Sex and the law

Sex and the law

Sex should be mutual, consensual and enjoyable.

Age of consent

The age of consent for any form of sexual activity in England and Wales is 16. Consent is agreeing to sex and being willing to engage in sexual activity. A person consents if he/ she agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make the choice and has not been deceived.

This means it is illegal to have sex or engage in any form of sexual touching under the age of 16, whether or not those involved agreed to the sex.

The law is not intended to prosecute teenage sexual activity between young people of a similar age who have consented, but individual police officers or prosecutors can take a view of what is or is not in the public interest to prosecute. Genuine consent may need to be establish, which can be difficult if alcohol was involved or if young people change their story.

If there is a conviction, the older person can be placed on the Sex Offenders Register; even a caution can stay on the person’s record for the rest of their lives and will come up on Criminal Records Bureau checks. The bigger the age gap the more likely the older person is to be prosecuted.

If one of the young people is aged 12 or under, the older person will be prosecuted, as in law a young person who is aged 12 or under is too young to give their consent to any sexual activity.

It is illegal for someone over 18 to have sex with a person under 18 if the person over 18 is in a position of trust. For example, if they are the younger person’s teacher, social worker or foster parent. If the couple are lawfully married or civil partnered there is less likely to be a prosecution.

Young people using sexual health services

It is not illegal for people under 16 to ask for advice and help about sex. This can be advice about sexual orientation, sexuality, contraception, pregnancy, and abortion or just how sex works. It’s not illegal to be given condoms or contraception by a doctor, nurse or clinic, but the worker must be sure that the young person is competent and understands the issues surrounding sex and contraception, this is sometimes referred to as being ‘Fraser’ or ‘Gillick’ competent.


Abortion is legal in England and Wales up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Two doctors must sign the certificates and abortions must be performed in a National Health Service (NHS) hospital or in a clinic approved by the Department of Health.

Rape and Sexual Assault

It is illegal to pressure or force somebody else to have sex whatever the age of the people involved. People of any age can be prosecuted for pressuring or forcing someone else to have sex or to engage in sexual activity with them when the other person does not want to. Deceiving someone into agreeing to sex is also an offence.

Rape – Is when a man internationally penetrates with his penis the vagina, mouth or anus of another person – male or female – without that person’s consent, including if that person is the man’s wife. Only a man can commit rape but a woman could be convicted of ‘aiding and abetting’ an offence of rape.

Sexual Assault by penetration – It is an offence for either a male or female to intentionally penetrate the vagina or anus of another person with a part of their body or an object without their consent.

Sexual Assault – It is an offence for a person to sexually touch another person without reasonable belief that they consented. Touching covers all physical contact whether with a part of the body or with an object, or through clothing.

Causing a person to engage in a sexual activity without consent – It is an offence to cause a person to engage in sexual activity without their consent. This covers any sexual activity without consent where their abuser does not directly assault the victim. Examples could be an abuser who forced a person to masturbate or forced two others to have sex with each other.


It is an offence for either male or females to intentionally expose/ display their genitals in public if the intention is to cause alarm or distress to others. The law has been phrased carefully to avoid prosecuting naturalist and streakers (who may, however, risk breaking public nuisance laws, depending on the circumstances).


It is illegal to seek sexual health gratification by observing, recording and/ or broadcasting another person doing a private act (such as undressing, having sex, or anything you would not normally do in public). This is designed to protect people from being watched without their knowledge or consent, via anything from a hidden webcam to a hole in the wall.


It is an offence for someone over 18, who has been communicating with a child under 16 (e.g. in an internet chat room), to meet or travel to meet that child with the intention of having sexual contact with him or her.

Paying for sex, Kerb Crawling, Selling Sex

It is not illegal to pay for or to sell sex even though many of the activities surrounding prosecution are illegal.

For example, men can be prosecuted for certain activities such as kerb crawling and it against the law to run a brothel and to solicit or advertise for the purpose of prostitution.


There are no restrictions on the sale of pornography. It is not illegal to possess pornography showing adults of 18 engaged in consensual sex. Offences may be committed where the material is particularly obscene, violent or degrading. Owning pornography showing children aged 17 and under is illegal.

Sex in Public Places, ‘Cruising and Dogging’

There is no general law against sex in public places. But there are public order offences that guard against outraging taste and decency (for example having sex in a supermarket aisle, where there may be lots of people!), but permit sex in an isolated place so as there is reasonable exception of privacy/ not being discovered.

Having sex in public toilets is illegal. Anywhere else – for example in parks, woodland areas, sand dunes or other public places – depends on whether you are having sex in a place where there is a reasonable expectation that you won’t be discovered. Cruising for sex (looking for sex with strangers in public places) or dogging (having sex in a car or a public place (with one or more strangers) where others are knowingly watching) is not illegal if this happens in a place where you wouldn’t expect other people to find you – prosecution would rely on a third party onlooker getting upset and reporting you.

*Information provided by NHS Sheffield


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