FOR the past year a small, cylindrical object labeled "Riot Control Agent" has occupied a forgotten corner of a file drawer in my office. Sheathed in a blue vinyl case and attached to a key ring, the lipstick-size spray canister contains tear gas. It is designed to give me "practical, positive protection" in the event of danger.This "chemical defense weapon" arrived as a gift from a family friend, a man in his 80s who has obviously read his share of stories about crimes against women. "Lock your car doors," he says solemnly, "and carry this with you." I am not the only woman in the newsroom with a key-ring-size supply of tear gas. A young colleague received a nearly identical gadget when she was a college freshman. Concerned about reports of campus rapes, her father tucked the spray into her Christmas stocking. But she too keeps it in a drawer, as aware as I am that these mini-weapons offer little more than the illusion of safety. Yet self-protection has been on the minds of many women this summer as rape has become the subject of daily front-page headlines. From the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach to St. John's University in New York, where three young men were acquitted of sexual assault, and from the farmhouse in New Hampshire where a 76-year-old grandmother was attacked to the boarding school in Kenya where 71 teenage girls were reportedly raped, the stories are creating a climate of fear. They raise a legitimate question: How do women protect themselves? As if to offer an answer, however unsatisfactory, a spate of summer movies is celebrating a new breed of heroine - strong, aggressive, and above all, armed. In "Thelma & Louise," Louise kills a would-be rapist with a single bullet. In "V.I. Warshawski," a female private eye brandishes not only a gun but a nutcracker. Ads for the film show a long-legged, short-skirted Kathleen Turner next to headlines that read, "Killer eyes. Killer legs. Killer instincts." "Killer instincts" may, in fact, sum up an ominous attitude promoting what could be called equal-opportunity artillery, not only in movies like these but in feminist claims that women have equal rights to fight in a war. In the balmy season normally reserved for weddings, the war between the sexes seems to be turning chillingly literal. The fear can be measured by the extremity of responses on the part of some women, most notably the notion of fighting fire with fire, meeting violence with counter-violence. Self-defense is a legitimate and necessary posture, but is the solution more handguns under pillows, more tear gas in pockets, more lessons in karate? Something more than an arsenal is needed. Sadly, this armed-camp mentality comes at a time when men as well as women are searching for clearer definitions of their identities and relationships. Men's-movement authors like Sam Keen speak of the need for "a new vision of masculinity," while filmmakers and others appear to be promoting a new vision of femininity. These tentative moves toward redefinition require patience and goodwill on both sides, not confrontation. Nobody can be unrealistic about the extent of rape or the horrors of its effects. But it would be a sad consequence if the dark headlines produced pervasive suspicion between men and women. If that happens, a kind of violence is done to everybody, not just the victims. Ultimately the only "practical, positive protection" is more forbearance and understanding between the sexes.