Attitudes towards Victimless Crimes

Proseminar work

Peter Keel
Student of sociology

24. January 1996

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Thesis
  3. Survey
    1. College Freshmen Report on homosexuality, abortion and marijuana
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Victimless Crimes as defined by Edwin Schur [1] are crimes which do not have any evident victim. They consist of actions which are outlawed because they violate moral standards. Reason number two, the protection of the subject from itself can be traced back to the violation of moral standards, since obviously the same actions are not outlawed in other cultures. Most of these victimless crimes differ wildly among cultures, examples might be the consumption of hashish and alcohol in the western society compared to the Islamic society, or prostitution now and by the times of the ancient in greek. These victimless crimes must therefore be a product of culture, and not a measure to insure health or protection of the subject from itself. What gives even more proof to this, is the fact, that criminal prosecution costs more than the (if required) medical treatment of the offenders. Nobody will spend much money just for someone to be protected from self. But money will be spent to ensure the own moral standards. Of course, this will not be admitted in most cases.
Speaking of damage, we should define damage as the subjective feeling of being hurt. (See also Jeffrey H. Reiman, [6]). We cannot speak of damage, if it is wanted, e.g. by masochists, or if it is inevitable for getting the desired effect (e.g. dentists, drugs, or extreme-sports). For victimless crimes, there is no damage done to:

This type of crime is defined by the willingness of all involved parties to commit such an action, and no harm is done to other people, except of the violation of law and moral standards. This for instance is true for the use of illegal drugs, for suicide or for prostitution, but not for bribery or black-market trade, since there is damage done to society or the state or to property of them. So we come to some actions which might be considered victimless crimes, which either are outlawed or not. Of course, nearly everything can be outlawed (such as not wearing a veil as a woman). This is only a small list of actual or historical outlawed actions in western society that can [*] be considered victimless crimes.

It is necessary to know that outlawing of such acts might lead to further crimes, accomplished in the attempt to commit aforementioned actions. Particular examples include crimes for getting money to buy drugs, smuggling (especially popular in Switzerland was smuggling of coffee at the beginning of this century) or the exploitation of prostitutes. For most outlawed victimless crimes which involve goods or services, a black market will evolve. When deciding what is victimless crime or not, it must be clear that such "secondary" crimes are a result of the outlawing of such actions and are not to be confused with the actual consequences. But I will not go into discussion of these particular actions, and whether they should be considered criminal acts and outlawed or not. [**]

2. Thesis

One might expect that the attitude towards victimless crimes is subject to changes over time. While this is true, no evident direction of this attitude change will be remarkable. It is not to expect that a general trend regarding victimless crimes will be visible, instead, different actions will be judged completely different. There is to expect however, a typical difference between

The first ones generally taking a more liberal position. Eventually, there will be some differences between male and female persons on certain subjects, but no apparent coherent point of view towards different actions. It is not to expect that a generally more liberal or restrictive point of view is depending on gender.

What I also expect is that the attitude towards victimless crimes changes over time in waveforms, altering states of more liberal and more restrictive views, but not a general trend towards liberal or prohibitive views. I expect the views on different subjects to evolve differently.
In a geographic context, the attitude towards victimless crimes is also expected to be different. While most restrictive societies as islamic ones will likely outlaw various actions of their people, such as not wearing a veil as woman (clearly a victimless crime, since only the moral standards of the respective society are hurt), western society will also show different standards. The USA for instance, clearly has more strict moral standards. It was, for instance, possible for the US-state Colorado to outlaw homosexuality [5] in 1993 for a short period of time.

Despite these differences, I expect that there will be no evident trend in the attitude towards victimless crimes in general. People will judge different victimless crimes different, depending on culture. There is no consciousness that these crimes have their victimlessness in common.

3. Survey

Based on the available data, which, in my case, consist essentially of the

Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1995 [4],

which is an annual statistical report of the USA by the Utilization of Criminal Justice Statistics Project at the Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center, University at Albany, Albany, New York, USA, for the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

I took a look at the college freshmen report. This is a report from a survey on a sample which consists of 200'000 people entering the freshmen classes each fall. The Survey is conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI).

3.1 college freshmen report on homosexuality, abortion and marijuana.

Tables 2.110, 2.111 and 2.114 in the above mentionned sourcebook give us the following data. This compiled table (Table 1) shows no information on the gender of the subjects.

