Sexuality class gives Loyola teacher an unwanted image Changing Course


If 1992 was Charles LoPresto's favorite year -- the exhilarating time when students voted him their most distinguished teacher, and he rode that adrenalin high for the semester -- then 1995 has felt like its evil twin.

This year he's watched his image being remade. Loyola College's beloved associate professor of psychology has become, in the minds of some, the teacher of pornography, promoter of masturbation, blasphemer of the Catholic faith.

The crux of the issue? His human sexuality course. Two months ago, a group of students called the seminar -- with its frank discussions and explicit videos -- "detrimental to the soul of our college." In a full-page ad in the school newspaper, they requested the noncredit class be discontinued. The forums and rallies that followed rocked the Jesuit campus in North Baltimore, making national headlines and embarrassing the archdiocese.

Although a school committee has ruled the seminar will continue, it is still debating in what form.

And David Roswell, dean of Arts and Sciences, says he doesn't believe the controversy has hurt Dr. LoPresto's image with students or faculty. "He's highly regarded and certainly well liked," he says.

But whatever the outcome for the course or the effect on his own image, the conflict has had a profound effect on Dr. LoPresto.

Though his tenured position at Loyola was never really in danger, something just as important was at stake: his reputation.

"In my entire teaching career, whenever I've talked about sex, my intention was not to titillate," says Dr. LoPresto, 48, who lives in Towson. "My feeling is if we talk about and see it perhaps we will have a better appreciation of it. . . . But I certainly respect the reservations many people have. This is not an easy topic in our culture, and the only exposure we have to it is the sensational aspect. So, of course, whenever we hear about sex, our immediate knee-jerk reaction is to see it as sensationalism or pornography."

On this peaceful spring morning, the words echo through his cramped basement office. It's quiet here now, save for the oc- casional rumble from the boiler room across the hall, and the silence sounds to him like an answered prayer.

In recent months, the din made it difficult to concentrate. The phone rang constantly with calls from alumni, students and friends wanting to discuss the issue and offer support. While Dr. LoPresto didn't receive hate calls, he says the school did. And a taped message calling Loyola "a sex shop" and the seminar "deranged" turned up on a local anti-abortion hot line.

"There was this sense of physical vulnerability," he says. "I think I realized I'm more tenacious than I thought I was. But I also realized that things can get real scary real fast. I never put that together . . . that education can lead to this. That was part of the harrowing experience."

During his career, he's been more comfortable in another role: cool teacher on campus. Tall and trim with grayish hair and a mustache, he's a man unafraid to wear pastel shirts and polka-dotted ties. A photo of Father Guido Sarducci hangs in his office, a gift from students who say he resembles the "Saturday Night Live" comic.

Around campus, his classes are known for their animated patter. He doesn't lecture from the podium but moves around the room, engaging students in discussion. During a recent social psychology course, he used riffs from the Home Shopping Network and the movie "Airplane" to illustrate points. And he listened patiently while a student told the seemingly endless tale of his mother's misadventure buying a car.

Supportive students

If some young faces on this campus oppose him, more seem to be admirers.

"People . . . are portraying him as being anything from a pervert to a revolutionary," says Kristin Wickersty, 21, a theology major who has taken the sex seminar. "But he's a good professor. He's a professor who stuck his neck out to teach in a field that's hush-hush. He's willing to take the scandal if he can continue to teach students. Just because he can make any piece of information clearly understood doesn't mean he's pushing any piece."

But Matt Focht, 21, a political science major, believes that Dr. LoPresto advances a liberal -- and sometimes controversial -- social agenda.

Although he wasn't opposed to the sex class, he was bothered by the methods Dr. LoPresto and his colleague, Cynthia Mendelson, used. They included videos of people masturbating and homosexuals having oral sex along with discussions about pre-marital sex and contraception.

"There are limits to what you do in a public setting," he says. "The videos crossed the line between what's there for legitimate educational value and what's there for shock value. My gut tells me they were there to create controversy."

Although the seminar was the most contentious issue Dr. LoPresto has faced, it wasn't the first.

Two years ago, he was an advocate of Denim Day, an event where Loyola students who supported gay and lesbian rights wore denim clothing to school.

"The way it was structured polarized the student body," Mr. Focht says. "It was like, 'Oh, look, this guy isn't in denim. He's not a nice guy. . . . It was just ridiculous. It's not that I'm against gay rights. I just didn't like being told what to think or do."

Although Dr. LoPresto identifies himself as a Catholic educator, he realizes not everyone agrees.

