I never expected to see Phyllis Schlafly get into the sex-education racket. I thought she disapproved of that sort of thing. Didn't the hawk of the Eagle Forum always have her eye on other creatures preying on schoolchildren?

But here she is beginning to distribute 100,000 pamphlets to junior and senior high-school students about, gulp, sex.

Well, not to worry. Phyllis hasn't lost her balance. The scourge of the ERA has taken on a new target -- herpes -- and she is still trying to scare people straight.

The brochure that she has published features a cover picture of the herpes simplex virus and goes on, in a fit of misinformation, to blame the epidemic of genital herpes on the four Ps: Playboy, Penthouse and Planned Parenthood. Schlafly's pamphlet then lectures the young about the dangers of this disease in a style reminiscent of Army sergeants in World War II: "There is only one way to be sure you never get herpes: Avoid sexual relations. Remain a virgin until you marry, marry a virgin and remain faithful to each other."

Frankly, I don't know a soul who is in favor of herpes, a disease that has been on more magazine covers lately than Jacqueline Onassis. There are now estimated to be some 20 million Americans who have recurrent outbreaks of herpes sores. There is even a list of macabre jokes about it. ("What is the difference between love and herpes? Herpes is forever.")

But I have an uneasy feeling that the Schlaflys of the world regard this virus as a godsend. At last, a modern punishment for sex, a warning from the heavens above that human beings must mend their ways or suffer the sores of sex.

As Schlafly said about her pamphlet: "One of our aims is to provide a deterrent to promiscuity." If herpes didn't exist, she would have invented it.

The lady from Alton, Ill., isn't alone in portraying herpes in the bright light of sin. Time magazine recently called it "Today's Scarlet Letter" and wrote the word herpes across its cover in bright red. Mother Jones, in a fine cover for its November issue, calls this media coverage the "sex-as-sin/disease-as-punishment thinking. . . ." The author also suggests that sexual guilt is "perhaps the most pervasive of all herpes symptoms."

There are others, outside the Eagle Forum, who regard this as good news. As the Time magazine piece concluded: "But perhaps not so unhappily, it (herpes) may be a prime mover in helping to bring to a close an era of mindless promiscuity."

This week a Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that fear of herpes is indeed changing sexual behavior. A full 22 percent of the unmarried people ages 18 to 37 agreed with the statement, "I have changed my behavior to avoid the risk of contracting herpes."

The people interviewed offered comments like, "People are thinking twice" and "I don't just hop into bed with anybody."

The whole herpes social syndrome is fascinating. Not long ago, extramarital sex in any form was weighted down with fears of brimstone, not to mention pregnancy. Many people continue to need some sort of deterrent, some external reason to abstain, some fear of punishment, to deal sanely with their sexuality. We have gone from hell to herpes in three generations.

Imagine, needing a fear of herpes to make you "think twice" about a one-night stand, about a stranger in your bed, about having sex with someone whose toothbrush you wouldn't share?

We went through a period when sex was portrayed as a need to be fulfilled rather than a relationship to be explored. There was a time gap between the sexual revolution and the emotional revolution. Many people still find it difficult to sort out their own standards of caring and exploitation. Surely some of the singles who cite "herpes" as their reason for "thinking twice" were looking for a reason.

Still, I refuse to applaud the epidemic of herpes as the heavenly harbinger of a renewed right and sexual wrong. I'd rather have a cure than a deterrent. I'd rather people made decisions about their sexual lives carefully than fearfully.

The pamphlet that blisters on my desk this morning makes me realize how disappointed some will be if the new Finnish remedy, something called gossypol, actually works against herpes. What would the Schlaflys do with a cure? Ban it?