When it comes to sex or any kind of intimate activity with a partner, whether you're in a relationship with them or not, consent is key.
Consent is about your choice when it comes to having sex with someone. It’s also about saying what you are and aren’t comfortable with doing when it comes to sex – whether it’s kissing, touching or anything else.
What is consent?
Consent is when you want something to happen and agree to it. It’s important that no one ever does anything sexual to you unless you consent – it’s your body and no one should ever do anything to you that you don’t want.
If someone puts pressure on you by saying things like “Come on, you won’t know if you like it until you try”, uses threats to try to get you to do things by saying things like “You wouldn’t want me to post that picture on Snapchat/Instagram would you?” or tries to manipulate you by saying things like “I thought you were cool/more experienced”, they’re not respecting you and it wouldn’t be consent.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve done something with that person before, even if you're in a relationship with them, they're your ex or someone you're friends with – it’s about whether you wanted to do it then, in that moment. And even if you've started having sex or being intimate with each other and then changed your mind, you can stop or decide you don’t like it any more, at any time.
Is it just about saying no?
Consent can be verbal and non-verbal.
You don't have to say the word 'no' to someone to imply you don't or no longer consent to sexual activity.
If a partner tries pushing you away, or freezes, or doesn’t seem comfortable with what is happening – stop and ask if they are okay. Ask if they want to continue. And respect whatever decision they make.
"They did say no but they seem like they want to – should I just make them have sex anyway?"
No means no. If someone does say they don’t want to have sex or do anything with you, you should respect their decision.
"They were flirting with me/They were wearing a revealing outfit – they must want to have sex..."
Flirting is not an invitation to sex. Wearing a revealing outfit, is not 'asking for it'.
The only way to know if someone wants to have sex with you is to ask and get their consent to do so.
Even if you're already engaged in sexual activity with someone, either of you can change your mind at any time, and it's important to stop the activity and respect this decision if your partner does this.
"My partner has had sex before/We've had sex before, so they must be okay with it?"
It doesn’t matter if someone has had sex before or hasn’t, even if it is with you.
You still need to ask if they want to have sex and talk about what you are both comfortable doing. Maybe they are okay with kissing but not touching. Maybe they want to have sex but don’t want to do certain things. You need to talk about this.
You need to have consent every time. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never had sex before or had sex together multiple times – you need to make sure your partner consents and is okay with everything. Just because they’ve done something before doesn’t mean they are okay with it every time.
"They want to have sex but I don't, should I do it anyway?"
You should never feel pressured to have sex or engage in any kind of sexual activity that you are not comfortable with.
Sex should be an activity that you both enjoy and get pleasure from. If you don’t want to have sex, then you shouldn’t force yourself to do so just because someone else wants to, and they should respect you and your decision.
At what age can you consent to sex?
It’s important that people are ready before they start having sexual relationships (eg. any kind of sexual activity) with others. This is so you understand enough about sex and how you feel about it, what you like and what you don’t like. And so you’re old enough to understand and respect how the other person feels too.
The law says you can consent to most kinds of sexual activity from age 16.
If you’re aged 12 or under, the law says it’s not possible for you to consent to any kind of sexual activity, and so no one is allowed to have sex with you or touch you in a sexual way. This is to protect you. It would never be your fault if someone did this to you – even if you agreed to it or went along with it.
If you’re aged 13, 14 or 15, the law says that no one aged 16 or above is allowed to have sex with you or touch you in a sexual way, even if you consent.
If both people are aged 13, 14, or 15, the law says they’re not allowed to have sexual intercourse with each other (where the penis goes inside the vagina, mouth or anus) or oral sex (where the mouth touches the vagina, anus or penis) even if you both consent.
Young people aged 13, 14 or 15 can lawfully consent to other things like touching and kissing with each other. But it’s really important that there’s no pressure - it’s only consent if you feel ready and freely choose to do something, without being pressured.
Consent, alcohol and drugs
The law says that you’re not able to give consent if you are incapable because of the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. So no one should initiate having sex with you if you’re too drunk or influenced by drugs because you’re not able to make a clear decision about what you want to do. See the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 Part 2: Consent and reasonable belief.
How drunk is too drunk?
This will be different for everyone – it’s not about how many units, because alcohol affects everyone differently. The point is that no one should try to have sex with you if they’re not sure that you’re thinking clearly and you’re in control of your decisions. For example – if you don’t seem as in control as you usually are, if you’re speech is a bit slurred, if you’re not walking straight, if you’re feeling dizzy or sick, if you’re not fully conscious… all of these things indicate you’re probably (or definitely in some cases) not able to make clear decisions about what you want to do, and other people should respect this.
What if we were both drunk?
Even if both people were drinking (or using drugs) sexual intercourse doesn’t just ‘happen’ - someone has to get things started, or take things further. And if they are affected by alcohol, they are still responsible for their actions if they have sex with someone who can’t consent.
I’m worried people might say I “put myself at risk” if I drank alcohol
It is never your fault or your responsibility if someone has sex with you when you’re not able to consent or you didn't want to have sex with them.
There are lots of good reasons for being careful about alcohol and drugs – like your health and mental wellbeing, and the law. But responsibility for rape always lies with the perpetrator (the person who did it) and never the person they assaulted.
What about consent for young people with learning disabilities?
The law says that to be able to consent to sexual activity, a person with a learning disability needs to:
- be old enough (for example over 16 for sexual intercourse),
- understand what sexual activity they might do involves,
- be able to make decisions about what they want to do and don’t want to do, and
- be able to communicate their decisions.
See the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 Section 17: Capacity to consent.
The Rosey Project's Video on Consent
This video from The Rosey Project talks about consent in more detail. Content warning: the video talks about sexual violence.
Find out more about feeling pressured to have sex.
Where can you get help and support?
Visit young.scot/consent to find out more about 'New Rules' and get information about consenting to sex and healthy relationships.
If you need support or help, take a look at our page for more information.
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Visit the That's Not OK campaign page for more information.