Publication - Advice and guidance

Healthy relationships and consent: key messages for young people

Published: 17 May 2019
Directorate:
Children and Families Directorate
Part of:
Children and families
ISBN:
9781787816503

A resource for professionals which aims to help them support young people in their understanding of healthy relationships and consent.

Healthy relationships and consent: key messages for young people
4. The Key Messages on Healthy Relationships and Consent

4. The Key Messages on Healthy Relationships and Consent

Healthy Relationships

Information for professionals:

Research has shown that digital technologies are integral to each stage of young people’s romantic relationships[10]. Many of the messages below are equally applicable to the online element of relationships as they are to face-to-face – using a core principle of respect.

Child Sexual Exploitation

Any child or young person under the age of 18 can be vulnerable to child sexual exploitation.

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse in which a person(s), of any age, takes advantage of a power imbalance to force or entice a child into engaging in sexual activity in return for something received by the child and/or those perpetrating or facilitating the abuse.

As with other forms of child sexual abuse, the presence of perceived consent does not undermine the abusive nature of the act. Further information for practitioners on identifying and responding to child sexual exploitation can be found here: http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0050/00508567.pdf

The National Guidance for Child Protection (2014) outlines information on the types of abuse that require a child protection response.

Key Messages for Young People on Healthy Relationships:

  • In healthy relationships:
  • people feel safe, equal, respected and happy, they care about what each other want;
  • people don’t put pressure on anyone else and it’s as easy to say no as to say yes; and
  • people don’t do things that make others feel uncomfortable, anxious or scared.
  • As with all relationships in your life, healthy intimate or sexual relationships are supposed to feel mutually respectful, safe, happy and positive. This includes anything from one-off to long-term relationships.
  • You might feel like you want to spend a lot of time with someone, but it’s important to have some time away from each other, too. In a healthy relationship everyone is free to hang out with friends, of any gender, or family without having to ‘get permission’.
  • It’s ok to want to spend time by yourself or do something for yourself. Healthy relationships mean being able to say when you want or need to do things on your own instead of feeling like you have to spend all of your time with someone.
  • If you are in a relationship that you are not enjoying, you might want to end that relationship. It’s ok to say if you want to break up but if it feels difficult or it feels unsafe it’s important to get help or to speak to someone you trust. Try to respect the other person’s feelings but remember, you don’t have to stay in a relationship because the other person wants you to.
  • In relationships, if one person tells another that their needs are stupid, is aggressive towards them or goes against what they’re comfortable with, then they are not showing them the respect they deserve.
  • In relationships, no one should ask, or expect, anyone to do anything sexual in return for giving them something, giving affection or for saying ‘I love you’.
  • Seeking or requiring sexual activity from someone in exchange for anything – including drugs/alcohol, a place to stay, being part of a group, protection from violence – is sexual exploitation, regardless of whether the other person agrees or is thought to have agreed.
  • In a healthy relationship, no-one will pressure anyone to do anything they don’t want to, even if it is something they have done before.
  • In healthy relationships, no one will pressure anyone to send, receive or view a sexual, nude or intimate image or message.
  • Anyone can experience relationship abuse. It can happen in relationships with a same sex partner or with a partner of a different sex.
  • Abuse within a relationship can be emotional, verbal, psychological, financial, sexual or physical. It can include coercive and controlling behaviours. Abuse is never okay. If somebody does this to you it is never your fault and is nothing to feel ashamed of.

Consent

Information for professionals:

When discussing consent, it should be noted that these messages refer to any sexual activity/experience (anything from sexual comments, kissing, sexual touching to oral, vaginal and anal sexual intercourse). This may also include online relationships and sexual activity.

This should be made clear when communicating with young people so that young people who haven’t had sex understand the relevance to their own experience.

