Groping, grinding, grabbing: new research on nightclubs finds men do it often but know it’s wrong



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Young Australians use nightclubs as a place to relax and perhaps meet a new sexual partner. Many regard some phyiscal contact during the mating ritual as off limits – but still put up with it.

Alfred Allan, Edith Cowan University; Aimee-Rose Wrightson-Hester, Edith Cowan University, and Maria Allan, Edith Cowan University

We have conducted what we believe to be Australia’s first quantitative research on young people’s behaviour in nightclubs and the findings present a disturbing picture.

The research suggests that behaviour is taking place at these clubs that would be criminal if non-consensual, and totally unacceptable at the very least.

However, the behaviour is somehow tolerated – in some cases almost encouraged. Many young people think they are too conservative, and that the behaviours they witness must be normal and acceptable in a nightclub setting – so they just put up with it.

Men engage in this conduct – such as groping, grabbing, and pinching a person on the buttocks – far more than women. Our research was confined to behaviour between heterosexual men and women. The respondents came from across Australia.

On the relatively rare occasions when women initiate such conduct, respondents of both genders regard this as somewhat more acceptable than when it’s men engaging in the conduct.

A values and accountability-free zone?

On any given weekend, young Australians flock to nightclubs and bars to have a good time and, in many cases, find a sexual partner. For years, nightclubs have been hot spots for sexual behaviour that would be deemed out of order in any other setting.

We hear of women who avoid nightlife settings because they dislike their “grab, grope and grind” culture. We also know these behaviours can potentially cause some people to feel degraded, threatened or distressed .

In our study, we explored the norms of sexual behaviour in nightclubs and bars as experienced by 381 young Australians.

They comprised 342 women and 39 men, all of whom identified as heterosexual. They were aged 18 to 30 and had been to nightclubs in the past six months. We recruited them using social media, given the high level of adoption of these platforms by nightclub-goers. We were able to find only 39 male respondents because it’s very hard to get men to open up on this subject. Statistically, this is less than ideal.

We posed the various scenarios listed below, then reversed the role of male and female for each scenario. The third scenario – grinding – is clearly non-consensual, and so would amount to criminal assault. The other scenarios might well amount to criminal assault if non-consensual.

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Both genders are more accepting of these behaviours if the perpetrator is a woman.

This finding is difficult to explain. The explanation is likely to be complex, but several factors probably play a role.

It could be that the rise of feminism and the associated sexual liberation of women might have influenced participants from both genders to be more accepting of these behaviours by women.

Men’s behaviour more likely to cause harm

Or could it be that participants believed this type of behaviour by men could cause more harm to recipients than women would cause. This belief is also echoed in the media and society, where the voices of male survivors of sexual assault by women are dismissed or belittled as the harm caused to them is often perceived to be less than that of a female victim. Women are sexually assaulted by men in far greater numbers than the number of men sexually assaulted by women.

In follow-up questions we posed after the study, several men indicated that the more attractive the woman engaging in the unacceptable behaviour was – attractive as perceived by the respondent making the judgement – the more acceptable the behaviour would be. No woman said anything similar of such behaviour by men.

Other research has previously found that men are welcoming of most sexual behaviour in nightlife settings. In relation to the rare instances of women groping men at nightclubs, men have said women cannot help themselves around a young attractive man and that they, the men, do not see the behaviour as a threat – more as a [self-esteem boost].

People think they must be more prudish than their peers

Participants in our study reported they often observe these four behaviours in nightlife settings. Why do they suppress their personal values in this setting and not in others?

Many young people wrongly think that most other people find the behaviours acceptable. Research shows it’s a common phenomenon for people to wrongly think they are more conservative than their peers. They therefore subjugate their personal values in nightlife settings because they think most other people find the behaviour acceptable.

Another reason is patrons find it difficult to identify whether the behaviour is consensual or not. The continuum of consensual sexual behaviour in nightlife settings extends much further than in most other public settings, such as workplaces or the street – that is, an act that would clearly be assault on the street might conceivably be mutually consented to by two people in a nightclub.

