Politics & Government

One state lawmaker wants pornography declared a public health hazard, like smoking

Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, has asked the Virginia Assembly to declare pornography a public health hazard.
Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, has asked the Virginia Assembly to declare pornography a public health hazard. AP

RICHMOND, Va. - A Virginia lawmaker is asking the state legislature to declare pornography a public health hazard - a move he hopes will pave the way for limits of some sort.

Del. Robert Marshall, R-Prince William, has proposed a resolution stating that pornography leads to many social problems and that the General Assembly, which convenes its annual session on Jan. 11, needs to do something about it. Just what lawmakers should do is unspecified.

The measure does not call for any sort of ban, only a broad recognition of "the need for education, prevention, research, and policy change at the community and societal level in order to address the pornography epidemic that is harming the people of the Commonwealth and the nation."

He compared the value of the declaration to the one U.S. Surgeon General Luther L. Terry made in 1964, with the first official report to link cigarettes to disease.

"We've got to say, 'This is a problem,'" Marshall said in an interview Thursday. "Before smoking was identified as a problem, at least the recognition that it led to certain pathologies was a starting point to put restrictions on it. . . . If you recognize it as a problem, then you're going to try to find ways to solve it within the framework of the statutes we can pass and the institutions we have."

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, expressed concern that the ultimate goal might be some form of censorship. She did not take a formal position, though, because she had not yet studied the proposal.

"Obviously we're cautious about anything that looks like it ultimately aims to regulate the content of speech, although we don't like pornography any better than anybody else," she said.

Marshall is one of the General Assembly's most outspoken conservatives, but he has an independent streak that sometimes appeals to the left. On some privacy and surveillance issues, for instance, he has found common ground with civil libertarians. Liberals joined his efforts in recent years to compensate Virginians who were forcibly sterilized between 1924 and 1979 under a state eugenics program.

His pornography resolution has the potential to create some strange bedfellows, even if the ACLU does not warm to it. The legislation frames pornography not just as a moral scourge that leads to infidelity, the "hypersexualization of teenagers" and "deviant sexual arousal," but as a weapon against women. The measure blames pornography for "low self-esteem and body image disorders" and devotes a lot of attention to the objectification of women and girls.

It reads, in part: "WHEREAS, because pornography treats women as objects and commodities for the viewer's use, it teaches girls that they are to be used and teaches boys to be users; and WHEREAS, pornography normalizes violence and abuse of women and children; and WHEREAS, pornography treats women and children as objects and often depicts rape and abuse as if such acts are harmless . . ."

The resolution piqued the interest of state Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, one of the legislature's staunchest defenders of women's rights. She has often been at odds with Marshall on the issue of abortion, which he strongly opposes.

"We will talk about it in the women's health caucus, I'm sure of that," she said. "He's right; pornography does have a negative impact on public health, and it does lead to lots of other issues. I'm going to look at it."