Age of consent

What's the age of sexual consent? And what if you, or the person you want to sleep with, is under it?

Girl and guy smiling at each other with a tree in the background

"Can we have sex yet?"

Help! Am I going to prison for having sex?

The Government has stressed that the law is intended to protect children from abuse by adult sexual predators, and is not to be used to prosecute teenagers who are close in age for having consensual sex – meaning, both of you want to have sex and don’t feel under pressure.

Be aware though that our underage sex laws are confusing and that there are some situations where you really could risk prosecution. Read on to find out more.

What does the law say about under age sex in the UK?

According to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it’s a criminal offence for any kind of sexual activity to take place between two people where one or both participants is under 16. Remember that laws differ round the world – this article only tells you about the law in the UK.

The law applies to men, women, gay, lesbian or straight in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A similar law exists in Scotland.

If you are charged with having sex with someone under age, the likelihood is you’ll be given caution, or a fine, and put on the Sex Offenders Register for one year if you’re under 18 (two years if you’re over 18), and that’s not somewhere you want your name to be.

What counts as sexual activity?

The law is geared towards intimate acts like touching, oral sex and penetrative sex. But technically, even snogging is a ‘sexual act’.

I’m having sex with someone who is under 13

If the person you’re sleeping with is under 13, the penalties will be high. If you’re under 13 and you’re having sex, or thinking about having sex, please go to Childline for confidential advice and support.

What about sending naked photos to each other, or sexy messages?

Yes – loads of people do it, but you’re actually breaking two laws. Any sexy photo of someone under the age of 18 is considered a paedophilic image in the eyes of the law. And, sexy messages as well as photos could count as ‘sexual activity’ in the age of consent law. So, if either of you is under 18, it’s considered illegal – even though you can have actual sex at 16.

One of us is under 16, but one of us is over 16

If you’re over 16 and are charged with sexual activity with a 13–15 year old, you are more likely to end up in legal trouble than if you were under 16. How you are dealt with will depend on your age:

  • One of us is under 16, and one is over 18: Careful. People over 18 are dealt with more severely in the law. This is because age gaps can cause power imbalances in a relationship, which may, in some cases, lead to abusive behavior where the younger person could feel pressured to do something sexually because they’re with someone older. Even if you feel TOTALLY fine at the thought of having sex with your older partner, the law will still take it more seriously if they’re over 18. In fact, the older they are, the more serious the punishment is likely to be.
  • One of us is under 16 and one is 16 or 17: It’s still illegal for you to do anything sexual, but the law’s slightly more lenient if you’re caught.

Remember never to pressure anyone into doing anything they don’t want to do. For advice on how to say no to sex read our article here.

I’m under 16 and I’m totally happy to have sex! So that’s fine, right?

Wrong. You may be freely consenting to having sex ­– however, in the eyes of the law, you’re too young to make this decision. It doesn’t matter how up-for-it you are, if you’re under 16, it’s illegal for someone to have sex with you. Visit Childline for confidential advice and support.

I’ve asked my parents, and they say it’s fine for me to have sex. Is it?

It’s not up to your parents to decide if you can break the law. No matter how relaxed they are about your sex life, it’s still illegal to have sexual contact with someone under 16.

What if we’re together but don’t do anything sexual?

If one or both of you is underage but you’re respecting the law and not doing sexual stuff you don’t need to stress. It’s great to just enjoy being with each other and getting to know each other. That said, if your partner is a good few years older, you may find our age gaps article insightful.

What if my girlfriend gets pregnant? Will I definitely get arrested? 

Not necessarily – it depends again in the difference between your ages. The CPS rarely prosecutes underage people of similar age, as long as there is no abuse or exploitation. Even though a pregnancy can be seen as ‘evidence’ that underage sex has taken place – they’ll still be looking more at whether there was abuse or exploitation that led to the pregnancy. The size of the age gap between you here could influence this – the bigger a difference in age you have, the more likely the older person will get into trouble.

What about teachers and people in positions of trust?

There are different rules when one of the people involved is in a ‘position of trust’ with the other person. For example, a teacher is breaking the law if they have sex with one of their students, even if they’re over the age of consent (16) but under 18.

The person I’m sleeping with is the same gender as me, does that make it OK?

The law applies to everyone – gay, straight, lesbian, bi or trans.

And remember…

However old you are, sex should always be consensual. Make sure that both of you are up for it first. Remember you’re allowed to say no; you should never be pressured into doing something you don’t want to do.

And if you’re still deciding what you want sexually, you might find our article on losing your virginity useful.

Photo of couple by Shutterstock

Next Steps

  • Brook are a sexual health charity, which support young people through their clinics and helpline. 0808 802 1234
  • The Citizens Advice Bureau has a great Advice4Me page, which explains legal rights specifically for under-25s.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 29 Sep 2015