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What is sexual consent?

Consent happens when all people involved in any kind of sexual activity agree to take part by choice. They also need to have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

A young man's hand is seen clasping a young woman's hand in bed.
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If you are affected by anything you read here, you can talk to us.

We all have the right to not want sex or any other kind of sexual activity – for example, kissing, sexual touching or performing a sexual act.

We also all have the right to change our minds at any time. Or to consent to doing one sexual thing with someone but not another.

Without consent, any kind of sexual activity is sexual violence.

Many of the myths surrounding consent and sexual violence can make victims and survivors feel as though they are somehow to blame. It can also make them feel that what happened to them wasn’t ‘real’ sexual violence.

Learn about the myths surrounding consent


BUT
, it doesn’t matter if someone doesn't have visible injuries or if they didn't scream, try to run away or fight. It also doesn't matter what they were wearing or what interaction happened beforehand. Or if they experienced feelings of arousal. Or if they knew the perpetrator.

If a person doesn’t consent to sexual activity of any kind then it is always sexual violence. And 100% of the blame lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators.

With all the myths surrounding sexual violence, however, working out what consent looks like in real life can sometimes feel confusing.

So, let’s break it down a bit…

What does consent mean?

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says that someone consents to sexual activity if they:

  • Agree by choice and
  • Have both the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

If someone says ‘no’ to any kind of sexual activity, they are not agreeing to it.

But, if someone doesn't say ‘no’ out loud, that doesn’t automatically mean that they have agreed to it either.

If someone seems unsure, stays quiet, moves away or doesn’t respond, they are not agreeing to sexual activity. In fact, it’s really common for people who have experienced sexual violence to find they are unable to move or speak.

Someone doesn’t have the freedom and capacity to agree to sexual activity by choice if:

  • They are asleep or unconscious.
  • They are drunk or ‘on’ drugs.
  • They have been ‘spiked’.
  • They are too young.
  • They have a mental health disorder or illness that means they are unable to make a choice.
  • They are being pressured, bullied, manipulated, tricked or scared into saying 'yes’.
  • The other person is using physical force against them.

If someone's not sure whether you are giving your consent for something sexual, they should check with you. If they can see or suspect you're not 100% comfortable or happy with what's happening between you, they should stop.

Why 'yes' doesn't always mean consent

Because consent has to involve freedom and capacity to be consent, saying 'yes' is not enough.  

Being forced, pressured, bullied, manipulated, tricked or scared takes away our freedom and capacity to make choices in lots of different situations. 

For example, if someone is in an abusive relationship, they might say 'yes' to something out of fear for their own wellbeing or the wellbeing of other people – which is a long way away from saying 'yes' because they really wanted to. The fear took away their freedom and capacity to make a real choice.

Most of us would recognise that, if someone stands behind you at a cash machine and asks for your PIN number while holding a knife to your back and you give it to them, you aren’t consenting to being robbed.

Well, it's similar with sex. Although, in this case, the 'knife' could be something entirely different – such as the threat of someone sharing a sexually explicit photo of another person. Or spreading lies about them. Or making them feel worthless.

A young woman looks serious as she stands in the sunshine.

What consent looks like

Here are some examples of what consent does and doesn’t look like in practice.

Consent looks like:

  • Enthusiastically saying ‘yes!’.
  • Talking to the other person about what you do and don't want, and listening to them in return.
  • Checking in with the other person – for example, asking ‘is this okay?’, ‘do you want to slow down?’ or ‘do you want to stop?’.
  • Respecting someone’s choice if they say ‘no’. And never trying to change their mind or put pressure on them.
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Consent is not like a permit or voucher that we can use up until its expiry date or at any point in the future. The person who really wanted to have sex with us last night might not want to have sex with us this morning and that’s 100% their right.

It also makes no difference if you're married to someone or in a relationship with them. You still need to get their consent. Every. Single Time.

Consent does not look like:

  • Feeling like you have to agree to sex or other sexual activity because you’re worried about the other person’s reaction if you say ‘no’.
  • Someone having sex with you or touching you in a sexual manner when you’re asleep or unconscious.
  • Someone continuing with sexual activity despite your non-verbal cues that you don’t want it to continue or you’re not sure – for example, if you pull away, freeze or seem uncomfortable.
  • Someone assuming that you want to have sex or take part in other sexual activity because of your actions or what you’re wearing – for example, flirting, accepting a drink, wearing a short skirt.
  • Someone assuming that you want to have sex or take part in other sexual activity with them because you’ve had sex or taken part in other sexual activity with them before.
  • Someone assuming that you want to take part in one type of sexual activity because you wanted to take part in another.
  • Someone removing a condom during sex after you only agreed to have sex with one (what is known as 'stealthing').

Please know, however, that these are just a few examples of what consent doesn’t look like.

If you didn’t want something to happen then you didn’t give your consent. You also didn’t give your consent if you weren’t capable of deciding whether or not you wanted it – for example, if you were a child or if you were drunk.

And if there was no consent then it was sexual violence.

If you’re in a sexual encounter with someone and they ask you to stop and you don’t stop, you’re committing a sexual offence. It’s as simple as that.

We are here for you

If you think you might have been raped, sexually assaulted or sexually abused, you can talk to us. We will listen to you and believe you, and you can take the conversation at your own pace.

Talk to us
A young woman stands outside. She is talking to someone on her smartphone and is frowning.

Age of consent

The age of consent in England and Wales is 16. This is the age when young people can legally can take part in sexual activity.

This is the same for everyone, whatever their sex or gender.

The law is there to protect children and young people. It is not used to prosecute under-16s who take part in consensual sexual activity with each other.

For example, if two 15 year-olds have consensual sex, they would not be prosecuted. But, if an adult aged 18 or over has sex with someone aged 15 or under, it is a crime.

The law also says that anyone under the age of 13 can never consent to sexual activity under any circumstances – even if it is with someone close to them in age. This means that taking part in any type of sexual activity with someone aged 12 or under is always a crime.

Although the age of consent is 16, the law has some extra protections in place for young people aged 16 and 17.

For example, it is illegal to:

  • Take a photo or video of someone aged 18 or under engaging in sexual activity.
  • Pay for sexual services from someone under 18.
  • Take part in sexual activity with someone under 18 if you are in a position of trust – for example, if you are their teacher, social worker, doctor or care worker.
  • Take part in sexual activity with someone under 18 if they are a member of your family.
Find out more about child sexual abuse

Getting help and support

Everyone responds differently to sexual violence and abuse – so whatever someone feels is a valid response. But, for lots of people, it can have a long-lasting impact on their feelings and wellbeing. 

If you have experienced any form of sexual violence or abuse – whether it was recently or a long time ago – Rape Crisis is here for you. We will listen to you and believe you.