Suddenly, everywhere you turn there is Gerard Depardieu. He's a French actor who is the leading candidate to become this year's European heartthrob and you can't pick up a magazine or newspaper without bumping into a profile of him. Unfortunately, sometimes the people doing those profiles also do their homework.

M. Depardieu has a very sordid past. He trotted out more of it than he should have in a 1978 interview that was recently resurrected in Time magazine by Richard Corliss, who asked the actor about his gun-toting, thieving childhood. "What of his story that at 9 he participated in his first rape?" Corliss asked. " 'Yes,' he {Depardieu} admits. And after that, there were many rapes? 'Yes,' he admits, 'but it was absolutely normal in those circumstances. That was part of my childhood.' "

After the Time magazine story broke, there were the initial denials and then finally last week Depardieu's publicist acknowledged that "he's sorry, but it happened." Perhaps the most damning part of Depardieu's public pronouncements on his life as a rapist were in the 1978 interview. He said there were "too many {rapes} too count . . . . There was nothing wrong with it. The girls wanted to be raped. I mean, there's no such thing as rape. It's only a matter of a girl putting herself in a situation where she wants to be."

The National Organization for Women has called on the actor to apologize and to make it clear to young men that his past violence against women is neither natural nor a license for others. And NOW suggested that Depardieu show his sincerity by making a significant contribution to a rape crisis center.

Somehow, that's like expiating one's sins by making a big contribution to the church, a time-honored tradition of royalty and the wealthy, but one that smacks of purchasing salvation rather than undergoing redemption. There's no suggestion that Depardieu's soul on the matter of rape got the least bit enlightened between 1978 and 1991. I suspect his redemption is more likely to come when thoughtful men and women make it clear at the box office that there are actions and attitudes that they find too abhorrent to even tacitly endorse by their patronage.

Now would be a good time to do that. Recent data from all over the country are showing an alarming increase in reported rapes. In the District, rape reports went up 63 percent last year. For the area as a whole, reports went up 24 percent. There were 1,304 women who were attacked here last year, 250 more than the year before, according to area police.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chief sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act of 1991, recently told lobbyists from various women's organizations that violent crimes against women ages 18 to 25 have increased 50 percent in 15 years. At the same time crime against men of that same age dropped 12 percent. He said there was no single cause for the surge, but said changing sexual roles, more and better reporting and the fact that women's work schedules expose them to more danger probably all contribute.

Over that 15-year period, he said, 25 million women have been raped. Campus rape, he said, "is cited most often as the reason freshmen women drop out and don't return." One of the most dismaying statistics he gave was from a study of three of our largest universities that found that 1,275 women on their campuses had been raped. Yet there were only three police reports of rapes at those schools. "One of the most frequent protests I've observed on campuses is about date rape and the lack of attention paid to it by administrations on campus."

Biden's bill would declare that rape is a "bias" or "hate" crime and provide civil rights remedies for victims. The bill would also double the penalties for rape in federal territories and encourage states to do the same. Other parts of the bill have provisions designed to encourage women to prosecute their assailants. It would authorize $300 million to help law enforcement authorities fight sex crimes and provide millions more to improve lighting and surveillance around public transit areas women use at night.

How necessary is this effort? Even now, Arlington police are looking for a serial rapist who has abducted three women from the area around the East Falls Church Metro station. District police are looking for a man who they believe has raped five women in Northwest.

Rape is by far the fastest rising crime in the country. Women urgently need help. As Biden said, "The problem is serious and it is getting worse and it must be stopped now." What we don't need is for the media to go on glamorizing an actor who started out as a rapist.