Consent means giving your permission or agreeing to something, in this case sex. Consent is the same for all genders and sexualities: if you want to do something sexual with someone, then both of you must agree. When we talk about ‘sex’, we mean any sexual activity. This includes vaginal, anal and oral sex, masturbation of yourself or someone else, touching someone’s genitals or body in a sexual way, sexual touching on top of clothes, foreplay and kissing.
The law says that consenting to sex has to be given freely. This means no one should be made to have sex. If someone feels frightened, threatened or intimidated, then they cannot freely consent. Often someone’s response to threat and sexual violence is to ‘freeze’. This is something dictated by the brain which people don’t have control over. Just because someone has ‘frozen’ does not mean they are consenting. You can’t assume someone is consenting – you must make sure.
The law also says that people need capacity to consent. This means that people must be awake and in a state where they can make an informed decision for themselves. If someone is asleep, or has had too much to drink or taken drugs to the extent that they can no longer make choices, then they cannot consent. If someone has learning difficulties, they might not be able to consent either – it depends on their understanding of what is happening.
All of this means that everyone has the responsibility to make sure that the person they want to have sex with is really consenting and is making this choice without any pressure or fear.
Age of consent
The law says that people are adults when they get to 18 years of age. Sex between adults must be consensual to be lawful.
The age of consent is 16
The law says that 16 and 17 year olds can legally have sex but, as they are legally children, they are given more protection in law.
- It is illegal for an adult in a position of trust or responsibility to have sex with a 16 or 17 year old.
- It is illegal to take, show or distribute a sexual photo of a child in any circumstances, this includes photos made by young people themselves.
- It is illegal to pay a 16 or 17 year old for sex. This is child abuse, not sex work.
It is also recognised that 16 and 17 year olds do not have the range of life experience or the same options available as adults. Sexual relationships between 16/17 year old children and adults may not be based on equality of knowledge and power. They may be viewed by the law as grooming, for which there are specific offences. The wider the gap in age, the more likely it is that the young person is disempowered and susceptible to persuasion, intimidation, abuse or grooming.
It is therefore important that an adult (anyone aged 18 or over) who wants to have sex with a 16 or 17 year old must take responsibility for ensuring that the 16/17 year old is fully and freely consenting to have sex. The bigger the age gap, the more difficult it is to achieve this.
It is also important to say that just because sex is legal at the age of 16, it doesn’t mean 16 and 17 year olds (or indeed adults) have to have sex. It is important that LGBT+ young people feel free to grow into their sexuality and gender identity at a pace and in a way that suits them; no one has to have sex to ‘prove’ they are LGBT+. Some young people and adults will define themselves as asexual and this identity, too, should be understood, respected and validated.
Children aged 13 to 15
Sexual activity by and with children aged 15 and under is illegal.
Whether the law is used against children aged 13 to 15 who have sex with another 13-15 year old will depend on the circumstances and on consent. The law is there primarily to protect them from abuse, so if sex is consensual, the young people may not get into trouble. However, this cannot be guaranteed and young people aged under 16 who have sex should get advice.
Children aged 12 and under
Sex with a child aged 12 or under is called ‘statutory rape’. This means that children this age can never consent and so sex is always a crime.
Children and young people
Learn more about children and young people
Consent for young people
Learn more about consent for young people
Consent and relationship
Learn more about consent and relationship questions