As a parent it may not seem obvious that talking to your teenager about consent is necessary, but there are many reasons why it’s important to make sure they understand what consent means so that they don’t find themselves in a situation they don’t want to be in.
Why is talking about consent important
Our work with young people in schools shows that sometimes they misunderstand what consent means, how to read the signs and feel pressured into sexual activities that they are uncomfortable with.
It may be difficult to try and find the time to have this conversation and it is important that it is a casual discussion so not to make your teen feel uncomfortable and walk away. It might help to use a storyline from a TV show or a movie to start up this conversation and perhaps when you are cooking dinner or relaxing on the sofa. Choosing the most appropriate time is important so your teen is relaxed and more likely to engage.
Teens need to understand that both people in a sexual encounter or relationship must agree to it and can change their mind at any time if they want to stop – sometimes young people think that if they’ve said yes to one thing, they have agreed to do whatever their partner wants at any time when this is not the case.
You can also explain that if you agree to one activity this does not mean you have to do anything else or more than once. For young people it is perfectly normal to want to just kiss and do other things, but not have full intercourse. Everyone has a choice in whether they want to have sex or engage in a sexual activity – consent is a positive decision but it is important to reinforce that they can say no.
Explore possible fears with your teen such as having rumours spread, worried they may be dumped, etc. It’s important your teenager knows that it’s always their decision and it doesn’t matter what their friends are doing, or saying.
You can also explain that they might feel pressured into doing something sexual that they don’t want to do or aren’t sure about, and if someone tries to do this it is abuse and sexual bullying. Ways they might feel pressurised include:
- Being made to feel stupid or bad for saying 'no'
- Being told you would do it if you loved them
- Being bullied into having sex
- Threats of rumours being spread about you
- Being encouraged to drink lots of alcohol or take drugs to make you more likely to have sex
- Playing with your emotions, for example saying 'If you really loved or cared for me, you would let me do this” or “if you don’t then we can’t be together”
Facts about consent
British law says that both people need to give their consent before sex or any other physical closeness. Consent means someone gives permission or agrees to something, after thinking carefully about whether they want to do it or not.
To be able to give your consent to do something you should be sure that it is your decision and that you have not been pressured into it. Consent can be withdrawn at any time, if you or your partner changes their mind, it is your right to do so.
Sex with any girl/boy under 16 is unlawful, including oral. It doesn't make any difference if permission (consent) is given or not, if you're under 16 sex is illegal.
People will be considered most unlikely to have agreed to sexual activity if they were subject to threats or fear of serious harm, unconscious, drugged, abducted, or were unable to communicate because of a physical disability. A person who is seriously under the influence of drugs or alcohol may not have the capacity to consent to sex or sexual contact, even if they are conscious. They may be too drunk to give effective consent so it would be better to err on the side of caution.
Consent isn’t just about saying ‘no’
Some young people think that their partner still wants sex and will only take the word ‘no’ for an answer, or cries of rape. However, it is important to teach your teen to look out for other signs too to ensure they and the person they are with understand and respect each other and their choices. Re-iterate to your teen that someone doesn’t have to say the word ‘NO’ to withhold their consent and it is essential to understand the non-verbal signs.
Talk openly to your teen about the signs a person may show or the different ways they might be trying to say they don’t want to have sex or do something.They can look out for body language which might indicate that someone is not comfortable – they may find it hard to say anything – but if they stop kissing, or don’t want to be touched or held, this may mean they don’t want to do it. A person may tense up or back off. Let your teen know that it’s important not to ignore these signs, or continue to encourage someone to do something they don’t want to do. Pressuring someone into sex when they don’t want to is rape - rape includes penetration of the vagina, mouth and anus.
Encourage your teen to talk to their boyfriend or girlfriend so that they know how they feel about sex or physical closeness. They should know that they should feel safe with their partner and that their decisions will be respected.
What is the legal age of consent
In the UK, the age of consent is 16. This means that having sex (including oral sex) with a boy or girl under the age of 16 is illegal. It doesn’t make a different is consent is given, if you’re under 16 sex is illegal, meaning that you have to be aged 16 or older to have sex – this includes both heterosexual (straight) sex, and homosexual (gay) sex. Sex means penetrative sex, oral sex or masturbating together.
Consent via text message or social media
We have heard from young people that they were pressured into having sex or doing something they didn’t want to do because they had agreed to it in a text message or on social media. It important to stress to young people that this doesn’t matter, just because it is written down it doesn’t mean they have to do it. With any type of consent whether written or verbal, you have the choice to withdraw your consent at any time.
It’s a scary talk to have but important that your teen understands that having sex with someone who doesn’t want to is rape, and that you can’t guess or assume what the other person wants.
Perhaps start up a discussion with your teenager when you see something relevant in the news, or on a television programme you are watching. You could discuss consent with your teenager, using examples such as, ‘if a girl has agreed to have sex with her boyfriend at a party, does this mean she has agreed to have sex any time with him?’ It might feel like an awkward conversation to have, but it’s important to make sure your teen understands what consent means, and isn’t pressured into doing something they don’t want to do.
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.
Watch this video made by teens discussing consent in relationships and how to spot the signs
This page was updated on September 2021