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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.
Sexual violence is the general term used to describe any kind of unwanted sexual act or activity. This can include:
Find out more about sexual violence here.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Find a service near me
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)
If you (or someone you know) are experiencing or at risk of sexual abuse, assault or violence, you can call 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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