Age of consent

The UK's consent laws are confusing and in some cases the penalties for under-age sex can be high. Worried? Read on.

Girl and guy smiling at each other with a tree in the background

"Can we have sex yet?"

‘Consent’ means to say yes. So the ‘age of consent’ is the age at which, legally, you’re deemed able to make the decision to say ‘yes’ to sex and to engage in sexual activity. In the UK, this is 16 – but you might feel ready earlier or later than that. This is just one reason why the law is confusing and hard to follow.

Before you start having sex, it’s important you understand what giving (and getting) sexual consent means. Find out more in our article about consent.

What does the law say about under age sex in the UK?

According to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it’s a criminal offence for any kind of sexual activity to take place between two people where one or both participants is under 16.

The law applies to men, women, gay, lesbian or straight in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A similar law exists in Scotland. If you’re in another part of the world, you should find out what the law in your country says – unfortunately, we’re not able to cover anywhere but the UK.

What happens if I get caught having sex with an under age person?

If you are charged, the likelihood is you could be given a caution, a fine, imprisoned or possibly put on the Sex Offenders Register.

I’m having sex with someone who is under sixteen. Am I going to go to prison?

The Government has stressed that the law is intended to protect children from abuse by adult sexual predators, and is not to be used to prosecute teenagers who are close in age for having consensual sex – meaning, both of you want to have sex and don’t feel under pressure.

What counts as sexual activity?

The law is geared towards intimate acts like touching, oral sex and penetrative sex. But technically, even snogging is a ‘sexual act’.

I’m having sex with someone who is under 13

If the person you’re sleeping with is under 13, the penalties will be high. If you’re under 13 and you’re having sex, or thinking about having sex, please go to Childline for confidential advice and support.

What about, sexting, chatting online and sending nude pics?

Lots of relationships start this way, but unfortunately this is where the law gets REALLY confusing. By sending sexually explicit images or messages you’re actually breaking two laws. Any sexy photo of someone under the age of 18 is considered a paedophilic image in the eyes of the law. And, sexy messages as well as photos could count as ‘sexual activity’ in the age of consent law. So, if either of you is under 18, it’s considered illegal – even though you can have actual sex at 16.

One of us is under 16, but one of us is over 16

If you’re over 16 and are charged with sexual activity with a 13-15 year old, you are more likely to end up in legal trouble than if you were under 16. How you are dealt with will depend on your age:

  • One of us is under 16, and one is over 18: Careful. People over 18 are dealt with more severely in the law. This is because age gaps can cause power imbalances in a relationship, which may, in some cases, lead to abusive behavior where the younger person could feel pressured to do something sexually because they’re with someone older. Even if you feel TOTALLY fine at the thought of having sex with your older partner, the law will still take it more seriously if they’re over 18. In fact, the older they are, the more serious the punishment is likely to be.
  • One of us is under 16 and one is 16 or 17: It’s still illegal for you to do anything sexual, but the law’s slightly more lenient if you’re caught.

I’m under 16 and I’m totally happy to have sex! So that’s fine, right?

You may be freely consenting to having sex — however, in the eyes of the law, you’re too young to make this decision, meaning you can’t, technically, consent. It doesn’t matter how up-for-it you are, or how ready you feel – the law doesn’t care. Visit Childline for confidential advice and support.

I’ve asked my parents, and they say it’s fine for me to have sex. Is it?

It’s not up to your parents to decide if you can break the law. No matter how relaxed they are about your sex life, it’s still illegal to have sexual contact with someone under 16.

What if we want to be together but don’t do anything sexual?

If one or both of you is underage but you’re respecting the law and not doing sexual stuff you don’t need to stress. It’s great to just enjoy being with each other and getting to know each other. That said, if your partner is a good few years older, you may find our age gaps article insightful.

What if my girlfriend gets pregnant? Will I definitely get arrested?

Not necessarily – it depends again in the difference between your ages. The CPS rarely prosecutes underage people of similar age, as long as there is no abuse or exploitation. Even though a pregnancy can be seen as ‘evidence’ that underage sex has taken place – they’ll still be looking more at whether there was abuse or exploitation that led to the pregnancy. The size of the age gap between you here could influence this – the bigger a difference in age you have, the more likely the older person will get into trouble.

What about teachers and people in positions of trust?

There are different rules when one of the people involved is in a ‘position of trust’ with the other person. For example, a teacher is breaking the law if they have sex with one of their students, even if they’re over the age of consent (16) but under 18.

The person I’m sleeping with is the same gender as me, does that make it OK?

The law applies to everyone – gay, straight, lesbian, bi or trans.

And remember…

However old you are, sex should always be consensual. Make sure that both of you are up for it first. Remember you’re allowed to say no; you should never be pressured into doing something you don’t want to do.

If you’re deciding whether you’re ready to start having sex, you might find our article on losing your virginity useful.

 

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Next Steps

  • Brook provides free sexual health and wellbeing services for young people in the UK. Brook's services include local clinics and online digital sex and relationships tool.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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consent law

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015

Photo of couple by Shutterstock