One rich New Yorker told an elementary school class that he would guarantee their college tuitions if they would only finish high school. The offer, which has been imitated around the country, made industrialist Eugene Lang a hero.

Another rich New Yorker offered to pay girls $1,000 if they would only remain government-certified virgins until age 19. But for John Napoleon LaCorte, there was no imitation, no hero's mantle: just horse laughs and ridicule.

Degrading, said the feminists, bridling at the idea of asking young women to submit to physical examination for a cash award.

Ridiculous, said the health experts, pointing out the virtual impossibility of proving virginity.

Intrusive and maybe unconstitutional, said the legal-minded, noting that a government agency trying to certify virginity would open itself to all manner of liability suits.

Immoral, said the moralists, likening the LaCorte proposal to a sort of reverse prostitution.

To his credit, the 78-year-old LaCorte didn't just sulk at the criticism his proposal triggered from the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood and physicians. He went right back to the drawing board and came up with an offer to fund educational seminars that would "prepare a young person to be a good wife, good mother and good homemaker." He would put $100,000 into a special account and use the interest to fund the seminars.

"We were criticized that we should not bribe girls with money, which is right," he said. "We made a mistake."

It was a mistake made with the best of intentions. LaCorte, who made his fortune in real estate, has been troubled by what he sees as a moral breakdown -- and not just in its manifestation in adolescent pregnancy. His JNL Institute, which he established in 1983, has given prizes and testimonials for youngsters who avoid alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

"I am an old man," he said, "and I believe that I should invest my money to see that young people regain some of their lost morals."

But are the morals lost? Were they never there in the first place? Or have our ideas of morality so changed as to render LaCorte's hope hopelessly quaint?

That, really, is where the teen-age sex debate is these days. On the one hand are those who, like LaCorte, see premarital virginity -- or at least adolescent virginity -- as an unquestioned virtue. They may believe the statistics that tell us that whatever used to be the case, today's teens are sexually active. But they refuse to abandon virginity as an ideal.

On the other hand are the "realists" who accept teen-age sex as the norm and who bend their efforts to preventing its worst consequences: pregnancy and adolescent childbearing.

Those in the first group look at the girls who choose virginity and try to find ways to reinforce their choice. They see birth-control assistance (as opposed to moral instruction) in school-based clinics as likely to increase teen-age sexual activity, even if (as they doubt) it reduces the number of pregnancies. As they see it, for concerned adults to focus on pregnancy-prevention is to surrender on the moral question and to communicate to children that they are expected to have sex.

The second group sees the moralists as hopelessly out of touch with today's teen-agers. Not only do they believe that virginity as the norm is an unrealistic goal; many of them don't even subscribe to the goal as an unquestioned ideal.

Dr. Louise Tyrer, Planned Parenthood's vice president for medical affairs, spoke for this group when she said, in response to LaCorte's original proposal:

"Our view is that people need to make reproductive decisions," she said. "Therefore, it is my belief that what they need is sufficient information to make appropriate choices about this." And if they choose sex and the risk of pregnancy? "I don't believe that people should be coerced into taking a particular position," says Tyrer. "That would mean they have no choices."

Tyrer and other holders of this view may have convinced LaCorte that his method was wrong. But they haven't dissuaded him from his view that the old-fashioned virtues are worth recapturing, that adults still have the responsibility to teach that some choices are not merely pragmatically awkward but wrong.

Will his "educational seminars" help? I don't know, but I wish him luck.