Sex and the Law

The laws on sex and sexual behaviour are designed to keep everyone safe - especially children and young people.

Everyone has the right to be safe in their relationships, and free from physical or verbal violence or intimidation.

What should I do if I think I've been the victim of a sexual crime?

First, it's important to realise that, whatever happened, it's not your fault. Nobody should be forced to do things sexually against their will.

It's important that you're not alone with these feelings. Tell a trusted friend or an adult such as a family member or teacher.

If you can't speak with someone you know, call Childline on 0800 1111 at any time and speak to one of their counsellors. They will listen to you and help you decide what to do next. You don't need to give your name if you don't want to and they will keep anything you say private.

If you feel in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police.

What does 'age of consent' mean?

The term 'age of consent' means the age at which a person is legally allowed to decide to have sex.

In Scotland, the age of consent is 16. If one person is under 16, then the person over 16 is breaking the law.

Having sex with a young person under the age of 16 is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and life imprisonment where the young person is aged under 13.

Persons in a position of trust

If a person in a family setting has sex with a child under 18, they can be punished by up to life in prison.

If one of the partners is or has been a carer, teacher, youth worker or in any position of trust over the other then they can also be punished by up to life in prison.

This is to help protect young people.

What is 'sexual assault'?

A sexual assault is any act where someone:

  • penetrates a person sexually without their consent using part of their body or an other object
  • touches them sexually without their consent
  • ejaculates onto them without consent
  • urinates or spits on them sexually without consent

Sexual coercion

Sexual coercion is where someone forces another person, for example by threatening them, to take part in sexual activities or to be present while sexual things are going on.


Rape is when someone is forced to have sex against his or her will. It can happen to women or men and can involve being forced to have sex through violence or through verbal threats.

It does not matter whether the two people concerned know each other or not or whether they happen to be in a relationship or married.

Rape is punishable by life imprisonment.

Date rape

Date rape is a term often used to refer to a rape that takes place between two people who know each other or who meet willingly at first. Sometimes alcohol or other drugs are involved.

If a person is unable to give their consent at the time because they are drunk or drugged and later feels they had sex when they would not have wanted to, then the law says a rape has taken place.

As far as the law is concerned, the penalties are the same as for any other kind of rape - up to life imprisonment.

Public decency

The common law offence of "public indecency" makes it an offence to engage in "indecent conduct" in a public place or so as to be seen from a public place.

Engaging in sexual intercourse in public view, or intentional exposure of the genitals in a public place, are examples of the kind of conduct that might be covered by this offence.

As a common law offence, the High Court can pass sentences of up to life imprisonment for acts of public indecency.

Domestic abuse

No one deserves domestic abuse and no one should have to put up with it. Domestic abuse, whether physical or verbal, is assault.

Domestic abuse can come from partners or ex-partners and can include physical, sexual or mental and emotional abuse.

Physical abuse can be by assault and physical attacks. Sexual abuse includes acts which degrade and humiliate someone and that take place against their will, including rape.

Mental and emotional abuse can include threats, verbal abuse, racial abuse, withholding money and other types of controlling behaviour such as isolation from family or friends.

Find out more about sex and consent on our Consent page.