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Sex and consent

Consent means agreeing to do something. When it comes to sex, this means agreeing to have sex or engage in sexual activity. Find out about about why consent is important during sexual activity.

To consent means to agree to something, and the word can be used in lots of different situations. When it comes to sex specifically, to consent means to agree to have sex or engage in sexual activity.  

What is sexual activity?

Sex or sexual activity can include kissing, sexual touching, oral, anal and vaginal sex with a penis or with any other type of object. 

It’s important that everyone involved in sexual activity is consenting at all times – no one should ever feel they have to do something they are not comfortable with or don’t want to do. Just because you have consented to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to something else, and it’s completely OK to say no or stop at any point if you don’t want to continue. 

The Sexual Offenses Act 2003 (England and Wales) defines consent as when a person ‘agrees by choice and has the capacity to make that choice’.  

In the eyes of the law, consent is the agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. All those involved must have the freedom and full capacity to make that decision. Engaging in a sexual act without the person’s consent is sexual violence, and is a criminal offence. 

The law around consent makes consensual sex and sexual assault seem very black and white when, in reality, consent can be ambiguous and confusing. 

What does the law mean by freedom and full capacity? 

When the law uses the words ‘freedom’ and ‘capacity’ in relation to consent, it is talking about someone being able to agree to sexual activity with full understanding of what they are agreeing to, and no pressure to say ‘yes’. 

Another way of thinking about it is consent is someone saying ‘yes’ only when they REALLY mean ‘yes’ because it is something they genuinely want to do. This is sometimes called ‘enthusiastic consent’. 

 There are situations where someone might not be able to give consent because they don’t have the freedom or capacity to do so. Some examples of this are:  

If the person is too drunk or high to understand what is happening

Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol may mean that someone doesn’t have the mental capacity to consent to sexual activity. They may not be able to understand what they are agreeing to, even if they can say ‘yes’. 

If the person is asleep or unconscious

Someone who is asleep or unconscious is not aware of what is going on and, therefore, does not have the mental capacity to consent to sexual activity.  

If a person is pressured or coerced into sexual activity

If someone is being, manipulated or threatened in to sexual activity, they do not have the freedom to consent. This is because their decision is being influenced by pressure and/or fear. You can read more about dealing with pressure on the Childline website. Threats could include physical violence, but also things like threatening to break-up or to share secrets or images with other people. 

If a person isn’t able to withdraw consent

If someone is unable to withdraw their consent, for example if they aren’t able to speak or communicate clearly, then they don’t have the freedom to express consent. In short: if they can’t say no, then they can’t say yes either.  

If someone is under the age of consent

In the UK, the legal age of consent is 16. This means that, legally, a person under 16 is not able to consent to sexual activity because they are seen as not having the capacity to do so. It is important to remember that the law is designed to protect young people from abuse, harm or being taken advantage of by adults. It is not meant to criminalise young people and there is no intention to prosecute people under the age of 16 where both mutually agree (consent) and where they are of a similar age.

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is the general term used to describe any kind of unwanted sexual act or activity. This can include: 

  • Rape (penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth with a penis without consent) 
  • Sexual assault / abuse (any act of unwanted sexual contact including rape, online grooming, domestic abuse and sexual exploitation) 
  • Sexual Harassment (any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature e.g sexual comments or jokes that makes you feel uncomfortable, distressed, or humiliated) 
  • Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) 
Sexual violence statistics

Current research shows that sexual violence, including within intimate relationships, disproportionately affects women. However, anyone can experience sexual violence regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation or age.

  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 18 men have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult (Rape Crisis)
  • SafeLives report from 2018 stated that that trans survivors are one of the most hidden groups of domestic abuse survivors, because there is not much research that has been done into how many trans people are affected by domestic and sexual violence.  
  • Research from Stonewall suggests that 11% of the LGBT+ population have experienced domestic abuse in the last year; twice as high as the population as a whole (4.5% as recorded by the Crime Survey England and Wales). For bisexual women this increases to 13%, and for trans/non-binary people to 19%. For LGBT+ people who have experienced domestic abuse, 19% experience sexual violence from their partners.  

The short answer: everyone.  

Everyone needs to know about consent so they can keep themselves and other people safe. It is important for everyone to understand what it means to give and get consent, not only because anyone could experience sexual activity against their will, but because everyone also has the potential to engage in sexual activity with someone who might not want to if they don’t understand how to navigate consent.   

The important thing to remember is that whatever way you choose to have sex, you always need consent from all people involved. Always, every time and throughout every encounter.  

You should never be pressured into or subjected to sexual activity that you don’t want to do. Just as you always need to seek consent from other people, you should always have your own consent sought, and you always have the right to withhold or withdraw consent.  

The subject of consent is often approached quite simplistically as a matter of ‘yes’ and no’. However, this rarely matches up with people’s experiences.  

Similarly, understanding and defining sexual violence often relies on the extreme distinctions of ‘consensual sex’ or ‘rape’, when in reality situations can feel more complicated than this. Find out more about different types of sexual violence.

Even though applying consent to your own life can feel complicated, there are some ways of thinking about it that are straightforward and always true:   

  • It doesn’t matter what your relationship with someone, how far into a sexual situation you get or how far you’ve gone with them before, you always have the right to change your mind and stop at any time. It’s up to the other person to respect that. 
  • Any sort of sexual activity without consent is illegal whatever the age of the people involved and whatever their relationship. 
  • It’s simple. You can stop sexual activity at any time, and this doesn’t just have to be by saying the words ‘no’ or ‘stop’. Consent is more than just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the moment, and requires verbal and physical communication before, during and after sexual activity. Find out more about how to give and receive consent.  

Getting help 

If someone forces you to do something sexual that you do not want to do,  it is never your fault and it is not OK. If this has happened to you, you should speak to someone you trust to get help and support and report what has happened. Find out how to report sexual violence. 

Speak to a trusted adult

If you need help, whatever is going on, you should try to speak to an adult that you trust. This could be someone in your family, but it could also be a teacher, midday meal supervisor, social worker or one of your friend’s parents. It should be someone that you have a good relationship with and someone who you think has your best interests in mind. 

Help from sexual health services

Brook services are able to offer you advice and support with all aspects of sex and relationships. Our friendly staff will not judge you or report you but will listen to what’s going on and see how they can help. 

If you don’t have a Brook service in your area, you should be able to access help and support from any sexual health service. 

Other sources of help and support

There are lots of places that are able to offer help and support by phone or online: 

  • For general help and support with anything, people under 19 anywhere in the UK can contact Childline online or by calling 0800 1111. 
  • If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual abuse, assault or violence, you can get support from Victim Support or Rape Crisis.
  • For medical advice, you can contact NHS 111 by dialling 111 (England and parts of Wales) or NHS 24 call 08454 242424 (Scotland) 

Urgent help

If you (or someone you know) are experiencing or at risk of sexual abuse, assault or violence, you can call 999 for an ambulance, the police or any other emergency service  any time of day or night if it is safe for you to do so
The 999 emergency number covers all of the UK and is free to call from any phone. 

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