Sex and the law

Heterosexual sex and the law

In England the age of consent to any form of sexual activity is 16 for both men and women.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced a new series of laws to protect children under 16 from sexual abuse. However, the law is not intended to prosecute mutually agreed teenage sexual activity between two young people of a similar age, unless it involves abuse or exploitation.

Specific laws protect children under 13, who cannot legally give their consent to any form of sexual activity. There is a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for rape, assault by penetration, and causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity. There is no defence of mistaken belief about the age of the child.
Health professionals in the UK may provide contraceptive advice and treatment to young people under 16 if in their clinical judgement, they believe it is in the young person’s best medical interests and they are able to give what is considered to be informed consent.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 which covers England and Wales does not affect the ability of professionals to provide confidential sexual health advice, information or treatment if it is in order to protect the young person from sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy, to protect their physical safety or to promote their emotional well-being.

 

Sex between men

The age of consent for sex between men is 16 throughout the UK. In England and Wales, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced a series of child sex offences which equally protect young men from sexual abuse and exploitation.

Laws requiring privacy┬Ł for sex between men in the UK have largely been repealed. Sex between men is no longer an offence when more than two people are present (Sexual Offences Act 2003, Convention Rights (Compliance) Act (Scotland) 2001).

Sexual activity between men in a public toilet is an offence throughout the UK. Apart from Scotland, the law has been equalised to also apply to sex between men and women, or between women.

Further information for gay men in relation to other aspects of the law can be found on the factsheet http://www.lgf.org.uk/assets/Uploads/PDFs/News/Cottaging-and-Cruising-A4.pdf

 

Sex between women

In England and Wales the legal age for young women to consent to any sexual activity is 16, whether they are straight, gay or bisexual.

In Scotland, there is no age of consent for sex between women laid down in statute. However, a girl under 16 is not deemed capable of consenting to any sexual behaviour which could be classed as sexual assault. The courts have taken this to mean that an age of consent for lesbians is 16.

 

Rape

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a man would commit rape if he intentionally penetrates with his penis the vagina, mouth or anus of another person, male or female, without that person’s consent or if they are under 13. This is the only sexual offence which can only be committed by a man. The legal definition of consent is if a person agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

In Scotland, rape is covered by common law and is defined as vaginal penetration. Anything else, however violent, is the crime of indecent assault. Male rape is not a recognised offence and would be treated as the common law offence of aggravated assault.

Women cannot be charged with the offence of rape as this is defined as penile penetration, but in England, Wales and Northern Ireland she could be charged with another offence such as causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent.

 

Sexual assault by penetration

This offence was introduced in England and Wales by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. It is an offence for someone, male or female, intentionally to penetrate the vagina or anus of another person with a part of their body or anything else, without their consent. The purpose also has to be sexual, which is defined as:

  • a reasonable person would always consider it to be so, or
  • if a reasonable person may consider it to be sexual, depending on the circumstances and intention.
  • Practitioners who legitimately conduct intimate searches or medical examinations are excluded from this offence.

 

Sexual/Indecent assault

In England and Wales it is an offence for a person intentionally to touch sexually another person without reasonable belief that they consented. Touching covers all physical contact, whether with a part of the body or anything else, or through clothing.

 

Indecent exposure

In England and Wales it is an offence for someone, male or female, to expose their genitals if they intended another person to see them and to be caused alarm or distress. There is also the common law offence of outraging public decency.

 

Sexuality and the law

The EU Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) regulations 1 December 2003 make it unlawful to discriminate against workers because of sexual orientation.

 

Summary of Regulations

These Regulations apply to all employment and vocational training and include recruitment, terms and conditions, promotions, transfers, dismissals and training. They make it unlawful on the grounds of sexual orientation to:

  • Directly discriminate against anyone – to treat them less favourably than others due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
  • Indirectly discriminate against anyone – to apply a criterion, provision or practice which disadvantages people of a particular sexual orientation unless it can be objectively justified.
  • Subject someone to harassment. This is unwanted conduct which violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them having regard to all the circumstances including the perception of the victim.
  • Victimise someone because they have made or intend to make a complaint or allegation or have given or intend to give evidence in relation to a complaint of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
  • Discrimination against someone, in certain circumstances, after the working relationship has ended.

 

Civil Partnerships and Same sex marriage

Gay weddings are now legal in the UK. This now enables same sex couples to the same range of legal rights and responsibilities, as for heterosexual couples. This act came into force in March 2015. Prior to this many same sex couples have formed civil partnerships. This is done by signing a registration document. Civil partners will have a range of legal rights and responsibilities, although not all of those associated with marriage.

The information set out above is not meant to represent legal advice in any form.