In crimes such as murder, theft, pollution, or fraud, the commission of the crime does injustice to some person. Someone -- the victim of the crime -- is undeservedly deprived of life, property, well-being, or some other good. In enforcing laws against such crimes, the government acts in defense of the victim and of other potential victims. However, some laws criminalize acts which do not do injustice to any person. These acts, thus, are known as victimless crimes.

For instance, many governments have on the books laws against certain forms of consensual sex -- such as anal sex, extramarital sex, or BDSM. If two people voluntarily engage in anal sex, this does no injustice to anyone. The act may or may not harm those involved; however, as they have knowingly consented to it, it cannot harm them unjustly. Since the act of consensual anal sex does not have a victim, a law against such an act creates a victimless crime.

People who wish to create or maintain victimless-crime laws argue that while these acts do not do unjust harm to specific individuals, they nevertheless harm society at large. One of the most common arguments in this vein, used by personages ranging from Tiresias to Moses to Jerry Falwell, is that certain actions offend the gods -- and that societies which tolerate these actions will suffer divine wrath.

Those of us who oppose victimless-crime laws point out that mythical divine wrath, and the other, still vaguer forms of social harm threatened, pale in comparison to the real harms done in the enforcement of these laws. As an example, the private consumption of marijuana is a victimless act criminalized by many governments. Marijuana law enforcement has cost thousands of lives, millions of person-years (and ruined lives) in prison time, billions of dollars -- and priceless privacy, security, and liberty.

In the end, the question of victimless crimes comes down to whether we are willing to give up our liberties, and increasingly our lives, in order to avoid bogeymen of perversion, heresy, or reefer madness. Let's not.

Regarding the "difference" mblase seeks to make between victimless and consensual crimes: I see a distinction, but not a disjunction. A victim, by definition, is a person wronged or treated unjustly in an act, and a person cannot conceivably be wronged or treated unjustly by an act to which that person willingly and knowingly consents. Since no victim exists in the case of "consensual crime", a claim that a victim does exist is a false claim. A "consensual crime", therefore, is merely a victimless crime in which the law incorrectly identifies someone as a victim. Consensual crime is a subset of victimless crime.

Incidentally, I agree with mblase that the child of a compulsive gambler, alcoholic, or the like may be harmed as a result of the parent's acts. However, I consider that the crime in such unfortunate cases is not gambling or alcoholism, but rather child neglect. Whether child neglect is due to alcoholism or to conscious and willful indifference, it is the same crime. A child whose father neglects her out of drunken unconsciousness is no more neglected than a child whose father neglects her by spending all his time at baseball games or parties, leaving the child at home alone. Similarly, a drunk who manages to take care of his children nonetheless (perhaps by being rich enough to afford a nanny) is no child-neglecter merely for the fact of his drunkenness.

I cannot agree with mblase's implications regarding suicide and erotica (mblase's "pornography"). As to the former case, a just law cannot hold a person responsible for mere offense to another's feelings in the act of exercising one's own liberty. Otherwise, breaking up with a lover could be made illegal. As to the latter, mblase's motivation seems to be to censor erotica on the charge that it might suggest criminal actions to some of its consumers. The same charge, I fear, might be levied against Catcher in the Rye, might it not? We cannot afford to abridge the freedom of the press on the grounds that imbalanced persons can misread texts.

While the two terms are used pretty much interchangeably, "victimless crime" and "consensual crime" should technically be two different things. "Victimless" means that there is no one harmed except the individual committing the act; this would include such things as drug use, gambling, cross-dressing, and ownership of pornography. "Consensual" means that there is a "victim," but that person is a willing participant in the act; this usually includes an array of sexual and marital activities, such as fornication, homosexuality, BDSM, prostitution and polygamy. All consensual crime can be considered victimless, but not all victimless crime is consensual. Buying illegal drugs would be victimless, but selling them would be consensual.

Then, of course, you have the problem with splitting hairs over just how "victimless" a crime is. If you're addicted to drugs or gambling, and you have a family to support, are they victims because they suffer from the money your habit costs you? Is suicide truly harmless to others if they suffer deeply from the loss of someone close to them? Should owning pornography be allowed if it motivates the owner toward adultery or sex with minors? Are "indecent" outfits worn in public just an expression of personal taste, or do they have negative effects on others who see it? And -- the long-standing classic -- is abortion truly victimless, and at what point does the unborn child count as a victim?

The argument against victimless crimes is usually that it still harms others indirectly, or that it's difficult for the perpetrator to perceive or understand the harm they're doing to themselves until it's too late. They may have their roots in religious law, as is often the case, but that doesn't mean the writers of the religious laws were arbitrary or fun-hating. The goal is to preserve the standards of the society, and while "harm ye none" may sound like an ideal commandment to some, in a community it's a lot harder than that to foresee an act's potential for harm.

Also see consensual crimes.

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