Sex and Consent

In recent years, the #MeToo movement in particular has shone the spotlight on consent and unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault.

Whilst sexual consent has always been essential, necessary and non-negotiable, it is rightly something which we are all giving even more thought to, to ensure we protect others.

Making sure you have sexual consent is largely common sense, but it is important to understand what it means and how it is given or withheld.

What is sexual consent?

Sexual consent occurs when two or more people involved in any form of sexual activity – from discussing sex to having sex – agree to take part by choice.

This means that – with a full understanding of what is about to happen – they freely and positively consent to taking part.

Without consent, any kind of sexual activity is sexual violence.

What is the law?

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says that someone consents to sexual activity if they agree by choice and have both the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

If someone says ‘no’ to any kind of sexual activity, it is clear they do not agree.

However, sexual consent does not simply rely on someone saying no. There are many other ques and signals which indicate someone does not consent. These include if someone seems unsure, stays quiet, moves away or doesn’t respond.

It is common for victims of rape, sexual assault and other sexual violence to have been unable to speak, move or protest through fear and intimidation.

Someone doesn’t have the freedom or capacity to agree to sexual activity if they are:

  • under the age of consent (16 for most circumstances in England and Wales)
  • asleep or unconscious
  • drunk or under the influence of drugs – including being ‘spiked’
  • suffering a mental health disorder or illness which impairs their judgement
  • pressured, manipulated, tricked or scared into saying yes
  • subject to any physical force or threat to make them comply

If you are suggesting or initiating sexual activity, the responsibility is yours to ensure your partner both consents and is able to make that choice.

Saying yes doesn’t always mean consent

As we all know, its possible to verbally agree with something without actually thinking it’s right. Sometimes we do it to be polite or non-confrontational.

This is true of sex too. Saying yes alone does not indicate consent.

If you’re unsure, always check and remember, it’s not always what your partners says but how they act that indicates whether they are comfortable.

If in doubt, stop.

How do I know my partner consents?

Ensuring your partner has given their consent can seem like a challenge but it’s largely common sense.

If your partner is happy, relaxed and engaged in the sexual activity you are having together, they are signs they consent. This may be particularly true in long-term and regular relationships.

However, consent isn’t indefinite and it can change.

A partner who had sex with you last night may not wish to in the morning or the next time you meet. During sex, their consent may also change, particularly if you initiate or suggest something they are no longer comfortable with.

If in doubt, the simplest way to check is to ask.

It also makes no difference if you’re married or in a long-term relationship. You still need to check each time you engage in sexual activity.

It’s helpful to consider some of the situations which would not constitute consent:

  • Agreeing to sex because you’re worried about the other person’s reaction if you say no
  • Touching or having sex with someone whilst their asleep or passed out
  • Continuing sexual activity despite your partner behaving in a way which shows they are uncomfortable (such as freezing or moving away)
  • Assuming someone consents to sex because of how they act or what they are wearing – for example, flirting or wearing revealing clothing
  • Assuming you can have sex with someone because you’ve had sex with them in the past
  • Assuming it is ok to initiate another form of sex (for example penetration or anal sex) just because they are comfortable with current sexual activity
  • Removing a condom during sex without permission

What is the age of consent?

The age of consent in England and Wales is 16.

From this age, young people of any gender or sexuality can legally take part in sexual activity with any other partner over the age of consent.

The law exists to protect children and young people and is not used to prosecute younger people having sex (for example two 15-year-olds).

However, if an adult over 18 were to have sex with someone under 16, it would be a crime.

Legally, no one under the age of 13 can ever consent to sexual activity under any circumstances. Sex involving someone under 13 is always a crime.

There are other legal protections too. It is illegal to:

  • Take a photo or video of someone 18 or under engaging in sexual activity
  • Pay for sexual services from someone under 18
  • Take part in sexual activity with someone under 18 if you are in a position of trust – for example, their teacher, care worker or doctor
  • Take part in sexual activity with someone under 18 if they are a member of your family (there are of course other laws also making it illegal to have sex with a close family member.

Checking is easy

It is everyone’s responsibility to read the signs, ask the question and ensure their sexual partner has given consent.

If your partner is uneasy or gives even the slightest indication they are not prepared for or comfortable with sexual activity, stop.

If in doubt, ask. That is the simple rule with sexual consent.


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