Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My Real Job

I have just returned from doing two sessions at a private girl’s school in New York State. I had a great session with the school’s 11th grade peer educators and then did an evening session with the senior girls.

This is my second visit to this school, and one of the things that I really value is that they offer me the privilege of meeting with the young women alone, without any faculty present, so that we can talk openly about issues without their feeling observed. It is a trust that I take very seriously.

I opened both sessions talking about how to make moral, ethical decisions about sexuality. I go over my five criteria for a moral sexual relationship (consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable, and protected if any type of intercourse occurs) and ask them what they need to know if these criteria are being met (time, communication, trust, and shared values.)

And then I answer questions that they have written before I start on index cards. Some of the questions are factual: when is a girl most likely to be fertile? What’s bisexuality? What’s the most effective method of birth control? Some of the questions are surprisingly explicit, including a much larger number of questions about female orgasm that I might expect among a group of 17 and 18 year old girls. (I don’t think I even knew the word when I was in high school!)

Some of the ones in the evening session were in the “can we shock the minister” genre. One wrote something like, “I’m having sex, lots of it, with people of both genders. Why do I have to be sitting here?” I answered calmly that perhaps she might learn something about ethical sexual decision making, and then addressed the girls who might be sitting wondering why they were there when they had no interest or intention to have sex with a partner for a long time.

The question that was perhaps designed to be the most distressing I actually found amusing. It read, “Dear Rev. Haffner, why don’t you have a real job?” Several young women in the audience actually gasped. But I chose to answer it sincerely, explaining that I run a national organization, serve a church part time, have a counseling practice, and am just about to publish my 6th book. The seniors broke into spontaneous applause. Several apologized to me afterwards for their classmates.

But most importantly, I shared with them that I love the work that I do and that I have been privileged to educate tens of thousands of people about the precious gift of their sexuality. What I wished I had also told them was that I am one of the lucky people who have found their calling in the world, and that my wish and prayer for them would be to do so as well.

Because then, it never does seem like a real job – but a blessing, even in the evenings with teenagers who aren’t sure they want to be there.


Unknown said...


I just have to say that, as someone who has facilitated OWL, and worked as a college peer educator about dating violence, I have received a similar amount of hostility from audiences in this age group. I have spend much time trying to anticipate how I would address hostile questions like these, and I must say that I am taken by the grace, compassion, and love in your responses. You are doing important ministry and you have inspired me to do the same.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the students that was in your evening session for seniors. I just want to apologize, again, for what some of my peers said. It was rude and immature. I loved the seminar and you answered the questions very well and weren't "judge-y" like most other adults, even when they try not to be. You also handled yourself amazingly well in response to the ill-mannered queries.

Please forgive my class and do come back next year for this year's juniors. And don't worry, over a dozen of us reported what happened to the woman who organizes the seminars and we have already had a stern upbraiding.
Thank you so much for coming.

Anonymous said...

I too was there-- and while I think your message is of great pith and moment, and wish that some of my classmates had been more respectful of you personally, and less purposely inflammatory, I think it might also be important to note that some of these questions were probably not intended seriously to insult or make light of what we were discussing.

Rather, is it possible that some may have been expressing the same attitude of acceptance and familiarity with sex and intimacy that some of your dialectic would seem to espouse? Maybe the jokes and (admittedly ill-considered) comments were expressions of discomfort or even psychological repression regarding the material, but perhaps they may also be read as expressions of comfort, and, dare I say, liberation. I think in general my classmates are pretty comfortable talking about sex, and some of their comments may have been anticipating and rejecting in advance a restrictive and repressive attitude, long a staple of American public life.

We like to have fun, and I think a healthy approach to sex need not be relentlessly serious, something that I know you also appreciate. For example, I should also mention that the one referencing “jaji” was a COMPLETE joke. Additionally, I suspect that those responsible for the ill-natured index cards may have been pleasantly surprised by what you actually had to say, as well as by your sincerity and competence.

I am sorry that a few of my classmates displayed their inhospitable and inconsiderate side to the detriment of the rest of us, but while I do not agree with their choices I think it is important to note the context from which their comments may have emerged.

robyn said...

I three was there. I will say that I am a senior peer educator who did not attend the afternoon session. I hope the peer eds were good to you (I'm sure they were), but before you compare them with the seniors, I'd like you to think about the possible reasons for their politeness. There were only 15 of them, and they therefore were vulnerable. I'm not trying to excuse the one or two offensive comments that came from my class, only put them into perspective.

Now I'll speak personally. I agree that you have a real job, though I don't think that the majority of seniors learned anything new from you. It's not your fault that we already knew almost everything you said, but I think it helps to explain why so many of the questions were jokes. When given the index card, I honestly could not think of any question I wanted to ask you. So I put a non-offensive joke. We weren't trying to shock you. It doesn't matter to me if you were shocked or not. Neither were we implying that safe sex is a laughing matter. We were merely playing around, as we are wont to do, purely for our own amusement. I hope you didn't take those questions too seriously, or personally.

I'm being diplomatic, I think.

Debra W. Haffner said...

Enrique, thank you for knowing that this inspired you. There is no question that loving them is the center of our education with young people.

To the three women from the school who chose to write, thank you. How well each of you convey your thoughts -- that in itself is a testament to your education at the school. And how interesting that you all took something different away from the evening. I do think that teens expect adults to deny them their sexuality; if you take the time to read about our work at our web site you will see that we, like many religious leaders, believe that forming a sexual identity is a developmental task of adolescents, that you have the right to explore safe, age appropriate behaviors, and that you have the right to have informed adults provide you with answers to all your questions. I did my best to do just that.

Anonymous said...

So I very recently found the link to the blog and decided to say something. I think it must be something about being a teenager in a room full of almost 100 others that prompts the 'let's-piss-off-an-adult' reaction. Since the girls before me have already apologized on all of our behalfs, it is safe to say that most of us definitely were appalled.

Anyway, you did a good job and if you are inclined to accept another invitation to our school, please do because the juniors were excited to hear that the 'CUHMP lady' was back ^_^

Lots of homework to do so, gotta go but...

xoxo love&peace&blessings

Anonymous said...

I believe that any person who devotes his or her life to help others is fulfilling a desire that God has for each of us. What greater happiness one can have by knowing that in some way he or she has helped to make another person's life better. I commend the work that you do Rev. Haffner, and its benefit to others.