Age of consent in the UK

Two young people are standing outside chatting about when is the right time for them.

How old do you have to be to have sex, legally?

The UK’s consent laws can be confusing and in some cases the penalties for under-age sex can be high. So, how old do you have to be to have sex? Read on to learn all about how the age of consent works in the UK.

When can I have sex?

The last thing you want to worry about when you’re about to have consensual sex is the law, but it’s important to be informed so you can stay safe. With that in mind, here’s a handy guide so you can know your stuff when it comes to the legal age of consent and focus on having a good time.  

What is the age of consent in the UK?

‘Consent’ means to say yes. So, 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, and this is also the legal age for gay sex. 

You might feel ready before this, but if you’re 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) consent means. Read our article explaining what sexual consent means to find out more.

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 can get REALLY confusing: 

  • 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, is sexting illegal? If either of you is under 18, sexting is indeed considered illegal – even though you can have actual sex at 16.

What’s the law regarding under–age 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 is, the law will be the same. 
  • If you’re charged, the law states that you could be given a caution, a fine, be 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 legal age of consent in the UK (16) but under 18. 

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

The penalties for sex under age vary depending on the age gap.

  • 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 13, you should be aware 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 behaviour. 
  • 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 the legal age of consent in the UK (16). 

Can someone over 18 sleep with someone under 18? Can an 18 year old date a 16 year old?

Even though the age of consent is 16 in the UK, these are common questions, so we’ll answer them directly here. Both are ok in the eyes of the law – once you turn 16 you can legally have sex with anyone else who is also over the age of consent, but sexting with anyone under 18 is illegal.

However, regardless of what the legal age to have sex is, not everyone is ready at 16. The most important thing is to feel safe and be happy with the decision you make, rather than worrying about what other people think. See our article on when to know you’re ready for sex for more info.

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.  

If your partner is a few years older, you may find our article on age differences in a relationship insightful.

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

Not necessarily – it depends again on the difference between you. It’s rare for underage people of similar ages to be prosecuted, as long as there’s 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 to sex; you should never be pressured into doing something you don’t want to do, and you can withdraw your consent at any time – even during sex.

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 are free, totally 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.


consent law

By The Mix Staff

Updated on 21-Apr-2023