Key Messages for Young People on Consent:

  • Positive sexual experiences are mutually consensual, respectful and enjoyable.
  • Consensual sexual activity means feeling safe and happy.
  • You need consent every time you engage in sexual activity whether you’re with someone you have just met, or in a relationship.
  • If someone changes their mind and no longer gives consent you must stop what you are doing immediately.
  • No one can ever give consent for somebody else.
  • Consent is freely given, not as a result of pestering, wearing someone down or making someone feel like they ‘owe’ something. Never try to persuade, pressure or encourage someone into doing things they do not want to do.
  • If someone says the word “yes” when they have been pressured, talked into it or feel they can’t say no, then they are not giving consent.
  • You need consent every time you have sex, even in a relationship and even if the person has consented before.
  • If you have consented to something sexual before, you can decide not to do it again, and so can the other person.
  • You can always change your mind when you are doing something sexual. Sometimes in the moment you want to change your mind. It is never too late to stop.
  • If the person you’re with doesn’t consent, or changes their mind, you might feel disappointment, but you do not have the right to make them feel bad or try to persuade them to do something they don’t want to.
  • A person is not able to give their consent if they are incapable because of the influence of alcohol and/or drugs or because they are asleep or unconscious. Any sexual activity in these circumstances is sexual assault or rape. If you’re not sure, you do not have consent.
  • Consent can be expressed verbally or non-verbally (known as body language). It’s important that you both continue to pay attention to each other and ensure you are still happy, comfortable and enjoying the sexual activity you’re having. If you are not sure that the other person is happy and comfortable, you do not have consent.
  • Pay attention to the person you’re with. People will use both verbal and non-verbal cues (body language) to indicate consent. Examples might include; pulling someone closer, direct eye contact, smiling, actively touching someone, nodding yes, saying things like ‘that feels good’ or ‘I still want to’. Good communication is part of good sex.
  • If you think the person you are having sex with is not sure or is unhappy or worried or frightened, or that they want to stop, then you must stop. The other person does not have to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ because they can say what they feel with their body or actions. So pay attention. If you are not sure, you do not have consent.

Intimate Images and Consent

Information for professionals:

The law around sharing intimate/sexual images or communications in Scotland is set out in three different Acts, as below.

Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2016/22/contents/enacted

The law against the disclosure, or threat of disclosure, of an intimate photograph or film is set out in the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016.

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2016/22/part/1/crossheading/disclosure-of-an-intimate-photograph-or-film/enacted

For the purposes of section 2 [of the Act], a person is in an intimate situation if;

(a) the person is engaging or participating in, or present during, an act which—

(i) a reasonable person would consider to be a sexual act, and
(ii) is not of a kind ordinarily done in public, or

(b) the person’s genitals, buttocks or breasts are exposed or covered only with underwear.

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2016/22/section/2/enacted

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/contents

The Sexual Offences Act sets out in law that it is an offence to force a person to look at a sexual image, or sexual written or verbal communication without their consent, where this is done for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification, or for the purpose of causing humiliation, alarm or distress to the person at whom it is directed. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/section/7

Section 9 of the Act makes ‘upskirting’ an offence (upskirting is the act of taking a photograph of underneath a person’s skirt without their consent, typically with the intention of viewing their genitals or buttocks).

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/section/9

Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1982/45/contents

It is against the law for anyone to take, have or share an ‘indecent’ image of anyone aged under 18. This means taking, sending and sharing indecent images is illegal under the age of 18. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1982/45/section/52

There is an exception to this offence where;

  • the young person depicted in the image is at least 16
  • the two parties were partners in an established relationship and;
  • the young person consented to the image being taken/made/in the other’s possession and;
  • any sharing was only with each other.

As such, it is not a crime for an 18 year old man to have a nude photo of his 17 year old girlfriend which was taken with her consent, or for them to swap such images with each other. However, it would be an offence to share such an image.

