WASHINGTON -- Rape strikes most victims when they are young, many too young to comprehend the invasive horror or the emotional scars it leaves behind.
An alarming survey released yesterday concluded that:
* Three of five sexual assaults occur when the victim is 17 or younger.
* Nearly three of 10 occur when the victim is 10 or younger.
"The youthfulness of our victims is a shame," said Anne Seymour, one of the authors of the report by the National Victims Center, a non-profit education and advocacy group.
In the years that follow, rape victims are more likely than non-crime victims to use illegal drugs, become depressed or ponder suicide, the study said.
The answer, short of arming "our 10-year-olds with AK-47s," is education, coauthor Dean Kilpatrick said.
Education will not stop rape or sexual abuse of children, who can still easily be overpowered both mentally and physically by an attacker, said Susan Osborne, community organizer for the Minnesota Coalition for Sexual Assault, an umbrella organization of 36 rape counseling centers.
But it can greatly improve the odds that young victims will be able to cope with the attack and that they will report the aggressor, who is usually a member of the family or a familiar person.
"We want to make sure, after it happens, they feel they're worth helping," Ms. Osborne said.
The prospect of talking about rape to 10-year-olds "scares the hell out of parents,"Ms. Osborne said.
But children are more aware of their bodies and of sex than parents would like. Ms. Osborne cited one survey that found 86 percent of sixth-grade boys questioned thought it was OK to demand sex from a girl once the boy had spent money on a date.
The National Victims Center surveyed 4,008 adult women, many of whom said that during their youth, someone forced them to have intercourse or take part in some other sexual activity.
A vast majority of the victims said they knew their attacker:
* 22 percent said they were attacked by a stranger.
* 9 percent by a husband or ex-husband.
* 11 percent by a father or stepfather.
* 10 percent by a boyfriend or ex-boyfriend.
* 16 percent by other relatives.
* 29 percent by other familiar non-relatives such as neighbors.
* 3 percent said they could not identify their attacker or refused.
Beyond showing that most sexual assaults happen when victims are young, the three-year study concluded that 12.1 million women, or one of every eight adult women in the nation, has been raped.
The study concluded that far more women are raped than government studies previously showed. The National Victims Center study said that 683,000 adult women were raped in 1990.
That number -- which does not include rape victims under the age of 18 because no one currently under 18 was polled -- was five times greater than the 130,260 rapes estimated by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Steve Dillingham, director of the federal crime survey, said the two surveys cannot be directly compared because they differ widely in methodology. The federal survey covers all crimes and questions approximately 100,000 people, he said.
Only 14 percent of rape victims report the crime to police. The survey confirmed the widely suspected reason: Women fear letting people know they were raped more than they fear getting AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases or pregnant.
Authors of the study used that finding to underscore their push for legislation that would prohibit the news media from publishing the names of rape victims.