Reverend Debra Haffner: Religion, Sexuality and Parenting

“Young people need us as adults to help them mitigate and understand this very complex world. Parents think that if we don’t talk about this in school, somehow or other, they’re going to protect their kids and it’s really just the opposite.” – Debra Haffner

The Reverend Debra W. Haffner former executive director of the Religious Institute: a multi-faith, nonprofit organization dedicated to sexual health, education and justice. Rev. Haffner is the author of From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children; Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens; and What Every 21st Century Parent Needs to Know: Facing Today’s Challenges with Wisdom and Heart. She has also authored or co-authored numerous faith-based guides for congregation and clergy on sexuality issues:

Debra Hafner: Young people need us as adults to help them mitigate and understand this very complex world. Parents think that if we don't talk about this in school, somehow or other, they're going to protect their kids and it's really just the opposite.

Emy diGrappa: Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guests the question why. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming, and what better organization than Wyoming Humanities, serving our state for over 45 years. We share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. This is What's Your Why.

Emy diGrappa: Today, we are talking to Reverend Dr. Debra Hafner, a sexologist and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. Reverend Debra's most recent work has focused on helping faith communities understand the relationship between sexuality and religion, and creating sexually healthy faith communities. She has also written two award-winning books for parents, From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, and Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent'sGuide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens. Welcome, Reverend Debra.

Debra Hafner: I'm so glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Emy diGrappa: Absolutely. I love having you here. Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in becoming a minister?

Debra Hafner: I grew up in Connecticut and did most of my education in Connecticut, and actually my first career was as a sexologist. I was fascinated by human sexuality. I was part of the early women's health movement, and then discovered that that could become a job, not just a volunteer activity. And so the first 20 plus years of my career was actually spent in sexuality education and advocacy for sexual rights.

Debra Hafner: The ministry is actually more recent. I became a minister in 2003. The call came much earlier than that, but I resisted it really strongly.

Emy diGrappa: And so when you say the call, what influenced you?

Debra Hafner: So I actually literally had a call. One day giving a talk at a church, I felt a very strong voice that said this is the work you're supposed to do. And I was a Jewish Unitarian Universalist and there is no such thing as hearing voices. I had no idea what was happening to me. And so I decided it was my ego and to ignore it. But increasingly over about a 10 year period, that call became louder, and I realized I needed to bring my sexology background into the world of organized religion.

Emy diGrappa: And so how did you marry those two? What did you do to make that happen?

Debra Hafner: Well first I quit my job as the president of the Sex Information Education Council of the United States, and I went back to school at the age of 45 to get my master's in divinity degree. What became very clear to me when I was at the seminary was that sexuality was not talked about in seminary. It wasn't part of ministers training, and yet it's such a major focus of what people in congregation bring to their clergy. We marry people, we name their babies, we work with them when their marriages are in trouble. We work with them when their children are coming out. We work with them when they're going through gender transitions, when there's infertility.

Debra Hafner: I mean, I could go on and on and on about how sexuality comes up very personally in people's lives and very much intersected with the question of, what's life about? How do we find meaning in life? And so, no seminary would graduate you without teaching you about death and dying and how to deal with somebody who's got a fatal disease, but seminaries all over the country were graduating ministers who had no training in how to deal with sexual health.

Debra Hafner: So it became really clear tome that that was my calling, that was the next thing I needed to work on. And so for 15 years as the president of something called The Religious Institute,an organization I created, I trained seminaries, I work with denominations to bring the issue of sexuality to the fore in clergy training and preparation.

Emy diGrappa: And why do you think that has been the tradition to just avoid that subject and it's like a no word or something?

Debra Hafner: Yeah. So I think frankly, it's not that it's been avoided, it's been a no. When people think about what religion teaches about sexuality, they think it's all about the nots. Don't be gay, don't be sexual outside of marriage. I mean, I could go on and on. And actually, when I first read the Bible as a scholar, I was so struck by finding out that in fact the Bible is really positive about sexuality, that if we look at the Bible, either literally or metaphorically, God wants us to be happy.

