Criminology Blackmail
Brian Francis, Moira Peelo, Keith Soothill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0199


Blackmail is a term that is widely known through fiction and popular culture as an illegal means of gaining money or leverage by threats to reveal knowledge. Criminologically and legally, however, its meaning is contentious, reflected in how it has different meanings in different jurisdictions. Definitions are contested: an underlying debate is ongoing about whether it should be seen as a criminal or a moral offense; and furthermore, if seen as criminal, distinctions between blackmail and other crimes (e.g., extortion) are not always clear. International data are hard to compare because collection of data reflects these differences of viewpoint and meaning. Data sources exist but tend to encompass extortion as well as blackmail. Popular representations of blackmail are illustrative of “reputational” blackmail and contempt for blackmailers.

General Overviews

A limited number of works discuss blackmail in detail. Hepworth 1975 uses fiction and real-life data to explore reputational blackmail over the preceding one hundred years and examines how it has become stigmatized, questioning if there are alternative interpretations other than criminological ones. Block 2002 outlines the criminal nature of blackmail in the United States and contrasts its threats (e.g., to spread gossip) with the illegal threats of extortion (e.g., to kill or to injure). Lindgren 1984 describes the paradoxical nature of blackmail (two legal actions that together become illegal) and concludes that theoretical explanations are needed to understand its criminality rather than, for example, studying judgments or legislation alone. Katz and Lindgren 1993 introduces a special issue of a journal reporting on a symposium on the legal paradox. Berman 2011 unpicks blackmail’s moral and criminal ambiguities through an overview of published works and finds no paradox in blackmail although acknowledging its puzzling nature. Other overviews take discuss blackmail as a crime by starting from particular perspectives: McLaren 2002 concentrates on sexual blackmail; Wertheimer 2014 focuses on legal issues and the paradox of blackmail, as does Cahill 2014, which is an entry on blackmail in the Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Katz 1996 widens the debate to encompass fraudulent activity, while Soothill and Francis 2010 takes a “criminal careers” approach to blackmail, asking what are the precursor offenses and what are the crimes blackmailers are likely to commit in their future career.

  • Berman, M. N. 2011. Blackmail. In The Oxford handbook of philosophy of criminal law. Edited by J. Deigh and D. Dolinko, 37–106. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A recent chapter that covers the conditional threat of blackmail and discusses its puzzling nature and economic inefficiency.

  • Block, W. 2002. Blackmail. In Encyclopedia of crime and punishment. Edited by D. Levinson, 118–120. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    An overview of the issues surrounding the criminality of blackmail in the United States: blackmail is a threat to do something legal, unlike extortion, and is classically associated with informing friends and/or relatives or otherwise making public information that causes embarrassment, distress, or other reputational harm.

  • Cahill, M. 2014. Extortion and blackmail. In The Encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice. Edited by J. Albanese, 1–5. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118517383.wbeccj023

    An up-to-date overview, focusing on the distinctions between blackmail and extortion and the legal debate surrounding blackmail.

  • Hepworth, M. 1975. Blackmail: Publicity and secrecy in everyday life. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Discusses the ingredients of blackmail and its social threat, identifying it as one manifestation of respectability in advanced capitalist society.

  • Katz, L. 1996. Ill-gotten gains: Evasion, blackmail, fraud, and kindred puzzles of the law. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Places blackmail in the context of frauds and focuses on the legal paradox of blackmail.

  • Katz, L., and J. Lindgren. 1993. Special issue: Papers from a symposium on blackmail. University of Pennsylvania Law Review 141.5: 1565–1990.

    Contains thirteen papers in a special issue of this journal focusing on the legal aspects of blackmail, all of which were presented at a symposium exploring the paradoxes in this “exotic crime.”

  • Lindgren, J. 1984. Unravelling the paradox of blackmail. Columbia Law Review 84:670–717.

    DOI: 10.2307/1122502

    Discusses consequentialist and non-consequentialist justifications for the law of blackmail.

  • McLaren, A. 2002. Sexual blackmail: A modern history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Discusses the use of blackmail to extort money from those engaged in disreputable sexual acts.

  • Soothill, K., and B. Francis. 2010. Blackmail, kidnapping and threats to kill. In Handbook on crime. Edited by F. Brookman, M. Maguire, H. Pierpoint, and T. Bennett, 393–414. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

    Compares and contrasts the crimes of blackmail (which includes extortion), kidnapping, and threats to kill, examining the criminal careers of offenders in England and Wales.

  • Wertheimer, A. 2014. Coercion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Contains a chapter on blackmail that covers the theoretical concepts of blackmail.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.