A victimless offense is an act that is legally defined as criminal, but has no clearly identifiable victim. Victimless offenses can also occur when an illegal act has been engaged in consensually by all individuals involved. Such crimes are sometimes referred to as crimes of consent or consensual crimes. Criminologists and legal officials disagree as to whether such a thing as a victimless crime can exist, as individuals engaging in certain activities might harm or victimize themselves, or unintentionally victimize others. From this perspective, there is always a victim. The term “consensual crime” might be more appropriate, as it does not imply that there are no victims, but rather that any victims consented to the harm that they received or inflicted on themselves.
The most common forms of so-called victimless offenses on college campuses in the United States are the use of illicit drugs and the under-age consumption and distribution of alcohol. In most instances, individuals who consume illicit drugs do so with the knowledge that they might be inflicting harm on their bodies and are placing themselves at risk for serious health issues. Likewise, many minors know that the possession and consumption of alcohol is illegal on college campuses, but their use of the substance does no apparent harm to others. However, laws are in place to curb offenses related to illicit drug use and underage drinking to protect individuals from harms that they might knowingly or unknowingly inflict on themselves.
In the United States, many activities are prohibited to protect individuals from harming themselves, regardless of their consent to the activity. For instance, individuals must wear a seat belt when riding in a motor vehicle. Likewise, a helmet must be worn when riding a motorcycle. In the most extreme example, it is illegal to commit suicide or to assist someone in committing suicide. These laws are in place to protect people from victimizing themselves.
Beyond protecting the individual, each of these activities can have far-reaching consequences on other individuals and society more generally. While the use of illicit drugs such as cocaine might have the most apparent harm on the individual using the substance, it can also hurt those around the substance user, such as children of the user or other family members. The health ramifications of illicit substance abuse can also lead to use of the health care system and other social services, requiring capital resources that could be used for other important means. Likewise, while the apparent target of the harm of not wearing a seat belt is the individual in the event of an accident, he or she might also directly harm other passengers in the car. Harm to the individual could also harm his or her family, and require health care services that might not have been needed otherwise. Thus there may a number of victims in so-called victimless crimes.
Beyond illicit drug use and underage drinking, other common forms of consensual crime on campuses in the United States include violence, hazing, public nudity, and forms of sexual deviance. Many forms of violence cannot be considered consensual crime, such as sexual assault and intimate-partner violence. Many forms of violence on college campuses can, however, be considered consensual crime, such as a fight between two men in the parking lot outside a bar. In this example, while the men might have willingly engaged in the activity knowing the harm that it could result to self and the other combatant, both could still be criminally charged with assault. Although they may have given their consent to the action, it might not form a viable legal defense; thus a crime would have occurred. In contrast, in a college football game on campus, if a player physically maims another, causing serious, even life-threatening injury, the consent defense can be used, resulting in no criminal penalty for the player.
Like violence, hazing on college campuses can be considered a crime regardless of consent. Of the 43 states that have legal statutes against hazing, most do not recognize consent as a viable legal defense. In some states, however, if an individual consents to be hazed, then no penal sanction is sought. The statutes against hazing of many states also include provisions that indicate that no crime has occurred if the hazing is done as part of a college fraternity ritual or on an athletic team. Other charges related to the hazing, such as sexual assault, can be attributed to the perpetrators of hazing regardless of state hazing laws or the consent of the victim.
The act of streaking, or running nude, across college campuses or at college sporting event is a common occurrence in the United States. Regardless of consent, public nudity is typically illegal, especially if children are witness to the activity. However, there are no real victims of this crime; as such, streakers are often treated with leniency in the courts. When public nudity is forced on an individual, such as is common in hazing rituals, it is often considered to be a crime regardless of consent.
Sexual deviance involving sadism and masochism, as well as statutory rape, can also be illegal. Sadism and masochism involve sexual gratification from inflicting suffering onto another person or having pain inflicted on oneself. When sadism and masochism cross certain lines, such as when they involve knife and gun play, these acts can become illegal regardless of consent. Statutory rape occurs when an individual older than the age of consent has sexual intercourse with an individual younger than the age of consent. Regardless if consent is given, it is not treated as legally valid because of the age of the alleged victim.
Victimless crimes, or consensual crimes, are often characterized as being conflictual in the U.S. legal system. Laws are constructed to help protect individuals from harming themselves, but the consequences of the law often do more harm than the acts that have been criminalized. For instance, it can be argued that the criminalization of marijuana use has greater harmful effect on individuals and societies than the actual harm caused by the drug. Individuals’ lives, and the lives of their families, are disrupted by the criminalization of marijuana. Furthermore, the legal system and other law enforcement resources are being used in ways that might be better reserved for addressing more serious crimes. Victimless crimes are also considered conflictual as there is little consensus in American society as to whether they should be criminal. Often, laws against victimless crimes encroach on the civil liberties of citizens, which is a prided aspect of American culture and society.
- Dubber, M. D. (2002). Victims in the war on crime: The use and abuse of victim’s rights. New York: New York University Press.
- Leitzel, J. (2008). Regulating vice: Misguided prohibitions and realistic controls. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Meier, R. F., & Geis, G. (1997). Victimless crime? Prostitution, drugs, homosexuality, and abortion. Los Angeles: Roxbury.