Reverend reconciles sex and religion

Rev. Debra Haffner speaks to an audience of about 40 in William L. Harkness Hall on Sunday about the interplay between sexuality and religion.
Rev. Debra Haffner speaks to an audience of about 40 in William L. Harkness Hall on Sunday about the interplay between sexuality and religion. Photo by Emily Wanger.

Over the course of her career as a minister and sexologist, Reverend Debra Haffner said, she has received numerous laughs and blank looks of disbelief after telling people what she does. But, at a talk Sunday afternoon about “Sexuality, Religion, Faith and Morality,” Haffner, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, explained that her two professions are actually not contradictory, but instead offer a unique insight into modern sexuality.

“Both share a common vision: how to love each other and treat each other with respect and dignity,” Haffner said.

Haffner, who was raised in a secular Jewish family before she became a minister, proposed a new gospel of sexuality to an audience of about 40 people in William L. Harkness Hall on Sunday. Haffner said it is important for conservative religious leaders to reform their doctrines to fit modern times and quoted Biblical evidence to support her position.

“We must articulate that the sin is not sex, but sexual exploitation,” Haffner said. “Sin is forcing people to deny their God-given gift: sexuality.”

Sexuality is critically important to a marriage, Haffner said, adding that as a minister, she refuses to marry people who are virgins.

Today, Haffner said, religious leaders must focus on the health of the sexual relationships rather than condemn the sexual acts themselves. Haffner’s ideal for moral sexual relationships, she said, is represented by the acronym CUHMP: consensual, non-using, honesty, mutually pleasurable and protected.

“There is a dramatic need for a new sexual ethic, not regulating the morality of specific acts, but rather the quality of relationships,” Haffner said.

Older religious conceptions of sex no longer apply to modern society, Haffner said. In the past, she said, chastity before marriage made sense because of people’s lifestyles, as individuals would marry soon after they hit puberty and die soon after their children reached adulthood.

Before Haffner attended seminary to become a minister, she was a sexologist, she said. She said she approached the study of the Bible believing it had two things to say about sex: that it was forbidden until marriage and that it was intended only for procreation. But eventually, she said, she came to believe that Genesis is full of affirmations of humans as sexual beings.

Jessie Zelisko, a high school sophomore and Unitarian Universalist who attended the talk, said she was impressed by Haffner’s references to the Bible in support of her positions. She said she is also Unitarian Universalist and agrees with many of Haffner’s views on sexuality.

“Hearing about how Genesis backed up my beliefs helped to give me a background I can use to discuss these issues with people,” she said.

Eunju Namkung ’13 said Haffner’s talk made her think more about reconciling her differing beliefs on spirituality and sexuality.

But Mira Vale ’13 said she was skeptical of Haffner’s doctrine and use of the Bible.

“It was difficult for me to hear how she breezed through Genesis to make the points she wanted to make,” Vale said. “People from an exacting religious tradition would probably be less inclined to do so.”

Haffner is the executive director of the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization dedicated to sexual health and justice located in Westport.


  • le.. sigh

    I object to the premise that it’s some new theory that religion and sex can go together. People who talk like this are targeting their voice to, admittedly, a population of religious leaders that does exist in America, but who do not represent the mainstream majority. To say otherwise is a caricature.

    Talk to many religious leaders and they will extoll the virtues of sex. What isn’t supported is the trap of thinking, “ME ME ME”, which is so easily fallen into with sexual acts. It’s about the question, “Is God present there in the loving relationship between two people? Or is it purely about one’s own pleasure without Love for the partner? That’s the REAL problem at the heart of sex, not the sexual act itself.

  • A Connecticut Yankee

    “Older religious conceptions of sex no longer apply to modern society, Haffner said.”

    Maybe. But how about older conceptions of privacy and dignity? I would be insulted if a minister who had been asked to perform my marriage vows inquired into whether or not I am a virgin.

    It is none of his (or her) damned business. (Sexology degree or not).

    Paul D. Keane
    M. Div ’80

    born and raised
    a Connecticut Yankee (now in Ruth Westheimer and Debra Haffner’s Court)

  • Pierson90


  • Yale )8

    “…an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister…”


    These people still exist???

    That was good for a laugh on a monday morning.

  • Recent Alum

    “Sexuality is critically important to a marriage, Haffner said, adding that as a minister, she refuses to marry people who are virgins.”

    Is this a joke? She is just doing a parody of the way the Left fringe thinks, right? Right?

  • Hieronymus

    Sharply dull.
    Cold sun.
    Jumbo shrimp.
    Unitarian minister.

  • Yale 08

    Unitarian Universalism- the religion for people who can’t be bothered to have a religion.

  • Hieronymus

    A serious question, seeking honest debate.

    “Haffner… was raised in a secular Jewish family before she became a [Unitarian] minister.”

    This is not uncommon (but that is not the question).

    Cf.: “Most controversial of all, [radical theologian Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, author of ‘Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life’ and, arguably, founder of modern reconstructionist Judaism] rejected the supernatural concept of God in favor of a naturalistic view of a transcendent power behind nature and within us that helps us aspire to the highest level of moral action and ethical behavior.” (WSJ 28JAN2010)

    Add: “Reconstructionist Judaism treats Judaism as a culture which constantly adapts in order to ensure its own survival. Reconstructionist Judaism doesn’t even require members to be theists or, if they are, that they believe that God singled out the Jewish people in any fashion. In other ways, however, Reconstructionists can be more conservative because they observe more of Jewish law.” (As an aside: exactly the opposite of what Rabbi preached…)

    Questions that come to mind…

    Why do so many (which is not to say many but “as many as do”) cultural Jews become Unitarians?

