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Take It Outside: Teaching Sex Ed On The Streets Of New York

Francisco Ramirez, a sexual-health educator, offers free advice to a passerby.

On a gusty Friday evening in Manhattan's Union Square Park, Francisco Ramirez is setting up his chairs and a big sign that yells, "FREE ADVICE."

The park is packed with street musicians, chain-smoking chess players and preachers yelling predictions

Ramirez just wants to talk.

This seems like an unusual place to stop and chat about sex, but almost immediately after he sits down, a young woman named Heidi Lopez takes a seat and tells him she recently became single. "I'm also a sex worker," she explains. "So my question is, When is it appropriate to tell someone you're a sex worker?"

There's something magnetic about Ramirez — sitting with him for a few minutes can make you feel like you've been friends with him for a lifetime.

Part of it is that he's a great listener. He lets Lopez unload her worries before giving his two cents. "You know they always say, put yourself in other people's shoes?" he asks gently. "Especially when it comes to sex, the shoes can be heavy."

Ramirez does this for free on weekend evenings. But he also teaches about sex for a living. For the last 10 years, he's been a sexual-health expert at the United Nations, where he does everything from teaching refugees and peacekeepers about safe sex to consulting with foreign governments and dignitaries on sexual health policy.

Ramirez says he feels most comfortable here on the streets. It puts him right back where he grew up: working at his parents' taco truck in California and talking freely to strangers. But, he adds, when he became a teenager, he felt there were some things he couldn't talk to anyone about.

"Especially around my sexuality," he explains. "I was bullied, and experienced violence and threats. Death threats."

Ramirez went on to become a middle school and high school sex-ed teacher in California. But in this role, he says, he felt limited. "Sexuality education just feels sort of relegated into the one week that you might have in a classroom, or 'The Talk.' "

So, he took The Talk to the streets, here in New York.

Our chat is cut short by another one of Ramirez' customers. This time it's a brash woman with hot pink lipstick, which Ramirez admires.

Liz Diamonds, 38, starts off with a question about a new relationship she's in. But, in a sadder tone, she quickly moves on to deeper stuff.

"I lost a mother to the AIDS virus," she says. She tells Ramirez about how her mother got infected (she was a drug addict) and how she eventually got clean. Diamonds says that, as a result, she's wary when it comes to relationships.

Ramirez says a lot of times people just want to talk, and for someone to listen to them.

"We're walking around with truths and secrets about ourselves and about our sexuality that nobody knows," he says. "And that really pains us. And we have so few places, if anywhere, to share them."

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