What affects someone’s ability to consent?

Consent is agreeing to do something and when we talk about consent to sex, this means someone agreeing to take part in sex or sexual activity (which includes everything from kissing to anal sex). Some things affect someone’s ability to give their consent to sex, like alcohol/drugs, age, pressure and mental capacity. We’re going to talk about these in a bit more detail so you’re clued up when it comes to consent!

Alcohol/drugs If someone is drunk or high, they can’t give their consent to sex. This is because when people are drunk/high this affects their ability to make decisions and they may agree to something they wouldn’t do if they were sober.

We often get asked the question “how drunk is too drunk?” which is a hard one to answer, because alcohol affects everyone differently. Some tell tale signs that someone has had too much to drink is if they’re slurring their words, having trouble walking or if their friends are having to take care of them.

We always recommend not having sex with someone who you know has been drinking or taking drugs.

Age In the UK, the legal age of consent is 16. Although the law says the legal age of consent is 16, we know that people under 16 still have sex and you won’t get into trouble by talking to a doctor, nurse or someone else in a sexual health clinic if you are having sex or thinking about having sex before you are 16. They won’t tell anyone you went to see them unless they believe you are at risk of harm. If you’re aged 13-15 the law takes into consideration the age of the other person you’re having sex with and your mental capacity to make the decision to have sex. Any sexual activity with someone under 13 is illegal and viewed as rape or sexual assault.

Pressure If you put someone under pressure, they may not feel comfortable to say no to sex. Even though you may not feel like you’re pressuring them, if you have to convince them in any way to have sex with you, you’re putting them in a position where they may not have the freedom to make their own decision. Saying something like “well you agreed earlier” or “you’ve been flirting with me all night” to get someone to have sex with you is not okay. In a nutshell, consent needs to be a free and willing decision, so unless it’s an enthusiastic “yes”, you shouldn’t have sex.

Mental capacity Mental capacity is basically someone’s ability to make their own decisions. People with a learning disability, dementia or a mental health problem may not have the capacity to consent to sex. However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t have sex. The big thing here is making sure the person understands what they’re agreeing to (e.g. the sex itself) as well as the possible risks/outcomes that may come from having sex (like sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy). If you’re unsure if you or your partner have the capacity to consent to sex, visit your nearest sexual health clinic for some advice.

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