The truth about sexual health services if you are underage
It is widely known that the age of consent to any form of sexual activity in the UK is 16, and it is also widely known that many people may well engage in sexual activity or begin experimenting before this age. Less well-known is what your options are in terms of contraception and sexual health screening if you are under-age, and many teens may feel reluctant to go and seek the advice of a health practitioner for fear of having their parents find out, or, for some perhaps, fear of being reported or even arrested.
As it happens, the law caters to the fact that young people will engage in sexual activity before the age of 16, and doctors are only too happy to provide confidential sexual health services to those in need, providing they don’t suspect any abuse is going on. So what exactly are your options when you are under the legal age of consent, and where can you go for sexual health or contraceptive advice?
Firstly, while it is technically an offence to have any sexual activity with a person under the age of 16, home office guidance makes it clear that there is no intention to prosecute those under that age if there is mutual agreement and where the couple (be it regular or one-off) are of similar age. However, for children aged 12 and under in England and Wales, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides legal protection, as they cannot legally give their consent to any form of sexual activity.
In terms of seeking contraceptive advice, services are free and confidential for those aged 13-16, in the same way that they are for those aged 16 and over. “Young people can access their GP, and figures suggest a lot of people go to their GP as a first point of call,” says Dr. Helen Munro, a member of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health, and a locum consultant in sexual and reproductive health. “However, they can also access any of the same services as adults, and you can just google where your nearest clinic is.”
Just because you are under the age of legal consent, it doesn’t mean you cannot get pregnant, and it doesn’t mean you cannot contract an STI, so regardless of your age, you should take precautions. Whether this is with condoms, or via another method, don’t overlook the importance of safe sex. Bear in mind you can get pregnant even if you have only recently started your period, or if your periods are irregular, or if you haven’t even yet had a period at all.
“Young people have all the same options as adults when it comes to contraception, and there is no contraception method that is precluded by age alone,” says Helen. “One of the myths, for example, is that you have to have had a baby before you can get an IUD and that’s not true at all – actually young people tolerate IUD fitting and ongoing use really well, and the copper IUD is the most effective way of preventing pregnancy. We would give the same advice and information to a young person as we would to an adult, and equally, as with adults, we would encourage the LARC methods as they are the best at preventing unplanned pregnancies.”
You can get free contraception, including condoms, from many GP surgeries, GUM clinics, and sexual health clinics, which also offer STI testing services, and some young people’s health services. The NHS has a tool for finding your nearest sexual health service.
Exactly the same rules apply to teenagers as to adults when it comes to STI testing, treatment, and confidentiality. Clinics offer testing for people who have no symptoms, and a lot of testing available is self-taken. “This has made getting tested a lot more acceptable to all ages, particularly young people who might not want to get undressed,” says Helen. She adds that clinics often run specific asymptomatic screening clinics encouraging young people to come and get tested on a regular basis, or to come and get a peace of mind test. “A lot of people will utilise that, especially young people, and after that they’re comfortable with the environment in case they have a problem another time.”
The same services available to adults are also available for teenagers when it comes to abortion. Young people can approach their GP or go to a sexual health clinic, and they would be asked routine questions, some more specific questions, and some questions around safeguarding. All sexual health clinics are able to signpost a young person to an abortion service. “They will be managed in exactly the same way an adult would,” says Helen, “with confidentiality the utmost priority. We can’t force someone to disclose anything to a parent or guardian, but we would encourage them to speak to their parents or guardians.” All sexual health clinics have a close relationship with abortion services to ensure there is a continuity of care, and young people are supported throughout.
Of course, there are strict guidelines for healthcare professionals who work with people under 16 when it comes to sexual health advice and testing, contraception provision, and abortion advice. Not only do they have to deem you mature enough to understand the information they give you and any decisions involved, if they believe your safety is being compromised they may decide to tell you parents or guardians.
“All sexual health clinics run a confidentiality chat with patients and the idea is that they get all the same rights as adults do, that is what the General Medical Council states,” says Helen. “However, we normally start by saying ‘everything we say is confidential unless something comes up that makes me concerned about you, in which case I might want to speak to someone else’. Normally we would disclose something to someone else only with the understanding of the young person.
Of course, a key concern of sexual and reproductive health practitioners if sexual exploitation, so often within consultations young people may find themselves being asked about their use of recreational drugs, self harm, bullying, or use of alcohol, along with questions about whether the young person’s partner has been buying them gifts, or whether their parents know about the relationship. This applies particularly to people who come to them and who reveal that their partner is much older than them.
When it comes to sexual health services for people under the age of 13, doctors or nurses may feel it is in your best interests to get other people involved, such as a social worker, as you are below the age of consent. “Under 13 is statutory rape, so somebody under 13 who has had sex is deemed not able to consent,” says Helen. “So we would then speak to social services, so for some people that may involve the police as well, depending on the situation.” She adds that this is actually not something that happens very often, but when it does all decisions are made by a team.
As well as knowing what services are available to you if you do decide to engage in sexual activity before the age of 16, it is important that you don’t do so simply because of peer pressure, or because your partner is pressuring you into it. Likewise, you shouldn’t pressure someone you are dating into having sex with you. Everyone develops at different rates and while one 14-year-old may feel ready, another person might wait until they are 16, 18, or much later before they feel ready to have sex.
So, in short: if you’re 13, 14, or 15, you have all the same options open to you as anyone aged 16 or over does when it comes to sexual and reproductive health. You can access contraception, the morning after pill, STI testing, and abortion services, and no one will tell your parents, social services, or anyone else, without a proper discussion with you first, and even then, only if it is necessary to involve someone else for your safety. As Helen says, she and other sexual health practitioners are only too happy to provide you with a service and advise you on your options, and you have the same rights as adults when it comes to confidentiality.