Giving my 11yo niece the sex talk - what to say?
July 16, 2011 4:57 AM   Subscribe

Suggestions on giving 11.5 yo girl the "sex talk"? snowflake details inside

My niece is 11 and a half. I'm not sure anyone has ever explained sex to her - my sister used to tell her babies came from kissing. I want to think it's too early to talk to her about it, but I don't want to make assumptions, and then it be too late. So, since she's headed into middle school, and I know there's a boy there that likes her, I thought now would be a good time.

1. She's the result of a teen pregnancy herself - her mom got pregnant with her when she was 15. So while she wants to go to college, and I want to explain to her that getting pregnant young is bad, I don't want her to feel bad about her existence. How do I balance this? *Note: her mom did drop out of school, get her GED and has been in and out of colleges since, but not graduated, and she has other children. I would not call her a failure by any means - but I feel like she doesn't have as many options as she would have had if she waited to have kids.

2. My mom (her grandmother) raised her from birth to 8, and my niece is living with her grandmother again right now, as her mother left her there (crazy family drama).

My niece has become super quiet in the past couple of years, and is not likely to give me much feedback. However, she is pretty good with computers, I think - I plan on suggesting the scarlet teen website, maybe, and giving her a book, as she likes to read?

I have never done this before - my mom gave me a book, and maybe had some sort of talk? I think my dad tried to talk to me, but it was super awkward, and I do not remember what it consisted of. I had sex starting at 16, and feel like it was a combination of luck and good sense that kept me from getting pregnant.

I plan on sitting down with her alone, acknowledging that this conversation will be a little awkward, and explaining the basics. How sex works, what gets you pregnant, what keeps you from getting pregnant. How you should never feel pressured to have sex, you're not responsible for someone else feeling a certain way, and you should never do more than you're comfortable with. That if they aren't willing to wait, they're not worth it. Also would like to go over how to put on a condom with her, and tell her that if she ever needs anything - has questions, needs birth control, condoms, etc, I will be happy to provide without judging or sharing that information.

I expect for her to not make direct eye contact, and for her to say she already knows this stuff, or it doesn't matter because she's not doing it, and I plan on finishing the talk anyway.

What do you think? What am I forgetting? Advice, links, suggested books - all welcome. I want to do this in the next month or two, and plan on preparing until then.

Oh - and as a side note - she has severe cold sore breakouts on her mouth. Should I sit her down and explain that she shouldn't have sexual contact if she thinks that's about to happen? She is pretty good about them, and knows not to kiss other people, etc, when they happen.
posted by needlegrrl to Education (45 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

I'm not going to go in order, so bear with me ...
If you can, maybe take a drive so there are visual distractions - this helps tremendously in talking with teenagers! Make it a trip with a destination she likes -- ice cream, mall, whatever.
I don't think you should talk about the cold sores during this particular conversation.
11.5 is definitely not too young -- she's surely going to start menstruating soon.
I think the way you laid it out in your "I plan on..." paragraph is great! If you could be relaxed, throw in some humor, all the better.
I would open with talking about how her body is changing to prepare for adulthood, so you're telling her this so she understands what's coming but that SEX IS FOR GROWN UPS, no matter who tells you different, because with it comes responsibilities, benefits and consequences that teenagers should not have to worry about -- it's her time to be free, and sex requires commitment (to one's own physical safety, health, avoiding pregnancy).
I would not send her to Scarlet -- she'll find her own resources through her friends or on her own.
I especially like that you're going to push ahead with the talk anyway, even if she tries to get out of it.
You sound like a great aunt, and you are on the right track, in my (motherly) opinion!
posted by thinkpiece at 5:14 AM on July 16, 2011

My parents used some kind of (german) comic book and read it to me. I did an amazon search but I did not find it, but it seems there are a lot of books for this purpose.
posted by donut at 5:17 AM on July 16, 2011

Your plan sounds great. I'm glad your niece has somebody looking out for her.

I was the kind of child who would much rather read a book than have an embarrassing conversation with my mother. She bought me a couple of books that were general "Hey your body is changing and also here's some stuff about sex" books, which I think are easier for a child to ease into than something that's only about sex. The one I really remember is Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You. It was really friendly and frank without being condescending.

