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 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. Read our Q&A section for further answers to questions on sex, relationships and the internet. 

Q. Can under 18s get punished for breaking the law?

In the UK, there is an age at which you’re 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 – if there is a strong case that they have committed a crime – be taken to court. Young people who break the law are treated differently to adults as they:

  • Go to trial in special youth courts
  • Get different sentences if found guilty of a crime
  • In cases where a custodial sentence is given, go to a young offenders institution, rather than a prison

There are some situations involving young people breaking the law where the  police judge that is best for young people’s health and wellbeing that no police action is taken. In these situations, young people may receive support from school, children’s social care or other services.

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 to sexual activity between people 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  sexual activity.

This means that if you want to have sex, check 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. 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.

Q. What is rape?

A. Rape is a crime which takes place 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 that a person doesn’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,  and forcing someone to  watch or make pornography.

Q. My boyfriend/girlfriend is 19. I’m 15. We have sex. Could they get into trouble?

It’s illegal for anyone over 18 to have sex with someone under 16 and, depending on the situation, if this is brought to police attention, they could be prosecuted. This would be decided by the police (and possibly the court) based on the specific circumstances of the case.

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

It isn’t against the law for a child to look at pornography. If you have watched pornography, don’t feel worried or ashamed. You won’t get into trouble. However, young people have said watching pornography can be harmful and upsetting. Read more about the impact of porn and what to do if you’re worried about your porn use.

It is illegal for anyone over 18 to make a young person watch porn.

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

  • Sexual assault or rape
  • 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

Sexual images and videos of under-18 year olds are NOT pornography – these are called indecent images of children. It is illegal to create, view, store or share indecent images of children.

Q. What are ‘indecent images of children’?

An indecent image of an under-18 is usually a nude or semi-nude image or video.It could also be a drawing or cartoon.

For example, if it contains genitals or sexual acts, including masturbation, then it will be considered indecent.

If you’re worried about an indecent image that’s been shared, or you’re thinking of sharing one, read the advice in ‘Selfies: the naked truth’ and ‘When nudes get shared around’ .

Q. Is it illegal to take a naked selfie and to send it to my boyfriend / girlfriend?

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.

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 made to share an image of yourself, you will not be in trouble. The law is there to support and protect you. You can report to CEOP to get help from specialist child protection advisors.

Where to get help

If you are worried that a crime has been committed and you need support, there is always help available.

CEOP helps young people who are being sexually abused or are worried that someone they’ve met is trying to abuse them.

If you’ve met someone online, or face to face, and they are putting you under pressure to have sex, share images or making you feel uncomfortable you should report to CEOP.

This might be someone:

  • Making you have sex when you donʼt want to
  • Chatting about sex online
  • Asking you to meet up face to face if youʼve only met them online
  • Asking you to do sexual things on camera
  • Asking for sexual pictures of you
  • Making you feel worried, anxious or unsafe

If this is happening to you, or you’re worried that it might be, report to CEOP.

Childline

Childline is a free helpline for children and young people under the age of 19. You can contact Childline about anything. No problem is too big or too small. Whatever your worry, it's better out than in.

Childline is a private and confidential service. Confidential means not telling anyone else what you’ve said. This means that whatever you say stays between you and Childline.

They would only need to tell someone else if:

  • You ask them to
  • They believe your life or someone else’s life is in immediate danger
  • You are being hurt by someone in a position of trust who has access to other children like a teacher or police officer
  • You tell them that you are seriously harming another young person

Call them on 0800 1111. The number won’t appear on your phone bill.

You can also visit www.childline.org.uk to speak to a counsellor online.