What's the first thing you think of when you hear "Jane Fonda"? It's probably not "adolescent sexuality expert."
Yet the 76-year-old actress says she spent several years researching and writing "Being a Teen: Everything Teen Girls & Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity & More" (Random House, $17), which hits bookstore shelves this week.
"I have a soft spot in my heart for adolescence, partly because mine was so difficult," Fonda says in a phone interview from her home in California. "My mother died when I was 12, right at the beginning of what was supposed to be puberty. I had very little confidence in myself. I had a very poor body image. And I'm white and privileged and had everything going for me." It's even tougher for teens growing up with fewer advantages, she said.
Fonda has been on a mission to help all teens -- especially those who are less privileged. She founded what is now the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential in 1994 to address Georgia's teen pregnancy rate. In 2000, she opened Emory University's Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health.
Fonda says the book isn't one that teens have to read cover to cover, but one they can dip into when needed. It covers topics from self-esteem to how to say "no" (and still be popular), and it has graphic illustrations and explanations of the male and female reproductive systems.
The most important chapters are the ones that deal with relationships, Fonda says. "If you're not able to talk to your partner, you're not ready to have sex with your partner. You have to be able to talk about how far you want to go and how far you don't want to go."
Teens should be able to broach the subject of being tested for sexually transmitted diseases and be able to talk openly about options for contraception. "If you don't feel comfortable talking to your partner about contraception, you're not ready to be having sex," Fonda says.
Fonda says adolescence is harder now than when she was young, noting issues such as sexting. "I decided to write a book that discussed all the kinds of questions I knew kids needed answered."
The book's been endorsed by Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University. "Clear, unflinching and nonjudgmental," Kimmel wrote in a blurb on the book's back cover. Fonda thanks Kimmel in her acknowledgments and says she sent him the chapters she wrote about boys to vet prior to publication. "I read it, as did my then-12-year-old son Zachary," Kimmel says; his son is now 15. "Zachary thought she really understood the questions that boys his age were asking."
Fonda says she plans to work with Kimmel on a future book about men and masculinity and will be hosting a party at her Los Angeles home on March 21 to honor Kimmel and his new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook, which opened in September.
Fonda advises parents as well as teens to look at her new book with its bright yellow cover. "It would have helped me as a parent," says Fonda, who has three grown children. "I say this without any self-righteousness. One of the reasons I've been interested in all of this is because I didn't quite know how to handle adolescence with my kids."