I also think the great thing about a book is that your niece can dip back into it at a later date. I remember re-reading parts of Girltalk as I got older and had a better understanding of what sex was. The first time, a lot of it went over my head.
posted by Georgina at 5:46 AM on July 16, 2011

Thinkpiece's idea to go for a drive is a good one - if she doesn't have to look at you she may be more likely to open up.
Make sure you don't assume that she's straight, and talk about how being safe, not being pressured etc also apply if she's having sex with women - if she knows you're open to that possibility, it will probably make it easier for her to come to you later if she has questions.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 5:49 AM on July 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'd second a drive or something similar for that talk, otherwise your plan seems good, minus the cold sore bit, I guess. I would actually avoid the "a bit awkward" turn of phrase - its unnecessary information at best.
Ideally, try to make sure to ask how much she already knows - that's basic pedagogy really. If she turns out too embarrassed for giving you this information, you are probably best off with a well prepared almost technical report of the basics, along the lines of what you suggest in your question. If she says she knows it all already, you should say, 'it's kind of important that there aren't any gaps in what you know, so please hear me out.'

As to future questions: the most weight lies on your trying to make it plausible that you'll actually be the right person to answer any future questions. As a backup plan for a possible communication drought down the line, you might also go to the local library and ask for reading recommendations.

[I would take a non-threatening and non-moralistic stance as to for whom sex "is". It is perfectly okay to point out that it is very difficult for young people to understand all the risks, consequences, the emotional tangles that may result, etc., and that it is generally spoken a good thing to be extremely careful before committing oneself to something that may not be what one really wants, in the face of possible irreversible consequences.
It may, on the other hand, be quite counter-productive to simply say "hands off". Some kids don't react too well to that type of commands, or there would be substantially fewer teenage pregnancies.]
posted by Namlit at 5:51 AM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Decide what you want her to get out of this sex talk---and then tell her that up front. That way, she'll get the benefit of your best intentions.

For example: kid, I'm going to give you a sex talk, and I want you to know that bottom line, sex should be enjoyable for you. It can be hard to enjoy sex with teenaged boys or girls because they're brand new at it--look for someone humble and willing to be awkward and generous about it. If you find that it isn't enjoyable, step back. Practice this phrase"this isn't enjoyable for me, let's try something different." and be sensitive to him/her-s/he might want to say the same thing! In fact--practice the phrase together before having sex.

ps: blow jobs count as sex.

pps: no sex with electronics-with-camera capability in the room, including cell phones. Trust me on this one.

Do you have any questions about birth control---here's how to get it. I will help.

Chances are she's already heard warnings about getting pregnant--no need to repeat. But pregnancy isn't really what sex is about---so don't essentialize it.
posted by vitabellosi at 5:53 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would suggest that the message that you want to get across is not that 'getting pregnant young is bad', but rather that getting pregnant means having to make big decisions and can seriously affect plans to go to college. Likewise, getting a sexually-tranmitted infection isn't 'bad', but it can be inconvenient, painful and dangerous.

I think I would stress that safe sex is smart and is empowering.

Good luck! You sound like you really care and are really looking out for her.
posted by brambory at 5:54 AM on July 16, 2011

How about the fact that sex is fun? You have the baby making facts and some strong cautions, but she will figure out it's not all doom and gloom and babies. Acknowledge that, and she may keep your words in mind and not just write it off as adults trying to ruin her fun.

That said, make sure she knows that not every infection is as obvious as a cold sore. (I think you can talk about this -- it's just extending what she already knows and you can compliment her on being responsible and show that this is the same type of thing.) Many are symptom-less most of the time. You can't always sense whether or not someone has an infection and it has nothing to do with how nice they are -- for example, she's a nice person and has cold sores. Sometimes, they don't even know. So that's why avoiding contact with cold sores and other types of break outs is standard practice and why condoms & testing are important.

And do send some websites her way. Best to make sure that she doesn't get all of her info from crappy teen magazines, no matter what her friends are reading.

It's also nice to offer a 'get out of jail free' card: call me anytime if you're scared or worried and need to talk, I won't freak and I will respect your privacy. If you're ever at a party, even one you're not supposed to be at, and things get weird or you can't get home except with drunk drivers, call me and I will come get you, no questions asked. Same if you need birth control or condoms or a pregnancy test, STI testing, etc.

Do you have to do it all in one conversation?
posted by heatherann at 5:58 AM on July 16, 2011

All of my sex talks were in the car. I don't know why it makes things less awkward, but it does. Also: captive audience.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:00 AM on July 16, 2011

That sex feels good, it's healthy, and there's nothing wrong with wanting it. Also, that sex partners sometimes lie, there isn't a good enough reason for a guy not to wear a condom, and masturbation is good. Also, dental dams. The existence of Plan B.

Consider having condoms and the like somewhere she can access them without necessarily asking you, but you can check if they're being used? Embarrassment can be a powerful deterrent to getting help.
posted by who squared at 6:01 AM on July 16, 2011

Ahhhh--11 yrs old! I was thinking older---but I still think telling her what you want her to get out if the talk is good.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:06 AM on July 16, 2011

I'd consider supplementing any talk with a book she can look at on her own. My kids and I have read and liked Robie Harris's books for younger kids; I haven't read her book for kids your niece's age but it might be worth checking out: It's Perfectly Normal.
posted by not that girl at 6:14 AM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing the car scenario. They are more open to talking when they don't have to face you. Do it as organically as possible, like it isn't something you've been majorly planning. Do it on the way to something really fun, like a water park, the beach, a hike in the woods. She is very lucky to have you as her awesome auntie. A good friend has a twelve year old daughter and according to him it's very much a big topic for kids that age these days. Some of them are having sexual contact.
posted by mareli at 6:16 AM on July 16, 2011

The only time my mom ever talked to me about sex it was in the car on the way to school (when I was 17), so I guess chatting in the car is some time honored American tradition.

I'm gonna disagree and say that you should bring up the cold sores. It doesn't have to be a big thing, just "You know that you're not supposed to kiss or share drinks when you have a cold sore -- the same thing goes for sex."
posted by telegraph at 6:18 AM on July 16, 2011

How to use condoms, dental dams, etc., is pretty technical information to keep straight in your head from now until... if she's 11 now, and has sex at 16, she may not remember the instructions. Perhaps a book, and/or going with the idea that there doesn't have to be one talk but instead this can be a conversation that you will have with her several times throughout her childhood and that she can always come to you with questions -- and you will hold her conversations in confidence.
posted by Houstonian at 6:21 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't have to get into details how sex feels good... lord have mercy, trust me, I'm sure she's experienced how good it feels touching herself. All she needs to know are the basics that babies are made from having intercourse and talk about birth control. That's it. Don't sound judgemental about it either, you don't want her thinking she's a slut for wanting or even having sex with one person (hopefully it's one and not a football team.) But honestly, this kind of talk should be woven into everyday conversations since relationships and sex are very important, ESPECIALLY for girls since we get attached to a person not right for us because we had sex with them. I've seen it happen far too many times, even with myself.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 6:24 AM on July 16, 2011

How about the fact that sex is fun? You have the baby making facts and some strong cautions, but she will figure out it's not all doom and gloom and babies. Acknowledge that, and she may keep your words in mind and not just write it off as adults trying to ruin her fun.

Or she might long for her own death until the conversation is over. When I was a little girl who wondered things and had questions, my mother would rhapsodize about sex, out of a well-intentioned '60s-'70s desire to have a positive influence. This invariably made me want to gnaw my own arm off to get away. Just be honest, and let her feel that sex is not supposed to be something or other in particular (except consensual), but that her own wants and feelings are her own business.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:25 AM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

If she's resistant to the idea of this conversation right now, leave her with a book and let her be for a while. My mom (with the best intentions) tried to give me "the talk" when I was about 10 and to be totally honest, the whole idea completely freaked me out! I could not even look at the book she gave me for probably six more months.
posted by asciident at 7:16 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to start it off talking more about puberty, periods, etc, and then segue into the sex part of the talk.

What part of the country do you live in and what kind of school does she go to? I am from the Bay Area and went to a pretty hippy-open school and we got a pretty comprehensive course on the birds and the bees. However if you live in a small town, the South or the kid goes to Catholic school, your talk may be way more necessary because lord knows what they are teaching her in school!

Everyone always suggests, "It's Perfectly Normal" here. That was one of our assigned books in 7th grade. And it totally freaked me out because it is basically set up like a full-color picture book with graphic drawings!

