Words can be just as evil as deeds, influential anti-pornography theorist Catharine MacKinnon asserts in her new book, "Only Words."

"To say it is to do it, and to do it is to say it," writes MacKinnon, who argues that pornography causes sexual violence and therefore should be banned.

So when reviewer Carlin Romano, writing in the Nation, provocatively raised the idea of raping MacKinnon to prove that thoughts and deeds do differ, her response followed quite naturally.

"This was a public rape," MacKinnon said yesterday. "What Romano did was place me in the position of a raped woman so that he had me where he wanted me. ... All women are hurt by this. It changes the public boundaries for the treatment of women."

Romano responded: "She's gone from saying pornography is rape to saying book reviewing is rape. Catharine MacKinnon's mind is one long slippery slope."

In the seven weeks since the review appeared, it has mushroomed into an increasingly vituperative cause celebre that mirrors the larger debate in feminist, legal and journalistic circles about pornography and the First Amendment. Romano's review, although it contains nothing salacious, has become for some feminists a symbol of those who just don't get it.

"What we're seeing here is the increasing penetration into the mainstream media of what previously was only done by pornographers," charged MacKinnon.

She's not exactly defenseless, however. A number of groups and individuals have taken up her cause, at least one of them at her invitation. First Amendment fan Nat Hentoff, whose surname was appropriated in Romano's review as one of her fictional assailants, received a letter from MacKinnon. "Please disavow this rape of me in your name," she asked.

Hentoff complied last week with a Village Voice column headlined "The Public Rape of Catharine MacKinnon." He wrote: "The rape -- hypothetical or fantasy or whatever -- was a rape. ... Romano deliberately, cruelly, set out to debase Catharine MacKinnon's person, along with her ideas. It was not a rape that will land him in a cell, but his name will be connected with it for a long time."

That's a promise made by Jeffrey Masson as well, in a letter that was sent to Romano but which has enjoyed ample circulation among interested parties. Masson -- a writer who has become best known for his libel case against New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm -- rose to defend the woman he lives with.

"If there is ever anything I can do to hurt your career, I will do it," Masson wrote, adding that he wanted to "grab" and "shake" and "hurt" Romano in the same way the critic imagined hurting MacKinnon.

Yesterday MacKinnon echoed that position. "I do think Carlin Romano should be held accountable for what he did. There are a lot of people out there and a lot of ways that can be done."

Romano began his review of "Only Words" with this dramatic sentence: "Suppose I decide to rape Catharine MacKinnon before reviewing her book."

This begins a complicated conceit in which he decides not to rape her ("People simply won't understand"), and instead does "the next best thing: I imagine the act."

He then further supposes that he writes a "savage, pornographic" review, based on his fantasy. Meanwhile, another critic is also assigned MacKinnon's book for review.

This fellow, given the suggestive name of Dworkin Hentoff after two prominent defenders of the First Amendment, "concludes that he too needs to rape Catharine MacKinnon before properly evaluating her book." Unlike Romano, he actually does it.

Both Romano and Dworkin Hentoff are arrested for rape. Not fair, points out the jailed Romano: All I did was imagine it. Dworkin Hentoff really did it. But in the world of Catharine MacKinnon, both are equally guilty.

Back in the real world, Hentoff said he wasn't crazy about being tagged as a rapist, even in a hypothetical example in a book review. "The son of a bitch should have asked me as a sort of common decency," he said.

The "Dworkin" side of the rapist, meanwhile, has been variously attributed to MacKinnon colleague Andrea Dworkin or MacKinnon opponent Ronald Dworkin. Romano denied it was specifically meant to suggest either.

The critic's review, after its unusual opening premise, accuses MacKinnon of having "a sensibility so soaked in gender hatred, and so convinced of foolish generalizations about male psychology, that she threatens to become the Lyndon LaRouche of sexual discrimination law." For good measure, he calls her reasoning "often specious," her empirical claims "often suspect," her values "dogmatic" and "her view of sex and the good society ... ravishingly insular."

Romano, the book critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer who is currently a visiting fellow at Harvard, said he anticipated a strong reaction to the review. "I just hoped some of it would be more subtle. ... Let's not forget my offensiveness was a response to her offensiveness about men in 'Only Words.' I at least treated her as a thinker in my review. She treats men as spare parts attached to penises."

He also accused her of trivializing. "Real rape seems unimportant when the word gets watered down," said Romano, who is almost as controversial in the world of book-reviewing as MacKinnon is in her realm.

Snorted MacKinnon: "He's just using raped women to cover himself. That's really offensive."

The Nation has gotten at least 50 letters about the review, had five subscriptions canceled and received demands for an apology from at least two men's anti-pornography groups.

One letter, from Polly Poskin of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, summed up some of the Romano-as-rapist fervor:

"The only difference between Romano and a rapist is that I can wad Romano up, spit on him, and throw him in the trash; if I hit a rapist, he may kill me. But how fine is the line between words and action? What about those who choose not to close the magazine, the book, turn off the TV? They might decide it really would be just fine to do the same thing to me. And then will do it."

Victor Navasky, editor of the Nation, said he remained proud of the review, which was the lead-off piece in the Nov. 15 Fall Books issue.

"Once every couple of years, you publish something that deeply touches people," he said. "Often, it has to do with the use of satire or irony, and people taking it literally."

Romano was far from the only critic to attack "Only Words." In fact, it was widely vilified. This was no surprise to the book's editor at Harvard University Press, Lindsay Waters. "Asking people in the media to review MacKinnon is a little like asking the tobacco industry to review a report linking cancer and smoking," he said. "It's not likely to end up positive."

Nevertheless, the University of Michigan Law School professor has an increasingly wide following. She's been credited with influencing the Canadian Supreme Court to greatly strengthen that country's obscenity laws in 1992. It was more important to ban speech that is dehumanizing to women, the court said, than to protect free speech.

MacKinnon and her supporters "have vowed to pursue similar rulings in the United States," Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, observed in the Chronicle of Higher Education in July. "Moreover, some leading constitutional scholars have predicted that this strategy will ultimately succeed."

On a more personal level, Romano said he was taking seriously the threats made by Jeffrey Masson in his letter. "He's extremely energetic when he has a goal in mind."

MacKinnon mocked the critic's fears. "Carlin Romano thinks pornography does nothing. He thinks what he wrote about me does nothing. However, {he thinks} what Jeffrey Masson says in a private letter -- that may do something."

Masson, she said, "has never hit anyone in his entire life." His threats were only words.