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Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro blames porn addiction. Credible?

Research is sparse on whether there's a link between addiction to pornography and violent sexual behavior, and defense lawyers usually shy away from asserting one. But it does crop up in criminal trials, as it did this week during sentencing for Ariel Castro.

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Most researchers do not acknowledge a causal link between watching pornography and violent behavior, especially sexual violence. There is not enough data about real-world pornography users to establish a link, they say. Existing studies look mainly at any connections between violent images of any sort (whether sexual in nature or not) and subsequent violent behavior in the beholder. 

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“You frequently hear claims of [pornography’s] effects and find anecdotal evidence of it where it seems to have been a factor … but the evidence that hostility or violence results from porn is very weak,” says Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University in Washington, who researches the sex industry.

More likely, he says, Castro is using his interest in pornography “to justify his behavior.” “The fact that this [abuse of the women] went on for years, more than a decade, and was systematic, and they were imprisoned as slaves … to say that exposure to porn had anything to do with it, most academics would laugh at that connection,” Dr. Weizer says.

Still, pornography addiction tends to crop up in criminal trials that involve sexual violence more often than in trials involving other forms of violence, such as armed robbery or gangland homicide, Coyne says. That is because sexual predators tend to see themselves as victims, especially if they were sexually assaulted when they were young.

While pornography “is not often used as a basis of a defense, in many trials where famous killers have been caught, there is often mention [that] they engaged in pornography,” notes Allison Cotton, a criminologist at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. Defendants like Castro are often “detached from reality” as a result of early abuse, which they say is manifested through pornography, she says.

“People tend to assume [that] people who commit heinous crimes have the same moral base as all of us, but more often than not they have not grown up in the world most of us have,” she says.

In addition to professing a pornography addiction, Castro made several outrageous claims Thursday, including an assertion that some of the sex with the women was consensual and that “harmony” existed in his home, despite evidence of torture and rape.

Coyne says such claims are common in sentencing hearings, especially when the defendant faces insurmountable charges and a sentence of life in prison.

“Normal human behavior is to salvage some sort of human dignity you might have,” he says. 

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