BBC News


Page last updated at 09:15 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 10:15 UK

Is sex on the beach legal?

The Magazine answers...

beach in the Philippines
Tropical beaches can be romantic
Two Britons have appeared in court in Dubai after allegedly having sex on a beach in the Muslim emirate. What would happen if a couple got frisky on a beach in the UK?

The sandy shores of a beautiful beach might seem like the ideal setting for a romantic rendezvous.

But for 30-somethings Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors, getting carried away in the heat of the moment could come at a heavy price.

The pair - who are not a couple - were arrested in Dubai on 5 July, and charged with indecent behaviour, being drunk in public and having unmarried sex.

They admit drinking but deny the other charges. If found guilty at next week's trial, the punishment is between three months and six years in jail.

But would al fresco lovers face a similar fate if the mood took them on the shingle shores of Brighton or the golden sands of Durness?

UK authorities usually turn a blind eye if in isolated spot
Could outrage public decency if witnesses report it
Section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 can also be applied

The Sexual Offences Act 2003, which mainly covers England and Wales but also covers Northern Ireland in some areas, does not specifically legislate against sex on the beach so long as the act is consensual, says a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman.

"Effectively sex on the beach in isolated places is allowed, so long as there is a reasonable expectation of privacy - which someone engaging in such an activity would be expected to prove."

But someone could be charged with outraging public decency under common law, she says, if it is proven that at least one person has seen the act.

The witness has to see the "act of intimacy" first-hand. CCTV does not count, says travel lawyer Philip Banks, of the firm Irwin Mitchell.

Section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 - which bans exposing one's genitals if the intention is to cause alarm or distress - can also be applied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

Although the act does not fully apply in Scotland, indecent exposure is an offence under common law, says a spokesman for the Law Society of Scotland, although intent would be difficult to prove.

The same expectation of privacy applies north of the border, although there could be a breach of the peace if someone saw and was offended.

Another thing to bear in mind is that getting frisky on the beach in the presence of a child is a criminal offence under section 11 of the act, says the Ministry of Justice spokeswoman.

And a person can also be charged if they use "words, behaviour or display" to cause another person harassment, alarm or distress under sections four and five of the Public Order Act 1986.

But both of these offences only apply if the couple intend to cause alarm, or are aware that a child is watching, says Mr Banks. "These legislations are very unlikely to be used in this context."


Sentencing in the UK depends on the offence and its circumstances, and is a matter for the courts.

It is rare for an amorous couple to appear in court, says criminal lawyer Mark Haslam, of BCL Burton Copeland. If police do spot a couple engaging in al fresco love making, they are more likely to issue a caution or warning.

"But if it is reported by a passing - and outraged - member of the public, the couple are likely to be prosecuted and would probably be fined, with the case reported gleefully in the local press," says Mr Banks.

But holidaymakers should be aware that many countries are not as liberal as ours, he says.

"It would be regarded as a much more serious offence in the Middle East, most of Asia, Africa and most Catholic countries - and probably the USA too."


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific