This article was contributed by Brook

Brook provides free and confidential sexual health services and advice for young people under 25. The organisation has been at the forefront of providing wellbeing and sexual health support for young people for over 50 years.

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Consent: when has someone agreed to sex?

Couple with umbrella

Photo: Bùi Linh Ngân

Share this with your child to help them understand what is – and isn’t – acceptable behaviour in a relationship.

What is consent?

Understanding what is meant by consent is the first step.

Consent means a mutual agreement to sexual activity. Sexual contact with someone without their consent is considered assault, but this is complicated by the fact that you must be sure that your partner is both willing and able to consent to sexual activity. 

The easiest and best way to determine if someone is willing, is to ask.

Increasingly, experts and activists are arguing that the absence of a ‘no’ is not enough – they must actively agree. 

Saying yes once isn’t enough

Agreement to one sexual activity doesn't imply that someone has consented to others. Nor does the fact that there has been sexual contact before.

If you’re in the least bit uncertain about a partner’s willingness, you should always ask.

Even if you have a seemingly willing partner, age, intoxication and other factors also play a role in whether they are able to consent to sex. 

  • In the UK, the age of consent is 16, whatever their sexual orientation. People under 16 cannot legally give consent (even to someone their own age), regardless of their willingness. 
  • Young people between the ages of 16 and 18 are deemed unable to consent to sex with someone in a position of trust, like a teacher or a doctor.
  • Anyone travelling abroad should also be aware that the age of consent varies by country. Therefore, it’s always important to check the legal age of consent if you were to travel somewhere.
  • There are other factors that can prevent a seemingly willing person from giving valid consent. If, for instance, a person is unconscious or so drunk that they are unable to understand what is happening, they cannot agree to sex. It is your responsibility to ensure that your partner is both aware of and comfortable with the situation.  

How can parents help?

Consent isn’t just an issue for young people, of course, but it comes up first when we are young. There are lots of ways that parents can help children across a range of ages – here are a few:

Emphasise bodily autonomy

One of the best things you can do to teach your child about consent is to emphasise that every individual is the boss of their own body and of who gets to touch it. From a very young age, children understand and internalise these messages. Reassuring your children that it’s okay to say no to unsolicited hugs and pats on the head, for example, can help them feel comfortable asserting their own rights and in respecting those of others. 

Draw clear boundaries

Boundaries about acceptable touch vary by situation. Parents, carers and doctors sometimes need to touch children in ways that would be unacceptable for anyone else. There are other types of touch that a child should never accept – anything intended to hurt, for example. Teaching your kids from a young age about typical boundaries for physical contact may help them build awareness of questionable situations. 

Tell your children to trust their instincts

Even young children may well have strong instincts about safety and danger. Let your kids know that if something is really making them uncomfortable, they should trust their instincts. It’s perfectly OK to decline further contact with a person who seems dangerous or untrustworthy, or to back away from a situation they don’t like. 

Make it clear that no means no…

Teach your children that there are certain words that shut situations down. If you’re playing with your child or tickling them and they say ‘no,’ or ask you to stop, find out if they’re really upset or just playing around. If they don’t like what you’re doing, stop. Make it clear that the same rules apply when playing with their friends. Emphasising respect for boundaries when they're playing will set a good example for more serious situations. 

…and yes means yes

Make sure your children know that it’s OK to express themselves when they enjoy something! People who don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves may struggle with making their preferences known, so it’s important to help your kids build this confidence. 

Don’t let troubling jokes go unqueried

Issues like taking advantage of drunk people are often viewed as funny. If your child makes a joke like this in your presence, ask them why they think it's funny. They may have seen a joke about it on social media, for example.

Go beyond the birds and the bees

At some point, you’ll probably find yourself having an embarrassing (but very important) conversation about sex with your children. As they get older, consent should become a part of conversations about sex. Talk to them about what we mean by consent, whether it’s possible for someone who is drunk to give consent. Your kids should know about consent and understand that it is crucial. 

Further reading

Advice on consent from Brook

Tea and consent: video


The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: ​September 2020

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