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2005/9/section/16

Key Messages for Young People on Intimate Images and Consent:

  • We all have a responsibility to respect each other’s privacy and consent.
  • It is important to be aware that it is illegal to take, share or have indecent images of people under the age of 18, even if they gave permission.  The only exception is when it’s between two people who are in an established relationship (like a long-term relationship), and they only share the image with each other. Also, the person in the image must be over 16 and have consented to the image being taken.
  • An intimate image is an image of an act that would be considered to be sexual, something that would not normally be done in public, or where the person is nude or only in their underwear.
  • Taking intimate/sexual pictures and videos without ‘free agreement’ is non-consensual and unlawful.
  • Think very carefully before you ask someone to send you an intimate/sexual image. You should never pressure anyone to send, receive or view a sexual, nude or intimate image or message. If you share the image with others, you are breaking the law.
  • Think very carefully before sharing intimate/sexual images. Once an image is shared you no longer have full control over it.
  • If you share an intimate/sexual image of yourself with another person you have a responsibility to make sure that you are happy to send it and you know the other person is happy to receive it.
  • If an intimate/sexual image of you is shared without your consent, the person who did this has committed a crime and you have the right to report the matter to the police or tell another adult who you trust. You might feel embarrassed, but the sooner you take action the greater chance you have of restricting the sharing of it.
  • If you receive an intimate/sexual image privately, do not share it.
  • It is illegal for someone to send an intimate/sexual image to you that wasn’t meant for you. The person in the image did not intend it for you and did not consent to share it with you. Respect the person whose image it is. 
  • Do not show anyone.
  • Do not forward it on – you will be breaking the law.
  • Do not use if for revenge or to hurt someone you are angry with.
  • Don’t feel you have to respond – you can ignore it.
  • You can speak to a trusted adult to try and limit it being shared any further.
  • If an intimate/sexual image, message or email is sent to you without your consent, the person who did this has committed a crime and you have the right to report the matter to the police or tell another adult who you trust. If the person sending you things is older or putting pressure on you to send images, it is important that you talk to an adult you trust.
  • If you receive a photo or an image you did not ask for and that you should not have, you can decide to delete the message. But you might think it is best to tell someone about it. If someone is using the message to harass or hurt you, or somebody else, then it is important to talk to an adult you trust.

Consent and the Law: The Age of Consent

Information for professionals:

The first sexual experiences of young people play a significant part in their future ability to form solid, trusting relationships throughout their lives. While such sexual experiences can be positive, conversely, they can have a harmful effect on a young person’s mental and physical health and development. It is therefore important that young people are mature and ready before they engage in sexual activity[11].

Whilst many young people will have an understanding of the age of consent being relevant to penetrative sex, they may not realise that oral sex is also illegal if you are aged under 16.

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/contents

In Scotland, sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 13 is rape. A child under the age of 13 is deemed to lack the capacity to consent to sexual activity, therefore any form of sexual activity with a child under the age of 13 is an offence.

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/part/4/crossheading/young-children

The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 maintains the age of consent at 16.

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/part/4/crossheading/older-children

Any sexual activity between an adult (aged over 18) and a child (aged under 16) constitutes a criminal offence.

Sexual intercourse and oral sex between young people aged 16 or 17 and a person aged under 16 constitutes a criminal offence.  Other consensual sexual activity (e.g. sexual touching, excluding sexual intercourse and oral sex) is only lawful when the age difference between a person aged 16 or 17 and a person aged under 16 does not exceed 2 years. Sexual intercourse and oral sex between children and young people under the age of 16 constitutes a criminal offence.

National Guidance on Under-age Sexual Activity

According to the National Guidance on Under-age Sexual Activity, “the law continues to make clear that society does not encourage sexual intercourse in young people under 16, as it can be a cause of concern for their welfare. It does not follow that every case has child protection concerns and it is important to ensure that a proportionate response is made and that only appropriate cases are brought to the attention of social work and the police.

However, even if there are no child protection concerns, the young person may still have worries or be in need of support in relation to their sexual development and relationships, which will require to be addressed either on a single agency or multiagency basis”[12].

