The Facts... without the Lecture

Age of Consent

In Ireland, you must be 17 years of age or older to be able to give legal consent to engaging in sexual acts with people of the same sex or a different sex

What Is the “Age of Consent”?

The law says that you must be 17 years or older to be able to consent to engaging in sexual acts.  The age of consent is 17 whether the person you are engaging in the sexual act with, is of the same sex or a different sex.

What is a “sexual act” according to the law?

The law describes a “sexual act” as:

  • Sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal)
  • Penetration of the anus or mouth by the penis
  • Penetration of the vagina by an object’

Why is there a legal age of consent?

The law is there to protect young people.  It also aims to prevent older people from taking advantage of younger people.  It is a crime to engage in a sexual act with a person who has not yet reached the age of 17.  The law regards sexual activity with a person who is under 15 even more seriously and the penalties for this crime are greater.

Is it a crime for two young people to engage in a sexual act?

Although strictly speaking it is a crime, there is what is called the ‘proximity of age’ defence or the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ defence*. This may apply where the person who has had sex with someone between 15 and 17 years old, is either younger than them or less than two years older. So, for example, if you are 18 and the other person is 16, or if you are both 16, it may not be considered a crime but only if you both agreed freely to engage in the act and neither of you felt exploited or intimidated.

It is really important that you both understand the nature of the act and that neither of you feel pressurised in any way.

The law in this area is complicated; not every defence will be accepted as it will depend on the particular circumstances of the case.  If you are accused of having sex with someone who is under the age of 17 then you should speak to an adult that you trust and also seek legal advice.

*The criminal law recognises that there can be specific factors or circumstances which may be raised as a defence to a crime. A successful defence might mean that no criminal proceedings would be brought or a person may be found not guilty or a lesser sentence may be given.

Can you buy condoms if you are under the age of consent (17)?

Yes, it is legal for you to buy condoms at any age. Using condoms correctly and every time will reduce the risk of STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections) and unplanned pregnancy.

Can you get the pill, or other contraception, from a doctor if you are under 17?

If you are thinking about engaging in a sexual act which has a risk of causing pregnancy, it is important to use one of the many different forms of contraception to protect yourself and the other person from an unplanned pregnancy.

Doctors will know that the legal age for sexual consent is 17.  However if you are close in age (no more than 2 years apart) ,the other person is aged 15 or 16 and you do not feel pressurised or intimidated into anything, then this is something that you should discuss with your doctor.

If you are under 16, a doctor will usually need your parents to consent to most medical procedures or prescriptions.  If you can’t discuss your need for contraception with a parent or legal guardian then you should explain this to the doctor and discuss your particular circumstances with him or her.

What is really important is that you have as much information as possible about the different forms of contraception and why they are important to use.  You should talk to an adult that you trust about this and discuss it with your doctor.

More information on contraception may be found here.

So, if I am 17 or over can I engage in sexual acts with anyone else who is 17 or over without the law being involved?

Yes, if you are both 17 or over and there is full and free consent.

However, it is a crime for a person to engage in a sexual act with somebody under 18 if they are, or have previously been, in a position of authority over them.

This means that it is a crime for people like a step-parent or partner of a parent, a foster-parent, a carer, a teacher or a sports coach etc. to engage in a sexual act with a young person (who is, or has previously been, in their care) before their 18th birthday, even if the young person is 17 years of age.

If you are under 18 and a person in authority tries to engage you in a sexual act you should speak to an adult that you trust or contact An Garda Siochana.

A full list of ‘persons in authority’ can be found here

So I understand the law around the age of consent.  Can you tell me a little more about what the law means when it talks generally about “consent”?

Consent is when you agree freely and without any pressure whatsoever to engage in a sexual act with someone else.  It is really important that there is full consent.  It is a crime to engage in a sexual act with another person who has not given consent no matter what age they are.  The crime might be considered to be rape or sexual assault.

Is consent to a sexual act as simple as saying “Yes” or “No”?

It can be, but it all depends on the circumstances.  You must never be pressured or pressure someone else into doing something that you don’t both fully want to do.  For example, if you agree to something and then change your mind before or during the act, you have withdrawn your consent and the other person should stop.

Just because you have consented to something sexual in the past with someone, does not mean that you have consented to it again; consent needs to be given every time.

The law also protects people in certain situations where they may be more vulnerable or unable to say “No”.  For example a person cannot give proper consent if they are:

  • asleep or passed out
  • affected by drink or drugs
  • forced or threatened or held against their will
  • mistaken as to the identity of the person
  • unsure of what they have agreed to do

There may be other situations where free and voluntary consent cannot be given but these are some of the most common.

Where is all this law set out?

The law on the age of consent and on general consent to sexual activity is set out in The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017.

Remember, the legal age of consent is 17, after that it is up to you to decide each and every time, if you want to have sex and with whom.