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Looking Behind Rape Statistics

RAPE has always been the most underreported of crimes. Just how underreported became evident last month, when a government-funded study estimated that 683,000 adult women in the United States were raped in 1990. That is more than five times as high as the number of sexual assaults the Justice Department reported.

If the findings of the National Women's Study are accurate, they indicate that more than 12 million women have been raped at least once. Sixty-eight percent were raped by men they knew, a finding that refutes the stranger-in-the-dark stereotype. And an astonishing 61 percent of all rapes occurred before the woman reached the age of 18.

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Two highly public trials, one involving William Kennedy Smith, the other Mike Tyson, have put the issue of acquaintance rape in the limelight as never before. But awareness marks only the first step toward solutions. The next steps involve changing attitudes and behavior.

To their credit, a growing number of universities and colleges are introducing programs on acquaintance rape, spelling out appropriate behavior. One of the biggest reasons for date rape, counselors say, is the high level of alcohol consumption on campus.

But long before students reach college, parents and others can redouble efforts to strengthen young people's moral values.

Schools can also play a role, although a question arises: As health counselors instruct students about "safe" sex, even distributing condoms, are they missing a chance to encourage students to postpone sexual activity - to develop relationships based on caring and respect, not instant gratification or force?

The so-called sexual revolution fostered the belief that old sexual mores were puritanical - inappropriate in a modern age. But as the statistics on rape indicate, men and women could benefit by returning to some antique ideas they have scorned. They might start with the concept of courtship.

The entertainment industry must bear part of the blame for widespread sexual violence. (One of every eight Hollywood movies depicts a rape scene.)

An old song had the right message, newly appropriate for the '90s: Try a little tenderness.

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