Sex, Drugs and Rolling Dice: The Criminal Regulation of Vice

Sex, Drugs and Rolling Dice: The Criminal Regulation of Vice

Mr. Seth Stoughton
Spring 2014 seminar
Th 5:00pm - 7:00pm in WCC Room 3013
2 classroom credits

This seminar explores the history, politics, and practical effects of regulating six types of activity that are commonly considered “vices”: unorthodox sexual behavior, pornography, prostitution, gambling, alcohol, and illicit drugs. Traditionally, these activities were viewed as “victimless” offenses. Criminalization and prosecution were justified primarily because the activities were considered morally offensive “social evils.” Modern debate has challenged both assumptions, calling into question both whether they are truly victimless and whether they are truly immoral. Consequently, the United States has experienced tremendous shifts in the criminal regulation of vice over the last hundred years, but those shifts have been schizophrenic. Pornography has been decriminalized at the same time that the “War on Drugs” has sent millions of people to jail or prison, for example, and many states that have a general ban on gambling still offer state-run lotteries.

These developments lead to a series of descriptive and normative questions. Descriptively, why has the modern regulation of vice taken shape the way it has? Is there a principled justification for distinctions between, among and even within the different vices? Is the justification political? Economic? How has the criminal regulation of vice changed the way police departments investigate crime? What effects, both positive and negative, has it had on society more generally? Normatively, how should we define the limits of the criminal law when it comes to voluntary activity between consenting adults? Are the benefits of criminalization worth the costs? How should law enforcement prioritize the investigation of vice crimes, and how should the correctional system punish offenders? What role should be played by other forms of regulation, such as decriminalization, legalization, taxation, and administrative government oversight?

In this seminar, we will attempt to answer these questions by assessing historic and modern trends in the criminal regulation of vice, the practical effects that have resulted, and the philosophical debates that have raged about criminalization and enforcement practices.


I will hold office hours in Griswold Hall 119 from 9:30am to 11:30am every Monday unless otherwise noted. Students with unavoidable conflicts may contact me at for alternative arrangements.


This course will follow the HLS grading system of H, P, LP and F. Your course grade will consist of a final paper (60%), in-class presentation(s) (25%), and participation (15%).