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What does consent mean?

Often adult survivors will hold on to a belief that being abused was their fault, or that they consented. This is a mistaken belief – and part of the journey forward is to understand how the victim/survivors came to believe this; and what holding on to that belief means both to the victim, and the abuser.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as everyone under 18 unless, "under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier" (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1989). The UK has ratified this convention.

However there are a number of different laws across the UK that specify age limits in different circumstances. These include child protection; age of consent; and age of criminal responsibility.

England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland each have their own guidance for organisations to keep children safe. They all agree that a child is anyone who is under the age of 18:

England: HM Government (2015) Working together to safeguard children: A guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF)

Wales: Welsh Assembly Government (2007) Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004 Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

Scotland: Scottish Government (2014) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Northern Ireland: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Northern Ireland (2016) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland (DOCX). Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Northern Ireland.

Vulnerable groups, such as Care Leavers etc

Some especially vulnerable young people are entitled to services beyond the age of 18.

Local authorities in England and Wales must keep in touch with care leavers until they are at least 21. They should also provide assistance with education, employment and training. Local authorities in Northern Ireland also have this same duty.

Age of consent – is 16

The age of consent (the legal age to have sex) in the UK is 16 years old.

The laws are there to protect children. They are not there to prosecute under-16s who have mutually consenting sexual activity but will be used if there is abuse or exploitation involved.

To help protect younger children the law says anyone under the age of 13 can never legally give consent. This means that anyone engaging in sexual activity with a child who is 12 or younger will be subject to penalties set out under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The law also gives extra protection to young people who are 16 to 17 years old. It is illegal to:

  • take, show or distribute indecent photographs
  • pay for or arrange sexual services
  • for a person in a position of trust (for example, teachers, care workers) to engage in sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18.