If you were to assess most of the differences with regards to the law in Europe and the US, you would likely come to the conclusion that the US was more liberal and more laissez-faire than just about anywhere else in the world. The US is pretty much the ‘home’ of democracy and when it comes to civil liberties there is no stauncher upholder.
At the same time though in a few odd instances this doesn’t always follow and in some cases places around Europe can seem much more easy going with more lax laws. One example of course is the law regarding drugs like cannabis in countries like Holland, but even more unusual are the legal ages for sex and alcohol.
Across most of Europe alcohol is legal at the age of 18, while sex is legal at the age of 16. Conversely in the US the legal ages are 21 and 18 respectively, meaning that it’s much later before you’re allowed to engage in these ‘adult’ activities. So the question is, why this difference? And which continent has got it right? Let’s look at the facts…
The legal ages for sex and alcohol are of course a contentious topic with no right or wrong answer. There are however arguments for each side of the fence.
In favour of a younger drinking age is the suggestion that the brain is not fully developed at the age of 18. Here the fear is that starting to drink regularly may cause more damage than doing so at an earlier age, and be more likely to lead to addiction in later life. Of course there is no ‘cut off point’ for when the brain has finished developing, but the idea is that an older drinking age would be less likely to cause damage at any rate.
On the other hand Europeans might argue that underage drinking will be likely to occur anyway regardless of the law, and so it’s safer not to criminalise the behaviour. By making it legal for teenagers to consume alcohol it increases the chances that they will be safe when doing so and open with their parents – and avoids them taking up other law breaking activities.
The argument against that last sentiment of course is that if you make the drinking age 18, then you will increase the chances of youths drinking at the age of 16 and so forth.
Why The Law Isn’t Quite What it Seems
One thing that’s important to note here is that the law generally regards the consumption of alcohol in public whereas public consumption is generally more lenient. In Europe for instance a minor of practically any age is usually permitted to drink alcohol in a restaurant if an adult is present, and there’s nothing to stop parents letting their teenagers drink at home.
Likewise in the US the law tends to only apply to public situations – with only 15 states banning underage consumption outright, and 18 more states requiring particular locations/adults present. Of course the age laws regarding sex are much more strict in both Europe and America.
Why the Differences?
While there are fair arguments for either set of laws, what’s really interesting to look at is why each country has the laws they do, and here it makes sense to look toward cultural and lifestyle differences in the US versus Europe.
So what differences might lead to these variations in the law? Well one explanation might be that people tend to stay ‘younger longer’ in much of the States with many more American citizens living at home with parents into their 30s, and with most college courses being 4 years long in comparison with the 3 year long University courses. If the same laws applied in Europe then most students would only be legally entitled to drink for their last year of education, and considering how many European women will be in full-time working jobs and treated like adults in all other respects it might make more sense to think they should be legally allowed to have sex at the age of 16 in those countries.
Meanwhile in Europe there is much more of a drinking ‘culture’ with 24hour drinking licenses permitting beer gardens to serve alcohol all day. These beer gardens create more of a family environment than you might encounter in a bar, and so their abundance might explain why drinking is permitted at a younger age.
Meanwhile in some parts of Europe, sex is viewed a lot more openly – with it being legal to show naked breasts on the covers of magazines in many Germanic countries for instance and prostitution being much more relaxed in countries like Holland. It may also be the relaxed rules in these parts of Europe that mean other countries like England are under more pressure to be relaxed with their own regulations.
Historically it’s also worth noting that it was the US that went through the prohibition era – which really wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. In the UK for instance alcohol has never been prohibited and the same is true of most other European countries.
Something else interesting worth looking at here for the purpose of this discussion is how different some of the other laws are. For instance, while the US might be particularly strict on its alcohol consumption, it’s legal to drive there from a younger age while gun laws are altogether more relaxed.
While this might seem like an interesting contradiction, this does offer another potential reason for the differences – perhaps a country that permits its civilians to carry guns doesn’t want drunken teenagers raiding their parents’ drawers?