Does looking at online pornography make you an unfit parent?

Posted Thursday, June 30th, 2011 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Child Custody, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, Of Interest to General Public, South Carolina Specific

Does looking at online pornography make you an unfit parent?  At least one local family court judge seems to think so.

I had a motion to compel hearing earlier this week.  One of the answers I thought was evasive was a response to my question about whether there was anything about my client that made him unfit to exercise custody of the parties’ minor children.  The judge hearing my motion agreed the opposing party’s answer was evasive.  She told opposing counsel that my question was designed to provide me a listing of fitness issues that his client might raise about my client at trial.  She gave a few examples of issues that would make a parent “unfit.”  Most were the usual suspects: abusive, drug addled. One of the examples was “using online pornography.”

I’ve always understood the family court judges don’t approve of porno.  But I didn’t believe they thought it made a parent unfit.  Evidently at least one local family court judge does.


14 thoughts on Does looking at online pornography make you an unfit parent?

  1. I must qualify this response by saying that I do not always practice what I preach. I am alcoholic, have a public reprimand, and have violated plenty of rules that created problems.

    When I practiced law with Emil Wald in the early ’70’s, Emil taught me that people who obey the rules simply because they are the rules are much happier people. I have since learned that those people are much happier because they have less stress, are move likely to prevail with judges and juries, are more likley to have the respect of their family and their peers, and spend less time and money with lawyers.

    All things being equal, which they never are, the non-pornography viewer should prevail over the pornography viewer. Maybe I am not as open-minded as I should be but I never viewed sex as a spectator sport.

  2. StephM says:

    If that’s the case, she’s going to be one busy judge.

  3. Sex is a convoluted issue in the Family Court, which fully reflects the deeply conflicted view our society has of the subject. Since internet activity leaves a trail of data behind it, I wouldn’t advise any client to indulge in pornography.

    However getting our society to agree on what healthy sexual interests and activities are isn’t going to be possible in our lifetimes. The progress made towards a healthy and open discussion of these issues made a generation ago has largely evaporated. We’re retreating to a largely imaginary set of “family values” that don’t last long after the lights are out.

    I have seen everything imaginable locally in porn and actual sexual activity. Living in the suburbs, going to church and holding conservative political views don’t seem to have any correlation to conduct without clothes on in South Carolina. Our huge out of wedlock birth rate, domestic violence problem and STD epidemic provide statistical corroboration.

  4. Rob Papa says:

    I presume we have all had talks with clients about alcohol and prescription drugs vs. illegal drugs. The illegal drug use is simple and that line cannot be crossed. The “reasonable” use of “legal” alcohol and “legal” prescription drugs is not usually an issue. The unreasonable use of same is an issue.

    There seems to me to be a similar or parallel thought process when it comes to the overly broad usage of the word “porn.” Is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue OK or pornographic?

    Is there an acceptable degree of erotica online or not. Is the Victoria Secret catalog that comes through the U.S. Mail porn?

    I cannot accept that looking at scantily clad adult women in swimsuits makes a parent unfit however I am the first to say that a person that is involved in underage “porn” has both criminal and civil problems.

    My bottom line is that there are degrees of drinking legal alcohol and degrees of erotica that are on the acceptable side of the line in the sand and there are certainly degrees that are on the other side. The problem is that gray area in the center, who defines that gray area, and on and on.

  5. Tom and Rob:

    I don′t disagree with either of you that online pornography can sometimes be a fitness issue. However, when it comes to the online pornography that men typically consume (adults having sex; adults masturbating; naked adults) I don′t believe porn should be a fitness issue.

    In dealing with long-term marriages in which spouses have mismatched libidos (i.e., most long-term marriages), there needs to be a safety value or outlet in which the more libidinous spouse can obtain some “release.” Since our culture so strongly sanctions adultery and since our culture seems to be expanding the definition of adultery to the point in which no physical contact is required (e.g., Anthony Weiner′s wiener), I assume that outlet is going to be masturbation. If consuming porn makes that masturbation more exciting, I believe it lessens the likelihood that this outlet will eventually be adultery.

    Frankly, I see a lot of marriages in which porn adds rather than subtracts stability. I think we make a mistake of sanctioning typical pornography as strongly as we do.

  6. Jenny Moser says:

    I think the issue is not so much the porn, per se, but the priority the porn is given in the parent’s life that leads to the “unfitness” factor.

