Sex and the Law

Make sure you know your rights and responsibilities when it comes to sex

Thinking about the legal context of different sexual activities can feel a bit complicated. So, let’s take a look at the various laws and how they protect us – especially young people.

Consent consent consent

Before we get into the different ages within legalisation, consent is at the forefront of sex and the law.

Without consent, it is sexual abuse, such as rape and sexual assault.

A person consents if they agree by choice. They crucially have to have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

A person does not have the freedom to consent if, for example, they are forced with violence or threat of violence to agree or engage in sexual activity. A person does not have the capacity if, for example, they are intoxicated or if they have a mental disorder.

Consent can sometimes feel more complicated than a straightforward yes or no. But no one has the the right to pressure or force anyone into sexual activity  – whether they’re a boyfriend, girlfriend, or someone else you know.

It is against the law to disregard someone’s ‘no’ to sexual activity. This is sexual abuse, and it is never okay.

So, how old should I be to have sex?

The age of consent is 16.

This means that it is legal to have sex at the age of 16. That includes all sexual touching or activities, and it includes everyone in the UK, regardless of their sexuality or the type of sex.

Shocking fact: The age of consent for homosexual sex was 18 until only 2001. Now it is also 16.

Sexual offences legislation across the UK states that young people under the age of 13 do not have the capacity to consent to sexual activity. They are deemed children under this age and this is illegal.

But it’s important to note: the age of consent does not affect young people’s rights to confidential advice.

Even if a person is under the age of 16, they are entitled to confidential support on contraception, condoms, pregnancy, abortion and more.

The age of consent is 16 because this is when most young people are mentally ready. But that doesn’t mean that everyone should be having sex at this age!

Some people have sex before the age of 16 and some have sex at a later age. Everyone’s different. There are lots of things to think about when deciding if you feel ready to have sex.

All of this changes if it involves a person of trust, such as a teacher.

In this case, the age of consent is 18. It’s illegal for someone to have sex with a young person under the age of 18 who they have a responsibility for.

So, what if I realise I’ve broken the law by having sex at a younger age than 16?

First things first: the law is there to protect young people. It’s not designed to catch you out and punish you.

If you’ve had sex under the legal age of consent and you want advice or contraception or an STI test, you are entitled to confidential advice on contraception, pregnancy, abortion, STI testing and more.

Rather than passing judgement, services like Brook want to help support young people and make sure they’re okay.

Confidential advice and support means that they won’t contact your parents or your doctor, unless there’s cause of serious concern and they’re worried for you or another’s safety.

What about sending nudes?

Now that most of us own a pocket screen, sexting has become a fun way to communicate. But where does sexting fall within the law?

The legal age to be sending and receiving nudes or nude selfies (sexual photos) is 18. This also includes videos. That goes for the sender and receiver.

Even if you are 18, it is illegal to receive a nude of someone else under the age of 18.

This is because photos of someone under the age of 18 counts as child pornography. Child pornography is illegal.

In this era of technology, there can be a lot of pressure to send nudes. Knowing your rights helps. If you don’t want to send anything, you do not have to. There’s more information about sexting and support here.

What about watching porn?

It’s legal to watch or buy porn at the age of 18 and older, but only if it does not include:

  • Children or young people under the age of 18 (child pornography)
  • Rape or sexual assault
  • Animals (bestiality)
  • Dead people (necrophilia)
  • Life threatening violence or acts that could cause serious damage to people’s genitalia, breasts or anus

It’s illegal for an adult to show porn to someone under the age of 18, or to allow them to watch it.

If you are under the age of 18, have seen pornography and want to talk to someone about it, there is support available for you:

  • Brook: offers further advice
  • Think U Know: offers further advice
  • Internet Watch Foundation: you can anonymously report any online sexual content involving anyone under the age of 18
  • Childline: if you have seen pornographic content and want to talk to someone about it, you can call anonymously on 0800 1111

It may feel like there’s a lot to remember here.

But just remember: the law is here to protect young people and there are plenty of places to support you, if you have questions or need support.

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