Seyram A. Butame

You see the Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys/ They ain't gonna fight no wars.

Talking to parents about sex and birth control

Visualizing some NSFG data on having the sex talk with parents

The sexual and reproductive health of Americans, young and old, remains an issue; looking at HIV and STI infection rates highlights the problem, not to mention the complexities of accessing birth control and critical reproductive health services. Furthermore, with a social and political system that appears hostile to notions of healthy sexual attitudes, human sexuality, and reproduction, we have some clarity as to why there is a problem.

Understanding the problem may require looking at whether people talk to their parents about sex and reproductive health. Parents and guardians tend to be significant sources of information regarding such social issues. And while the internet rules our lives, parents are likely not the first source and even not the most in-depth source of information. However, they do play an outsized role in forming our broader perspectives and reinforcing cultural norms. I assume the same applies to issues such as sexual health.

The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) is one source of information about people speaking with their parents about reproductive health-related topics. The NSFG is a nationally representative survey that “gathers information on family life, marriage and divorce, pregnancy, infertility, use of contraception, and men’s and women’s health.” It is one of several large data sources the Department of Health and Human Services draws on to inform broad policy decisions.

The survey contains an item in which respondents 25 years and under are asked whether they have ever discussed specific sex and birth control topics with their parents or guardians. I thought it would be a great idea to isolate that particular piece of data and create a small visualization that allows people to stratify the data using some key demographic characteristics (e.g., age, level of education, race, ethnicity, etc.).

I created the visual document in Tableau, using R to subset and clean the raw data. I downloaded the raw data from the NSFG website, operated by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a Center for Disease Control and Prevention division.

Overall, the number of people reporting having talked to a parent about any of the sex or birth control topics is relatively low. None of the categories break the 30 percent mark. For instance, 28 percent of females report having spoken with a parent about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or STIs to use the more current terminology. While 24 percent of males say the same thing when looking at the sample.

I mean, fewer than 12 percent of the male respondents are getting information from their parents about where to access birth control. Indeed more female respondents have spoken with a parent about this particular topic. However, 21 percent is still a relatively low statistic for something as critical.

I consider this to be a troubling situation. It suggests that American parents don’t speak to their children about such topics. It begs the question of where people are getting information from. Of course, there’s the internet, peers, friends, and media of various sorts, as I noted earlier, as sources of information. However, given parents’ influence on their children’s development, the observed lack of communication on these issues is concerning. Might it be an avenue for critical social and behavioral interventions? There is undoubtedly a need for it, but what would such an intervention look like, and would any kind of scale-up be worthwhile from a policy perspective?


  • The data contains a variable denoting whether a respondent has had any same-sex relationship. Capturing sexual health data on people in same-sex relationships can be difficult, and such populations are characterized as “hidden” in the formal literature. Therefore, I used a variable that captures any same-sex experience (oral, anal, and vaginal) for both men and women to create a menu item denoting respondents who had a same-sex relationship. For males, it is represented by the menu item, men who have sex with men (ever), and for females, it is denoted by the menu item, women who have sex with women (ever).
  • In the data, age is originally reported as a continuous variable (i.e., each respondent gives their age at the time of the survey). However, to make parsing the data a bit easier, I created a menu item with two age categories (i.e., less than 19 and 20 – 25 years). This was helped by the fact that the survey item was only presented to respondents who were 25 years or less at the time of the survey.


Minor correction, I created a label called “Respondent gender” when I meant to write “Respondent sex at birth.” I have gone ahead and updated the figure and its labels. Sex is the biological classification of male/female based on genetic material; genders are the broader social and cultural expressions or identities people use (There are a variety of genders, and the NSFG does not capture gender). The question about sex at birth is often asked in an archaic way in surveys. The terms are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, though we really should not be doing so. To the credit of researchers and survey designers, there is an increased effort to be cognizant of this difference. And to make greater efforts to capture the way people identify.

Title Image Source:

Hassan, Mohamed. “African Family” March 11, 2021. Online image. August 16, 2022.