Debra Hafner: I actually wrote a book called The Really Good News: Why God Wants You to Find Joy, and sexuality is part of that joy. We are created as sexual beings. In the very first, second chapter of Genesis, it says, "Therefore a man and a woman shall cleave onto each other and they were naked and not ashamed." Right there, right at the very beginning. And yet we don't talk about that.

Debra Hafner: And what's the result? The result is the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The result is what's happened in the Catholic church, where hundreds and hundreds of priests abuse both children and grownups. The result is people being forced into marriages by certain denominations because they don't recognize that people are same gender loving. All of that has to change. We need to affirm that is part of God's gift to us, and that what we need to do is learn to experience it and exercise it wisely.

Emy diGrappa: So is that what influenced you wanting to write books, to help people break down that barrier and be able to talk to their kids about sexuality?

Debra Hafner: Yeah. Well, you know, it's interesting. My best-selling book From Diapers to Dating has been out 20 years this year, which is just remarkable to me. My daughter wrote the introduction to it when she was 13 years old. She's 33. What influenced me to write those books was that although I had been a sexologist for 15 years when I had my own children, and I had been teaching parents how to talk to their children about sex, what I learned was it was much harder in reality than it had been in theory. And I thought, if I'm having a hard time doing this, what about all those parents who don't have the information that I have about developmental issues, about sexuality?

Debra Hafner: And so I really wrote the books to try to pass onto people what I knew and work through how it is I thought parents should do this from a very real practical perspective. I was also very aware that what parents mostly were having trouble with was how to give values to their children. Our children can get, particularly in today's world, information about sexuality from many, many sources. But you as their family,you're the only person who can give your family values.

Emy diGrappa: And so it is awkward. I'm a mom and I think it is awkward, and it's even hard to find the right moments to talk to your kids about, you know, sexual behaviors and what they're experiencing within their own body. So how did you-

Debra Hafner: So that's why it's From Diapers to Dating. So if you start when your child is a baby, if you have these conversations from the time you teach your child the parts of their body, "This is your nose, this is your tummy." Most parents go, "This is your knees," they leave out a third of the body. So if we can learn when our child is nine months old to say, "This is your nose, this is your tummy, this is your penis, this is your vulva, those are your knees, those are your toes," we're starting to teach about sexuality from a very young age.

Debra Hafner: How do we answer those first questions? By the time a child is three or four, they say, "Where did I come from?" Do we have the words? And so I actually give people the words, but also the opportunity to look at their values.

Debra Hafner: So I just heard today, the day we're taping this, Meghan Markle had her baby. Yay the princess. So here's what I call a teachable moment. We're going to see that baby for the next month, two months in the press. If you have a four or five year old at home, this is an opportunity. It's a teachable moment to talk about how babies are wonderful and then say, "Do you know where babies come from?"

Emy diGrappa: Right. So did you have to practice on your children?

Debra Hafner: You know, I don't know that I had to practice on my children because as I said, I've been teaching other people's parents how to do this, but I was sometimes stuck, you know? There were opportune times when I was like, "Oh my gosh, what do I do?" I call those the "oh no, what do I do now" moments.

Debra Hafner: We took my daughter when she was 18 months old to a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit, and in the middle of the Hirshhorn Museum, in a very loud voice, she said, pointing at a photo, pointing at one of the pictures, "Mama look, vuvlas." And there we were in this museum.

Emy diGrappa: [crosstalk 00:09:20].

Debra Hafner: The whole place got really quiet. And I was like, "Yeah, well some people think that honey." So you know, I had moments too that I didn't quite know what to do with.

Emy diGrappa: So if someone doesn't teach their children at a young age, and let's say their kids are, you know, getting into the teen years, 13, 14 and they're already experiencing sexuality, there's no way to catch up. What do you do?

Debra Hafner: So to your listeners right now, I'm your teachable moment. You get to say to your 12 year old or 15 year old, "You know, today I heard this minister sexologist on this podcast who said we should be talking about sex more. I don't know that I've done a very good job, but I'd like to do more." And that's the whole teachable moment today. Like don't try to make up for the last 15 years, just give them a heads up that you're going to be looking for those teachable moments. And that's really what my books help you do.

Debra Hafner: With teenagers, you've got a teachable moment almost every day. The clothes they wear, the things they go to, the news gives you a teachable moment almost all the time from the MeToo era to RJ Kelly to what you watch on TV, the music they listen to, the advertisements, the billboards, there's sexuality stuff going on all around you.

