UU sexologist faces off against Bill O'Reilly

UU sexologist faces off against Bill O'Reilly

The Rev. Debra Haffner promotes comprehensive sexuality education for all ages.


Last month, the Rev. Debra Haffner found herself sharing a television split-screen with conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly debating sex education for elementary school children.

O’Reilly asked the UU minister, sexologist, and author of From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children what he should say if he were a teacher and a kindergartner asked him where babies come from.

Haffner started to respond, “In a special place inside a woman there is a uterus. And inside the uterus a baby begins to grow.”

O’Reilly interrupted her with a firm, “No!” He said, “Five year olds, I don’t want ‘uterus’. . . It’s beyond their capacity to understand.”

O’Reilly squirmed again when Haffner later insisted that children need to know the correct names of their body parts. “Boys need to know they have a penis. Girls need to know they have a vulva,” she said, as O’Reilly fervently shook his head.

Their debate, on an O’Reilly Factor segment called “Kiddie Sex Ed?,” followed a tempest in right-wing circles after U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama commented at a Planned Parenthood forum that age-appropriate sex education should be taught in public schools, including in the primary grades. Haffner couldn’t agree more.

She has made a career out of promoting sexual health, education, and justice in schools, in faith communities, and in society as a whole. For 12 years, she was chief executive officer of SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, prior to attending divinity school at Union Theological Seminary and becoming an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. She is also cofounder and director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, based in Westport, Conn.

“Sexuality education is a religious issue,” says Haffner. “We have a commitment to helping young people develop a moral conscience, including an ability to make healthy decisions. We have a religious commitment to truth telling, which means that people should have full and accurate information, not biased and censored.”

Haffner has been active in sexuality with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, advising on the development of the Our Whole Lives lifespan sexuality education curricula and, most recently, co-authoring an online UUA course called “Balancing Acts: Keeping Children Safe in Congregations.” The course, unveiled in June and developed in collaboration with the New England Adolescent Research Institute (NEARI), trains congregational leaders in keeping children and youth safe from sexual abuse. The Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, the UUA’s director for Congregational Services, was delighted that Haffner could contribute to the project. “Debra can talk about sexuality and healthy boundaries and religious community in a way that is almost unique,” says Robinson-Harris. “Her ability to bring those things together is really extraordinary.”

Haffner, 53, says that she has had two callings in her life. The first, at age 20, was to work in human sexuality education. The second one came at age 35, when she was called to be a minister. “It took me a week to accept my first calling,” says Haffner. “And it took nine years to accept my call to the ministry.”

As a college student, Haffner planned to be a lawyer. But she was drawn to working in women’s health issues as a student at Wesleyan University. After graduation, she took a one-week course in human sexuality education, and she knew that was the work she was supposed to do. She accepted a position with the Population Institute, and she went on to work as director of community services for Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, and as a special assistant to the U.S. Public Health Service. She also earned a masters degree in public health from the Yale University School of Medicine.

Her calling to the ministry came while she was CEO of SIECUS. She belonged to the Unitarian Church in Westport, Conn., along with her husband and two children, and she was asked in 1989 to lead a summer service about religion and sexuality. As she spoke to the congregation, she says, she “felt a voice” telling her that this was what she was supposed to do. Haffner tried for years to ignore the voice. But it kept returning until she ultimately enrolled in seminary in 1999.

Haffner says her ministerial training has equipped her with the background and vocabulary to speak with the religious right about sexuality education. She addresses many of the same issues but she sees important differences in what she can do and how she can approach sex education now that she is a minister. “I view my work as a service, which is what ministry is all about, whereas before I saw myself as an advocate,” says Haffner. “I think that I do it from a deeper spiritual and religious foundation now.”

The mission of her ministry is to ensure that religion and sexuality can coexist in a healthy, harmonious way. “There are so many people who have been alienated from their sexuality because of their religion, and there are so many people who have been alienated from their religion because of their sexuality,” Haffner says. “I believe we’re bringing people back to religion and back to hope that they can be sexual people and religious people.”

The UUA’s Our Whole Lives program and its Welcoming Congregation Program—which helps congregations to be inclusive of bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people—are models for other religious denominations. However, she believes that many congregations still have a long way to go to be sexually healthy faith communities. She notes that even though many UU congregations offer the Our Whole Lives program in the eighth grade, fewer educate younger children about sexuality issues. And even fewer congregations offer adult sexuality programs.

She also notes that many congregations do not have safety policies in place—such as background checks and training of church babysitters—to avoid sexual abuse. The “Balancing Acts” curriculum is a tool for churches to take a step toward addressing those issues.

In addition to directing the Religious Institute, and maintaining a frenetic schedule of speaking and training around the country, Haffner is community minister at the Unitarian Church in Westport.

In her years as a member, and now a minister, at the Westport church, she has formed a friendship with Denny and Jerry Davidoff, longtime members of the Westport church and longstanding volunteers with the UUA. “One of the things that distinguishes Debra as a full-blown person and cleric is that she has seamlessly integrated who she is as a sexologist and as an educator and as a minister into one complete person,” says Denny Davidoff, who served as the UUA’s moderator from 1993 to 2001. Denny is also cofounder of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, and she has worked on issues of common interest with the Religious Institute and the UUA.

Jerry Davidoff has worked with Haffner in the church, the UUA, and in his role as a member of the Westport Board of Education, to which Haffner consulted as it developed a sex education curriculum.

“The UUA and the local church have both had the benefit of having her as a member,” says Denny Davidoff. “She is a fine teacher in a subject area which people get self-conscious about. She handles the self-consciousness of other people very well—including Bill O’Reilly.”

Haffner writes a blog about her work with a name that is a question: “Sexuality and Religion: What’s the Connection?” In it, she describes herself as a minister and a sexologist, adding, “Yes, those words do go together.” (A sexologist, she explains, is someone who professionally studies sex, and may have a background in education, research, or counseling.)

Her appearance on The O’Reilly Factor was posted online on YouTube, and traffic to her blog spiked. On a typical day, she has between 250 and 300 readers. After the O’Reilly appearance, daily readership topped 1,000.

Initial emails and phone messages castigated her. Some Evangelical Christians stridently disagreed with her position that children should receive sex education in schools, believing that was a topic to be discussed solely in the home. Haffner has become accustomed to having detractors. She says she is routinely picketed by religious conservatives when she speaks, and she often receives “Christian hate mail,” which she calls an oxymoron.

After the initial wave of critical emails in the wake of her O’Reilly appearance, subsequent emails showed support and admiration for Haffner’s calm and composure in the face of O’Reilly’s trademark verbal bullying.

She says she’s prepared to appear again on the show if invited. She believes it is important for more progressive women to appear in the media.

O’Reilly, however, has not accepted the invitation that Haffner extended at the end of her appearance on his show. “My church does sex education. We do all of this, Bill. So come on. I’ll invite you to a class.”

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