Some people go to nightlife settings to find sexual partners, and flirting and hook-up behaviours often occur. There can also be significant pressure on people, especially men, to find a sexual partner, which can lead to riskier and more aggressive sexual advances.

So what’s the solution?

Nightlife settings serve an important social function as a place where young people relax, socialise, develop their social identities and find sexual partners. Society should allow them that opportunity, but at the same time the nightclub should not necessarily be a place where personal values and integrity are left at the door.

One option is to educate young people about criminal behaviour – if they are willing to listen.
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The lock-out laws in some states are an overreaction by authorities to engineer change in these environments. But how can young people bring the right balance to what happens in nightlife settings?

One possible way forward is to use what we academics call “normative interventions”. Such interventions involve first letting young people know what the majority of them actually think, and that is that “grabbing, groping and grinding” in nightlife settings is wrong. Just because it seems like everyone is doing it, doesn’t make it OK.

The next step is to encourage patrons to speak up when such behaviours occur, whether they are the victim or a bystander. Research in other settings shows it’s possible to develop programs that encourage people who observe such behaviour to intervene, such as confronting the perpetrator or reporting the incident to authorities. In further research currently underway, we are looking more closely at the role of consent in nightclub conduct.The Conversation

Alfred Allan, Professor, Edith Cowan University; Aimee-Rose Wrightson-Hester, PhD Candidate, Edith Cowan University, and Maria Allan, Lecturer in Psychology, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Party leaders need to address federal parliament’s intolerable workplace culture: Phelps


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

High-profile activist Kerryn Phelps, who is considering whether to join the battle in the Wentworth byelection, has condemned federal parliament’s toxic political culture and called on all major party leaders to address it.

As the fallout from Liberal MP Julia Banks’ condemnation of bullying continues, Phelps told The Conversation: “Some of the behaviour in the Australian parliament of late would not be tolerated in any other workplace”, saying it seemed to have gotten worse. This made for an unhealthy workplace which was ill-suited to getting the best performances from MPs.

Phelps, a City of Sydney councillor who was very active in the same-sex marriage debate, practices as a GP in the Wentworth electorate, and could be expected to attract a substantial vote if she ran as an independent.

The seat, formerly held by Malcolm Turnbull, who had a strong personal vote, is on a 17.7% margin but the Liberals are worried about a big protest vote.

The fallout from the leadership coup is already being felt there with Turnbull’s son Alex encouraging people to donate to the campaign of Labor candidate Tim Murray.

The younger Turnbull tweeted: “Best bang for the buck you’ll get in political donations in your life. Tight race, tight margin for government, big incremental effect whatever happens. If you want a federal election now this is the means by which to achieve it.”

While the focus in the bullying debate last week was on women, Phelps said some men suffered equally and “don’t perhaps get recognised in terms of the emotional cost [to them].”

She said the “toxic nature of parliament as a workplace” needed to be addressed, and she rejected the message sent by some Liberal players that people should toughen up or, in the words of backbencher Craig Kelly, “roll with the punches”.

If any business leader said “just toughen up”, they wouldn’t be there for long, Phelps said.

She said that a quantitative improvement in the political culture had to be generated by the leaders of the large parties. “You have to have the leaders of the major parties draw a line in the sand,” and say that bad behaviour would not advance people’s careers. At present, the opposite seemed to be the case, she said.

Earlier on Sunday, Labor frontbencher Clare O’Neil said “there’s a level of aggression, of conflict, of egocentrism that dominate parliament house and I think that that is quite hard to handle”, in particular for women.

O’Neil, spokeswoman on financial services, told the ABC her experience as an MP was “that there’s increasingly a culture in Canberra and in parliament house that feels really toxic”.

Attention is coming on the Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer, who issued a general statement last week condemning bullying, to take a stronger stand. O’Dwyer is expected to say more this week.

Some current and even former Liberal MPs women are reluctant to speak out for fear of blowback.