If there are no child protection concerns about the young people in the relationship, and professionals are confident that the sexual activity is taking place/has taken place within a safe and mutually respectful relationship, then it is important that confidentiality is maintained. Each local authority area has its own under-age sexual activity protocol in place. You can speak to your local Lead Officer for Child Protection for more information.

Key Messages for Young People on The Age of Consent:

  • The law talks about the ‘age of consent’. This means the age someone needs to be before they can agree to have sex (this means vaginal, anal and oral sex).
  • The ‘age of consent’ in Scotland for young people is 16. This is the case whether you’re straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender. So, if you’re both over 16, and both want to have sex, then it’s legal. If one of you is under 16, then the other is breaking the law.
  • To help protect young people, it is an offence for someone aged 18 or over, to engage in sexual activity with someone aged 16 or 17 if the older person is in a position of trust. A position of trust is someone who looks after you for example, in a school or a care home.
  • If you are under the age of 13, the law says you are too young to give consent to any sexual activity.
  • Most people wait until they are 16 or older to have sex. More than 70% of young people in Scotland wait until they are 16 or older to have sex for the first time.
  • If you are both aged 13, 14 or 15 and having sex, then you are both breaking the law. If you speak to a professional person (e.g. teacher, youth worker) then they need to be sure you are both safe and happy and that one person is not coercing, manipulating or forcing the other to have sex. If there is a concern about your safety, the person you speak to may have to share information in order to protect you, but they will always speak to you about this first unless it is absolutely necessary to share the information urgently to protect you from harm.
  • If you are 13, 14 or 15 and your partner is 16 or older then the person aged over 16 is breaking the law. If you speak to a professional person then they need to be sure you are safe and happy with this person. If they are much older than you they will be concerned about your safety. If there is a concern about your safety, the person you speak to may have to share information in order to protect you, but they will always speak to you about this first unless it is absolutely necessary to share the information urgently to protect you from harm.
  • Remember, it is always wrong and against the law to coerce, manipulate or force someone into having sex, no matter what age you or they are.
  • Seeking or requiring sexual activity from someone in exchange for anything – including drugs/alcohol, a place to stay, being part of a group, protection from violence – is sexual exploitation, regardless of whether the other person agrees or is thought to have agreed.
  • Young people aged 13 and over have the right to expect medical confidentiality, including the right to access contraception and condoms in confidence. If there is a concern about your safety, the person you speak to may have to share information in order to protect you, but they will always speak to you about this first unless it is absolutely necessary to share the information urgently to protect you from harm.

The Law and Consent

Information for professionals:

According to the Sexual Offences Act, consent means free agreement. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/section/12

‘Free agreement’ is: willing, freely chosen, active, positive participation. It must be actively given at the time and not presumed. It can be withdrawn at any time, by anyone. For example, just because someone agreed to sex the last time, does not mean they have agreed to sex every time.

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/section/15

Examples of where there is no free agreement include:

  • Where a person is incapable because of the effect of alcohol, or any other substance, of consenting to sexual activity.
  • Where a person is asleep, or unconscious.
  • Where a person has been the subject of violence or the threat of violence, against themselves or another person.
  • Where a person has been kept against their will.
  • Where a person is deceived into sexual activity because they are told it is for a different purpose, for example a medical examination.
  • Where someone else provides consent on a person’s behalf.

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/section/13

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/notes/division/3/2/2

The law expects that when engaging in sexual activity there should be ‘reasonable belief’ that the person has given their consent https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2009/9/section/16.

This means being fully confident that the other person has freely given their consent.  For example, by paying attention to body language.

