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

May 23, 2015
Originally published on May 23, 2015 9:48 pm

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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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sex education often occurs at home or at school. Jasmine Garsd of the NPR Ed team has been reporting on how schools teach about sex. And in the process she met an educator who brings the subject out into the open in the parks of New York City.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: It's a chilly, gusty Friday evening in Manhattan's Union Square Park. The park is packed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If this is how reality really is...

GARSD: Street musicians, break dancers, preachers yelling predictions...

FRANCISCO RAMIREZ: This looks cozy to me. We have some chess players. Nobody's going to harm us.

GARSD: Off on a corner, Francisco Ramirez is setting up his chairs and a big sign - free sex advice. He's a fixture here.

RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish) Advice about anything related to sex (speaking Spanish).

GARSD: This is an unusual place to stop and chat about sex, but hang around Ramirez for a while and it's clear that people enjoy talking to him.

HEIDI LOPEZ: So I am recently single.

GARSD: Heidi Lopez is a college student.

LOPEZ: And I'm also a sex worker. I'm a dominatrix. So my question is, like, when is it appropriate to tell someone you're a sex worker?

RAMIREZ: You know, they always say put yourself in somebody else's shoes, and especially when it comes to stuff around sex, the shoes can be heavy.

GARSD: 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. But 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. Ramirez says when he became a teenager he felt there were some things he couldn't talk to anyone about.

RAMIREZ: Especially around my sexuality. I was bullied and experienced violence and threats - death threats.

GARSD: Ramirez became a middle and high school sex-ed teacher in California, but he says he felt limited.

RAMIREZ: Sexuality education just feels sort of relegated into the one week that you might have in a classroom or quote, unquote, "the talk."

GARSD: So he took the talk to the streets here in New York.

LIZ DIAMONDS: So this is my deal. So...

GARSD: This woman says her name is Liz Diamonds and she's 38. She initially approaches Ramirez with a question about her relationship.

DIAMONDS: I'm seeing a gentleman, right?

GARSD: But she quickly moves on to deeper stuff.

DIAMONDS: I'm still young. I lost a mother to the AIDS virus and...

GARSD: Ramirez says a lot of times people just want to vent and for someone to listen to them.

DIAMONDS: There's a lot of questions that come. What's wrong with you? This and that. Well, this is what's wrong with me, that there's nothing wrong. How about that? That's how I feel.

RAMIREZ: Yeah, I feel like I want to give you a high five because that is so right.

DIAMONDS: Yay.

GARSD: Ramirez says after seven years of giving free advice in New York City parks, he's come to believe there's one thing Americans need to do more of when it comes to sex - talk about it.

RAMIREZ: We are walking around with stories and truths and secrets about ourselves and about our sexuality, about our sexual experiences, that nobody knows and that really pain us. And we have so few places, if anywhere, to share them.

GARSD: And when people are ready to do that, they can come find him in the park. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.