how to unblock each other, whereas Elise takes on the role of the healer herself. (It should be noted that not every session included the touching of genitals or sexual activity, and Elise tells stories about sessions where men began sobbing and she just held them in her arms for an hour while they cried.)

Janet says that long before she met Elise, she decided her calling was to teach partners: “I was concerned about what ended up happening to Tracy happening to me,” she says, “and I didn’t want to spend a moment of my life in jail.”

And after meeting Elise and visiting the Phoenix Goddess Temple, Janet says she expressed those concerns to Elise, whom she considers a close friend, but Elise told Janet not to worry because there was nothing illegal occurring.

Like there are many different Christian churches, Janet says, there are many ways to practice Tantra. “Our practice is more egalitarian, and hers is more female-centric. Tracy had a goddess temple, and focused on that.”

“We all love Tracy; Tracy is a wonderful human being. She’s all heart; she totally believes in what she was talking about.

“Maybe she had a belief and understanding that was possibly different than the rest of the world, but she has every right to do it. This is about consenting adults behind closed doors — the state needs to stay out of it.”

Tracy Elise is willing to take her legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.EXPAND
Tracy Elise is willing to take her legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Miriam Wasser

On Wednesday, March 2, the call comes at 3:30 pm. The jury has reached a verdict.

Elise, Ben, Sylvia, Sylvia’s fiancé, and a handful of family friends are crowded into the small apartment the family has rented in east Phoenix. The walls are decorated with brightly colored scarves and tapestries, and dream catchers hang from hooks or nails. Small altars consisting of statues, seashells, and other earthly objects cover tabletops and counters around the house.

Someone has made a sign saying “Exonerate Tracy Elise,” which leans against a mostly burned-down candle. 

“Holy shit,” Ben says, as he hangs up the phone.

“That was fast; that was so fast,” Sylvia says, her voice a little panicked. 

“I feel like we’re probably going to be innocent,” Ben continues. “That was so quick.”

The family had left the downtown courthouse just a few hours earlier as Elise’s trial officially came to an end and the jury began deliberations. 

Frantically, family members change back into the more formal clothes they had worn earlier that morning.

Judi, who had been sitting in a chair quietly, observing her family and her daughter’s friends laughing and passing around mugs of ginger tea moments earlier, suddenly turns white. 

“I just don’t know if I can do this right now,” she says as she begins to cry. 

For all the anxious energy pulsating through the apartment, the calmest person in the group is Elise. She sits cross-legged on the floor, wearing a brown strapless dress and a yellow and brown shawl around her shoulders, taking in the scene. 

Another former practitioner from the temple is pacing, chattering nervously.  Judi snaps at her; Elise takes this as her cue to rise and walks outside to sit with her mother for a few minutes before coming back inside to change into a bright pink dress with a sequined pink shawl.

“Life is too short not to wear ball gowns and sparkly clothes whenever you want,” she had said earlier in the day, taking her dress in her hands and swooshing it around like a little girl might do.

In the car on the way back to the courthouse, Elise and her children make a video recording:

“I want the verdict to be not guilty, and I think it will be because the people are ready for the temple, and they looked at our case and determined that Tracy Elise was not a prostitute and that she’s a spiritual woman on her quest,” Ben says into the camera.

“I think Mom winning will show that people should have faith in other people, even when you don’t have faith in the system,” Sylvia says. 

When it’s Elise’s turn, she holds the camera, looks into the lens, and smiles. 

“When they threw me in jail before, I felt it as a dark energy. I felt I had been dropped in a dark energy, and right now I feel joy,” she begins. “You know this is where a person with a lot of faith can do things, so I would say to everyone, whether win, lose, or draw today, just getting this far for me, and getting to put everything in public record, it’s a win. Yeah, it’s a win.”

Less than an hour later, the jury found Elise guilty of 22 criminal charges, and she was taken into custody on the spot to await sentencing.

As the court officer approached her, she bowed her head and held her hands together in the prayer position to be handcuffed.

“Don’t forget, just don’t forget why we’re doing this,” she called to her family and friends.


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