Labor has had its own controversy centred on one of its female MPs: Emma Husar has said she will not run again, after allegations of her bullying staff and other misbehaviour. A Labor inquiry upheld some allegations but not others.

Labor’s spokesperson on women, Tanya Plibersek, said that while the way parliament worked was adversarial, debates should be conducted with decency and respect.

“A positive culture is critical, and each one of us has the duty to help foster that both within parties and across the parliament.

“I believe the closer the parliament reflects our community – a more equal representation of women and men, and a greater diversity of backgrounds – the better that culture will be.

“I actually think something that really helps is more people working on issues in a bipartisan way, for example on committees,” Plibersek said.

Meanwhile, Christine Forster, Tony Abbott’s sister, has dropped out of the race for Liberal pre-selection for the Wentworth byelection.

She said in a statement the commentary about her candidacy “has focused on the suggestion that it was a proxy for division within the Liberal party. That is not the case, but to avoid any such perception, I will be standing aside and giving my full support to the successful candidate.”

Forster had not been regarded a frontrunner in the contest, which is considered to be between a former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, and Andrew Bragg, who was briefly acting Liberal federal director.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Trolls, fanboys and lurkers: understanding online commenting culture shows us how to improve it



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The way user interfaces are designed can impact the kind of community that gathers.
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Renee Barnes, University of the Sunshine Coast

Do you call that a haircut? I hope you didn’t pay for it.

Oh please this is rubbish, you’re a disgrace to yourself and your profession.

These are just two examples of comments that have followed articles I have written in my career. While they may seem benign compared with the sort of violent and vulgar comments that are synonymous with cyberbullying, they are examples of the uncivil and antisocial behaviour that plagues the internet.

If these comments were directed at me in any of my interactions in everyday life – when buying a coffee or at my monthly book club – they would be incredibly hurtful and certainly not inconsequential.

Drawing on my own research, as well as that of researchers in other fields, my new book “Uncovering Online Commenting Culture: Trolls, Fanboys and Lurkers” attempts to help us understand online behaviours, and outlines productive steps we can all take towards creating safer and kinder online interactions.




Read more:
Rude comments online are a reality we can’t get away from


Steps we all can take

Online abuse is a social problem that just happens to be powered by technology. Solutions are needed that not only defuse the internet’s power to amplify abuse, but also encourage crucial shifts in social norms and values within online communities.

Recognise that it’s a community

The first step is to ensure we view our online interactions as an act of participation in a community. What takes place online will then begin to line up with our offline interactions.

If any of the cruel comments that often form part of online discussion were said to you in a restaurant, you would expect witnesses around you to support you. We must have the same expectations online.

Know our audience

We learn to socialise offline based on visual and verbal cues given by the people with whom we interact. When we move social interactions to an online space where those cues are removed or obscured, a fundamental component of how we moderate our own behaviour is also eliminated. Without these social cues, it’s difficult to determine whether content is appropriate.

Research has shown that most social media users imagine a very different audience to the actual audience reading their updates. We often imagine our audience as people we associate with regularly offline, however a political statement that may be supported by close family and friends could be offensive to former colleagues in our broader online network.

Understand our own behaviour

Emotion plays a role in fuelling online behaviour – emotive comments can inspire further emotive comments in an ongoing feedback loop. Aggression can thus incite aggression in others, but it can also establish a behavioural norm within the community that aggression is acceptable.




Read more:
How empathy can make or break a troll


Understanding our online behaviour can help us take an active role in shaping the norms and values of our online communities by demonstrating appropriate behaviour.

It can also inform education initiatives for our youngest online users. We must teach them to remain conscious of the disjuncture between our imagined audience and the actual audience, thereby ingraining productive social norms for generations to come. Disturbingly, almost 70% of those aged between 18 and 29 have experienced some form of online harassment, compared with one-third of those aged 30 and older.

What organisations and institutions can do

That is not to say that we should absolve the institutions that profit from our online interactions. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter also have a role to play.

User interface design

Design of user interfaces impacts on the ease with which we interact, the types of individuals who comment, and how we will behave.

