Skip to main content

Sex and the law

Knowing what the law says about sex and young people will help you to understand your rights, and the rights of other young people.

There are lots of different laws in the UK that are there to protect young people.

Below are the answers to common questions young people have about the law in relation to sex and sexual activity.

Sexual activity includes:

  • Kissing
  • Sharing sexual messages and photos
  • Sexual touching
  • Oral sex
  • Vaginal or anal sex

If you have been pressured into any sexual activity you should call 101 and report this to the police. Under 18s can report online sexual abuse to CEOP.

In an emergency, call the police on 999.

Sex and the law Q&A

What is the age of consent?

The age you can legally have sex is called ‘the age of consent’. In the UK it is 16 years old. This means that according to the law, only those who are aged 16 or over are able to freely agree to any sexual activity. Read more about consent in our article.

What is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse is when someone is pressured, forced or manipulated into any form of sexual activity by someone else.

It is illegal for anyone to sexually abuse another person – online or offline.

What are the different types of sexual abuse mentioned in the law?

Rape  

The legal definition of rape is when a person forces their penis into the mouth, anus or vagina of another person when that person doesn't want them to do so.

Sexual assault

Any other sexual act forced on someone without their consent would be considered by legislation as sexual assault rather than rape. This includes ‘assault by penetration’ when a person forces an object (other than a penis) into another person’s mouth, anus or vagina without their consent.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment includes:

  • Making unwanted sexual comments or jokes
  • Unwanted sexual touching
  • Sharing nudes of another person without their consent
  • Sending someone unwanted nudes or sexual messages
  • Sending someone pornography without their consent
  • Sharing or threatening to share sexual rumours about someone
  • Taking sexual photos of someone without consent (also known as upskirting)

It can happen anywhere (online or offline) and to anyone (regardless of their age or gender).

Is it illegal for two people under 16 to engage in sexual activity?

Sexual activity between anyone who is under 16 is illegal.

However, the law is in place to protect young people from sexual abuse. Sex between two young people under the age of 16, is often treated as a safeguarding concern. This means that  young people will not be in trouble with the police. Adults (such as teachers, social workers, parents and carers) will work together to make sure the young people are safe.

Will an adult get in trouble for having sex with someone under 16?

Sex or any sexual activity between an adult and a young person aged under 16 is against the law in the UK. If this is brought to the attention of the police, the person over 18 could be prosecuted. The punishment would be decided by the police (and possibly the court) based on the specific circumstances of the case.

Is it illegal to watch pornography if you’re under 18?

It isn’t against the law for a young person to look at most types of pornography. If you have watched pornography, don’t feel worried or ashamed. You won’t get into trouble.

Some types of porn are illegal. It is illegal to watch porn that includes:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Scenes of life-threatening violence or acts that are likely to cause serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals
  • Sexual acts with animals or dead people

It is illegal for anyone over 18 to force or pressure a young person into watching porn.

Sexual images and videos (nudes) of under 18s are NOT pornography – these are called indecent images of children. It is illegal to create, view, store or share indecent images of children.

Is it illegal to take a nude and send it to someone else?

It is illegal to take a nude photo or video of anyone under 18, even if it is of yourself. It is also illegal to share it with someone else.

However, the law is there to protect young people, not criminalise them unnecessarily. If you have shared an image as a part of a consensual relationship, and this comes to police attention, the police will consider that when dealing with a case.

If you have been pressured to share an image of yourself, you will not be in trouble. The law is there to support and protect you.

Is it illegal for an adult to send a young person sexual messages?

It is illegal for an adult to send sexual messages to someone under 16 – the law calls this ‘sexual communication with a child’. This can include written messages and sexual or nude photos.

What happens when the police are involved?

Do teachers or the police view nudes of young people that are reported to them?

School or college staff should not intentionally view nudes or semi nudes. The person responsible for safeguarding might need to view an image, but only if it is necessary to take steps to protect the child.  

The police will only view nudes of young people when they need to see the photos to protect the child and take legal action against any adults involved.

Will a young person be blamed if they make a report about sexual abuse to the police?

If someone has pressured, forced or manipulated you into any sexual activity, it is not your fault.

Any sexual activity (even if not forced or pressured) between a young person and an adult  is only the fault of the adult involved.

You are the victim of a crime. The police should listen to your story without judgement.

If you’re treated unfairly or inappropriately after making a police report, you can make a complaint. Support services will be able to help you with this process and make sure you get the support you need.

Did this article help you?

Please select an option

Thank you for your feedback

Need more help?

Report it

Click CEOP logo

If you are under 18, report online sexual abuse to one of our Child Protection Advisors at the CEOP Safety Centre.

Report now

If you're over 18, call 101 to speak to your local police. 

In an emergency

If you're ever in immediate harm or danger: 

  • Call the police on 999 straight away
  • Tell an adult you trust who will be able to support you through a difficult time

Talk to someone

Childline logo

Free, confidential support online and over the phone for young people under 19.

www.childline.org.uk

Call 0800 1111

The Mix logo

The Mix is a charity that provides free information and support for under 25s.

www.themix.org.uk

Use their crisis messenger by texting THEMIX to 85258.

See all help

Sexual consent

Sex and sexual content online

What is sexual consent and why is it important?

Healthy sexual experiences

Sex and sexual content online

There are four qualities that should be present in all sexual activity.