FOR A LONG TIME now, I have been having this silent debate with Gloria Steinem and her cohorts about pornography. They write something, and I read it and say "Oh, yeah?" They make an appearance on television and I sit in the living room and answer back. They make a lecture and I mutter something in response. They are against porn and I simply don't care. I mean, what harm does it do?

I have my constitutional arguments, of course, and I take them quite seriously. I am a 100 percent believer in the First Amendment and I think, barring an attempt to reveal something like the Naval Code, anything goes. Now, however, I am not so sure.

What brings on this onset of doubt is, of all things, a book, "Ordeal," written by the erstwhile Linda Lovelace, now doing as a housewife on Long Island. She is married and traveling through life as Linda Boreman Marchiano, 31, former star of stage, screen and Playboy mansions both east and west where, she says, she had a nude encounter with the great Hugh Hefner and found him to be, well, not so great.

The book itself is quite porn, not quite straitlaced. It has more sex than some people might want, a lot less than most would expect. Mostly, it is the story of how Linda Boreman, the daughter of a cop, became Linda Lovelace, porn star. On how this was done, both she and her former manager, Chuck Traynor, agree: He created her. It's about how he did it that they differ. She says he beat her, threatened her and held her prisoner. Traynor denied this.

In some circles, the book has created quite a stir. Gloria Steinem has written a perceptive essay about it in Ms. Magazine. Phil Donohue had the former Miss Lovelace on his show. And for an instant in world history, the book actually hung there on the best-seller list, until someone came along, stepped on its knuckles and it edged off the list, landing God-knows-where. In contrast, "Thy Neighbor's Wife," Gay Talese's monumental study of nothing much, climbs the charts like Hillary up Everest. It will, you can be assured, reach the top.

For a columnist, the Lovelace book is rich in themes. But what emerged for me was the awful feeling I used to have when Ed McMahon did dog-food commercials on the Johnny Carson Show. McMahon would talk for a while and then place the bowl of food on the floor and some dog would come running over to it and eat immediately. This did not correspond to life. In my house, the dogs never ran to their food, always sniffed it first, and then maybe took a bored nibble of the stuff before calling the humane society to turn me in for negligence. In short, I suspected the television dogs had been starved for a week.

In the same way, porn -- specifically "Deep Throat" -- does not conform to life. Linda Lovelace says she hated what she did. She did it, she says, because she was scared -- because she was virtually held prisoner -- because she was some kind of show biz version of the battered housewife. The ecstasy you saw, if you happened to see "Deep Throat," was not ecstasy at all, but acting. It's kind of like being told the dog was starved.

Of course, we should have known that, because women in porn movies do not act as you and I know women to act, but instead as some men would like them to act -- the way they act is male fantasies. In porn, women have sex on command, sex devoid of love or romance or feeling of any kind -- even a little bit of conversation.

It is not like this in real life. It is only this way in the fantasies of some men where females stereotypes cavort in their imagination. Through porn, the stereotypes are transformed to the screen. It is as if bigots paid to have blacks eat watermelons and tap-dance on the screen, and anti-Semites arranged for movies about bearded Jews who cheated and bargained, and in an epic, performed some sort of ritual murder.

In a similar way, porn reinforced the bigoted stereotype. Yet men who would never tolerate a movie of watermelon-eating blacks have no trouble with porn, defending it as either healthy or harmless. But it may be neither. It may, in fact, be linked to violence directed at women because all stereotypes tend to dehumanize, making objects out of people -- hate objects or sex objects.

Whether pornography plays a role in violence directed at women is a question that for now can't be answered. But it's clear that at the least it's a raging insult to women. But so strong is the hold it has on the male imagination that when a book comes out by the star of "Deep Throat," exposing it for the lie it is, the book fades from sight, while the movie plays on and on.