Sex education made headlines in Lawrence, Kan., last spring when a human sexuality class taught by a maverick professor caught the attention of a conservative state legislator.
Prof. Dennis Dailey's course, Human Sexuality in Everyday Life, included segments on controversial topics. He showed videos to illustrate the range of sexual practices and used earthy humor in his lectures that at least one student found off-putting.
That student was an intern in the office of Republican state Sen. Susan Wagle, who did not like what she was hearing about Professor Dailey's course.
As a result, Senator Wagle introduced a budget amendment aimed at prohibiting state universities from showing what she called "obscene" videos in sex ed classes.
In the end, the governor vetoed the amendment. But the incident shines a spotlight on the controversy that often surrounds sexuality classes. Educators say flaps like that in Kansas are not unique. "It's far more common than we know," says Gilbert Herdt, director of both human sexuality studies at San Francisco State University and at the National Sexuality Resource Center there.
Experts say that Americans are more supportive of sex education, and especially with preventing HIV/AIDS or teen pregnancy, but others balk at more explicit topics.
The discipline has become something of an academic orphan, and without the support of an organized department, professors often find the subject difficult to teach.
Most classes were established during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Those were years of more openness, says John DeLamater, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
But as America began to move in a more socially conservative direction in the 1980s and '90s, that openness faded. "There's a fear ... that you'll be criticized," says Ira Reiss, a pioneer in the field who taught sociology at the University of Minnesota.
Mr. Herdt agrees, saying conservative groups are using intimidation to silence college-classroom discussions: "There is a vested interest in certain extremist associations trying to discredit all sexuality education."
For her part, Sen. Wagle says she does not represent an extremist point of view.
"I think what was going on in the classroom was extreme," she says, adding that she supports sex education when it is taught in a responsible manner. "I understand academic freedom, but this is taxpayer-funded academic freedom," she says. "In this case, the rights of the taxpayer outweigh this professor's right to be offensive."
The actions of those in the field are testament to the pressures they feel. One expert refused to comment for this story, saying media coverage might hinder his research. Others avoid the word "sex" in federal grant applications, knowing the topic might give pause to funding groups, says Cynthia Graham at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.
Professors often warn students if a potentially controversial topic is coming up in class. Feedback is solicited, and such classes are almost always optional. "Most instructors point this out to the students, that they are there voluntarily," Professor DeLamater says.
Aside from the growing voice of the conservative right, institutional challenges persist. Human sexuality has long been interdisciplinary, sometimes taught in health and biology departments, other times coming under the roof of sociology or anthropology.
As a result, Mr. Reiss says, department heads often fail to make it a priority, and students who want to specialize in the field can't.
The number of universities offering a major in human sexuality has shrunk from a peak of about 20 to five or six today, says Stephen Conley, director of the American Association for Sexuality Education Counselors and Therapists in Richmond, Va. "It's incredible what's happening right now in terms of sex negativity. It's not going to help our kids."
For years, many universities have relied on one professor to teach the human sexuality class, and many of those are reaching retirement age.
"That's a concern," Herdt says, but "I am confident we will find that an increasing number of universities will elect to have sexuality courses simply because students and the society will demand that they do so." When that happens, Herdt and his peers plan to be ready.
The Kinsey Institute is working toward a number of graduate education initiatives, and San Francisco State's new master's program in human sexuality is a step toward building credibility.
It's a progression Reiss supports. "We have to clear up the question of 'What does it mean to be a professor of human sexuality?' Only a degree program will answer that."
Indeed, experts say education in sexuality is still desperately needed.
DeLamater has found that many of his students received abstinence-only education in high school. An informal survey last fall showed that about 25 percent of his students had been taught sex education by an athletic coach.
Ms. Graham and her colleagues, too, are "always sort of stunned" by students' lack of knowledge regarding human sexuality. "There's a lot of misinformation out there," she says.