AT PRINCETON University, incoming women were given a sex survey on what looked like official stationery and asked to tell what Bessie Smith called nobody's business but their own. The survey, it turned out, was a hoax, the idea of some upperclassmen who sensed that a citizen's first obligation nowadays is to a pollster -- especially one asking questions about sex. It's supposed to have something to do with science.

All the Princeton men were trying to do, it seems, is get answers to the old question of does she or doesn't she. What they did in the process though is not only invade the privacy of the women, some of whom signed their names to their confessions (there ought to be a Miranda rule for freshmen women), but also mock that most hallowed of all American institutions -- the sex survey.

Americans seem stuck on the things. One seems to cross my desk every week. No women's magazine worthy of the name fails to carry at least an occasional sex survey, few of which tell you anything you did not already know. What they suggest, in fact, is that one reason some women subscribe to these magazines is so they can tell someone about their sex lives. At the moment, Redbook reports that almost everyone's is pretty good. This nation truly is blessed.

No one would argue that the various sex surveys have not proven useful. Starting with the original Kinsey Report, the world has been made better by what it has found out about sex -- what people do and with whom they do it. It is, after all, an important subject -- at the very least, an obsession. But the object of these surveys no longer seems to be knowledge. In the hands of some publications, it is a come-on -- a textual version of a centerfold given a sort of scientific veneer.

All this would be perfectly innocent if it were not for the fact that the surveys seem to carry a message. They not only tell you what everyone else is doing, but they seem to suggest it is what you should be doing, too. The strong implication is that if you did what most of the people did most of the time, you would be happy -- like they are. Things have gone so far that if some survey reported that the average American had sex 15 times a week, half the nation would try to catch up (and be hospitalized within a week).

The upshot is that there seems to be no allowance made for the individual, for the fact that no two of us, dearie, are the same. What is missing from these surveys is the news that the norm is a statistical term, not a standard, not a target, not a panacea. The expression "do your own thing" is not always a cliche.

In a sense, this obsession with sex surveys and surveys in general is turning an entire nation into a teen-age society. It is teen-agers, after all, who often judge right and wrong by how many of their friends do or don't do something. Morality seems to be in the numbers. Thus, stealing is okay if everyone does it. The same used to be true for smoking and drugs and sex. The lesson is clear: What is right is what everyone does.

This is not only true of sex, of course. In many things, Americans seem to measure themselves through surveys, deciding, for instance, to include or not to include a presidential candidate in a debate based on his standing in the polls, not, God forbid, on the notion that he might have something valuable to say. As for ourselves, we measure our success by statistics on how others our age are doing (That's the real reason for class reunions) and not by some personal standard. And if you think that sounds silly, think for a moment on how we tell if we are overweight -- by checking some chart, rather than simply by looking in the mirror.

So the Princeton men were on to something. They knew no self-respecting woman could turn down a sex survey, and they undoubtedly saw the women as victims of the survey mentality. But probably what the men wanted had nothing to do with victimizing the women. It had to do instead with making sure that they themselves were not victimized. When you strike out, it's comforting to know you're not alone.