Emy diGrappa: Where do you think we are right now today with sexism, with young girls and/or women in general actually?

Debra Hafner: Wow. You know, I think you and I would both wish that we were a lot farther than we are. It is sometimes hard. When the MeToo era broke and I'm a survivor, and you know, you saw all these people on Facebook and other social media saying me too, and when I saw my friends of my children and younger friends writing me too, you know, 15 year old girls, 22 year old young women, it broke my heart because I thought surely we've come farther than this. And in some ways I think we have on LGBTQ issues. I think we are a much more open society than we were, although certainly, the federal government right now would like to roll some of that back.

Debra Hafner: When it comes to women and sexuality, I think young women are more empowered certainly than I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. I think there is more discussion, but we still don't do enough about consent. We still don't talk enough about pleasure. We still don't talk enough about how do we negotiate a quality sexual relationship. So we're not there.

Debra Hafner: And part of the reason we're not there is because we don't have quality sexuality education in this country. Very few states require a comprehensive sexuality education. And under this new government, new federal government, they're trying once again to institute abstinence only education, something that just fails our young people.

Emy diGrappa: Wow. I am so surprised at that actually because that's almost like going backwards in time and not realistic. I mean, when you have kids and every thing is available to them on the internet, you're not protecting them in any way by teaching them something that they can't even adhere to. And maybe some can, I can't speak for everyone, but that just seems like an impossible task.

Debra Hafner: Well, and the issue is that we are actually, I would say in the last 10, 15 years, in a huge experiment about sexuality. The average young person sees pornography for the first time on their phone between the ages of 11 and 12. And largely, they're not seeing loving, caring, pleasurable, mutual relationships. You know, they tend to see exploitive, often fetishistic negative images.

Debra Hafner: And so how important is it for us as parents to talk about these issues, for schools to talk about these issues? For churches, synagogues and mosques to talk about these issues? For the media to talk about these issues? Young people need us as adults to help them mitigate and understand this very complex world. Parents think that if we don't talk about this in school, somehow or other, they're going to protect their kids. And it's really just the opposite.

Emy diGrappa: Well maybe what parents fear is that if they have sex education in school, the school isn't teaching them the values that they would want them to learn at home.

Debra Hafner: Which comes back to why it's so important for you to talk in your home. You know, when you talk about values about sexuality, Game of Thrones, you know, if that's what you want your children to learn... So there are lots of values out there. Our job as parents is to teach them our values, to bring them to religious institutions that will reinforce our values, to have open, honest discussion. And it's still also important, if you've got a teenager at home, 15, 16, 17 and 18 year old, you also need to let your child know that you will love them and be there for them no matter what.

Debra Hafner: So regardless of what your values are, your child may act in a way that you're not happy with. You want to be the person they come to if they think they're pregnant, if they think they have an STI, if they are struggling with their sexual orientation, if they have questions about their gender. Don't you as their loving parent want them to come to you? So whatever you do, let them know that you will love them no matter who they are or what decisions they make.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, that's so true and so excellent that you're promoting that. And I think people need to hear that over and over again because I think it doesn't seem that long ago that, well, from my growing up, I wasn't taught about sex in my home. And so I struggled with that with my girls, but it was a lot different with my son. Do you see there's a gender difference?

Debra Hafner: You know, I think it really depends. So the message that I like to give is that it's important for moms to talk to their children of all genders. It's important for a dad, if there's a dad, to talk to children of all genders. If there's not both genders in the home, if you are in a single sex household or you've got two moms or two dads, it's sometimes important to identify family friends who your kids can talk to.

Debra Hafner: One of the pieces of research I like to quote is that young people, teenagers who have three close adults besides their parents, do much better in their adolescent years. As your children go through adolescence, you may not be the first person they want to talk to, but you want to make sure they have caring, loving adults who they can go to.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, that's excellent. Thank you so much for talking to me today.

Debra Hafner: You're welcome. It's been a pleasure.

Emy diGrappa: Absolutely.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's your Why, a production of [inaudible 00:16:05], Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer Emy DiGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information, go to