Key Messages for Young People on The Law and Consent:

  • The laws on consent and sexual activity are there to protect people from being coerced into sexual activity.
  • If you’re not sure, you do not have consent.
  • If anyone proceeds, or continues, in any sexual activity without consent then this is a criminal offence.
  • If anyone continues with sexual activity without consent, this is not just illegal but violates the other person’s rights and is likely to have a very significant impact on their emotional, mental and physical health and wellbeing.
  • The law is clear that a person must have consent before engaging in, and for the duration of, any sexual activity.
  • A person is not able to give their consent if they are incapable because of the effect of alcohol and/or drugs, or because they are asleep or unconscious. Any sexual activity in these circumstances is sexual assault or rape.
  • The law is very clear that giving consent to sexual activity does not mean consent has been given to any and all sexual activity. It is also clear that a person can say no, change their mind or withdraw their consent at any point.
  • To help protect young people, it is an offence for someone aged 18 or over to engage in sexual activity with someone aged 16 or 17 if the older person is in a position of trust. A position of trust is someone who looks after you for example, in a school or a care home.
  • Seeking or requiring sexual activity from someone in exchange for anything – including drugs/alcohol, a place to stay, being part of a group, protection from violence – is sexual exploitation, regardless of whether the other person agrees or is thought to have agreed.

Protecting yourself from Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and Unintended Pregnancy

Information for professionals:

The key messages in this section are intended to help support young people who are sexually active to stay safe and to access the services they require.

As with all the messages throughout this resource, it is for the professional to determine if these messages are age and stage appropriate for the young person or people they are working with.

Access to services

Young people under the age of 16 years can have the legal capacity to make a decision about a health intervention (The Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Act 1991) https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1991/50/contents).

This can include decisions on contraception, abortion and treatment of sexually transmitted infections. A young person can make this decision provided they are, in the opinion of a medical practitioner, capable of understanding the nature and possible consequences of the procedure or treatment. This is a matter of clinical judgment and will depend on the age and maturity of the young person, the complexity of the proposed intervention, the likely outcome and the risks associated with it. This applies to all health interventions, including assessment, treatment and counselling.

Information on local sexual health services can be accessed via https://www.sexualhealthscotland.co.uk/get-help/sexual-health-service-finder  

Key Messages for Young People on Protecting Yourself from STIs and Unintended Pregnancy:

  • Everyone is responsible for ensuring they are protecting themselves and their partner from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancy. Your right to protect yourself should always be respected.
  • Condoms (for oral, vaginal and anal sex) and femidoms (for vaginal sex) are the most effective ways to protect yourself from a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Non-barrier methods of contraception, like the pill or the implant, do not protect against STIs.
  • Free condoms are available in many places such as local sexual health clinics and local free condom schemes. They are just as effective as those you can buy.
  • Effective contraception, including condoms, can be accessed from a sexual health clinic or a doctor.
  • If you have unprotected sex or a condom breaks, you are at risk of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or a pregnancy. STI testing and emergency contraception are accessible from a sexual health clinic or your doctor. Emergency contraception is also available free of charge from most pharmacies.
  • The coil (or ‘IUD’) can also be implanted soon after unprotected sex to provide emergency protection against pregnancy. You can make an appointment to have one fitted at your local sexual health clinic.
  • If you think you have been at risk of a sexually transmitted infection (STI), it is responsible and respectful to yourself and your partner(s) to visit your sexual health clinic or doctor for a test.
  • If you think you might be pregnant, it’s important to talk to someone that you trust as soon as possible. It’s good to get a pregnancy test done as soon as you can.
  • Deliberately removing or damaging a condom without the knowledge and consent of the person you are having sex with (sometimes known as ‘stealthing’) is a serious betrayal of trust and in addition you could be charged with a criminal offence.
  • Young people aged 13 and over have the right to expect medical confidentiality, including the right to access contraception and condoms in confidence. If there is a concern about your safety, the person you speak to may have to share information in order to protect you, but they will always speak to you about this first unless it is absolutely necessary to share the information urgently to protect you from harm.

Contact

Email: felicity.sung@gov.scot