WASHINGTON - Most of the numbers suggest that Beverly Harris Elliott has every reason to be encouraged.
The executive director of the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault has studied FBI reports showing that rape has declined since 1992 at nearly the same rate as other violent crimes in the USA.
Elliott also is familiar with the National Crime Victimization Survey. It not only supports the bureau's findings but shows an even more dramatic decline.
Even demographic shifts within the past decade reveal an aging population, shrinking the pool of likely sexual predators. Yet Elliott regards all of this statistical evidence as if it were part of a bad practical joke.
''I'd like to think that the numbers are going down,'' she says, ''but I'm just not convinced it's true.''
Neither is Debbie Andrews, executive director of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or many other victims' advocates. Indeed, no other major category of crime - not murder, assault or robbery - has generated a more serious challenge of the credibility of national crime statistics.
While politicians, law enforcement officials and many community anti-crime groups have celebrated a six-year downturn in crime, victims advocates have greeted the decline in rape with suspicion and outright disbelief. This is much to the consternation of many law enforcement officers and crime analysts who say the FBI and crime victimization statistics don't lie.
''I'm always suspicious about numbers,'' said San Francisco State University criminologist Michael Rustigan. ''But there is no question rape has declined.''
Still, the first National Violence Against Women survey published this week by the National Institute of Justice and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is only likely to intensify the debate. The report estimates that there are twice as many rapes as reported in the victimization survey.
That the debate over rape rages in the face of what seems to be hard statistical evidence that the crime is in decline prompts some to question whether advocacy groups - whose support is directly linked to the perceived threat of a crime - might be inclined to overstate that threat.
''What the data shows me is that rape is going down,'' says Emanuel Ross, crime research analyst for Washington, D.C. ''But with rape, it is never cut and dried. What you might be seeing here is a natural tension in a group so dedicated to victims that to lower its voice may be perceived as losing ground.
''I'm not saying they are misleading people. (But) they have to keep that cry out there.''
There are good reasons to be cautious in drawing conclusions from reports on rape. The two most accepted studies available - the FBI's annual crime report and the Justice Department's annual crime victimization survey - each have widely acknowledged weaknesses.
For example, the FBI crime report shows a 12% decline in rape since 1993. However, those numbers only reflect the number of rapes reported to police, something many victims are reluctant to do. And they do not include rapes of male victims, both adults and children.
The crime victimization survey is believed to capture a more accurate picture of crime since the national telephone survey of randomly selected households should pick up rapes that go unreported to police. That survey shows a 60% downturn in rape between 1993 and 1996.
However, it only solicits information from people 12 and older, excluding the youngest victims of rape.
The Violence Against Women survey is the latest attempt to improve the tracking of rape. The national survey of 16,000 people included more detailed questions designed to elicit more precise information. However, the authors of that survey acknowledge they used different methodology and that its margin for error was ''relatively high.''
''What this study might indicate is that it's nearly impossible to get an accurate count of something that doesn't want to be counted,'' says Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Since 1995, Berkowitz said, calls to rape crisis center hot lines his organization operates throughout the country have increased, not decreased.
Last year, the number of calls jumped to 58,450 from 42,400 in 1995, he said. This year, the number of calls is on pace to exceed last year.
''No one really knows what's going on,'' Berkowitz says. ''But what I think everybody can be sure of is that you can't take any single set of numbers as gospel.''
However, criminologists cite several factors to support reports that show a decline in rape. The pool of men ages 29 or younger, the group that accounts for more than half of all rapes, is shrinking. And a nationwide move to longer prison sentences for violent offenders is keeping convicted rapists off the street longer.
Yet until one measure is accepted by both advocates and policymakers, the credibility of the rape statistics will be subject to question.
''Many people have been engaged in trying to get this issue taken seriously for a long time,'' says Dean Kilpatrick, director of the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center. ''A lot of these advocates are people who see rape victims every day. To some degree, they regard the statistics, even in decline, as an attempt to diminish rape as a problem when it really isn't that at all.''
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