"I see within the church more latitude for interpreting issues than some of my fellow Catholics," he says. "In the area of homosexuality, my understanding of the church's point of view is, 'All people are good and lovable. They're created by God.' That includes gay and lesbian folks. The problem the church has is in the expression of their sexuality. Within a loving relationship, I don't know why that's wrong."

Interest in psychology

He first became interested in psychology while teaching high school biology at Calvert Hall College in the '70s.

"I was doing most of my work at 3 o'clock when young people were coming in to talk," he says. "Often times when you're dealing with adolescent males, the topic tends to turn to sexual issues, relationship issues or personal self-esteem. . . . I was hearing a lot of their confusion and seeing a lot of irresponsible behavior because facts weren't available to them; myths were. I felt a real need to begin to address that."

Tom Bateman, an English teacher at Calvert Hall, recalls his former colleague as being popular and innovative. "He was a mover and shaker. He wasn't content with the lesson plans from years ago. He was always looking at more modern ways of teaching students," he says.

In 1982, Dr. LoPresto earned his master's in clinical psychology from Loyola College. Five years later, after receiving his doctorate from Howard University in Washington, he joined Loyola's psychology department. He is also in private practice in Towson, treating primarily adolescent males.

The son of a bricklayer and hairdresser, he grew up in Highlandtown, learning early on from his folks, Charles and Connie LoPresto, that sex was a beautiful but dangerous thing.

"My parents gave me a strong sense of consequence. They were not rigid. In psychology, we'd say, 'They embodied well an authoritative parenting style.' They were clearly the parents, and boundaries were set."

At age 8, he and his family moved to Original Northwood, and he faced major culture shock.

"I grew up in a neighborhood where people were very animated and very emotional. I saw men hug and kiss each other. Then I moved to the suburbs and none of that happened. I was like, 'What is this?' It was really very strange for me," he recalls.

His eating habits also made him stand out.

"When I went to school, kids would bring these little sandwiches with the crusts cut off and brown and purple stuff in the middle," he says. "I'd come in with Italian bread filled with zucchini and egg omelets. I remember one day this little girl screamed, 'Mrs. Hunter, look! Charles' sandwich is green.' "

In high school, he began dating an Irish girl named Colleen Larkin. They'd bumped into each other at Catholic social events, but she'd never shown much interest in him.

"My sophomore year I asked her to a dance. She said yes, and that was it for me," he says.

He says he ignored the free-love movement of the '60s and instead remained true to his Catholic upbringing.

Six days after he graduated from La Salle College in Philadelphia, he and Colleen married.

Their two sons -- Patrick, now 23, and Kevin, 21 -- have shown an interest in following their father's career path. The eldest, who graduated from Loyola, took the sex seminar and encouraged his father to market it to other schools. A psychology major, he also took the for-credit psychology-of-learning course taught by his father.

"I had hideous reservations about teaching my own son," Dr. LoPresto says. But since his tests were multiple choice, he believed he could be impartial. On the first test, Patrick got the third-lowest grade in the class but finished the semester with an A.

He now works as a mental health worker in Columbia, while Kevin attends Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina where he's likely to major in psychology.

While Dr. LoPresto wanted his sons educated about sex in school, parent-led debates about sex education are commonplace at high schools all over Maryland and the country. Last month, a graphic documentary about pornography was removed from a course at Notre Dame Prep after parents and alumni objected.

Student-led protest

At Loyola, the furor over Dr. LoPresto's course drew widespread attention because students were leading the protest. As their ad said, they felt the materials were "wrong and harmful according to the church's teachings."

(Several student organizers either declined to be interviewed or did not return calls for this story.)

Dr. LoPresto doesn't express any anger toward the students who complained about his course, which ended in late February.

"I think [the students] really strongly believe what they believe. I don't have any problems with that," he says. "In the final analysis, this has been good in leading to more open dialogue."

The information Loyola students will get next semester in the sex seminar is still unknown. The college has said it will provide "closer oversight" of future sex seminars and that "explicit videos and films will not be used in future offerings . . . unless they are first reviewed and approved to ensure that they are appropriate and necessary for undergraduate students."

Dr. LoPresto, who belongs to the 13-member group, says it's a relief to have educators making the assessment. If they decide that videos should be withdrawn completely, he says he's prepared to accept that decision and go on.

Ultimately, he hopes the controversy will fade away. He wants students to remember him not for this issue, but as a one-time Loyola professor of the year.

"That's the finest award I've ever gotten," he says. "Controversial sex guy? I don't like that. I just want to be known as a teacher."

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