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What you need to know about sexual consent

The #MeToo movement sparked an unprecedented conversation around sexual harassment and assault and saw many people come forward with allegations against powerful men in Hollywood. It started a discussion not only about the assault, but about sexual consent too.

Here is everything you need to know about consent - and why it is so much more than just saying no.

On a very basic level, consent means agreeing to do something. So when it comes to sex, consent means agreeing to take part in sexual activity.

Bekki Burbidge, former deputy chief executive at the sexual health charity FPA, says: "With regards to sexual activity, the legal definition of consent in England and Wales set out by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, is when someone 'agrees by choice ... and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice'.

"So it means that someone agrees of their own free will, without threat, pressure or coercion, that they know what they're consenting to, and have the capability to make that decision for themself."

Scotland and Northern Ireland have similar definitions and each country allows for circumstances which may affect someone's capacity to freely consent, such as when they're sleeping or have been subject to threats or violence.

The age of consent - the age at which it is legal to have sex - is 16, but any kind of sexual contact without consent is illegal, no matter the age of those involved. It is your right to say no to any kind of sexual activity, and sexual assault or rape includes vaginal sex, sex with an object, oral, anal and touching.

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Importantly though, consent is much more than just saying no to unwanted activity. "It's about listening, negotiating, and enthusiastically agreeing," Burbidge says.

"There could be a range of reasons that someone isn't able to say 'no' - but that doesn’t mean that they're giving their agreement. Reducing consent to someone saying no ignores non-verbal cues, and does not recognise that people might freeze or become silent when in an uncomfortable situation."

"Sometimes you might not say 'no' out loud but might say it in other ways, like 'not right now', 'I’m not sure', or by staying silent," she adds. "Your body language might also signal lack of consent - for example, by turning away, by curling up, or by not responding positively to touching."

Burbidge adds that discussions around consent should focus on whether you have gained someone's full, happy and enthusiastic consent before going ahead with anything. "It’s about an enthusiastic 'yes' rather than the absence of a 'no'."

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Consent is an ongoing conversation, as someone might agree to sex earlier on and then change their mind - and everyone has the right to do this. If you have had sex with someone before, it doesn't mean you have to have sex with them again.

Likewise, consent may be given to one kind of sexual activity but not another. Consent may only be given with certain conditions too, such as wearing a condom.

Importantly, going out with someone or being married doesn't give them the right to do what they want to you - and flirting, or wearing certain clothing, is never a sign of consent.

If you have been drinking alcohol or doing drugs, your ability to consent to sex may be compromised. The sexual health organisation Brook points out that legally, people who are drunk or high can't consent to sex, or any other kind of sexual activity - and having sex with someone who is very drunk is rape or sexual assault.

If you have been assaulted, it is not your fault and you should get help, including from the police. You may need time to process what has happened, but it is important to get medical help from your doctor or a walk-in centre, as you may be at risk of sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy.

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Teaching children and young people about consent is key in helping to safeguard them and make sure nobody gets harmed.

Since 2020, education around consent has been compulsory in UK schools. However, research shows only 36% of 11 to 17-year-olds are learning about consent in relationships and sex education classes1.

At the same time, the number of young women experiencing sexual harassment at school from other students has increased from 55% in 2014 to 67% in 2022. The actual figures are believed to be higher, as many girls don't feel able to come forward about experiencing harassment or assault.

Education around bodily consent and autonomy is key to ensuring young people's safety, particularly when children have access to the internet and social media.

There are many ways to do this, depending on the age of the child. For example, you can talk to a primary school child about what they should do if someone violates their boundaries by touching or hugging them. Teenagers should be taught about clear, verbal, enthusiastic consent. You can find some helpful information about teaching consent from the organisation Safe4Me and the charity Brook.

Further reading

  1. Girlguiding UK: Only a third of pupils taught about consent in schools.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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