Open and honest discussion around consent can help your children to identify positive behaviours around sex.
It can also help to safeguard them when they do begin to experiment and explore their sexuality. It can mean they strive not to harm others, and know to seek help if they are harmed.
But we know that having “a talk” with children of any age can seem scary and difficult sometimes, especially if you’re unsure of how to approach the topic of sex.
To help you when it comes to conversations on sexual consent, we’ve put together some information on what you need to know, what your child needs to know, and tips that might help to make things easier.
Consent and the law
First of all, let’s take a look at what the law says about consent and sex…
Legally, the definition of consent is when someone "agrees by choice…and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice."
The age of consent (the legal age to be able to consent to sex) in the UK is 16 years old. This law is there to protect young people from abuse and exploitation. The law isn't designed to prosecute under 16s who are engaging in mutually consenting, non-abusive, sexual activity.
In another protective law, a person in a position of trust (for example a teacher, youth worker or carer) can’t engage in sexual activity with anyone under 18 who is in the care of their organisation.
If young people think they'll get into trouble for having sex under the age of 16, this may put them off seeking help if they need it. It’s important to let your child know that they have a right to confidential information and advice and can talk to a doctor, nurse or other professional. They have rules that they can only break confidentiality if they think a young person or someone else is at risk of harm. They’ll always talk to the young person first before telling anyone else.
The law says someone can’t consent if:
- They’re under the age of 13. Those under 13 can’t legally give any consent to sexual activity and anyone who engages in sexual activity with a child who is 12 or under is automatically breaking the law.
- They don’t legally have the capacity to consent. For example, if they’re too drunk or drugged to understand what they’re agreeing too or if they have a learning disability which means they don’t understand what sex is.
- They’re asleep or unconscious. You can’t consent if you don’t know what’s going on.
- They don’t have the freedom to consent. For example, if they’re too frightened to say no.
It’s important that your child is aware of these guidelines but it might be more helpful to give them example scenarios so they can understand how they work in everyday life.
- If a young person is 15 and wants to have sex, any sexual activity is illegal. They and their partner should know this, and be aware that they’re breaking the law if they have sex. If there’s a big age gap between someone under 16 and their partner then this may be a sign that exploitation or abuse is taking place and services may refer them for help.
- Alcohol and drugs can affect someone’s capacity to consent. If your child or their partner are too drunk or high to know what’s going on, they should wait until the next day to have any kind of sex. This helps to make sure both people are fully aware, capable, and happy to soberly proceed.
- Similarly, if someone’s unconscious or asleep and they’re being touched in a sexual way, even if it’s by a regular sexual partner, this is a criminal offence.
- If someone’s being coerced, pressured or threatened into having sex, this doesn’t count as consent, because they haven’t said “yes” of their own free will.
- ‘Legal capacity’ sometimes also refers to people with learning difficulties. Here, each case should be looked at individually. Young people with learning disabilities who aren’t given the information and support they need are vulnerable to sexual abuse, but on the other hand may be stifled and kept isolated by parents, carers and support workers through a desire to protect them – sometimes at the expense of potential friendships and relationships.
The goal is making sure your child feels confident and empowered by knowing their rights. If something happens and they weren’t sure whether it was consensual, they should be comfortable enough to confide in someone that can help.
It’s never your child’s fault if something non-consensual happens to them, and they should never be blamed or told what they “should” have done to prevent it.
How young people can discuss consent with each other
Your child should know that they have complete control over their own body, and always have the right to say “no,” including if they change their mind about sex halfway through.
They should never feel like they have to have sex just to please someone else. Similarly, they should always respect someone else’s “no,” and not persist until they get the answer they want.
If they’re ever in a situation where they need to check in with a partner, we have ways to help recognise and discuss consent here.
Young people should know that only “YES” means yes, and that even a “maybe” equals a “no.”
When it comes to consent, the emphasis is on giving and getting nothing less than enthusiastic consent. This means that everyone really wants to be there, doing what they're doing.
We've got more information on consent for young people in our Consent: Giving It, Getting It, Respecting It leaflet (PDF).
Your child’s boundaries and right to say “no” to touch should be respected from as early as possible.
For younger children, discussions on consent can begin with not forcing them to hug or kiss relatives or family friends when they don’t want to.
Teaching them the NSPCC PANTS rule can be a really helpful tool in safeguarding:
P - Private parts are private.
A - Always remember that your body is yours.
N - No means no.
T - There are no secrets from Mummy/Daddy/other.
S - Say something, so we can do something about it.