Mal Journal in Context: Fiona Alison Duncan, Issue 2
Fiona Alison Duncan
October 26th, 2023
Read American novelist Fiona Alison Duncan’s investigation of Phoenix Goddess Temple, an underreported case about sex work, religion and the state, published in Mal Journal's second issue.
In 2008, former Alaskan housewife Tracy Elise founded the Phoenix Goddess Temple, an establishment that offered ‘sacred healing’ through touch-based services and tantric sexual techniques in exchange for donations. When she was arrested and in 2016 convicted on charges of running ‘a house of prostitution’, Elise insisted that what she and the Temple were practicing was not illegal but part of their religion.
Published in the second issue of Mal, the journal of sexuality and erotics supported by Feeld, ‘Phoenix Goddess Temple’ was a challenging story for me to write because on one hand it was an ongoing real life drama (when I was writing, its key player, a mother, was in prison), about a salacious vocation (sacred sex work), and largely catalysed by insensitive journalism (a local reporter’s work inspired a police investigation which lead to a quick burst of arrests) but on the other hand, I had a stickily personal investment in this case.
Tracy Elise and her family of supporters were not who I wanted them to be. I went into this story hoping their case would serve an immaculate vindication of my beliefs that sex is sacred; feminine power should be honoured and revered (and the Revolution is dependent on this); and that sex workers should not be criminally pursued but rather protected. My subjects expressed all this, but also so much more. More humour and absurdity, more paradox or hypocrisy, and vulnerability. I had decided, because their case was ongoing, I would write it as objectively as possible, since my words had the potential to impact real lives, not just reflect what I want to see. I forced myself to perform cool levelheaded-ness, cutting out reams of personal commentary.
Tracy Elise, the Phoenix Goddess Temple leader, was released from prison earlier this year. We are Facebook friends, but I never heard what she or her son, who I interviewed, thought of this piece.
Excerpt from ‘Phoenix Goddess Temple’, Mal Journal Issue 2:
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 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 [Benjamin] Wade, [her son.]
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.
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.’
- from ‘Phoenix Goddess Temple’, written by Fiona Alison Duncan, Mal Journal Issue 2: Made in Heaven
- Fiona Alison Duncan was a part of Mal’s event in London on 17 December 2019, featuring Huw Lemmey, Reba Maybury, Natasha Stagg and Eileen Myles.