The tiny Himalayan Buddhist nation of Bhutan in some important ways has, so to speak, outstripped majority-Christian United States in throwing off the dogmatic religious shackles that have traditionally constrained its sex ed policies.
Despite the two nation’s very different religious traditions, the holy corruptions of sexuality have been much the same for both. The dreadful results include shame, secrecy, unwanted pregnancy, rape and sexual abuse (often at the hands of Buddhist monks and Christian clergy, and often of minors), and sexually transmitted diseases (STD).
Indeed, a rash of pedophilia and STD scandals in Bhutan’s Buddhist monasteries early in the new millennium is what moved Bhutan’s leaders to instate formal sex-ed class in all the nation’s monasteries by 2014. The catastrophic priestly sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church apparently hasn’t had the same effect in America.
Ignorance is a main driver of Bhutan’s sex-related monastic problems, public officials have noted, where even masturbation has been long demonized, prohibiting one key relief valve for the natural, unrequited lusts of monks.
“The sex education curriculum … aims to address the unmet sexual health needs of thousands of young monks and nuns themselves, many of whom lack any formal education. Children as young as five are able to enroll in the monasteries and nunneries,” noted a recent article in Vice.
The Vice article — “For these Buddhist monks, sex ed starts with safe masturbation” — reports that more than 350 directors of Bhutanese monastic institutions in Bhutan plus 1,500 Buddhist nuns, “many of whom have taken vows of abstinence,” have “received training and are further imparting their knowledge to communities where sex education is scarce.”
Lam Ngodup Dorji, a senior monk from the Buddhist center in Longchenpa is upbeat about the sex-ed program’s efficacy.
“Sex was looked at as something bad but now, we have come to a stage where we believe that sex should be practiced safely and that we have to advise our children as to how to go about it rather than saying it’s taboo and not giving them adequate knowledge about it,” Dorji told Vice.
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) supports Bhutan’s program with the goal of spreading awareness to its people about sexual and reproductive health. Vice reports that the program has been “largely successful in transforming previously unyielding attitudes about sex and sexuality.”
“It is very crucial for religious leaders to engage in topics about sexuality because they are very effective agents of change in altering behavior and attitudes of people related to sexuality in the community,” UNFPA adolescent, youth and gender consultant Jigme Choden told Vice. “They are the ones that families turn to, to conduct rituals or to seek advice not only on religion but in daily challenges.”
In contrast, American Christian leaders, focused as ever on (mostly female) chastity, still insist that sexual self-denial and abstinence is the ticket to personal thriving and honor, as well as to fewer unwanted pregnancies and STDs. They continue to preach this doctrine despite voluminous data showing that abstinence programs cause the opposite effect they intend. Less shame and more accurate information, not ideological propaganda, provides people, especially young people, with practical means to avoid pregnancy and protect themselves against disease.
So, in Bhutan and America, when it comes to sex, religion is a big problem, not a solution, to its potential negative personal and broader social effects.
But Bhutan has proven more rational and effective than the U.S. in dealing with the religious component.
Bhutanese monks credit wide acceptance of the two-decade-old sex-ed initiative to Queen Mother Gyalym Sangay Choden Wangchuck, who energetically promoted reproductive health rights in the 1990s. She not only involved religious groups but also military and government organizations in family-planning programs and HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns.
One critical result of the queen mother’s initiatives is that Buddhist leaders publicly proclaimed more than two decades ago that sexual contraception was not wrong under the faith’s doctrines (although most citizens had long believed it was), and by 2018 the country’s contraception usage doubled.
Another positive outcome, according to UNFPA’s Choden, is that most Bhutanese monks now accept that masturbation is not sinful under Buddhist precepts, but healthy, and they have also largely been disabused of false notions that nocturnal emissions (so-called “wet dreams”) are shameful and wrong but rather part of a natural, involuntary function.
Bhutan is an anomaly among other South Asian majority Buddhist nations, where the Buddhist establishment has successfully blocked similar sex-ed programs for bogus religious, moral and cultural reasons.
Sri Lankan religious leaders in 2019 halted a government-led sex-ed initiative in schools because they charged that it was part of a government conspiracy to “corrupt the minds of children.” Likewise in Myanmar (the former Burma), nationalist Buddhist leaders objected to and successfully froze the government’s plan to introduce sex ed into high school curricula; they pronounced the subject “shameful” and a betrayal of Myanmar cultural tradition. A doctor was later arrested for criticizing the monks’ reactionary intransigence.
Akuretiye Nanda Thero, chancellor of the University of Ruhuna and a Buddhist monk, decried the government’s decision to shelve sex education. Wrote Vice:
“I do not believe the textbook had anything inappropriate for children. This education is necessary for these children. It was compiled by specialists in the field. You can see from what is happening in the country today that it is essential that children be educated on this,” he said in reference to the rise in rape and child abuse cases in the country at the time, and noting that ordinary citizens are not, as monks are, expected to be celibate.
“The challenges that were brought up hid behind the lies of safeguarding a culture. Laws that govern monks do not apply to laymen, according to Buddhism.”
Similarly, non-Christians are not bound by Christian ideology regarding sex and chastity in the U.S., although evangelical efforts to keep comprehensive sex ed out of American schools and abstinence programs in, for religious reasons, continues to be muscular. For its part, the Catholic Church has long condemned all forms of contraception as “a negation of the honor due to the Creator since by engaging in them a married couple seek to impede any possible creative intervention by God.”
Well, God has also embedded free will in human beings, who broadly — in virtually every contemporary religious tradition — tend to freely procure contraceptives so they can control planning of the size and practical timing of their families to help insure they survive and thrive.
That’s reasonable. Ignorance of sex helps insure the opposite.
Which is not to say Bhutan’s monastic pedophilia and STD crisis ended with sex ed in the ’90s. It didn’t; but it was a good start. Sex ed brought sex, long hidden in the darkness of Buddhist spirituality, into the light for the first time. In a 2013 article in the Guardian newspaper, Zangley Drukpa, Bhutan’s health minister, announced that the government was “making condoms freely available everywhere, even in monastic schools and colleges,” and that a “special action group” had been formed to focus on STDs in monasteries.
At the beginning of the article is a snippet of this knowing quote from author Darrel Ray’s 2012 book, Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality:
“Religion has the capacity to silence critical thinking and create blindness in entire groups of people. It can infect the minds of followers so completely as to allow the most egregious sexual acts against children and others to go unchallenged for centuries.”
So it has, and still does.