The term victimless crimes and its alternative phrasing crimes without victims refer to illegal acts that involve behavior that the participants engage in voluntarily. For example, the prostitute and the prostitute’s customer both view their interaction as a business transaction in which, as in other commercial arrangements, both parties achieve what they desire. The prostitute obtains money and the customer has the desired sexual experience. Though the behavior is criminal, neither party will file a police report, unless, perhaps, the transaction involves theft or physical violence.
Similarly, narcotic dealers and their patrons voluntarily agree to a transaction much the same as that involving the purchase of alcohol or shopping for groceries. Abortion, which was illegal in the United States until 1973, poses a more complicated situation. Both the person performing the abortion and the woman undergoing it do so voluntarily. But the burning issue is whether the aborted fetus is a person, a victim deserving legal protection. No scientific evidence can adequately support whatever position is taken on this question; thus pro-life and pro-choice campaigns become, as does so much in the realm of victimless crimes, a matter of ideology, theology, and the exercise of political power.
The term crimes without victims entered the realm of social science when Edwin Schur of Tufts University employed it in 1965 as the title of a monograph. Schur, a Yale Law School graduate with a doctorate from the London School of Economics, had conceived the idea of victimless crimes when writing his dissertation on British drug policies. The term had precedents in Anglo-American law, including “sumptuary laws,” which forbade people of lesser social standing to dress themselves in elegant clothing. There also were “inchoate crimes,” such as loitering, catch-all statutes typically enacted to provide the police with the power to arrest persons they deemed to be suspicious. Similarly, the crime of drunk driving (driving under the influence) does not always involve a victim, but the behavior is outlawed on the presumption that the likelihood of an accident increases when a driver is intoxicated.
Consensual acts also exist that are forbidden by law because of religious principles, social abhorrence, or both. Polygamy, entered into willingly by all parties, and physician-induced suicide exemplify the first category, while riding a motorcycle without a helmet fits into the second category.
A fundamental issue about so-called crimes without victims is whether, though consensual in regard to the participants, they inflict harm upon others, such as spouses and families of compulsive gamblers and residents in a drug-trading neighborhood, or whether they injure society in regard to its moral traditions. Proponents argue that for its well-being, a society has to uphold standards of decency, as generally defined, or risk disorganization and disintegration. Victimless crimes also involve financial costs that must be borne by innocent taxpayers, for instance, when an uninsured motorcyclist not wearing a helmet suffers severe injuries and incurs medical costs that he or she cannot afford. Or when a motorcyclist without a helmet is struck on the head by a stone in the roadway and loses control of the vehicle, killing or maiming motorists on the same highway.
Critics maintain that the idea of victimless crimes essentially is a political and ideological construct, embraced as a rallying cry in an effort to eliminate a variety of controversial behaviors. In its heyday, the idea of victimless crime was joined with the theoretical construct of labeling. Some argued that, say, marijuana users who are prosecuted are thereby defined and come to define themselves as outcasts and as a result may enter into a career of crime. Both labeling theory and the concept of crimes without victims have largely gone out of favor today, the former because evidence shows that the consequences of labeling can be manifold, some enabling, others unfortunate.
Many feminists are among the more prominent forces aligned against the idea of victimless crime. They maintain, for instance, that the typical street-walking prostitute is herself the victim of her calling because she is the product of an exploitative patriarchal society. On the other hand, pornography tends to split the feminist movement, with some arguing that it insults all women and others insisting that the First Amendment right of free speech should take precedence over the speculative idea that women in general are endangered by pornographic depictions of such things as sex degradation.
The most pronounced development over the past decades with regard to crimes without victims has been the success of campaigns to remove many of them from the statute books. Gambling, once outlawed throughout the United States because of religious doctrine and fraud in the operation of lotteries, is now a prominent fixture on the U.S. scene, with a proliferating array of slot machines and lottery tickets marketed even at convenience stories. Homosexuality, now buried in the criminal law closet, today centers on the dispute over whether couples of the same sex can legally marry. Once outlawed, abortion became permissible in the first trimester of pregnancy, though intense controversy continues to divide people on the issue. And some states and countries have moderated drug laws, particularly in regard to marijuana.
Only prostitution remains absolutely interdicted, very likely because prostitutes do not have the political power that was brought to bear to overturn laws against other so-called victimless activities. One could argue that in the cases of abortion and drug legalization, for example, prominent women campaigned for legal abortions, young drug users moved into positions of power, and elite parents refused to see their pot-smoking children risk long prison terms. Likewise, it could be argued that gambling became acceptable when states found themselves desperate for revenue, and legislators dared not risk political suicide by increasing taxes.
- Feinberg, Joel. 1988. Harmless Wrongdoing. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Meier, Robert F. and Gilbert Geis. 2006. Criminal Justice and Moral Issues. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Schur, Edwin H. 1965. Crimes without Victims: Deviant Behavior and Public Policy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Schur, Edwin H. and Hugo A. Bedau. 1974. Victimless Crimes: Two Sides of a Controversy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.