I also had "Whats Happening to my Body" which was very informative.
posted by radioamy at 7:22 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't mean to be a downer, but have you talked to your sister about your desire to do this? Parents can be very touchy about relatives taking the initiative. I'm not saying not to do it, far from it. But big family feuds often start from someone talking to their kids. She may think you're going behind her back or making some sort of statement about her parenting abilities. If she tells you she doesn't want you to do it, but you think she never will, I would tell her I'm still going to do it, that I think it's important that the child has someone to discuss sex, relationships and health with other than her parents.
posted by johnn at 7:24 AM on July 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm in pediatrics so I talk to kids about sex, sexuality, and safety everyday. I talk to kids coming to a middle-high income pediatrics practice and to kids from low-income families visiting free clinics. I feel that if you are finding yourself compelled to have this discussion with her, you're likely picking up on good reasons to do so, even if you're not totally sure what's up in her private/internal life.

At her age, middle childhood/early adolescence, it's awkward because, physically, the normal continuum includes those that have not begun to sexual development as well as those who are at the beginning of the end of that development. Yet--they're all talking to each other and there are big psychosocial components. I have to assume that your willingness to talk to this about her comes from your own assessment that there is some readiness there--you are dedicated to talk to her and you have looked carefully at her likely responses. I have had girls that age on the exam table that I instinctively back away from all but the most gentle, fact-based, simple conversations about periods, only, and I have also had some pretty frank discussions about a much wider range of topics with the same age peer.

Since you have a relationship and time with her, start by giving her a book. There are a couple of suggestions on this thread, but trust yourself to be able to look in the parenting sections of your bookstore and library and find one that seems right for her. Give it to her along with a date to talk about it--either a driving date with a drive-through stop or something else you like doing together.

If she won't open up with a first question, start with periods. Developmentally, that's where she's at, and it's easier to set a tone and make the conversation safe, and almost all the girls I've talked to are a little obsessed with them. From there, it's easier to move to the biology of reproduction in the event she's light on the facts (most are). Then, you will be able to have an accurate sense of what she is ready to discuss from her questions. The basic rule of thumb is to answer the questions that she is actually asking. If she asks about how ovulation works, for example, she may not really want to hear about how some ladies are hornier during that time and how to take care of it. Ideally, you don't want this convo to be a one-time thing. You're opening doors, establishing trust. You don't have to tell her everything she is going to have to know through the whole of adolescence and adulthood right now. Even if you just get through the period stuff, and she relaxes, and you're having a nice time, that may be a good place to stop for now and make another date.

Something I do check in on, every time I talk to this age group, is safety. Do you feel safe at home? Is there anyone you don't like or don't feel safe with? Has anyone ever made you feel uncomfortable, or got into your space or touched your body without permission? Do you ever get in cars with anyone who has been drinking or using or drives recklessly? Does anyone come around home or places you hang out that makes you uneasy or has hurt you? Statistically, this age group is at greatest risk to be injured in a MVA, be bullied, or be a victim of abuse. Keeping your conversation comfortable, safe, trustworthy, and fun may protect her from those risks.
posted by rumposinc at 7:40 AM on July 16, 2011 [24 favorites]

Tell her it's OK to wait. There's no dishonor in being the last one on your block.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:51 AM on July 16, 2011

Two books I'd like to suggest, both old school but indispensible: Our Bodies, Ourselves (given to me when I was 12 by my sister; it's amazing, and to this day, I know more about contraceptive options than my peers), and Forever by Judy Blume, which is a slightly steamy story with a strong message about contraception and how first love doesn't always work out. I prefer these to newer works because a lot of newer teen books dealing with sexual relationships have a strong pro-purity message (like the one Bruce H. is advocating), a message that's nearly omnipresent in our society and not nearly as helpful as concrete information about how sex works and how to keep from getting pregnant.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:19 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

maybe also talk about safer sex & relationships if she turns out to be bisexual/lesbian/some flavour of queer, and reassure her that it's okay if that's the case. (i know far too many people twice her age who still think women can't transmit STIs to each other, or who don't believe women can assault other women [or men], etc.)

also, impressing the importance of consent upon her - setting her own boundaries and respecting others' - probably can't be done in one conversation, but it's pretty necessary to start talking about it regardless.
posted by sea change at 9:09 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or she might long for her own death until the conversation is over.

