What is the age of consent in the UK - and could it be changed in wake of Russell Brand allegations?

Allegations against Russell Brand - including that he entered a relationship with a 16-year-old girl when he was 30 and sexually assaulted her - have prompted calls for age of consent laws to be reformed.

Alice - not her real name - is now in her 30s but says she was a teenager when she first met the comedian in 2006, with their ensuing relationship leaving her feeling "cheap and dirtied".

Speaking to Woman's Hour on the BBC on Monday, Alice said "I think we should at least start to think about changing the ideas of consent".

Brand has vehemently denied the "very serious criminal allegations" against him.

Here, Sky News looks at the age of consent laws in the UK, whether they could be reformed and what protections are in place for teenagers.

What is the age of consent in the UK?

The age of consent across the whole of the UK is 16 - this is the minimum age when young people of any sex, gender, or sexual orientation can legally take part in sexual activity.

It doesn't matter if all those involved are the same age, or close in age, or if those under the age of 16 have given their consent.

However, not everyone who breaks this law is charged with a crime and prosecuted, according to the Rape Crisis Centre of England Wales.

Under English and Welsh law, those under the age of 13 are seen as being less capable of consenting than those aged 13 and over.

That's why the Sexual Offences Act 2003 lists different offences for cases involving children and young people aged 12 and under - and why it's a factor for prosecutors to consider when they are deciding whether or not to prosecute someone.

Why have concerns been raised about Brand's alleged relationship with a teenager?

It is alleged that when Brand was 30, he sent cars to Alice's school to collect her from lessons so they could have sex at home.

She claims he became increasingly controlling, encouraging her to lie to family and friends about the relationship.

She also alleges he sexually assaulted her, and removed a condom during sex without her knowledge.

Lisa Durston from SARSAS, a charity which supports people affected by rape and sexual assault, says the "power imbalance" between someone who is 16 or 17 and a much older partner "can make it an extremely unequal relationship".

She told Sky News: "While it's important not to deny anyone over the age of 16 agency, it's also important to recognise the huge power imbalance involved in a relationship between a 16/17-year-old and someone much older.

"The law states that it is illegal to take part in sexual activity with someone under 18 if you are in a position of trust - for example, if you are their teacher, social worker, doctor or care worker.

"In other situations, while it may be legal to have a sexual relationship with somebody much younger than you, that doesn't make it okay.

"The power imbalance, and the ability that gives someone to manipulate or exploit a younger person, can make it an extremely unequal relationship.

"Someone who is 16/17 years old is unlikely to have the life experience or knowledge of adult relationships to help them navigate that relationship."

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What extra protections are there for teenagers?

There are some extra protections in place for young people aged 16 and 17.

It is illegal to:
• Take a photo or video of some aged under 18 engaging in sexual activity
• Pay for sex from someone under 18
• Take part in sexual activity with someone under 18 if you're in a position of trust
• Take part in sexual activity with someone under 18 if they are a member of your family.

This year, England and Wales also raised the minimum marriage age to 18, meaning 16 and 17-year-olds will no longer be able to marry or enter a civil partnership, even if they have parental consent.

People in Scotland and Northern Ireland can still get married at 16, if they have permission of their parent or guardian.

Could the UK reform the age of consent?

It has been a hot topic in recent months, particularly since it was revealed BBC presenter Huw Edwards was accused of paying a teenager for explicit photos - however there is currently no mainstream campaign looking to raise the age of consent to 18.

In July, Edwards was accused of paying a 17-year-old more than £35,000 to send him sexually explicit photographs.

The presenter also faced allegations that he stripped to his underwear during a video call with the youth, who is now aged 20.

The Metropolitan Police later said there was "no information to indicate a criminal offence had been committed".

Meanwhile, Phillip Schofield's career was left in tatters after he admitted having an affair with a young runner who worked on ITV's This Morning.

Although the pair met when the boy was 15, the presenter insisted a romantic relationship began five years later, when his lover was over the age of consent.

Romeo and Juliet laws

One option the UK could consider, if it did raise the age of consent, would be the introduction of "Romeo and Juliet laws".

In many US states, there is an exemption that a person can legally have consensual sex with a minor, provided that he or she is not a given number of years older (usually less than four). It would mean a 16-year-old and 17-year-old could legally have sex, despite being under the age of consent, but a 16-year-old and a 30-year-old could not.

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