A story as powerful as that of the gang rape in a New Bedford, Mass., bar doesn't drop into the media back pages and sink. It makes waves, waves that are still rippling out in the concentric circles of our consciences.

In the two weeks since I wrote about this "spectator sport," I've heard from more than a 100 people. Most of them seemed to be struggling with their own understanding of the fact that this Sunday Night Live wasn't really an isolated act.

While none of their responses held the pivotal clue to this crime, collectively they tell us something that we all know: there is a continuum of sexual violence in which the gang rape at Big Dan's could occur. There is a social context that allowed other men to watch, even cheer, without helping the woman being raped.

The first reactions came over the phone and almost entirely from men. Most of the men called because they were horrified by this story. But many had a tale to tell.

Two had memories of a teen-age event with a "willing" girl. One talked about a bachelor party with a hired prostitute. Others had a "friend" or knew about an incident. There was this woman, said one, who turned 19 and decided to have 19 men. "You hear these stories," he said. "You hear these stories."

In one way or another, my callers expressed confusion about what was sleazy and what was immoral, what was erotic and what was illegal, what was sex and what was violence.

Next came the clips of other rapes. Every crime like this one seems to beget other reports. It's hard to know when we have a wave of copycat crimes and when we simply have a wave of reporting.

From Colton, Calif., I read about a 42- year-old man who discovered a gang of teen- agers raping a 12-year-old girl in his backyard shed and allegedly joined the crowd. From Toledo, Ohio, I read about five college students who allegedly assaulted a 19-year- old woman while she was unconscious in her boy friend's dorm room. From Charlestown, Mass., I read of a 17-year-old woman who was offered a ride to her hospital appointment and was allegedly abducted to an apartment with seven waiting men.

Then the letters. Most expressed outrage, fear, even pain. But others showed the same dazed desire to sort things out.

The woman from Ohio who sent me the clipping of the college assault called the 19- year-old victim "liberated" because she had sex willingly with her boy friend. She added, "When judgment is passed, 'she asked for it' isn't too far from the mark."

The man from Gettysburg, Pa., spoke for more than a dozen others who wondered whether so-called sexual freedom for women hadn't dulled our sensibilities about rape: "If a woman has had a number of sexual partners, can one or two more be such a trauma?" he asked. "Of course . . . force makes all the difference," he demurred, but then went on: "Has the new sexual freedom for women, which is in general a good thing, eroded the traditional basis for being outraged by the crime of rape?"

And finally, the most stunning response. From High Falls, N.Y., a teacher forwarded to me a "photo fantasy" from the January Hustler magazine. In a series of photographs that might have served as a blueprint for the New Bedford rape, a waitress is sexually assaulted, graphically and in living color, on a pool-room table by four leather-clothed men. Only, she enjoys it.

What does this collage of responses mean? I cannot sort it all out so simply. But it's clear that we are still, deep in our national consciousness, bewildered.

One inch under the veneer of changing sexual mores lingers the most ancient vision of woman as either virgin or whore. The woman who willingly, even lovingly, has sex with one, becomes a target for any.

One inch under this same veneer is confusion about sexuality. Is it something given or taken, something free or bought, something lovely or violent? There is an unwillingness on the part of some men to give women the power to define the difference between sex and rape with a single word: "No."

And in the midst of this chaos, we have the pornography hustlers, exploiting the most destructive impulses, fanning the most dehumanizing fantasies to life.

I don't know whether the men in New Bedford read this seamy magazine. I don't know how great a distance it is from the reader to the voyeur to the cheering squad. But in our world, the real world, a woman cried out and four men were arrested for rape.