Ha! Okay, yes. I didn't mean rhapsodize or go into details, I just meant that it should be acknowledged up front that sex is not always Scary and Bad and Risky.

Like how the Drugs Are Bad, This Is Your Brain On Drugs thing falls flat when you realise that you have plenty of friends who like smoking pot who are totally fine.
posted by heatherann at 9:10 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

pps: no sex with electronics-with-camera capability in the room, including cell phones.

Seconding this. Talk about sexting and cell phone videos and explain that when you're dating, they can seem fine, but those pictures can come back to haunt her forever.

I've seen more than a handful of teenage girls socially and emotionally devastated by sending topless pictures or letting their teenage partners record them being sexually active.
posted by kinetic at 9:23 AM on July 16, 2011

So I might take a different approach. I think the stuff you want to cover is mostly good, as long as you don't try to do it all in one conversation, which sounds overwhelming. I get why you want to talk about birth control and condoms and such, but, gah, how to put on a condom at age 11 seems like a bit much when really she is probably brimming with a bunch of questions that are much more basic. Sexting is an important thing to talk about...

I suggest starting off talking about girls' and women's bodies (that's her direct experience), puberty, and her period. But undoubtedly her friends already chattering away about this... so here's the most important thing to say asap, "Do you have any questions for me?"

She might be wondering why her mom got pregnant because she heard that you have to be married to get pregnant. She might be wondering how straight or gay sex works. She may have heard that one of her classmates is already "doing it" (or whatever) with a boy. But certainly she is already thinking about this stuff.

I will nth the car as a good location for these chats.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:27 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lots of schools have a sex-ed video they show in fourth or fifth grade, in which case, it's possible she's already seen it and understands the basics. You could inquire about this to get the conversation started.
posted by Dr. Zira at 9:30 AM on July 16, 2011

My mom kept trying to have sex and other serious talks in the car, until I opened the door and threatened to leave at highway speeds. I was tired of the goddamned entrapment and I was tired of being tense every time I had to get in the car with her. If one of the lessons you want to teach her is about agency, and about drawing one's own boundaries and not being forced to do things she doesn't want to do, don't corner her to do it.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:32 AM on July 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Sorry, I posted too soon. I also meant to say I think you should frame this as the first of many conversations. Have you or your mom or sister had the good touch-bad touch conversation with her? That's one that usually happens much earlier, and so you might start there.

Another website you might suggest for her: Go Ask Alice is a project at Columbia University about sexuality and sexual health, emotional health, relationships, alcohol, etc.

Scarleteen might be a bit much right away, so take a look at Go Ask Alice too.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:34 AM on July 16, 2011

You don't have to get into details how sex feels good... lord have mercy, trust me, I'm sure she's experienced how good it feels touching herself.

This is a really terrible assumption. Many, many girls grow into women without being familiar with their own bodies. Many women are in their late teens or into their 20s before they begin to/figure out how to masturbate.

You've gotten a lot of good advice here. Another thing I'd keep in mind is that this ideally shouldn't be a one-time conversation. Not like you have to nag her every other week about sex and the biology of reproduction, but it's a great opportunity to begin building a relationship in which she feels like she can really talk to you about this stuff in particular - boys (and girls!) and sex, feelings and emotions, all that - and will trust that you really have her best interests in mind, not that you're just some clueless grownup who doesn't know what she's talking about.
posted by rtha at 9:52 AM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Lots of great advice about what to warn her about.

Read up on the sociology/psychology concept of agency. If she's not already making real and meaningful (to her!) decisions, you can help her start practicing that skill. This also means teaching her now that if another person fails to respect her boundaries it is not her fault that it happened, and she has every right to leave. Waiting until after a violation makes this lesson so much harder. In fact, learning this lesson early hps prevent small violations from snowballing into huge ones. (yes, I know, I'm giving you advice about topics that are really heavy and extend beyond just sex -- it works for drugs, employment, shoplifting, and bullying -- It's important to me.)

Please, also make it clear to her that you will always listen to her, and that you will pick her up from uncomfortable situations, no questions asked.

