Sex, the law and you

Do you know what’s legal and what’s not?

It’s important to know what the law says about sex and young people. This will help you to know what's right and wrong so you can make safe choices that you are happy with.

There are lots of different laws in the UK that are there to protect you and some which ensure young people take responsibility for their actions.

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

Q. Can young people get punished for breaking the law?

In the UK there is an age at which you are expected to take responsibility for any of your actions which break the law - this is called ‘criminal responsibility’.

The age of criminal responsibility is 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland is it 8 years old, but a child must be at least 12 years old to go on trial in the Scottish courts.

Anyone that is above the age of criminal responsibility can be arrested and taken to court if they commit a crime. Young people who break the law are treated differently to adults by going to special youth courts, given different punishments for their crime and, where necessary, being sent to special centres for young people.

There are some circumstances or situations involving young people breaking the law where the police judge that is best for young people’s health and wellbeing that they are not given a criminal punishment.

Q. At what age can I have sex?

The age you can 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, in full understanding of the consequences of having sex. This applies if you want to have sex with someone of the opposite sex, or the same sex.

Q. What is consent?

A. Consent is when a person freely gives their permission or agrees to something, after having carefully thought about whether or not they want to do something. This decision should have been made without that person being: pressured or bullied, encouraged to use drugs or alcohol to influence their decision, or manipulated or made to feel stupid.

In the UK the law says that both people must give their consent before any physical closeness or sexual activity.

This means that if you want to have sex it’s worth checking that your partner wants to as well.

Q. I’m 14 and my boyfriend/girlfriend is 15. By having sex together are we breaking the law?

Sex between anyone who is under 16 is illegal. However, the law is in place to protect young people from sexual exploitation and abuse. The law is not intended to punish consensual (i.e. both people have given their consent) sexual activity between two young people of a similar age, as long as it does not involve abuse or exploitation.

Sex or any sexual activity between an adult and a young person aged under 16 is against the law in the UK and the adult will be held responsible for their actions. This applies to both men and women, whether they are of the same or the opposite sex of the young person and no matter what their cultural background is.

Q. What is rape?

A. Rape is when a male forces his penis into the mouth, anus or vagina of another person when that person doesn't want him to do so; the law calls this 'without consent'.

Q. What is sexual assault?

A. Sexual assault is a crime that can be committed by both men and women against men or women. Different types of sexual assault include:

  • Being forced or pressured into sex acts which you don’t want to do
  • Objects or parts of the body (e.g. a finger) being put into someone's vagina or anus when that person didn't want it to happen.
  • Someone being touched in a sexual way that makes him or her feel uncomfortable or frightened. This could be through their clothes (like bottom pinching).
  •  Someone being made to masturbate
  • Any other form of physical closeness that happens without consent is known as sexual assault.It can also include; watching other people having sex, 'sexting' (texting sexual images), and forcing involvement in watching or making pornography.

Q. My boyfriend is 19. I’m 15. We have sex. Could he go to jail?

It is illegal for anyone over 18 to have sex with someone under 16.

Q. Is it illegal for a child to look at pornography?

It is illegal for anyone over 18 to encourage anyone under 16 to watch a sexual act. This includes watching porn.

Q. What is an ‘indecent image’?

An ‘indecent image’ refers to illegal images of children. No one has defined ‘indecent’ but basically if it’s naked, a topless girl, contains genitals or sex acts, including masturbation, then it will be indecent.

As a general rule if you wouldn’t show it to your parents or your gran, you probably shouldn’t share it online!

Q. Is it illegal to take a naked selfie and to send It to my girlfriend? I’m 14.

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