"Psst. Psst."

Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the man, one of a group, lounging against a building. And with the sixth sense that city women develop, she knows it won't end with the hiss.

"Hey, honey, you're sure looking good today," he says, unhooking himself from the building's corner.

Even though it's broad daylight and the street is crammed with pedestrians, this liberated woman feels the first tingle of fear.

"Hey, b . . . h, can't you speak?" He says this from somewhere near her shoulder, but she doesn't look in that direction. She charges ahead, ignoring in intrusion, hoping he won't touch her or say anything else.

He continues to talk to her, analyzing her body parts, alternating lewd remarks with mock-gentle persuasiveness.

"Come on, honey. I just want to talk. Say something," he says, leaning into her face. "You don't look that good."

They are a couple now, a half block from the group of men who continue to stare at their backs.

"Aw, . . . you," he finally says, laughing, and ambles back to his sniggling cohorts.

The woman is left enraged and frustrated. For the rest of the day, she will feel this man's uninvited presence in her life. No matter how often she tells of the incident, it will lose none of its vividness.

There are various kinds of street comments, ranging from friendly general admiration to threatened intimidation. And the phenomenon seems to be on the increase, especially in the big cities.

Urbanologist Lewis Mumford sees it as "part of the general deterioration of civilization," as an outgrowth of the same atmosphere that prevents people from now walking in New York's Central Park at night.

Minnie Massey, executive director of the D.C. Women's Commission for Crime Prevention, however, feels that street comments are less significant. A resident of Washington since 1934, Massey argues that men have always made "wolf whistles. It's a very natural thing. You always hated to walk by a crowd of men because you knew they were going to say something. Perhaps the comments are less sedate nowadays, but that's the tendency in everything."

For Columbia University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, the increase in street comments is just another fallout from changing sexual roles, the rise of women's liberation, and more intermingling among different social classes of people. "But it's not just one thing that's leading to the increase," says Etzioni. "It's just part of getting things out of the closet, a general freeing up of feelings, and less of an ability or an interest in curbing such feelings."

That lack of inhibition extends to street comments. Where once a single comment was made to a woman passing on the street, now whole conversations are attempted. And while women will talk about it, the women interviewed did not want their names used for fear of attractting more bizarre kinds of attention.

Recalls one professional woman, in her mid-20's,: "I was walking down King Street in Alexandria in the midele of the afternoon and this truck comes down the street with two men in it. One man jumps out of the truck directly in front of me. 'I want to talk you,' he says. 'I don't mean to bother you. You look good. I just want to talk you.' I was frightened because he could have dragged me into the truck. I told him to go away and leave me alone. I wanted to be by myself. There weren't many people on the street and he walked with me for a little way, the truck cruising alongside, and then he got back into it.

Another woman recalled a summer walk down Connecticut Avenue with a girlfriend: "There was this man on a stoop and he said something like 'Hey pretty things,' to us as we went by. We ignored him and the next thing he was cussing and screaming at us. Then he threw a bottle which crashed in front of us. The amazing thing was that no one on the street came up to see if we were okay."

This kind of interference doesn't occur only in the streets. Another woman remembers a very handsome, clean-cut man approaching her in the supermarket. "He asked me where the tea section was and I told him, then I got in the check-out line. The next thing I knew, he was in the line behind me, asking me what my name was, what kinds of things interested me. I told him my first name, but not my last, but somehow he found out. He also found out where I work, and he's been calling me every day for five days."

While many American women feel offended by these uninvited intrusions into their lives, other cultures see the street comment as a perfectly natural interaction between men and women. The Italians have a word for it "i complimenti ": the Spanish have several words - and the French have a whole day. May 1st, when men may kiss unknown girls to whom they've presented lily-of-the-valley bouquets.

The multiplicity of cultures that make up America, and the lack of generally accepted rules by which American men can approach women may account for some of the confusion over street comment.

As one black New York woman says: "I can handle the comments from the men in Harlem, the 'Hey, mommas,' and the 'What's happ'ins.' I know what to say, when to say it, and when not to say anything. But I really don't know how to respond in Spanish Harlem when the men make those sucking, kissing and groaning sounds. Maybe the Spanish girls do."

Indeed, when dealing with street comments, there is the need to cut through cultural peculiarities before deciding whether the comment is aggressive or not. One man's "Hey, little momma" is another's "Good afternoon."

Still, touching, grabbing, or making obscene remarks to a woman is a crime in the District of Columbia and Fairfax County. In Prince George's County, only touching or grabbing are considered crimes.

But according to several street-patrol officers, street comments are such instantaneous crimes that there is next to nothing they can do about it. Says D.C. 7th Precinct officer Charles McClelland: "A lot of women won't press charges even when we do apprehend the man. And a lot of times, the man is gone by the time we get there. But if a man makes an obscene gesture or smart-talks a woman, it is a crime that he can be arrested for."

Because of the ephemeral nature of most incidents, women usually have to fend for themselves when assaulted by street comments. Their reactions are as varied as the verbal onslaughts from men.

"I go into my Sister of Charity of Nazareth act," says one woman. "Who is more imposing and intimidating than a nun. I freeze them with a look, but if they get vulgar, I get vulgar right back. I shoot them the finger if the nun act doesn't work. I don't even like to be whistled at - I give dirty looks for whistling."

Another woman says: "Nine out of 10 times. I will usually say 'Hello.' But very coldly. Speaking just saves you from being embarrassed. And most of the time, the men are just being fresh. But the speaking approach doesn't always work.

"Once I was approached by a man at the bus stop. He had an attache case and wore a suit, but there was something weired about him. I was reading a magazine and he asked me my name, so I told him my first name. He ducked down and read my name and address on the magazine. He tried to strike a up a conversation, but I kept saying 'Umm Humm' hoping he would get the message. When the bus came. I got on and he did too.

"He asked me where I was going. and I told him - to meet my husband. When I got off the bus, he did as well. By then I wasn't speaking at all and he started to get nasty, told me if he was my man, he'd slap the s- out of me. That really set me off. I told him that he wasn't my man, wouldn't be my man, and if there was going to be any slapping going on, it was going to be me doing it to him. He dropped back behind me, but he kept mumbling, and he followed me right up to the door of my office."

What makes men do this? And why do street comments often escalate into more aggressive behavior? A Georgetown Medical Center psychiatrist says it's all caused by men's sexual drive. "Some of them have it under control and others don't," he says. "If they just speak or compliment, it may be simple machismo. Others do it to show off and then it's the level of school boys in front of the group. It's mere bravado in front of the others."

But there can be darker motives, the psychiatrist says. "Some men are angry with women and they want to humiliate them, embarrass them or profane them. That's why they say abusive things."

However, in gathering material for this article, I passed a group of parking-lot attendants and one yelled out. "Hey what's happening?"

"I'm glad you asked that," I countered, and approached the group for an on-the-spot interview.

It came out that they all talk to strange women on the street because as one man summed it up: "The women enjoy it, mostly. I enjoy doing it and it kills time. Besides women are doing it too nowadays."

Perhaps, but the time has not yet come when a woman can intrude so insistently into the life of a man she doesn't know.