Make sure she knows your phone number by heart, especially if she already has a cell phone.
posted by bilabial at 9:59 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let her lead the conversations. Thanks to my wacky family situation, I got this from both my mom (who was of the rhapsodizing/hand-drawn illustrations camp) and my stepmom (who, as I perceived it, forced "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and a subscription to Seventeen, neither of which I even wanted to touch, let alone read.) Neither of these experiences went well; I learned next to nothing other than "oh my gosh I can't go to anyone about this stuff because it is all awful and they are crazy." I got a ton of info from Go Ask Alice when I was 17 or so, luckily. I wonder with vague amusement what on earth would have happened if I hadn't been a geek in the early days of the internet.

At 11, I was at the "boys are stupid and gross" and "bleeding is terrifying" stage. There were kids in my class playing strip poker and going on non-supervised dates. It is essential that this be prefaced with a lot of information gathering on your part.

(Also: this definitely has to be an ongoing process. I got the mechanics talk when I was 9, but had forgotten it all by the time I was 13. The goal should be more about making a safe environment for her to go to you, than imparting specific information at a set moment in time.)
posted by SMPA at 10:03 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

At 11, she might be a little young for a detailed P in V type of sex talk, but I think it's never too early to let a girl know that she can go on birth control/see a gynecologist with no questions asked at any time and that you are the person to ask for help if she wants to. Putting it out there that you are absolutely not going to judge her for wanting to protect herself, whether she's having sex or not, will help foster a trusting relationship and make her more likely to come to you if/when she has questions about the actual mechanics or emotional/social aspects of sex.

My mom did this and I was very happy with how she handled it. At 11, I wasn't at all interested in having sex or going on birth control, but knowing it was an option made me feel much more comfortable coming to my mom with sexual issues. She was always supportive and NEVER judgmental.

Oh, and it never hurts to tell a girl exactly what will happen at her first pap smear, but I think that can wait a few years.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 10:13 AM on July 16, 2011

At 10, I got the "boobs and bleeding" talk, plus a book on how babies are made. At 14, my mom said "Look, I want you to know this: sex can be good. It can be AMAZING, and you deserve for it to be amazing. But I also want you to know this: Bad sex is just as risky as good sex. It's very easy to get yourself involved in an activity where you get all the risks and none of the benefits. So. . . just, you know, think about that when you're making decisions."

It was good advice, and truthfully, I wish I'd heeded it more closely. But hearing it so bluntly meant that when I did find myself on the wrong side of a good time, I was able to contextualize it as "Oh right, this is what mom was talking about" as opposed to "WTF is wrong with me?!"
posted by KathrynT at 11:05 AM on July 16, 2011 [10 favorites]

Just a note re: the cold sores - they can be transmitted at any time, even when they're "dormant" so I wouldn't harp too much on the "no sex/kissing while having a breakout" issue. It's kind of pointless to worry about it when she can give herpes to anyone at any time even when no sores are present.

Speaking of which - while she could have acquired the herpes through perfectly innocent means (mom has it, kisses baby on the lips), are you sure there's no sexual abuse or inappropriate contact history here? That might change the entire question of how to broach this subject.
posted by tristeza at 11:10 AM on July 16, 2011

I think your proposed plan sounds really caring and healthy. I'd suggest two things based on my own positive experience:

1. At the end of The Talk (when I was 10), my mom gave me a couple of age-appropriate but medically accurate books. Unfortunately, I can't recall the titles, but I remember they had anatomical drawings along with the explanations. She said--as you plan to--that I could feel free to ask her any questions, but it was nice to have the option of reading those books when I was curious but too shy to ask questions. I'd recommend flipping through some books at a bookstore to see what would click with your niece's personality. One book might be a good match for one girl but too silly or too dry for another.

2. Acknowledge that puberty is a process and that she is maturing sexually, not sexually mature. When I was a preteen, it made a lot more sense to me to think of myself as going through puberty rather than trying to think of myself, at age 10 or 11, as someone who would be having an adult sex life any time soon. I don't mean that I didn't have sexual feelings at that age, I just wasn't an adult. So, I'd recommend you be as frank and open as you propose, but always keep in mind that she's 11--she might become sexually active in the next 5 years, but she's not an adult.

Bonus tip: If you haven't already and if she hasn't begun menstruating yet, give her some information about what her first period may be like (a couple days of brown discharge rather than bright red blood).
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:52 PM on July 16, 2011

If your relationship is that kind of close, illustrate what you say with examples: the mistakes you made and what you regret but also enjoyed im your relationship choices; the friend of yours who said no to a boy and was later glad about it etc.