    For example, in cases where Dad is choosing to view porn in the bedroom or home office DURING a child’s birthday party that is taking place in the living room or back yard, there is arguably a legitimate fitness concern. Also, we’ve all seen cases where one parent, when left with the children alone, chooses to plop the kids in front of a TV-babysitter, while they disappear to the bedroom or home office and spend hours downloading and watching porn. I would argue there are fitness concerns in that scenario, as well.

    Assuming we are only discussing “legal” adult porn, most parents I’ve come across don’t necessarily care whether the other parent is viewing porn in their personal time. It’s when the viewing becomes an interference to the duties of child-rearing and the ability to trust the other parent to put the child’s needs above their sex drive that creates the biggest problem. If there is a history of poor prioritization in this realm during the marriage, surely it’s only natural that it be judged when determining which parent is better suited to be the primary care-taker of the children.

    1. Jenny:

      Any obsessive interest that takes a parent away from parenting the children to the point in which the children are being neglected is a fitness issue. It shouldn′t matter when this obsession is pornography, baseball or–to use an obsession that applies more to women–shoe shopping.

      For reasons I suspect are puritanical rather than logical, it′s only when this “obsession” is pornography that the family court seems really interested. When the family court starts taking custody away from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) parents, I′ll start buying the argument that it′s not the pornography that′s the issue but that it′s the “obsessive” use of pornography that′s the issue.

      1. Jenny Moser says:


        I, in no way, meant to imply I don’t believe the subject matter of porn has its own “power” in the family court. I was merely saying, and I think Kristin followed it up well with her own thoughts, that porn is bad enough on its own as it tends to shed light on certain values (or rather, lack thereof) that society — not our judges — has come to expect in the “ideal” parenting figure.

        My experience, thus far, has not been that a judge will “punish” a parent just because porn-viewing is alleged. However, when that viewing rises to the level I described previously, the judge seems to take that information into consideration for the best interests of the children to be preserved. I have also seen judges do the same with other activities — value-related or not — that rise to the level where the children’s needs are not being met while in the care of that parent.

        I think it’s a stretch to argue that a parent who views porn regularly enough to be complained about by the other parent doesn’t deserve to show the Court that such viewing is not influencing his or her ability to parent appropriately. I agree with you, however, that blanket judgments simply because porn is involved is not appropriate.

  7. Kristin K. Millonzi says:

    Many females, myself included, find it incredibly disturbing when a father with young daughters is seeking out “barely legal” pornography. I concur with Jenny. A judge should take note of when the porn is viewed. Is the computer located in a common family area? Is Dad raising his children to view the subjugation of women as “perfectly normal and acceptable behavior”? I think we all know that every case is unique and you cannot make a hard and fast view of whether the porn viewing is acceptable or not. The family court judges have wisely come to rely upon computer forensics examiners to determine the context in which the pornography was viewed, in order, to determine its effects on the family members before them in a given case.

    1. Kristin:

      Can we drop the charade that men aren′t supposed to be interested in sex with 16-25 year old women? Men are clearly supposed to be interested in sex with women of this age group, as such women are at the peak of fertility and sex is driven by fertility and reproduction.

      I think we can agree that middle-aged men shouldn′t be having sex with young women, but expecting them to pretend they aren′t interested simply turns a natural human drive into something shameful.

      Think how pissed-off women would be if the culture told them their interests in shopping, shoes and babies was obsessive and shameful. I don′t really understand these obsessions (I′ll make an exception for really stylin′ cowboy boots) but enough women have them to make me think there′s something innate to the female psyche that makes these items interesting to most women.

      Asking men to deny their interest in young women (I′m not arguing that men have the right to act like leches around or towards young women) is like asking women to deny their interest in shopping, shoes and babies. It′s offensive.

  8. Rob Papa says:

    I also think we are confusing “fitness” and “unfitness” with “the fitter” parent where subtleties of character can win or lose a case. yes? I have said many times that given the choice, a Family Court Judge must take the higher moral ground.

    1. Rob:

      I guess the issue I have is why are we considering pornography to be per se immoral? I see it more like alcohol: something pleasurable that can be used wisely and in moderation and something very dangerous if used unwisely or immoderately.

  9. Wow — lots of responses on this one — I think it’s a matter of degree. Having represented Wife of Husband who was so addicted to online pornography that he locked himself in his den almost 24/7 made him clearly unfit — I don’t think its “use” I think as with anything legal it has to be “abuse” which leads to inability to parent. Happy 4th!

    1. Evidently there’s a boundary distinguishing “self-abuse” that’s not “child abuse” and “self-abuse” that is. Who knew?

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