MY OLD ROOMMATE, Neil, and I used to wonder about all the girls we knew who said they had been raped. This was something of a mystery to us and what we wondered, frankly, was whether rape was being used to explain what was clearly a lack of virginity (this was a long time ago, kiddies) or whether, in fact, there were a lot of rapists out there. We now think the woods are full of rapists.

The rapes these women talked about were not your common bang-you-over-the-head-and-throw-you-into-the-bushes variety. These were rapes committed by persons known to the women, sometimes relatives -- men who did not know how to take no for an answer.

If these rapes had on thing in common, it was that they entailed a minimum of violence. Sometimes there was a little violence, maybe a threat, but not really more than that. The women called it rape. You can bet the men called it something else -- "scoring" would be a good guess.

I bring this up now because of the recent ruling of the Maryland Court of Appeals in which a rape conviction was overturned on the grounds that the victim did not have sufficient cause to think she was in danger. In this case, the woman met the man at a bar, drove him home but refused to go inside his home with him. The man then reached over, grabbed the keys out of the ignition, scaring the woman into going into the house with him, where he "lightly" choked her. She then did what he wanted, little realizing in the words of the court, that the man's actions were not enough to create a "reasonable fear" that if she resisted him he would have harmed her.

Now this is almost precisely the sort of rape my roommate Neil and I used to hear about and which we found puzzling. We knew as men that folklore said that very often "no" did not mean "No!" In fact, there were three kinds of nos -- a no that meant yes and a no that meant maybe and a no that meant no. The only way you could tell for sure was to keep pushing, since the wisdom of the streets held that women sometimes succumbed to passion: In other words, with a little force the lady with you could become some witless and brainless writhing thing.

For instance, the man in the Maryland rape case probably saw the woman's friendliness at the bar as sexual interest.If he had any doubts, they vanished when she agreed to drive him home and even though she balked when they got to his house, all he had to do was take the ignition keys -- a little stunt I've seen a dozen times in the movies and since incorporated in the male handbook of sexual etiquette -- and she climbed the stairs with him. What the guys on the corner would say is that she was a lady who needed a little push -- someone to show her who was boss.

We are now finding that these are among the most common of rapes -- that rape, like murder, often occurs when the parties know each other, and it happens, in the case of rape, because men for some time have believed that a certain amount of force -- or the threat of force -- is permitted in the wooing of a lady. It is a quaint concept.

You sort of have to step back off the planet, get a really good and objective look, to realize how amazing this sort of thinking is. Sex, for some reason, is the last stronghold of violence, the one area of daily life where society sanctions it. You could not grab the keys and lightly choke someone you were doing business with -- the painter, for instance -- or someone in a social situation, but you can with sex. It makes no sense.

The long term solution is education. The women's movement has gone a long way toward educating men about women. (I can't believe the things I once believed.) And it is good that some schools are now teaching kids that rape is not necessarily a matter of bopping some lady over the head and dragging her into the bushes -- that no means no and even if it doesn't (and sometimes it doesn't) being tough is no way to find out.

In the short term, though, it is the courts and the law that have to get the message across and this is why the Maryland decision is such a step backward. For saying that there is such a thing as insufficient force implies that there is a permitted or sanctioned level of force -- that the guys were right in thinking that you could use a little muscle on a lady. It is that sort of thinking that led that guy to lightly choke that woman in Maryland and is that sort of thinking that accounted for the stories that my roommate and I heard years ago. A lot has changed for Neil and me since then. But for the women of Maryland, things remain the same.