Students at Loyola College touched off a three-week debate in February when they took out a full-page advertisement in the campus newspaper denouncing a human sexuality course as "detrimental to the soul of our college."
But similar courses have operated with little controversy for years at other campuses.
At Towson State University, University of Maryland College Park and Coppin State College, professors say courses are so popular there are often waiting lists to get in. College of Notre Dame has been offering a psychology course in sexuality for 15 )) years. And at Goucher College, all students learn about sexuality through the school's mandatory two-semester wellness course.
"I think what you saw at Loyola is an anomaly. At other college campuses, it didn't seem an issue," said M. J. McMahon, chairperson of Towson State's health sciences department. "We continue teaching our human sexuality courses and sex education through the health center. There has never been a question about the material or speaker."
The protesting students at Loyola charged that the films shown in the 3-year-old course met the Catholic catechism's definition of pornography and asked that the course be canceled. Cardinal William H. Keeler was described by a spokesman as "very concerned" that the videos conflicted with Church teachings.
Loyola administrators responded by announcing that the films would be reviewed by a faculty committee consisting of the assistant provost, the vice president of student development and the director of campus ministry.
Professors and students from other local colleges say Loyola's course got into trouble because its discussion of contraception and premarital sex ran counter to the school's Catholic teachings.
But some students say the point of such courses is to provide information, not to teach values.
"It's not about sex. It's about taking care of yourself," said Tim Sullivan, a 22-year-old senior at Towson State.
While the courses have proceeded quietly in this area except at Loyola, advocacy groups sense a growing opposition to sexuality courses nationally.
"What we're seeing around the country in general is a push by the far-right conservative groups -- fear-based education in the school," said Leslie Kantor, of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. "We are starting to see more problems on college campuses. . . . There are more challenges."
Professors and students say controversy over human sexuality courses is inevitable because people believe that the course focuses on the act of sex, which may in turn encourage the activity.
But educators stress that the courses look into the full aspects of sexuality including birth, sexual transmitted diseases, date rape and domestic violence.
Still, educators realize the courses will always have detractors.
"The controversy is there because of the topic. It's a topic Americans aren't comfortable with," said Lillian Carter, a health science professor who teaches human sexuality at Towson State. "It's a subject like abortion, controversy is not going to go away from it."
"I try not to make it a big issue. But our society does," said Sally Baum, Goucher's associate director of physical education who oversees the school's wellness courses. "I think we put sexuality in a corner and deal with it on a Friday and Saturday nights."
Professors say they deflect unnecessary attention by treating the course like any other.
The courses are taught either by health educators or professors of health or psychology. They are most often elective and taken for credit. Sometimes they are included in general health courses, as at Goucher, but more often they are separate courses.
Explicit teaching material is often used. As in other courses, professors say they can freely choose teaching material.
"With academic freedom, we don't have guidelines," said Delano Tucker, chairman of the health and physical education department at Coppin. "We establish the course on what is necessary."
"There is a sense of concern that the decision in this controversy [Loyola's review by administrators] will spread -- on what can and cannot be shown will be made by people who are not trained to make those decisions," Dr. Carter said.
In his human sexuality course, Dr. Tucker begins his one semester, three-credit course with a vocabulary list of sexual terms. He then goes through relationships, parenthood, birth and sexual dysfunction.
Discussion in the 45-person class is frank and animated, and at times, may stray from topic.
During a recent class on sexually transmitted diseases, students learned in detail about the different stages of gonorrhea, syphilis and other diseases. Overhead projections of sores on a vagina and herpes on a penis are shown. Some students don't really want to look.
"At the beginning of the class I kind of give a disclaimer on what we're going to do," Dr. Tucker said. "But I tell them I'm going to deal with them as adults."
The class then talks in detail about ways to prevent the spread of disease, such as using condoms, avoiding anal intercourse and urinating after intercourse because the acidic nature of urine could kill infection.
But one student challenged the use of condoms.
"Condoms are not natural. People are still doing it the natural way," said one woman. "Animals don't put condoms on."
"There are a lot things animals don't do, humans do," Dr. Tucker responded. "I'm not going to tell you not to use a condom. I'm just arming you with information so you can make rational decisions."
For many students, that is what lies at the heart of the human sexuality courses: It's the only place where they feel they can get reliable information.
"It's a good class. He allows us to be open and he answers honestly," said Shenese Armstrong, a 21-year-old senior at Coppin. "That's what we need today. He gives us the truth."
Human sexuality courses became prevalent on college campuses in the 1960s when administrators discovered that more and more students were married or living with someone, said Dr. William Stayton, president-elect of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists.
In the 1970s, human sexuality courses continued to grow and began to incorporate explicit films because they were seen as the best way to explain sexuality.
Some of the first films for teaching were made by a Methodist church in California, said Dr. Stayton, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The films are still used in training teachers of sexuality, he said. It was believed that if it was helpful with professors, then they would be helpful to lay people," Dr. Stayton said.
In the 1980s, just as AIDS changed sexuality, it changed human sexuality courses. More campuses offered human sexuality courses, and some required them for all students, Dr. Stayton said.
The next generation of health educators say they are well aware of the troubles of teaching sexuality.
At Towson State University, students preparing to be health teachers are required to take a course called "Teaching About Drugs and Sex."
"Basically what they tell us is that each county has their own different set of rules. Some you can mention gays and lesbians and masturbation. Others you mention and you could probably lose your job or get into serious trouble," said Susan Watkins, 21, a health major at Towson State.
Though they may face tense atmospheres within high school classrooms, they say they remain undeterred.
"It doesn't discourage me. It's going to limit me and limit the students' education. I think hopefully it'll be more liberal in the years to come," said Alice Kasmarzyk, 23, a Towson state senior who will be teaching health in a Montgomery County high school this fall. "We'll just have to take it day by day."