Helping young people understand the UK’s confusing sex laws

Recently, our age of consent article started to reveal some worrying trends. Here they are, and here’s how we dealt with them.

Emma Rubach
Head of Content
girl and boy

At YouthNet we encourage young people who are choosing to have sex to make sure it’s safe, consensual and fun. The age of consent, though, is where we find this sex-positive stance daily challenged. What do we tell a 15 year old who is sleeping with a 13 year old in order to protect them from prosecution while still carefully acknowledging the reality that they’re having sex and are unlikely to stop? Or a 17 year old who could end up being punished for sending a ‘paedophilic image’ of themselves to their boyfriend, despite being legally allowed to have sex?

As we all know lots of young people have sex well before their sixteenth birthday – in fact, now more than ever according to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. Because our laws haven’t shifted to keep up (whether they should or not is another debate), we see the consequences every day on our services.

What’s most noticeable is young people don’t get the nuances of the legislation – and that’s not really surprising. They’re told they shouldn’t have sex under 16, but the CPS has made it clear two consenting under 16s won’t be prosecuted if they do. A bit like telling people running red lights is illegal…but that there won’t be any consequences if they’re caught doing it.

More worryingly, our users seem to have no clue about the potentially severe penalties for over 16s who sleep with under 16s. The tone of their questions suggests they vaguely know they’re doing something ‘wrong’, but the blunt nature of the legislation means a few days and a birthday can make a difference between the law turning a blind eye and a 17 year-old ending up on the sex offenders register.

Most disturbing of all are the huge numbers of young people having sex with others who are 12 or 13 – a very young age, not to mention a legally dangerous one. Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, having sex with anyone under 13 carries the penalty of life imprisonment. We also see the occasional 11-year old, but thankfully this is rare.

A snapshot of the problem

Consent comments on

How YouthNet’s tackling confusion about the age of consent  

Our first step was to make sure the information in our article is of the highest standard possible. We’re grateful to Richard Scorer and Kim Harrison of the law firm Slater and Gordon for helping us make sure we got the facts right. We also broke down the article into a series of FAQs based on the common questions users are asking, and shot an animated video to make the complexities easier to digest.

We trained our commenting mods to respond better to individual questions, ensuring we are signposting under-16s to Childline where they’ll get age-appropriate support. We are careful to take a hard line with older young people who are sleeping with under-16s and to point out behaviour that could be unhealthy, for example large age gaps. Overall, we feel more confident in our approach thanks to these changes and feel we are serving our users better.

Debate in the media tends to centre on whether the age of consent should be lowered, but the reality is that right now young people are risking their freedom and their future careers as a result of uninformed choices. There’s more we could do, and more everyone should be doing, to make sure they better understand the risks.


Published on 09-Jun-2015