Dennis Hof, HBO reality TV star and owner of the Bunny Ranch, a successful chain of Nevada brothels, testified this week in the drawn-out trial of Tracy Elise, founder and lead priestess of the now-defunct Phoenix Goddess Temple.
In an attempt to draw a sharp contrast between the inner workings of the sex industry and the religious ceremonies of the Goddess Temple, the defense called Hof as an expert witness on prostitution and brothels.
For more than three hours of direct examination, he talked about how brothels operate in Nevada and around the world, the services or various “party” options provided at his businesses, and various prostitution myths. But the main point of his argument was that a prostitute’s motivation is money, whereas Elise’s motivation was sexual healing.
“My business is about sex . . . negotiating and getting the most amount of money,” Hof told the jury. “It’s not about touching and chakras.”
“In your opinion, Mr. Hof, am I a prostitute?” Elise, who has acted as her own defense attorney since 2013, asked him.
“No, I look at you as more of a healer or educator,” Hof replied.
Elise was one of 40 people arrested by the Phoenix Police Department in 2011 after a New Times cover story said the temple’s “sacred sexuality” healing practices were “more like new age prostitution.”
The story, a Phoenix Police Department vice squad detective testified last week, tipped off the department and inspired it to launch an undercover investigation.
Elise and others were accused of running a house of prostitution disguised as a church, and she remains one of two defendants refusing to take a plea bargain with the state.
She is up against dozens of felony charges for prostitution, illegal control of an enterprise, keeping or residing in a house of prostitution, pandering, and money laundering. If found guilty, she faces 70 years in state prison.
But Elise is steadfast in her argument that what she and other priestesses and practitioners did at the temple was not prostitution but sacred sexual ceremonies and tantric-healing sessions. She also claims New Times' story was biased and contained inaccuracies.
She says the temple was a religious organization and therefore entitled to religious-freedom laws (it was chartered by elder James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney of the Oklevueha Native American Church). But the prosecution team points to police documents outlining dozens of undercover interactions between officers and temple practitioners that it says proves the temple was really just operating a brothel.
Through her direct examination of Hof, Elise attempted to highlight the difference between healing and sex for money, as well as the significance of her temple’s donation-based system.
“Mr. Hof,” she asked, do your brothel employees ever do sessions with clients “where anything could happen or nothing could happen?”
“I don’t know prostitution to operate like you’re discussing,” he replied. “And I own more brothels than anyone in America.”
“Would any of your ladies extend the [session] without receiving any extra money?”
“No, and we wouldn’t allow them to,” he said.
“If you attempted to run the Bunny Ranch like the Phoenix Goddess Temple, would you stay profitable?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t do it because I know it’s not possible as a business model. It wouldn’t be profitable.”
During the state’s cross-examination, Hof was challenged on some of the assertions he made about the prostitution industry, particularly his statement that a prostitute almost always would demand to be paid before the act.
“Would you agree that if someone was trying to run an illegal operation, they might do things a little different than you do at your brothel?” Deputy County Attorney Chris Sammons asked.
While Hof, who was born and raised in Phoenix, replied “yes,” he ended up turning most of his answers to Sammons’ questions into a rant against Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery for grandstanding and failing to go after the illegal prostitution in Phoenix.
Sammons asked Hof about his own sexual past — dating only young women, sleeping with his employees, and helping a woman sell her virginity over the Internet — but was met with hostility:
“Don’t question the morality of what I do,” Hof sneered.
In one of the more colorful segments of Hof’s testimony, he was asked to describe the tantric healing session he allowed Elise to perform on him the day before the trial. He stated that he was naked during the session, as was Elise at times. The jury learned that she touched his penis, “but it wasn’t like masturbation [or a massage] . . . more just a touching of the genitals.”
Hof was clear that he didn’t believe in Elise’s tantric or sacred healing abilities prior to his session with her but that he was “totally surprised [to] actually have felt something shift in [his] body.”
“You gave an opinion that Ms. Elise is not a prostitute,” Sammons said, but “you’re basing it off your experience yesterday?”
“Yes,” Hof replied confidently.
Prosecutors appeared frustrated with Hof and his insistence that Elise was a healer and that the Phoenix Goddess Temple did not appear to be a brothel, but they declined to comment on the testimony. (Sammons deferred to the County Attorney’s Office, which did not respond to a request for comment.)
“The cross-examination was a joke,” Hof told New Times after leaving the witness stand. “They got nothing out of it. It was an attempt to discredit me . . . I don’t think it worked at all.”
He accused the city and county of “going after the Phoenix Goddess Temple because it’s a good headline grabber” in the local and national news.
“A temple — a church — selling pussy. That’s a great case,” he said. "[But] they weren’t selling it. They were doing some type of experience . . . and gentleman were giving a donation in some of it.”
Hof, like Elise, is confident that she will be found not guilty.
“I think my testimony showed that Tracy wasn’t running a house of prostitution,” he said. “Think about it: 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?”