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.

A young couple walk arm in arm, holding an umbrella and coffee cups

When can I have sex? 

The last thing you want to worry about when you’re about to have sex is the law, but it’s important to feel informed and stay safe. So, here’s a handy guide, so you can know your stuff and focus on having a good time 

What’s the age of consent?  

‘Consent’ means to say yesSo, the ‘age of consent’ is when the law says you’re able to make the decision to say ‘yes’ to sex. In the UK, the age of consent is 16.  

You might feel ready before this, but if youre breaking the law, there’s a chance you could get into trouble 

To protect yourself and the person you’re sleeping with, it’s important to understand what giving (and getting) sexual consent means. It’s simple, really – find out more in our article about consent. 

What counts as sexual activity?

The law is geared towards intimate acts like touching, oral sex and penetrative sex. But believe it or not, even snogging is a ‘sexual act’.

Lots of relationships start with sexting and sending sexy photos, but this is where the law gets REALLY confusing: 

  • This may seem extreme, but any sexy photo of someone under the age of 18 is considered a paedophilic image in the eyes of the law.  
  • 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, sexting is considered illegal – even though you can have actual sex at 16. 

What’s the law about underage sex in the UK?

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

  • It makes no difference what your gender or sexuality isthe law will be the same. 
  • If youre charged, the law states that you could be given a caution, a fine, imprisoned or possibly put on the Sex Offenders Register. 
  • For adults in a position of trust, the rules are different. For example, a teacher is breaking the law if they have sex with one of their students, even if the student is over the age of consent (16) but under 18. 

But what if I’m having sex with someone close to my age, who’s under 16? 

  • The Government has stressed that the law isn’t to be used to prosecute teenagers who are close in age and both want to have sex, it’s there to protect children from abuse by adult sexual predators. 
  • However, if the person you’re sleeping with is under 13you should baware that the penalties will be high.  
  • If you’re under 13 and you’re having sex, or thinking about having sex, you can contact Childline for confidential advice and support. 
  • If you’re over 16 and are charged with sexual activity with a 13-15 year old, you’re more likely to end up in legal trouble than if you were under 16. How you’re dealt with will depend on your age. 
  • People who are 18 or over 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. 
  • 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.  
  • No matter how cool and relaxed your parents 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 stuffyou don’t need to stress. It’s great to just enjoy being with each other and getting to know each other.  

If your partner is a few years older, you may find our age gaps article insightful. 

Will I get arrested if my girlfriend is under 16 and gets pregnant?

Not necessarily – it depends again in the difference between your ages. It’s rare for underage people of similar age to be prosecuted, as long as theres no abuse or exploitation.  

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. 

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. 

If you want to talk this through with someone, speak to our team – all our services our freetotally confidential and no topic is too embarrassing to bring up.  

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.

Tags:

consent law

By Holly Turner

Updated on 11-Nov-2020

Photo of couple by Shutterstock