What does 'consent' mean and why is it important?

Consent is a big subject, which is rightly getting lots of coverage in the media. But how does consent affect you and your relationships? What can you do if you feel uncomfortable or unsure about giving consent?


Let’s start with the facts:

  • UK law says that both people need to give their consent before having sex or being physically intimate. Consent means that somebody gives their permission or agrees to something, after thinking carefully about whether they want to do it or not.
  • To be able to give your consent to do something, you should feel happy and confident in your decision, and certain that you have not been pressured into it in any way. Your consent can be withdrawn at any time.
  • Sex, including oral sex, with any girl/boy under 16 is unlawful. It doesn't make any difference whether this is consensual or not; if you are under 16, sex is illegal.
  • People will be considered most unlikely to have agreed to sexual activity if they were subject to threats or fear of serious harm, unconscious, drugged, abducted, or were unable to communicate because of a physical disability. A person who is seriously under the influence of drugs or alcohol may not have the capacity to consent to sex or sexual contact, even if they are conscious. They may be too drunk to give effective consent, and you should therefore refrain from any sexual contact with them – this could have serious repercussions.

You have a right to make your own decisions and not be pressured into doing anything that you don’t wish to do. If somebody tries to pressure you into sexual activity, this is abuse and sexual bullying.

You might feel pressured if you are:

  • Being made to feel stupid or bad for saying 'no'
  • Being told you’re ‘frigid’, or that rumours will be spread about you
  • Being encouraged to drink lots of alcohol or take drugs to ‘get you in the mood’
  • Being manipulated, for example, if your partner is saying, 'if you really loved me, you would let me do this’, or,  ‘if you don’t, I’ll find somebody else who will’

Consent isn’t just about saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’

It’s important to look for the non-verbal signs of consent and to understand someone’s wishes. Look at your partner’s body language: do they tense up or back away when you try to initiate contact? That’s a sure sign that somebody isn’t consenting, and you should always respect that.

Consent via text or social media

We hear from a number of young people who have had sex or been physically intimate with somebody because they had agreed to it in a text message or on social media. It doesn’t matter what you might have said via text, social media, or even in person – you have the right to withdraw your consent at any time, even during a sexual act.

If you would like to learn more about this subject you can come to us for advice and support by calling our helpline on 0808 800 2222. All calls are free from landlines and most mobiles and are strictly confidential. 

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