Sex, law and consent: What you need to understand

Sex is a natural and healthy part of life and something we often choose to explore with our partners.

Like many areas of life, there are laws around sex which it is important to be aware of. It’s understandable to be unsure or confused about these laws as there’s a lot to take in and it can be a challenge to find what’s relevant to you.

So, in this article, we’ll look at the laws surrounding sex, consent and what you need to know when engaging in any sexual activity.

What is consent?

Consent is an essential part of any sexual interaction. It means that both partners have agreed to engage in the activity and that they are both comfortable with it.

Sexual consent should be clear, enthusiastic and freely given. It should also be ongoing – meaning that both partners can withdraw consent at any time.

Unfortunately, consent is often misunderstood. Some people believe that it can be implied or that it can be given through body language. However, this is not the case. Consent should always be clear and explicit.

What is the law around consent?

Consent is more than just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines consent as agreement by choice – and requires the freedom and capacity to make that choice.  

Not giving consent isn’t as simple as someone just saying no. There are many other signals which can indicate whether someone isn’t actually consenting, including:

  • Seeming unsure
  • Staying quiet
  • Moving away
  • Not responding

It is also important to remember that someone cannot consent if they are:

  • Under the age of consent (16 in England and Wales)
  • Asleep or unconscious
  • Drunk or under the influence of drugs
  • Suffering from a mental health disorder that impairs their judgement
  • Pressured, manipulated, tricked or scared into saying yes
  • Subject to any physical force or threat

If you are requesting or initiating a sexual activity, it is your responsibility to ensure your partner consents – and is in a condition to make that choice. This means being aware of the signals and respecting their right to say “no” at any time.

If ever in doubt, just ask!

What is the law around sex and age?

In the UK, the age of consent is 16. This means anyone under the age of 16 cannot legally consent to sex regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or relationship to the other person.

If you’re under 16, it’s important to know that this law only exists to protect children and young people. It’s not in place to prosecute young people having sex, such as two consenting 15-year-olds.

However, if anyone over 18 were to engage in sexual activity with someone under 16, this would be a crime.

Having sex with anyone under the age of 13 is also always a crime.

It is also illegal to take a photo or video of a sexual nature or pay for sexual services from someone under 18.

What other sexual laws do you need to know?

In addition to consent, there are other laws which are good to understand when exploring sex.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual conduct which makes a person feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated.

This can include making sexual remarks, jokes or gestures, displaying pornography or touching someone in a sexual way without their consent.

Sexual harassment can happen in any setting, including the workplace, school, or public spaces.

If you – or someone you know – are in a situation where they feel like they’re a victim of sexual assault and believe it may occur again, you can report it to a person of authority. This could be an employer, teacher, guardian or the police.


Rape is defined as sexual intercourse with someone without their consent. It is a serious offence which can result in prison.

Remember, consent is essential for any sexual interaction. It is important that both partners are comfortable and that neither partner feels violated.

Here are some tips for giving and getting consent which can help ensure both parties feel respected and safe:

  • Be clear and explicit about what you want
  • Ask for consent, and wait for a clear “yes” before proceeding
  • Respect your partner’s right to revoke consent at any time
  • Pay attention to your partner’s body language and verbal cues

If you are unsure whether your partner has given consent, ask them!

What support is available?

It is important to remember that the law is in place to protect you and keep you safe. If in doubt, it’s best to discuss any sexual activity with your partner and ensure you both fully consent.

If you – or someone you know – has been a victim of sexual assault there are dedicated centres which can offer support.

Sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) offer medical, practical and emotional support to anyone who has been raped, sexually assaulted or abused.

Help is available 24 hours a day from specially trained doctors and other support workers. You can find your nearest here:

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