WASHINGTON — LIKE the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill imbroglio two months ago, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial has once again focused America's attention on a highly charged sexual issue - this time, acquaintance or date rape.And like the duel in October, when the Supreme Court nominee faced sexual harassment charges from a former subordinate, the Smith case may well boil down to his word versus hers. But the case is more than just a high-profile rape trial hungrily devoured by purveyors and consumers of tabloid TV. It is the latest chapter in the star-crossed saga of the Kennedys. It also touches on the political future of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy. (See related story.) In a crucial way, however, the trial has been typical. When defense lawyer Roy Black cross-examined the alleged victim last Thursday, he led her through an excruciatingly explicit series of questions about what she claims Mr. Smith did to her at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Fla., last Easter weekend. The live cable-casting of the proceedings on both CNN and Court TV, producing a boost in ratings, has given women a graphic example of what they would face in similar circumstances. And, rape experts predict, it is likely to make women even more reluctant than they already are to report date rape and to press charges - particularly if Smith is acquitted. "After a woman's been raped, she's going to think, 'Who needs to go through more hell? says Pauline Bart, a sociology professor and rape specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Professor Bart reports that Chicago's rape-prosecution unit has seen a decline in women reporting acquaintance rape since the Smith story broke last spring. Almost no cases are coming in, she says. Studies have shown that only 5 percent to 10 percent of acquaintance-rape cases are reported. And of those, only a small percentage go to trial, because they are so tough to prosecute. "Prosecutors live on their conviction rate," and thus they're not going to pursue cases that have only a remote chance of conviction, says Morrison Torrey, a law professor at DePaul University in Illinois. Since the advent of "rape shield laws which bar discussion of the plaintiff's sexual history at a rape trial, unless it regards sex with the defendant - in most states over the last 15 to 20 years, the situation has improved "only marginally" in rape prosecution, says Professor Torrey. "The laws are only as good as the judge's interpretation," says Carole Bailey, an assistant professor in women's studies at Virginia Tech, who complains that all too often judges are willing to allow exceptions to rape shield laws. In the Smith trial, the accuser's sexual history has been withheld except for her sexual abuse as a child. But with the best lawyers money can buy (at a reported total cost of $1 million), Smith's defense is pursuing numerous other avenues to discredit the woman's testimony. Forensic experts have sought to show, for example, that the lack of grass stains on her clothing proves that Smith could not have tackled her as she claimed. All the defense need do is raise serious doubts in the minds of the jurors, and Smith will not be convicted. Also working in Smith's favor is the fact that he's a clean-cut young man who just finished medical school. The fact that he's wealthy and a Kennedy could cut either way. "A trial is not about revealing the truth," says Bruce Rogow, a law professor at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale. "It's about the state proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Professor Rogow suggests that the Smith trial, while inhibiting women in the short term to come forward about rape, could have a healthy effect in teaching men that when a woman says no she means no. Sally Kitch, a professor of women's studies at Wichita State University, says she's encouraged that the trial is focusing on the woman's right to say no. "It's clear that a lot hinges on how this woman felt about what happened to her," says Professor Kitch. Torrey cites a different angle on what the trial will teach men. She describes a Chicago television report from a local bar where the patrons were watching the trial on Court TV. The men there concluded that Smith was guilty but that he would get off - the lesson being that one can rape a woman and get away with it. Various surveys have shown that an alarmingly high percentage of males - figures range from 40 percent to 68 percent, according to Torrey - say they would rape a woman if they knew they could get away with it. And according to FBI statistics, 1 in 4 women can expect to be raped. Only about 2 percent of rape reports prove false, says Torrey, debunking the myth that some women are inclined to file false rape claims to be vengeful.