Wheelock College is internationally renowned for taking seriously its mission “to improve the lives of children and families,” including expanding the notion of what a fair and just world would look like for children. Rooted in the ecological model of Urie Bronfenbrenner, which holds that human development should be understood from both the micro and macro perspectives, Wheelock educates students to understand how children and families exist in a larger, more complex world than the local. This macro level of analysis often forces us to look at social problems that are dire in their consequences for children, and that ultimately put children and their families at risk for violence and abuse.
Few colleges in this country have had the courage to address one of the most serious public health issues of our time: the increasing hypersexualization of our culture. A report by the American Psychological Association on the sexualization of girls found that in a society saturated with images of hypersexuality, “girls internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance.” This internalization can lead to depression, anxiety, risky sexual behavior, eating disorders and low self esteem.
Similarly, when boys are exposed to hypersexual images, especially pornography, they also internalize a negative self-image, and are more likely to act out the violence they see. Scholars are increasingly turning their attention to the ways that boys and young men are being targeted by the porn industry, and specifically to how they are being traumatized by the tsunami of pornographic images that hijack their authentic sexuality.
Even as this research begins to provide a coherent account of children’s development being compromised by pop culture and pornography, few colleges have developed courses that explore how to help families and communities stop the harms and improve children’s lives. Wheelock yet again stands out as a leader in the field as it prepares to offer its 21st annual Summer Institute on Media Literacy, Sexualization and Violence.
Co-taught by Dr. Gail Dines and Dr. Diane Levin, this Institute was originally funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. It then became a Wheelock-sponsored summer institute that has drawn participants from around the world, including professionals in teaching, public health, social work, law enforcement, and anti-violence service and advocacy.
It is safe to say that we are the only college offering such an institute that is multi-disciplinary and geared towards social action. Not only do we offer participants cutting-edge scholarship, we also provide them with a tool kit for working with children, families and communities to develop an ecological approach to media literacy. Dr. Diane Levin is an international leader in developing innovative programs in media literacy and curriculum, and Dr. Gail Dines is one of the most well-known scholars in the field of media, pornography and violence.
This year the Institute will convene a stellar group of professionals and activists—including pediatricians, lawyers, teachers, parents, and youth workers—to build a public health program dedicated to challenging predatory media industries and stopping the harms of a hypersexualized culture. Building on a grant that Dr. Gail Dines and her team received last year from the Centers for Disease Control, this year’s Institute (July 7-10) will set out a framework for a nation-wide public health project.
On July 11th, Wheelock’s Department of American Studies will co-sponsor, with Stop Porn Culture (a non-profit headed by Dr. Gail Dines), a one-day conference entitled Ending Prostitution, Human Trafficking and Pornography: Putting Theory into Practice. This free of charge conference will bring together women activists, scholars, authors, journalists, NGO experts, and law enforcement officials, to link theory with practice to explore the local, national and international realities of trafficking and prostitution, and to develop strategies to end this violence against women.
As we continue to grapple with increasingly complex social problems, colleges need to lead the way in developing the next generation’s scholars, thought leaders, and practitioners. Wheelock, having long been a leader in the field, is once again at the helm of building intellectual and practical bridges between the academy and the community to tackle the hypersexualization of the culture.
For more details on the Institute and Conference, go to: stoppornculture.org