It’s important to have a full understanding of what consent truly is – but when is it right to give such consent?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

A young woman in her mid-twenties looks back…

I was fourteen when I started going out with my first serious boyfriend. He was older than me and he went to a different school, and just seemed more mature. He was quite charming – he was nice to me.

After two weeks of going out with him it became obvious that he wanted us to start having sex. There was just something that told me I didn’t want to do it. Although I didn’t really  want to do it, I allowed myself to. He obviously wanted to, and I thought it would secure our relationship – and that would make him happy.

I don’t think that having sex with him did make him love me more at all. Our relationship lasted two months and it just fizzled out in the end. There wasn’t any kind of commitment or love behind that physical relationship.

I think the pain of us breaking up was worse because we had that physical relationship. It’s hard to explain but it did hurt more deeply inside.”


The importance of consent

What is consent? To give consent is to give permission. To give true consent, you have to know what you are giving permission for, in which case it is ‘informed consent’.

You can go up and speak to someone, pat their dog or offer them some food without seeking their permission first. But sexual intimacy is different. Our societies’ laws uphold the specialness of sexual intimacy by requiring that someone gives their consent to sexual intimacy. If someone is sexually intimate with someone who has not given or is not able to give true consent, then they are guilty of the crime of ‘rape’.

The Bible teaches that sexual intimacy is to be respected. It is a gift from God to be reserved for marriage. Rape involves stealing this gift by taking it without permission. The Bible recognises rape as one of the most serious crimes [1].

Too young to give consent?

UK law assumes that those under 16 are unable to give true consent. Should they agree to be sexually intimate, the law assumes that they do not know the significance of what they are giving permission for. Someone who has sex with a person under 16 cannot assume that a ‘yes’ really means ‘yes’. They may be guilty of rape even when the person says ‘yes’.

Since 1985, though the age of consent to sexual intimacy remains at 16, the law has been undermined by a UK court ruling [2] that some people younger than 16, according to certain criteria, may be provided with contraception without their parents’ knowledge. By implication this ruling assumes that the young person may be mature enough to give consent to sexual activity [3]. This bending of the law has actually resulted in some teenagers being abused and professionals not realising that what they actually needed was protection from people who were harming them [4].

Even when both individuals are over 16 not all consent is true consent.

Affected by circumstances

The concept of consent is also difficult because we need wisdom about circumstances that might affect our judgement.

A person who has been drinking alcohol or taking drugs may agree to a level of intimacy they would not have considered if their decision making has not been impaired by those substances.

Like the young woman quoted at the start of this article – a person who feels emotionally pressured, may agree to a level of intimacy they do not really want. They may hope that they will secure the relationship by doing this.

A person may not understand the full implications of what they are consenting to. Such implications might include risks to their future health, the possibility of pregnancy, difficulty in making long-lasting relationships in the future, or simply regret when in a few years, they look back and wish they had waited.

In each of these circumstances younger people are particularly vulnerable as they find it especially hard to say “no”.

…although consent is the minimum legal standard, it does not tell us anything about the rightness of a relationship…

True consent – the only requirement?

It is important that UK law continues to recognise the value of the gift of sexual intimacy by insisting that someone under 16 is unable to give true consent. The subject of consent is often taught in school and an understanding of the law is important for young people. But the emphasis on consent without other teaching, makes it seem like consent is the only consideration in deciding if a sexual relationship is right. We must remember that although consent is the minimum legal standard, it does not tell us anything about the rightness of a relationship – the required moral standard. Just because something is legal, it doesn’t necessarily make it right in God’s eyes.

God’s standards are more demanding than both parties agreeing to be intimate. We need to keep in mind what God consents to. He only consents to relationships that honour His law, the Seventh Commandment, which directs us to keep sex for marriage. We must remember that God’s standards are always for our benefit and protection. As our creator, He knows how we are designed and how we work best. His commandments only permit what does us good.

  1. Deuteronomy 22:25-27
  2. The Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority and another – [1985] 3 All ER 402.
  3. Gillick Competence and the Fraser guidelines, drafted after an appeal to the Law Lords, were developed from  the case mentioned above. Gillick competence refers to an assessment made by professionals to determine whether or not a child under the age of 16 may consent to medical treatment without the involvement of his or her parent.
  4. Wells, N. “Unprotected: How the normalisation of underage sex is exposing children and young people to the risk of sexual exploitation”, 2017 Family Education Trust, UK