The heat is rising in Arizona, and it’s got nothing to do with its scorching desert or immigration crackdowns. On Wednesday, September 7, an establishment known as the Phoenix Goddess Temple was raided with SWAT force as the culmination of a six-month investigation into the suspected operation of an illegal brothel. Approximately 20 practitioners of the sacred sexual temple arts (women and men) were arrested and jailed. Most of them have posted bail and been released, but two still remain behind bars, including temple founder and “Mother Priestess,” Tracy Elise. Her bail is set at $1 million, the same amount assigned to those suspected of armed robbery or first degree murder.
Clearly, Arizona authorities take the crime of selling sex very seriously. What makes this bust different from most other prostitution busts, however, is that the whorehouse in question is a self-proclaimed temple and indeed identifies itself as a church. According to its website (which now lies largely dormant), the church honors the feminine face of God (Goddess) by acting as a sanctuary for the integration of the spiritual and the sexual. Temple practitioners claim to use and teach deep-rooted sacred sexual practices as a conduit to spiritual and personal growth.
Of course, the State of Arizona doesn’t take the First Amendment as seriously as its Title 13 criminal code. To them (and every other state in the US, except of course certain parts of Nevada), these people are criminal prostitutes, and the fact that they call their practices a “religion” is immoral and wrong.
Approaching this as a religious rights case is one potentially winnable angle; in 1994, the Native American Church gained the right to use peyote, an otherwise illegal substance, as a sacred element in their ceremonies. But such a victory would only benefit a limited crowd and seems to distract from the broader, more potent issue here: the demonization of sex work, and particularly the über-serious offense of maintaining a structure in which numerous providers may work (and ensure themselves safety and support). It is, after all, not some religious zealotry that got these people where they are, but the criminal stigma of accepting payment in exchange for their sexual energy. The prejudice against not only sex workers but empowered female sexuality in general is the underlying disease at hand, which is why I believe decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution is a more sustainable effort than the religious one. Though the temple staff may offer their service in service to the Divine, it is sexual service all the same–and not to get too heavy or anything–but I think that carries with it a responsibility to validate the sacred and common whores of our entire human existence. Why should only those who refer to their beds as “grand altars” deserve to work freely under religious exemption while honest and happy whores, who are not compelled to call their work their religion, remain in the dark?
My hope is that those involved with the case recognize the underlying truth here, feel how close they are to it, and take the opportunity to initiate discussion, not distance themselves from it even further. I understand that this is an unpopular and potentially devastating path to walk; Tracy Elise is under serious felony charges, and she’s gotta do what she’s gotta do to get herself out of deep shit, but in a culture conditioned with little more than the dark and dirty side of sexual service, this seems like a great time for strong voices to let the healing aspects of it be heard.