Drawing on psychological research, we can link particular personality traits with antisocial behaviour online. This is significant because simple changes to the interfaces we use to communicate can influence which personality types will be inclined to comment.

Using interface design to encourage participation from those who will leave positive comments, and creating barriers for those inclined to leave abusive ones, is one step that online platforms can take to minimise harmful behaviours.

For example, those who are highly agreeable prefer anonymity when communicating online. Therefore, eliminating anonymity on websites (an often touted response to hostile behaviour) could discourage those agreeable individuals who would leave more positive comments.

Moderation policies

Conscientious individuals are linked to more pro-social comments. They prefer high levels of moderation, and systems where quality comments are highlighted or ranked by other users.

Riot Games, publisher of the notorious multiplayer game League of Legends, has had great success in mitigating offensive behaviour by putting measures in place to promote the gaming community’s shared values. This included a tribunal of players who could determine punishment for people involved in uncivilised behaviour.

Analytics and reporting

Analytical tools, visible data on who visits a site, and a real-time guide to who is reading comments can help us configure a more accurate imagining of our audience. This could help eliminate the risk of unintentional offence.

Providing clear processes for reporting inappropriate behaviour, and acting quickly to punish it, will also encourage us to take an active role in cleaning up our online communities.




Read more:
How we can keep our relationships during elections: don’t talk politics on social media


We can and must expect more of our online interactions. Our behaviour and how we respond to the behaviour of others within these communities will contribute to the shared norms and values of an online community.

The ConversationHowever, there are institutional factors that can affect the behaviours displayed. It is only through a combination of both personal and institutional responses to antisocial behaviour that we will create more inclusive and harmonious online communities.

Renee Barnes, Senior Lecturer, Journalism, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Don Burke story reveals the pernicious culture of men protecting each other in the media


Gael Jennings, University of Melbourne

It was such a cliché. At the office Christmas party of the national TV show where I worked, I emerged from the loo out the back to find one of my bosses straddling the doorway, blocking my way and waiting to pounce.

I was shocked, not so much by his sexual harassment (that was de rigueur in the newsroom cultures of the day, the 1990s), as by the extent of his male entitlement and misogyny. At the time I was still breastfeeding my baby daughter, who was next door at the party with her dad and my colleagues.

This week’s revelations that TV’s darling of nearly 20 years, Don Burke of Burke’s Backyard fame, was allegedly a “psychotic bully”, a “misogynist” and a “sexual predator” who indecently assaulted, sexually harassed and bullied a string of female employees comes as no surprise to women in Australian media. According to last year’s Women in Media Report, nearly half of us have been abused, intimidated or harassed in our working lives.

Once sexual assault allegations against Hollywood boss Harvey Weinstein exploded in the media, the open secret of male abuse of power over women was out. Social media was awash with #Metoo; in France, #BalanceTonPorc (“expose your pig”) flooded Twitter with stories of sexual harassment and assault.

New allegations appeared almost every day against other powerful men in various industries, including head of Amazon Studios Roy Price, political journalist Mark Halperin, editor at NPR Michael Oreske, Hollywood screenwriter and director James Toback, actors Ben Affleck and Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis CK, reinforcing the seeming incongruity of a self-described grabber of pussies, Donald Trump, being elected US president.

Donald Trump’s ‘Grab her by the pussy’ comments caught in this leaked recording.

A rising swell

It feels like a rising swell, a great wave of truth-telling gathering force and breadth, the crest white and flickering, teetering at the top, ready to curl and roar down upon us all, washing away thousands of years of male power and privilege. But is it?

Or will it peak, then withdraw and ebb away, diluted back into the ocean of sexist norms dominating the world and responsible for the perpetuation of sexual violence against women?

Some journalists are hopeful, because at last, in the Burke case, even some blokes have broken ranks and ratted on him.

Journalist Juanita Phillips is optimistic that “two industry veterans – David Leckie and Sam Chisholm – went on the record to condemn Burke in no uncertain terms. He was a disgrace, they said. A horrible, horrible man”. She found it significant that industry executives – the very keepers of the gates of male privilege – spoke out against one of their own.


