Teenage sexuality and its most salient components — rogue hairs, crushing desire, confusing tumescence, and the looming specter of unplanned pregnancy — are of perennial concern to dewy-skinned adolescents and wizened adults alike. Helping the young navigate these choppy waters can be ticklish, writing a guide about it even more so.
Jane Fonda is the latest to bestow her grown-up wisdom on our nation’s youth. That wisdom is particularly grown up, Fonda having been born in 1937. When she was in high school, gas cost a quarter, Joseph McCarthy sat in the Senate, and Hawaii had yet to join the Union.
In this century, she has turned her attentions to teen health. As Fonda tells us in the introduction of her new book, “Being a Teen: Everything Teen Girls & Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity & More,” she has devoted the last two decades of her life to working with teens “around issues of sexuality, self-esteem, and relationships;” in 2001, she founded the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory University.
In earlier years, Fonda embraced several other identities. To Vietnam veterans and Rush Limbaugh devotees, she will forever be Hanoi Jane, an apparent Communist sympathizer with fetchingly messy hair and the temerity to pose atop a Viet Cong antiaircraft gun. To some movie buffs, she is intergalactic bombshell Barbarella, to others, the emotionally complex prostitute in “Klute.”
Fonda began showing an interest in spreading the gospel of health in the early 1980s, when she released the best-selling “Jane Fonda’s Workout Book” followed by a series of aerobics videos. She published a book on middle age in 1986 and a book on old age, “Prime Time,” two years ago. Perhaps “Being a Teen” was inevitable; adolescents were the only demographic she had yet to address.
Fonda is the second actress in recent years to reinvent herself as a teen-advice doyenne; Elizabeth Berkley, star of “Showgirls” and “Saved by the Bell,” put out a self-help book for the high school set in 2011. But unlike the chatty “Ask Elizabeth,” “Being a Teen” is very matter-of-fact.
That someone whose most famous cinematic moments involved a zero-gravity strip tease would pen a dry sex book might come as a surprise, but “Being a Teen” is intended to serve as a reference, or, as Fonda calls it in the preface, a “dip-in book.” It is divided into 20 illustrated chapters, each subdivided into several short subtopics that address everything from gender identity to how to insert a tampon.
“During orgasm, you will experience a strong surge of sexual pleasure, marked by rhythmic muscle contractions around your genitals.” This from a woman who told her biographer about her foursome with Dennis Hopper, Roger Vadim, and the actress Brooke Hayward.
Fonda addresses each topic in an equally dispassionate manner, leaving readers to wonder what kind of book this would have been had she stopped to editorialize. But for all we gnarled grown-ups know, today’s teens might need just such a reference. We are, after all, in the age of Internet pornography, a medium Fonda reminds us is largely devoid of “caring trust, or intimacy.”
“Being a Teen” maintains an appealingly progressive and inclusive sensibility. It’s fine if teens masturbate; it’s fine if they don’t; if they do it or if they wait; if they’re gay, bi, or trans. She encourages girls not to lose their true selves because of cultural forces, and boys to get in touch with their feelings.
Whatever its effect on its intended audience, the very existence of “Being a Teen” raises intriguing sociopolitical questions about age and gender roles: What if fellow septuagenarian Dick Cheney had written a teen sex-advice book?
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached email@example.com.