By now, prostitution should be as familiar as it is despised. Yet this week a dispute has erupted over its definition, with some feminists joining conservative religious leaders in an odd alliance against the Clinton administration and human rights groups.

The dispute arises over an international organized crime treaty, due to be debated in Vienna on Monday, that would outlaw "trafficking" of people across borders for "forced prostitution." The feminist and religious critics say that wording implies there are legitimate forms of prostitution and might allow predatory sex traffickers to duck the law by claiming their victims consented to be sent to brothels overseas.

The Clinton administration and human rights groups, on the other hand, support the treaty as drafted. They say it would focus international efforts on stopping the traffickers who buy and sell women, rather than on trying to stop prostitution, a historically elusive goal that has led police in many countries to raid brothels and jail prostitutes while allowing traffickers to go free.

Conservatives and religious opponents have focused their criticism on Hillary Clinton, honorary chairwoman of the President's Interagency Council on Women, the body that along with the State Department shapes the administration's position.

A letter signed by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries and four others accused the administration of assuming " 'voluntary' prostitution is a legitimate career option for women." And an op-ed piece in the Jan. 10 Wall Street Journal by Colson and William Bennett, former education secretary and drug control policy director, highlighted Hillary Clinton's role.

Among the critics are some of the administration's natural allies. Last week, 10 leading feminists--including Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, and Gloria Steinem--signed a letter opposing the administration's line.

"The position taken by the administration suggests you do not consider prostitution of others to be a form of sexual exploitation," they wrote. "The definition would not only fail to protect a substantial number of trafficking victims, it would also shield many traffickers in the global sex trade from prosecution."

But the group organizing the feminist opposition, Equality Now, made clear in a follow-up letter last week that its members are not attacking Hillary Clinton. The Bennett-Colson column, they said, was "an outrageous, cynical exploitation of the serious issue of sex trafficking, and an attempted manipulation of feminist leaders as a political ploy to attack Hillary Clinton." Their disagreement, they specified, is with the "State Department and some in the human rights community"--not the first lady.

For her part, Hillary Clinton denies any intent to legitimize prostitution.

"It should be clear that we condemn prostitution and want to hold the perpetrators accountable," said Clinton spokeswoman Melanne Verveer. "It is not our intention to undermine the definition of prostitution in any way." A senior State Department official added that nothing in the treaty would undermine existing laws against prostitution or an earlier 1949 international treaty outlawing prostitution.

Activists estimate that 2 million women and children are sent across borders into some form of prostitution each year, and the State Department believes that approximately 50,000 could be in the United States. Generally, middlemen force them into a form of indentured servitude, taking away their passports to restrict their movements and telling them they must work as prostitutes to pay off an exorbitant debt--often $25,000 or more--to the trafficker.

Since January 1999, representatives of 102 countries have taken part in negotiations over the treaty on transnational organized crime. Other parts of the treaty deal with migrants and firearms.

The State Department-led U.S. negotiators are seeking the toughest sanctions against traffickers and trying to marshal the broadest possible support. Officials said that if the United States rejected the term "forced" prostitution, it would alienate countries that allow regulated prostitution, such as the Netherlands and Turkey, and risk derailing the treaty.

"The larger number of countries participating, the more effective it will be," said Frank E. Loy, undersecretary of state for global affairs.

"Our problem is not with a strong statement against prostitution. We would be willing to do that. Our problem is coming up with an agreement that deals with the problem of trafficking," Loy said. "It's very important to keep our eye on the ball."

Some feminist leaders oppose the treaty language on the practical grounds that it would create a loophole. "If you sign a consent form, the person who takes you and ships you away has a consent defense," said Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now.

For the religious leaders, the issue is also a moral one: They oppose all forms of prostitution. Their allies in this view are, ironically, the most left-leaning of the feminist groups, which see prostitution as inherently coerced.

"There's no such thing as unforced prostitution," said Robin Morgan of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, who declares herself profoundly uncomfortable with "ultra-right" allies. "No woman or man willingly goes into this. Dire economic need is a form of coercion. To say it can be unforced is a middle class analysis."

But Ann Jordan, who has represented the International Human Rights Law Group at the talks, argues that even if economic circumstances are to blame, "who are you going to criminalize? People are forced by circumstances to do all sorts of work that is bad for them."

The administration's position is supported by several human rights groups, including the International Human Rights Law Group, based in Washington, and Human Rights Watch, based in New York. Philosophically, they oppose all trafficking in human beings, whether for prostitution, construction work or sweatshop labor.

And as a practical matter, making a concession to countries such as the Netherlands is worthwhile if it allows the treaty to pass, said Regan Ralph of Human Rights Watch.

Moreover, she said, the term "forced prostitution" refers to such practices as taking away women's passports, holding them in debt bondage, restricting their movements, and beating or raping them--a definition that does not leave much of a loophole for traffickers.

"You can't consent to human rights abuses," said Ralph. "Even if a woman says she consented, if once she got there she was in debt bondage, and lost control over her working conditions, and is physically confined, she's suffered a human rights abuse."