Read more: Behind media silence on domestic violence are blokey newsrooms


It’s true the endemic abuse of women in media and entertainment has been enabled over all these years by the collusion of the men in charge. Until now, executive men have largely closed ranks and protected the perpetrators of abuse, harassment and assault against women colleagues.

This is not only because, like Burke, some harassers were cash cows for the companies and networks involved. It was also, and I believe mainly, because these perpetrators were part of the club; part of the same culture that saw the executives themselves rise to the top and stay there.

They not only had a vested interest in maintaining the cultural norm, it was their norm.

Peer-reviewed global literature clearly proves that men perpetrate violence against women when there is masculine dominance in society, when they identify with traditional masculinity and male privilege, believe in rigid gender roles, have weak support for gender equality, and hold negative attitudes towards women.

Our research at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne and that of Women in Media indicates these norms are rampant in the media industry. Men almost exclusively own, run, and give voice to the industry. Murdoch’s News Corp, Fairfax, and APN own 92% of print media in Australia, with women owners being only 15%.

Men run nearly all of it, with only 17% of executives female, and new research shows women to be similarly underrepresented as editors (30.8%), specialist reporters (9.6%-30.2%), as experts (24.6%) and as authoritative sources (26.0%). Only 27% of AM and FM radio breakfast and drive programming hosts are female.

The rate of sexual harassment of women in media (48%) is more than twice that of other workplaces (22%), and far exceeds that of the rightly criticised rates in the Australian Defence Force, at 25% (according to the Human Rights Commission), and Victoria Police at 40%, yet has not been reported widely.

Up until now, the male-centric culture of media made it a non-story.

Will we see long overdue change?

Are we seeing a change now “The Blokes” have broken ranks with Don Burke? Is public discourse about to change? Has social media enabled a coalescence of power from LGBT people and people of colour, to join with outpouring from women who’ve been bullied, excluded, harassed and assaulted, to reach a tipping point for the wave of change?

I think not yet.

I think The Blokes who sacked predatory men in the US did it because women, LGBT and people of colour now have economic power and will use it. I think The Blokes who turned on Burke did it to protect themselves.


Read more: From Public Confessions to Public Trials: The Complexities of the ‘Weinstein Effect’


They were there; they oversaw the reign of terror and did nothing; now that the women and their coworkers are testifying, the (Old) Blokes are running for their lives and distancing themselves from every aspect of this (now) “horrible, horrible man”. Their successors are perpetuating the same workplace cultural norms that we know lead to violence against women.

When a Trump becomes a Macron, we could be more confident. The French president this week swore “it is essential that shame changes camp”, and he is putting his money where his mouth is, with a 2018 draft law to criminalise street harassment, and a massive public education program about sexism and changes to police and courts to help victims.

In the meantime, as Lindy West of the New York Times writes:

… not only are women expected to weather sexual violence, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, institutional subordination, the expectation of free domestic labour, the blame for our own victimisation, and all the subtler, invisible cuts that undermine us daily, we are not even allowed to be angry about it.

We women are angry. Our anger has led to finding ways, around the rule of men in the newsroom, through social media and each other, to document the scope of the crimes against us.

The ConversationThe question is whether our anger, and collaboration with powerful men, will be enough to turn that teetering crest into a massive, roaring wave of change.

Gael Jennings, Honorary Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

From Lord of the Rings to Crocodile Dundee – franchising Australian culture?



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AAP

Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra

Are we going to see an Amazon or Apple remake of Crocodile Dundee, Blinky Bill, The Magic Pudding, The Castle or Picnic at Hanging Rock? Should we restrict overseas exploitation of such icons of Australian identity? Should we not bother, on the basis that Australian content doesn’t work in Mumbai or Belgrade or Boston?

This week has seen controversy over Amazon’s plan for a Lord of the Rings series, feeding what it hopes is an insatiable appetite for hobbits. It’s part of Amazon chief executive Steve Bezos’s ambition to offer a global one-stop shop for culture and other consumables. Amazon aims to be a universal service provider in a landscape where broadcast tv, cable tv and traditional retailers wither and die.

