I DON't RECALL exactly how we got onto the subject and I don't recall how old we were at the time, but I do recall that all three of my roommates were there that night and that we were sitting around that perpetually dusty furnished apartment of ours, spending a rare slow night in each others' company, Sooner or later the conversation turned to women, as it usuall did, and then for some reason we started to talk about rape. It did not take long to figure out that either there was an awful lot of it around, or women were pathological liars.

The way it started was that one of us, maybe it was Neil, mentioned that he had met yet another girl who claimed to have been raped. Then I said that a lot of the women I know said the same thing, and then Sam and Mike who were also there said pretty much the same thing. You went around the room and by the time you finished a lot of rapes had been reported on. There were rapes in Europe and rapes in Mexico and one, I remember in a dentist's chair under the influence of laughing gas, but there were an awful lot of mundane rapes - the type that take place in parks and in hallways and in alleys. There was just an awful lot of them.

Well, that was a long time ago, but the conversation has stuck with me. Up to then I thought of rape as somethings that almost never happened and I ascribed at least some of the stories I heard to an attempt to explain a lack of virginity in an era when the movie camera panned to shots of the ocean whenever a man and a woman clinched. It took some time to realize the dimensions of the problem and I think of that realization from time to time, usually when rape for some reason or another gets into the news. I thought of it recently, for instance, when the California Court of Appeals overturned a rape conviction on technical grounds with one of the judges observing own rpae - contributory negligence of a sort.

The judge noted that the woman had been hitchhiking and he said that women who hitch-hike are looking for trouble - "she had less concern for the consequences than the average female," is the way he put it. "Under such circumstances, it would not be unreasonable for a man in the position of the defendant here to believe that the female would consent to sexual relations."

With these words, a virtual movement has been launched. Women have massed in protest, columnists have taken sides and everyone has been reminded, of course, of the recent Wisconsin case in which a judge observed that society was full of sexy ladies and that one could hardly blame a poor, confused 15-year-old boy for getting a bit confused and for sexually molesting one of them. Almost lost in all of this is the news that the California rape verdict was not overturned on the basis of that one sentence, but on a technicality having to do with the trial judge's charge to the jury. Also lost too, and we can be grateful for this, are the details of the alleged rape itself, involving as they do a van, pornographic pictures and the alleged attempt of the rape victim to distract the man by teaching him the chant of the Nicherin Shoshu sect to which she belonged. This is California, after all.

Anyway, both judges have been attacked for their statements and both have been treated as if there is nothing to what they say. There is, and it has to do with the way men learn their lessons, how they gather in groups at the back of the locker room and are told by wise men with a pack of Luckies rolled into their sleeve that when a lady says no she doesn't necessarily mean no. In fact, the wise men said that some things counted more than words - dress, for instance, or hitchhiking. These things said a lot. They said the lady was looking for it.

These were the lessons and maybe there was a time when they applied. But the times have changed and one of the things that both judges have touched on, in their way, is how a woman can be blamed for doing what a man would do. In this case, all the lady did was try to hitch a ride, a possibly dangerous endeavor, but one that men do all the time. In fact, it is always when women reach for the same privileges of men that they run into trouble - whether it was smoking and wearing pants years ago to traveling by themselves, either on the highway or at night on a city street. If that California judge had a point, it was that his thinking was not all that different than the alleged rapist's. They would understand each other.

Anyway, it's time that this circle broke and it is time to eliminate all excuses for rape - especially contributory negligence on the part of the woman. All you have to do is listen to women to understand that rape inhibits them and tends to keep them in what some men would consider their place. The problem, I learned years ago in a conversation with my roommates, is larger than you might think. If there is one thing I have learned since then it is that it is not only a woman's problem and it's not exclusively about sex.

It's also about freedom.