Debra Haffner ’76 returned to the University on Wednesday, April 22, to deliver a lecture entitled, “Lessons from a Life in Sex and Ministry,” sponsored by The Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship.
As an undergraduate, Haffner was co-founder of the University’s first Women’s Center, and went on to hold leadership roles at Planned Parenthood, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS), and other not-for-profit organizations. Most recently she founded The Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization advocating for justice, sexual health, and education in faith communities and society at large. Now, she describes herself as a “Sexologist Minister.”
Haffner began by describing her time at the University and the impact her undergraduate education had on her career.
“Wesleyan launched my career in many ways… but not in the ways that I had expected,” Haffner said. “I came to campus in the fall of 1972. I was the second class of women who came in as freshmen, and I think that’s pretty hard to imagine today…. Women like me were still coming to college with the parental message that we were here to find a career that we could fall back on if our husbands died or left us.”
Haffner noted that abortion was still illegal in Connecticut. Reflecting on her own experiences, and those of other female students, in terms of sexual misconduct, she emphasized the absence of terms or concepts like “date rape” or “sexual harassment.”
“My sophomore year I took a women’s studies class,” Haffner said. “This course just exploded my world. All of a sudden, I was able to make sense of all those conflicting messages and was able to own who I was.”
Haffner cites this class as the beginning of her career as a sex educator. She partnered with a fellow student, was given a $500 budget by the University, and founded the Wesleyan Women’s Center.
“We struck for a gynecologist…this old guy who didn’t know how to do pelvic [exams], was not okay with us,” Haffner said. “We organized consciousness-raising groups, which were groups of women, but [also] co-ed, so women and men could talk about the impact of sexism growing up. We brought people to campus to teach women how to do plumbing and car repair.”
After attending a women’s workshop organized by Our Bodies, Ourselves—in which the female workshop facilitator got up on a table, inserted a speculum into her vagina, and offered workshop attendees a flashlight with which to examine her cervix—Haffner and her colleague began hosting the same workshop every other week in Exley Science Center.
Switching from a pre-law path to sexual education, Haffner quit her job and took a position at the Population Institute. She urged students to take their first job based on the organization itself, not on the position originally offered to them.
“At the Population Institute… I would come in early and stay late… I started creating fact sheets for them, and I started to do extra research. I would put memos on their desk of interesting things I thought they needed to know when they came in in the morning.”
She was promoted at the Public Health Service, after being the only employee still in the office after 5 p.m. At 23 years old, Haffner was given a $14,000,000 national program to set up adolescent health centers around the country.
Once Haffner became the Executive Director of SEICUS, she organized health and sexuality organizations around the country in the production of the “Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” which are still widely used today.
Haffner is also the author of seven books; her first one, “From Diapers to Dating,” continues to be the most successful.
She commented on the importance of collaboration in any field.
“We are smarter together than we are alone,” Haffner said. “No matter how good you are, how smart you are, how passionate you are, you don’t know everything, and other people can help you think. That’s really been a lesson that I’ve learned over and over again.”
Haffner then described the most recent “turn” her life has taken, which began during a talk she was asked to give at her home congregation on sexuality and religion.
“In the middle of that talk, I felt a call… this message of ‘this is what you’re supposed to do,’” said Haffner. “I’m from a Jewish background and am a Unitarian Universalist—we don’t get calls from anybody… this was not part of my experience at all.”
She pointed to a quote from Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, to describe her understanding of “call” as the place “where the world’s greatest need meets your greatest joy.”
“I’ve often thought, ‘Why didn’t I go into gun control?’ ‘Why didn’t I go into anti-racism?’” Haffner said. “Frankly, I’m always amazed that sexuality issues are the front page issues of political life… as important as I think those things are, I don’t think they’re the most important issues facing America, [but] they’re my issues. When I heard this line, I thought, ‘That’s what it is,’ finding that intersection between what I’m passionate about and what the world needs.”
She concluded with some lessons for not-for-profit management, emphasizing the importance of maintaining relationships and asking for help when it’s needed. She also cited proficiency in finances as one of her most important skills, specifically the ability to read an audit or put a budget together. In terms of hiring, she advised students never to offer a position to someone they couldn’t imagine seeing every day.
“One of the things I do often now, is take people out for meals before I hire them, and watch how they treat the wait staff,” Haffner said. “If I don’t like the way you treat the wait staff, I don’t want you working for me, because eventually you’re going to treat one of our customers like that, or one of our stakeholders, or me, like that.”
Haffner referred back to her belief in working beyond the parameters of the traditional workday.
“I have always worked harder than anyone who’s worked for me,” Haffner said. “I am always the first person in the office, and I’m still the last person to leave. I’ve been doing that now for close to 40 years. In order to get the best from people, I think that they need to see that I am full in.”
Finally, she expressed the belief in staying involved programmatically, doing direct community outreach, and staying current.
Haffner noted that after leaving SEICUS, she assumed she was finished having adventures, but that she realized life is constantly evolving.
She described some of her most exciting moments since ministry, including marrying her two close friends after their 50-year relationship when gay marriage finally became legal in New York.
“I’ve been to the Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House,” said Haffner. “I’ve debated Bill O’Reilly several times on television, I did the blessing at Jane Fonda’s 70th birthday—that’s Rosie O’Donnell behind her, and Sally Field, and Lily Tomlin, and me—I got to hang out with these people. This picture is from a transgender day of remembrance… I was invited by the Peace Council to come to a meeting in Thailand with them, to talk about women and religion.”
Civic Engagement Fellow Rosy Capron ’14 reacted to Haffner’s talk as an alumna.
“It’s helpful to hear from someone who clearly enjoys the work that they do, and who has not only had a satisfying career, but also a really satisfying life,” Capron said. “Not necessarily an easy career or an easy life, but [she’s] always learning and reflecting.”
Joanna Paul ’18 reflected on a more personal level.
“I’m a Unitarian Universalist [UU] myself, so it was really cool for me to hear a fellow UU who actually went here, because I’m really interested in social justice,” Paul said. “Everything she said really speaks to me. I think the issues she focused on are really important. I liked the point about taking people out to dinner before hiring them… I thought that was really interesting.”
Haffner’s final remarks were a testament to her experience at the University.
“I’m grateful to Wesleyan for what it gave me and what I learned here,” Haffner said. “It was that girl with the speculum that’s still teaching pretty much the same thing, which is that our sexuality is a wonderful part of life, that we need education and information, and that we can bring our passion to make our world a better place for people.”