The plan tells us something about culture: it’s for sale. It also tells us about franchising content for global markets: media executives are risk-averse and unimaginative. It leaves unanswered questions about taking Australia’s content to the big screen (and importantly little screens) across the world.

Picnic at hanging rock is one of the most loved and iconic Australian films of its time – will it also be franchised out?
Flickr CC, CC BY

Recycling popular culture

Recycling popular culture, very profitably, isn’t new. We can see it with the many iterations of Batman and Superman videos, films, t-shirts, books, posters and toys since the original comics. We can see it with more than 160 years of remakes of Sweeney Todd. Think Frankenstein and Dracula or Godzilla or Sherlock Holmes.

There’s money to be made from recycling and authorised spinoffs, duly policed or contested by copyright and trade mark lawyers – the gatekeepers of the information economy.

On that basis, Amazon’s vision is unsurprising. Billion-dollar deals in recent decades have involved media groups buying comic publishers such as Marvel, on the basis that the publishers managed to get the vital intellectual property rights. Other big-ticket deals involve Peter Rabbit, Thomas the Tank Engine and Hercule Poirot. That means there’s yet another Murder on the Orient Express on the big screen, with big actors, big moustaches and – the producers hope – big box office.

Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley star in Twentieth Century Fox’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express.
Flicker CC, CC BY

There’s nothing to stop such recycling and the proliferation of products such as Peter Rabbit or Darth Vader figurines, plates, lunchboxes, t-shirts and sheets apart from intellectual property rights. Rights owners are free to licence, gift or simply sell their creativity. Contention has usually centred on whether they sold too cheaply or unwisely – one claim with the Agatha Christie and Tolkien estates – or whether the value of the ‘brand’ was eroded through too many tasteless products.

On that basis we can expect to see an ongoing proliferation of products and a recycling of “classic” works ranging from Casablanca to The Empire Strikes Back. Marketers will respond to what they perceive to be market demand. Recycling will occur because the managers running the large media groups – which will increasingly include businesses such as Apple, Amazon and Microsoft – are risk averse. It is safer and easier to refashion existing content than develop truly new content.

Safety reflects a lack of imagination: your peers are making money by bringing comic book heroes to the big screen, so you can too. A global distribution system – one reason why the big companies remain important – means that you can sell other-worldly content across the globe. No worries that audiences in Karachi or Shandong or Harare or Melbourne will reject a tale about purdah or genocide in Bosnia or colonisation on the US frontier. Hobbits and R2D2 and Spiderman are universal.

Donald Pleasence starred in the Australian 1971 psychological thriller ‘Wake in Fright’
Flicker CC, CC BY

Protecting the ‘Australian identity’

Is this good news for Australian creators and for people who think about protecting the “Australian identity”? The answer is yes and no.

Australia doesn’t have law prohibiting sale to an overseas buyer of rights in iconic works such as Dot & the Kangaroo, The Muddleheaded Wombat, Possum Magic, The Magic Pudding, Johnno, The Man Who Loved Children or Wake in Fright. It doesn’t restrict licensing of those works. Despite the Prime Minister’s recent foray into populism about Ugg boots, it is difficult to see any government establishing credible restrictions.

The bad news is that overseas marketers appear to believe that Australian content doesn’t travel. We are accordingly an importer rather than a major exporter of literature and film. That is an issue in debate about copyright changes. It may reflect stereotypes – Nordic noir, English bluebloods, quirky New Zealand, Indian Bollywood, Australian deserts and men with dresses or Dundee knives.

The state governments have been enthusiastic about establishing Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne as “film cities”. Major overseas productions, including Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean, have used Australian infrastructure and skills. We haven’t however seen many distinctively ‘Australian’ works go global. Works such as The Slap have been refilmed with offshore settings and offshore accents.