Supports prohibition of
Year Homosexuality Abortion Marijuana
1977 48.60 % 44.30 % 47.10 %
1978 46.30 % 43.30 % 50.50 %
1979 47.30 % 46.70 % 54.00 %
1980 48.90 % 46.40 % 60.70 %
1981 48.60 % 46.10 % 64.00 %
1982 47.20 % 45.20 % 70.60 %
1983 49.00 % 45.20 % 74.30 %
1984 47.80 % 46.20 % 77.10 %
1985 47.90 % 45.10 % 78.20 %
1986 52.20 % 41.20 % 78.70 %
1987 53.10 % 41.30 % 80.70 %
1988 49.00 % 43.00 % 80.70 %
1989 54.40 % 35.30 % 83.30 %
1990 44.40 % 35.10 % 81.40 %
1991 42.20 % 37.00 % 79.10 %
1992 37.60 % 35.90 % 77.00 %
1993 36.20 % 37.60 % 71.80 %
1994 33.90 % 40.30 % 67.90 %
1995 30.60 % 41.60 % 66.20 %
Average 45.54 % 41.94 % 70.70 %
Deviation 6.38 3.92 10.70
Variance 40.66 15.38 114.51
Table 1

I also calculated the average, deviation and variance for the sum of all values. The average is 52.72, deviation 14.85 and variance 220.57. This means that the values are enough dispersed to not have any interconnection. To see the things better, we can put this as graphic, and can recognize general trends and the dispersion of attitude towards different subjects.

report 1
report 2
Figure 1

Since the data used in this survey is very big, one can assume that the data given represents a better educated part of US-citizens very well, it might well be the most representative survey ever conducted. Representative in this case, of course, for college freshmen in the USA. On the fact that this survey is conducted every fall since 1976, one can try to make assumptions on the future, respectively the present. The college freshmen of 1976 will now be roughly in their mid-thirties. According to the data, 12.9 percent of college graduates think marijuana should be free, 12.9 percent think it should be a minor violation, 50 percent think it should be used for medical purposes and 22.1 percent oppose anything but a complete prohibition. The current values for college freshmen seem also not to differ very much from the current general attitude towards victimless crimes (excerpt from Tables 2.68 and 2.111 of source [4]).

Supports prohibition of
1994 Homosexuality Abortion Marijuana
all citizen No Data 38.40 72.00
college freshmen 33.90 40.30 67.90
Table 2

It is not to expect that the data for Europe will come very close to these numbers, but one can assume that the attitudes will spread similar on different subjects [****]. Also interesting might be the high-point in 1989, in which the most prohibitive opinions regarding homosexuality and marijuana are recorded, along with the smallest number of prohibitive views towards abortion. This can not be explained with a general restrictive - and perhaps religious influenced - opinion, but it seems that this goes along with the victory of the republicans, taking over more than fifty percent of the seats in the white house. Also, the rise of the anti-marijuana attitude cannot be quite explained. Perhaps the government had more money to spend after the oil-crisis and during the eighties for making anti-hemp propaganda. This would correlate with the following recession in the nineties, in which this attitude is somewhat less common.

4. Conclusion

There is no evident trend towards legalization of victimless crimes. The attitudes towards victimless crimes differ on each subject, so there seems to be no coherent view of that matter among the citizens. So we have

This states effectively, that my assumption on the trend I've made at the beginning is true. There is no evident trend in the attitude towards victimless crimes in general. Time being obviously an important factor, can now be leading to another questions. Why is there such an immense variation in time? Is this somehow interconnected to a yet unknown variable like economy? And why do the attitudes towards victimless crimes not have a similar progression? And on the socio-psychological base, has society probably more influence on a person than its youth has?

I close this file now, leaving more new questions open than I answered.

Peter Keel



We should see that this gives material to lots of discussions whether someone else gets hurt by some special action or not. There is, for instance, an ongoing discussion on the topic of what makes a human a human, and at which point abortion therefore should be disallowed.


There is also the contrary of victimless crimes, that is, legal actions which have victims. An example of this might be the destruction and pollution of our environment, which is mostly legal but which inflicts us all.


Some US-American specialities: Looking at the data [4] I have present, I realize that this presumably would not fit European countries. The American society seems to be more strict and more un-enlightened than European countries. For instance if we look on Table 2.60: 50.8% think that the most important purpose on sentencing is to give criminals what they deserve, only 19.8% think this should serve to educate and counsel offenders. Or on Table 2.72 we see that 74% of the American support death penalty, only 20% oppose it, despite the fact that death penalty cannot be proved to be a measure to minimize violent crimes. This gives some general assessment on American society.


There is very little information available on the internet concerning Europe. While I was able to find immense resources of statistical data for the USA, the rest of the world remains in the dark. Also, much more data than I actually could get is available in databases I had no access to. It either would cost money to access it, or to make them send the information on discs. This applies for instance to the swiss Bundesamt für Statistik. In this case, the information on paper is actually free of charge, but the machine-readable version is not.


[1]Schur, Edwin M.Crimes Without Victims. © 1995, Prentice Hall, Inc.

[2]Wilkins, Leslie T. Social Deviance. © 1963, Tavistock Publications;
Electronic version © 1995, Harrow and Heston, Publishers; Internet
WWW-Page at URL:

[3] Mill, John Stuart On Liberty, London, 1859
Internet Gopher at URL: gopher://

[4] Utilization of Criminal Justice Statistics Project, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1995, Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center, University of Albany, 1995
Internet WWW-Page at URL:

[5] Soapbox Magazine, Issue 2, February 1993
Internet posting to alt.censorship by ( on 30 March 1993

[6] Reiman, Jeffrey H. Prostitution, Addiction and the Ideology of Liberalism, in Contemporary Crisis, Issue 3 (January 1979), pp. 53-67. © by Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Done in January 1997 by Peter Keel (