Sexual consent

Sure, we all saw the tea video growing up and got told that consent is important for any sexual actvity. But what does sexual consent mean? Do you know how to get consent? Do you know what the age of sexual consent is in the UK? And, most importantly, do you know what ISN’T consent? We asked Brook, the sexual health charity, for the lowdown on consent.

A young woman is talking about sexual consent.

TW: Contains references to sexual assault

What does sexual consent mean?

Sexual consent is a mutual agreement to any sexual behaviour/act. Be they a young person or a more mature one. And we really mean ALL types of sexual activity. From touching someone to having full sex with them – you’re gonna need them to say yes before you take any action. 

This also includes the sharing of intimate photos and videos. If someone trusts you enough to send nudes, that isn’t them giving you permission to share them with anyone else but the two of you. If you do, you’re partaking in revenge porn, which is a criminal offence. Speaking of the law, The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 also protects against a number of traumatic sexual experiences. 

Just so that we clear up any misunderstandings – the law defines consent as someone agreeing ‘by choice’ to the sexual experience, and having ‘the freedom and capacity to make that choice.’

So, if you were to engage in sexual activity with someone and they didn’t give their explicitly consent or weren’t in the right mind to do so – it’s sexual assault or rape. No two ways about it. That’s why, to protect yourself, and the person you’re intimate with from engaging in sexual activity without consent, it’s really important to know you have consent.

How does consent work in the actual moment though?

Confused? We don’t blame you. It’s a great first step that you’re here and reading this article to try and make sense of it though. It shows a really responsible and mature attitude towards sex. The world could use a few more people like you.

To clear things up, here are some situations that are commonly considered ‘grey’ areas in sexual consent. Hopefully you’ll see that they actually aren’t that grey at all.

So, do I have consent if…

  • We’re in a relationship? Not automatically, no. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been going out, or even if you’re married. You can never assume the person you’re with is always willing to partake in sexual acts. The sad fact is that most sexual assaults and rapes occur in relationships.
  • They’re drunk/on drugs? No. Someone absolutely has to be sober and in a clear state of mind to give consent. Obviously people react to drugs or alcohol in different ways, and there’s a difference between being tipsy and being off your face. However, if you’re ever in doubt, just don’t go there.
  • They’re under 16 but want to have sex? The age of sexual consent in the UK is 16. This means that they’d be considered under the legal age to give consent. Get more detailed advice on our age of consent article here.
  • They’re unconscious? 100000000% NO. If someone is asleep or unconscious, they’re completely unable to give consent. Even if they’re your partner.
  • They’ve been flirting with me? Once again, it’s a no from us (and the law). Even if you’re 99% sure this person thinks you’re God’s gift to earth and they’ve been flirting or ‘leading you on’. No matter what situation you’re in, no one EVER owes you sex.
  • They’re wearing a revealing outfit? Not in this universe or any other. We can assure you that someone’s personal style – whether it be a mini skirt or a turtle neck – has NO bearing on their desire to have sex with you.
  • I asked them and they said ‘no’, but after I persisted they said ‘yes’? This is another red flag. Pressuring, persuading, or coercing someone into saying ‘yes’ is extremely unhealthy behaviour. And you’re not having a consensual sexual experience, even if they give in.
  • They’ve not said ‘no’ out loud: A lack of a clear no definitely doesn’t mean it’s a clear yes. It’s really common for somebody under sexual pressure to totally freeze up, which prevents them from using their voice. Thing is, you should be able to tell by their body language. If they don’t seem into it, stop immediately. They shouldn’t have to provide verbal cues to make it clear it’s a no.
  • We’re already kissing? No. Giving consent to one sexual activity does not count as a blanket consent. If you wanna go to the next level, you’re gonna have to initiate some conversation.
  • They said ‘yes’ then changed their mind halfway through? No. Consent can be taken back at any point during sex. It isn’t a binding contract. If they stop, you stop. Simple.
  • I’m in a position of power? Absolutely not. If you’re a teacher or lecturer you legally can’t receive consent from someone under the age of 18. Remember, you’re supposed to be a responsible and influential figure. Engaging in a sexual relationship may affect the care given. For more information on this, see our age of sexual consent in the UK article.

How do I know I have consent then?

It’s really easy – all you have to do is ask! Alex, who runs Brook’sAsk Brook’ service, advises seeing consent as a continuous conversation. “It’s nuanced,” she says. “And it can involve some backtracking if someone isn’t sure they’re happy about what’s being said or done.”

Along with verbal cues, it’s important to keep someone’s body language in mind, too. Do they seem up for this and into this? Or are they freezing up, zoning out, or pushing you off? Georgia, who leads Brook’s work on abuse, violence and exploitation, says: “Body language can be a huge signifier. But, we’re also human which means that signs can be misread. So it’s always best to check in with your partner.”

Don’t be afraid to ask if what you’re doing is ok. Both before and while you engage in sexual activity. For example, “Do you like this?” and “Can I keep touching you there?“ If, at any point, you don’t feel comfortable talking to them about consent, then maybe you’re not ready to do anything that requires it yet. 

I think I’ve been raped or sexually assaulted

If, through reading this, you’re starting to realise there have been situations where your consent was violated and/or you’ve been sexually abused, there’s support out there. Read our Was It Rape? or Was it Sexual Assault? articles for more information.

Georgia says: “There is never a ‘bad’ time to tell someone what happened. Even if it was weeks, months or years ago. Your experience is valid.”‘

Whatever you decide to do, we want you to know that what happened to you wasn’t your fault. And there are people and organisations all around you who’ll believe you.

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Next Steps

  • Rape Crisis offers support and advice to victims of rape and sexual assault, no matter how long ago the attack was. 0808 802 99 99
  • Find your nearest Rape Crisis centre here.
  • SurvivorsUK offers advice and support to male victims of rape and sexual assault. Text on 020 3322 1860.
  • 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.

By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 27-Jun-2022