    Why are reconstructionist Jews so comfortable with atheism? Why, as functional atheists, do they bother with Jewish law? Why, as functional atheists, do as many as do “convert” to Unitarianism?

    What do reconstructionist Jews think happens after death? What does Haffner, as a Unitarian minister, think happens after death?

    Does anyone else see the “Sha-la La-la-La-la live for today” vibe in “reconciling” sex and religion (and all that that implies–and what *does* that imply)?

    Jus’ wunnerin’.

  • yea..

    “Sexuality is critically important to a marriage, Haffner said, adding that as a minister, she refuses to marry people who are virgins.”

    This quote to me suggests that Ms. Haffner doesn’t understand/respect the theology of marriage nor the theology of sex. The idea behind waiting until marriage before engaging is sexual activity is not, as she seems to think, some relic of a more prudish era. It is based in the idea that committing oneself to another out of love, through sickness and health, hard times and good times, etc, is the most important thing, and that sex is a wonderful expression of that bond.

    *And if two people feel like they already have that bond, sex can be a wonderful expression. Even before marriage? Probably, and speaking normatively is a mistake. But why not ask the question, why not get married first?

    Marriage is the act of *publicly* proclaiming that commitment, and if one isn’t ready to publicly proclaim such an oath, than is that commitment really as true as one thinks? Again, it could be.

    BUT, for the above reasons, DENYING someone marriage because they have not had sex!?? Ms. Haffner, I just ask that you rethink exactly where your values come from; is it from whatever divine power you believe in, or yourself.

  • Unitarian/Trinitarian

    Is Hieronymus kidding? Unitarians reject the trinity (hence UNITARianism)and implicitly the divinity of Jesus (Joshua ben Joseph).

  • Hieronymus

    While I generally avoid engaging “PK,” I must first ask: what question are you answering?

    If you are answering why a Jew might feel “comfortable” converting to Unitarianism, then your answer makes at least nominal sense; however, it begs the question of why convert (i.e., reject the temple) at all?

    Minor point: While you are correct that Unitarianism (well, the UUA, anyway) may implicitly reject Jesus’ divinity, even UUA does not do so doctrinally, generally choosing instead some mealy-mouthed business about that “Jesus was a man, but a man with a unique relationship to God.”

    So, let me be clearer:

    1) Why do some reconstructionist Jews reject their religious traditions but then assume the pseudo-religious shawl of some other syncretic carp?

    2) Why do many de facto atheists feel the need to don religious garb to undermine true faith?

    3) Do at least some of the above do so willingly/knowingly/maliciously? Or do the *all* think they are doing what is best or right?

    Bonus question:
    Under the view that no one is “wrong” (i.e., all views are “equally valid” or whatever bromide you prefer), then can *anyone* be right?

  • Commanding My Attention

    I don’t want to speak about the Jewish faith. It is faith, and as such is private.

    I will speak two words about Unitarianism which is more than faith—it is ACTION: Abolition and Emerson.

    Unitarianism was avant garde and revolutionary (Emancipation and Civil rights; Self-Help programs from AA to the Power of Positive Thinking have beeen inspired and/or nurtured by unitarianism).

    What it has bcome today I know not.

    There is no religious leader in the world today who commands my attention (No, not even the Dalai Llama).

    For that matter, the religions themselves seem pretty inadequate to the times: All of them.


  • a junior

    “Sexuality is critically important to a marriage, Haffner said, adding that as a minister, she refuses to marry people who are virgins.”

    What a joke. Why anyone would bother listening to her opinions about anything related to sex or marriage, I have no idea.

  • @#12

    Wilberforce was a Unitarian???

    And all this time I thought he was an evangelical Christian! Silly me.

  • @#13

    So the people behind Sex Week can feel all special and inclusive with regards to religion, without taking any real Christian claims on the matter seriously.

  • Ralph Waldo Emancipator

    Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Divinity College, Harvard, Cambridge, 1838.

    This piece of divine heresy makes it possible for #14 and his glib generation to ridicule religion and not fear going to hell.

    How quickly we forget the chains once the Emancipator has cut them off.

    Ignorance reigns.


  • ProfBob

    Several sexual issues (like pre-marital sex, adultery, gay marriage, abortion) and other ethical issues are examined from both the positive and negative sides and from self-centered, God-based and society based assumptions. They are chapters in Book 4 of the free ebook series ‘In Search of Utopia’ (http;//ANDGULLIVERRETURNS.INFO) Recommended for any who are interested in ethics.

  • God-based?


    Which God?

    The same one that sanctioned Solomon’s having 800 wives and 300 concubines (Enough to repopulate a tribe every chidlbearing year for many years)?


  • Hieronymus

    (Hieronymus thinks to himself: “I knew it was a mistake to engage ‘PK'”; note to self: resist future temptations.)

  • PK

    Before you exile yourself from my posting sphere, answer me one question Hieronymus, if you will :are you named in honor of Latin or Greek for Jerome (“sacred name”)or in honor of discovery- by-analogy-or-symbol?
    (“Hieronymus machines were the ostensible invention of Dr. Thomas Galen Hieronymus (21 November 1895 – 1988). As explained mostly by Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell in late 1950s and early 1960s editorials, Hieronymus machines were mock-ups of real machines (patented by their inventor) which allegedly worked by analogy or symbolism, being directed by psi or ESP powers”).

  • Everyone

    We would actually prefer if *both* of you stopped posting entirely.