Sassy koalas and talkative flying kangaroos might make a breakthrough into the the global market. We want that because it encourages emulation rather than just enriches the creator and creator’s estate.

The ConversationIf we are concerned about national cultural policy we might controversially put less taxpayer money into support of the local arms of overseas media groups, all of which pay very little tax, and instead foster local production and global distribution.

Bruce Baer Arnold, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ


Court sentences him to three years on dubious charge of ‘attempt to promote civil unrest.’

NEW DELHI, October 18 (CDN) — A court in predominantly Buddhist Bhutan has sentenced a Christian to three years in prison for “attempting to promote civil unrest” by screening films on Christianity.

A local court in Gelephu convicted Prem Singh Gurung, a 40-year-old ethnic Nepalese citizen from Sarpang district in south Bhutan, on Oct. 6, according to the government-run daily Kuensel.

Gurung was arrested four months ago after local residents complained that he was showing Christian films in Gonggaon and Simkharkha villages in Jigmecholing block. Gurung invited villagers to watch Nepali movies, and between each feature he showed films on Christianity.

Government attorneys could not prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that Gurung promoted civil unrest, and therefore “he was charged with an attempt to promote civil unrest,” the daily reported.

Gurung was also charged with violation of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act of 2006. Sections 105(1) and 110 of this law require that authorities examine all films before public screening.

A Christian from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, told Compass that the conviction of Gurung disturbed area villagers.

While Gurung has the right to appeal, it remained unclear if he had the resources to take that course.

Both Gonggaon and Simkharkha are virtually inaccessible. It can take up to 24 and 48 hours to reach the villages from the nearest road.

“Both villages do not have electricity,” the daily reported. “But Prem Singh Gurung, with the help of some people, is believed to have carried a projector and a generator to screen the movies in the village.”

Over 75 percent of the 683,407 people in Bhutan are Buddhist, mainly from western and eastern parts. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

It is also estimated that around 6,000 Bhutanese, mostly from south, are Christian in this landlocked nation between India and China. However, their presence is not officially acknowledged in the country. As a result, they practice their faith from the confines of their homes, with no Christian institution officially registered.

Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan, and the government is mandated to protect its culture and religion according to the 2008 constitution. As in other parts of South Asia, people in Bhutan mistakenly believe that Christianity is a Western faith and that missionaries give monetary benefits to convert people from other religions.

Yesterday’s Kuensel published an opinion piece by a Bhutanese woman from New York who described herself as “an aspiring Buddhist” condemning both the conviction of Gurung and Christian “tactics.”

“Although we may not like the tactics used by the Christians to proselytize or ‘sell’ their religion to impoverished and vulnerable groups, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture, in terms of religious tolerance, and what constitutes ‘promoting civil unrest,’” wrote Sonam Ongmo. “If we truly want to establish ourselves as a well-functioning democracy, with equal rights for all, let’s start with one of the fundamental ones – the right to choose one’s faith. We have nothing to worry about Buddhism losing ground to Christianity, but we will if, as a predominantly Buddhist state, we start to deny people the right to their faith.”

While her view is representative of liberal Buddhists in Bhutan, a reader’s response in a forum on Kuensel’s website reflected the harder line.

“These Christians are a cancer to our society,” wrote a reader identifying himself as The Last Dragon. “They had crusades after crusades – we don’t need that. We are very happy with Buddhism. Once Christianity is perfect – as they always claim [it] to be, then let’s see.”

In July, the government of Bhutan proposed an amendment in the Penal Code of Bhutan which would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement.” (See,  “Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law,” July 21.)

Christian persecution arose in Bhutan in the 1980s, when the king began a “one-nation, one-people” campaign to “protect the country’s sovereignty and cultural integrity.” Ethnic Nepalese, however, protested the move on grounds of discrimination. Authorities responded militarily, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were secret Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, in accordance with the wish of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. Since the advent of democracy, the country has brought in many reforms. It is generally believed that the government is gradually giving more freedom to its citizens.

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley, are respected by almost all Bhutanese and are seen as benevolent rulers.

Report from Compass Direct News