Dating is a fairly recent phenomenon. What most people in Western societies would call dating did not come into existence until the middle of the 20th Century. In the United States, there are generally no laws which specifically set age limits on dating. Rather, pertinent laws mainly focus on two issues indirectly related to dating: curfew and unlawful sexual contact. In the latter instance, an individual can get into trouble with the law even if both parties consent.
Curfew laws are intended to prevent young people from being outside the home without parental or other adult supervision under most circumstances during the late evening and early morning hours. While curfew laws are not not directly intended to prevent young people from dating, they are often viewed as being a deterrent for delinquent or undesirable behavior, such as sexual activity by minors. Curfew laws vary by jurisdiction and are usually enforced at the local level, but often apply to individuals under the age of 18.
Electronic Dating Age Limits
Internet and telephone dating services customarily set a minimum limit of 18 for users. While social networking websites which are not exclusively devoted to dating often allow users younger than 18, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which went into effect in 2000, prevents Internet websites which are directed toward children under age 13 to collect personally identifiable information about users without explicit parental consent. Many social networking websites such as MySpace or Facebook simply prohibit children younger than 13 from using their services in order to avoid possible legal problems.
Age of Consent
In legal terms, the age of consent refers to the minimum age for which an individual can engage in consensual sexual contact without legal repercussions to either party. When sexual contact occurs when one party is below the age of consent and the other is an adult, according to the law this is statutory rape. Statutory rape charges apply even if the minor party agrees to the sexual contact and even if he initiated contact with the adult. The law often allows for a defense or mitigating factor, that is, a circumstance which lessens the severity of the charges, if the adult reasonably believed the minor was actually older than the age of consent.
The Case of Genarlow Wilson
The law sometimes intervenes when sexual contact occurs between two minors, even when the activity was consensual. Genarlow Wilson, an honor student and star athlete, was convicted at age 17 in 2005 and sentenced to a 10-year sentence for aggravated child molestation because of an incident involving consensual oral sex with a 15 year old girl. He refused a plea bargain offered by the prosecution because he would have been labeled as a sex offender and prohibited to live in his family's home with his younger sister. He served more than two years of the sentence before being released in 2007 when the Georgia Supreme Court overturned his sentence as being "cruel and unusual" punishment. Many observers commented that racism played a part in the harsh sentence handed down and the determination of the prosecution to keep Genarlow Wilson in jail, because he was black.
The Case of Marco Weiss
The law may also intervene when young people become romantically involved, even if no explicit sexual activity takes place. Marco Weiss, a 17 year old German boy, became romantically involved with a 13 year old British girl while they were both on vacation in Turkey. The young couple engaged in kissing and similar activity, but not actual intercourse. When the girl's parents learned about the incident, they filed a complaint with Turkish police, who arrested the boy. According to Marco Weiss, the girl told him that she was 15, which was the age of consent in Turkey. A gynecological examination determined that the girl was a virgin. Nonetheless, he was jailed in 2007 for eight months and charged with criminal sexual abuse. He was eventually released on bail and allowed to return to Germany. He was convicted of the charges in absentia in 2009, but sentenced to probation and time served.