Advice goes out the other ear, stories stick.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:24 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Heather Corinna SEX Book is excellent for this. She founded Scarleteen, which you mention.
posted by gregglind at 3:43 PM on July 16, 2011

I wish I'd had an aunt like you! The things I would have (hopefully) learned at that age, had you been my aunt, are as follows:

1) AGENCY AGENCY AGENCY! NIECE is the one who has to live in NIECE'S body for NIECE'S whole life. Niece needs to learn how to respect and take care of that body. Niece needs to know NOW that even if it's the OMG CUTE QUARTERBACK who wants to do risky stuff with her body, she has every right to say NO.

2) Emotional entanglement happens. I knew about all the plumbing and stuff by the time I was 10, but what I was NOT prepared for was the insane manner in which, when I was 16, I had sex and was suddenly plunged into a maelstrom of crying, longing, I didn't handle it very well. A trusted adult would have been an absolute godsend at that point.

3) Any guy who will not wear a condom is not to be trusted. Period. End of story. Finis. He puts it on, or he takes you home. Now, I know that they aren't 100% effective against anything, but they're a damn good precaution, and you know what else? They weed out the true users-of-girls from the respectful. Again, not 100% and not a RULE, but a pretty decent marker.

Again, OP, I wish you had been my aunt. That is what I would have needed to know from a non-judgmental, approachable, trusted adult when I was 11-16 years old.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 7:39 PM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Others have said "agency" which I would also add the term "consent." As in, if everyone involved is not consenting or able to consent, at that very second, regardless of what was said before or since, then it's not good or ok activity. Even if it's not "sex" it's just touching.

I remember being pretty confused about rape/sex at that age, and pretty scared. I wasn't so much scared of getting pregnant as I was of being attacked, or that guys might try to hurt me (because that's the age at which they start to get bigger than you/make ugly comments about your breasts/period/etc. if they're that kind of dude).

All I knew was mechanics, which is not that hard to grasp; what I didn't know was that there was such a thing as being able to set boundaries more complex than "no sex till marriage".

So I guess my approach would be:

1. Basic personal stuff; periods, boobs, how babies get made, how women stop babies from being made until they're ready. That tampons don't make you a nonvirgin.

2. Deciding how to do relationships; when to date, who to date, how to figure out if a guy is treating you ok or not (consent) and making sure what you want is just as important as what he wants.

3. Being ok with waiting as long as she needs to for dating/whatever. She needs to know that no one expects her to meet Prince Charming and get engaged by 13, and that her other dreams for her life are much more important than whether she dates a lot.
posted by emjaybee at 8:29 PM on July 16, 2011

I think is it worth also bringing up that she may not be attracted to boys, but girls instead, or both, and that that is totally fine.
posted by kjs4 at 1:56 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: An update of sorts - apparently my sister already has had some sort of talk with her, in which she told her something - but I have no way of knowing what that was. My sister and I have minimal communication - she likely wouldn't want me having any sort of conversation with my niece that includes queer-friendly conversation, but I'm not concerned about her being upset or finding out about it, really.

I definitely do *not* have to do this conversation all at once - I can do it in steps. All of the advice to start with puberty and her body is great - it seemed like a lot to get into at once.

I'm fairly sure there was no abuse in her past - I'm sure my mom has had the good touch/bad touch conversation with her.

Thank you for all the suggestions!
posted by needlegrrl at 7:17 PM on July 17, 2011

Does your sister realize you're planning (apparently in great detail) to have this talk? Regardless of what kind of parents your niece has, you are not one of them.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's so important for kids to have this kind of adult who will reach out to them openly. But as a parent, I would feel so... betrayed? insulted? angry?... if ANYONE decided to have this conversation with my child without my consent. Sure, some parents don't handle this well (and some may never have this kind of talk) but it's THEIR decision to decide what and when their child learns. Please talk to them first, if you haven't already. This is a very big deal.
posted by Lullen at 7:24 PM on July 17, 2011

Lullen, the mother is not the primary caregiver of this child, who has spent most of her 11 years living with her grandmother. Yeah, I'd be pissed too. But, I also live with my kids.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:11 AM on July 18, 2011

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