The quiet aftermath of the Robert Bauman debacle provides an opportunity to examine homosexual prostitution between men and boys in its routine. The place to begin is with changing sexual mores. Not long ago the words "chicken hawk" and "chicken" carried no sexual connotation. Now, we learn from the media that a "chicken hawk" is an adult male, typically white and middle-aged, who seeks out boys, teen-agers of all colors (the "chickens"), for sexual gratification at a price.

We have also learned that such transactions are common and that police appear to be rather ineffective at stopping them. In the future we may witness increased tolerance for pederasty. We may also observe vigorous law enforcement. Probably we will see both. But neither is desirable.

There are several mean streets to the pederastic universe. At one extreme is a violent, criminal underworld inhabited by men fleeing the police, thugs blackmailing these men and police extorting money from both the men and those blackmailing them. In this milieu, runaway boys have been drugged, abused, passed from pimp to pimp, murdered; in short, subjected to everything imaginable. As to how large and organized this underworld is, and how much corruption exists to insulate it (and live off it), nobody knows. Probably it is quite small.

For the most part, when we descend into the society of men and boys, we find not an underworld but an underground: unorganized street hustlers and call-boy rings in continuous contact with small clusters of men who "hang out where the boys are."

The boys are between 14 and 19, and the prices received are low -- about $20 on the average. And once the boys reach 20 or 21, their appeal is much diminished. They can be found at bus depots or pinball arcades or hotdog stands in most places.

In its essentials, there is nothing new about this trade. The practice of teenage boys earning money by letter older men "perform" on them is familiar stuff. In these transactions both parties are consenting: There is no hint of violence and no pimps to take a cut. The boys are not seduced; they are soliciting. They are not "chicken" in the sense of being helpless victims. Many have no conception of themselves as homosexual (even as they view the older man as perverted).

But in some areas, it is more fashionable today to view the boys as victims.

Two Houston detectives, assigned to a newly created "chicken hawk patrol," define their "main goal" as preventing "any junvenile boy from being sexually abused mentally or physically." But this is very much a case of saving the boys from themselves. If they are victims, it is largely in the technical sense.

It is more accurate to characterize them as entrepreneurs who by and large understand their own motivations. They do it for money, for drugs, for pleasure and perhaps for some as a crude gambit for emotional sustenance. But unlike the teen-age girl prostitute, they do not act out of fear. There is no coerced recruitment, no whippings, no incarcerations in their rooms and no sweet-talking pimps with long Cadillacs and mountains of cocaine to take their earnings.

The most conspicuous feature of police behavior toward the boy prostitute is avoidance. Female streetwalkers of any age attract police attention. Boys can be invisible. Sometimes the police deny their existence: "No, we don't have that problem here." The police are nonchalant and ill informed. If we accept their account, we are left with a phenomenon that is inexplicable: hundreds of boy prostitutes recorded in some cities -- Houston and Los Angeles, for example -- and next to none in places such as the District.

The discrepancy can best be explained not by the actual street scene, but by the kind of enforcement agency. For example, there is vigorous enforcement in Houston, where the police are still scarred by the Dean Corll murders. (Corll, aided by two teen-agers, ran off a string of at least 27 homicides.) The same is true in Los Angeles. In New York, on the other hand, amnesty is practiced. The District is more like New York; languor is the normal mood.

The reasons for slack enforcement are easy to identify. First, in many cities gay rights groups have successfully urged reforms. Under pressure, the police have made enormous progress in overcoming a long history of harassment and entrapment. However, some jurisdictions -- the District, for example -- have gone further: They follow a policy of minimal enforcement when the parties are consenting adults. This means that, as a practical matter, not only the men but the boys are left alone.

A second reason is that officers find enforcement unplesant. "Working queers" is not a preferred assignment. Most officers don't want to hang about public lavatories, peep into toilet stalls, cruise public parks as bait or be in the company of homosexual men when they are on the make. The work is unsettling and doesn't lead to advancement. It does provide an opportunity to get out of uniform into plainclothes, to appear to be a detective. And in departments where harassment is still acceptable, there is the chance to make extra money -- from the suspect, his bondsman or his lawyer. But even illicit gains are not enough to tempt most officers.

A third influence is harder to pin down. It arises from a feeling that the offense is minor. The boys are not injured. They are hustling, not hustled. oThey keep what they earn. They show less of the pathology (infantile dependency) that so characterizes their female counterparts. When too old to hustle, many will get legitimate jobs; some will marry and raise children. In this view, boy prostitution is troubling but not tragic.

Finally, there is the reality of limited police powers. Our arsenal is small. Conventional law enforcement solutions fit poorly. To fine the boy is to participate in his business. To rehabilitate him is, if not impossible, surely beyond the capacity of our bureaucracies. To punish him seems to miss the point.

Yet punishment may be the best we can do. The criminal sanction does serve to stigmatize homosexual prostitution as an immoral commerce. And it can reduce the traffic to tolerable proportions by deterring prospective offenders from soliciting. Beyond this, the criminal law (and other intervention programs as well) appear of little value. If there are ways of reducing boy prostitution, they are certainly long-term. Teen-age prostitution, male or female, is not so much a problem as a proxy for a complex of obstreperous conditions.

For the moment, it is enough that we use the arrest sanction with finer discrimination. A police crackdown is an alarming prospect, but so is a pervasive apathy in which the police are activated only when public figures are implicated.