Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I have never written a letter to a column in my entire life, but I was infuriated over the answer you gave "Repented in Oregon" about her tarnished reputation. (I'm assuming it must be a female because males don't get bad reputations for promiscuity.)

I was once a "tarnished teen" with low self-esteem. I find it ridiculous that you'd say it would be more effective to start over elsewhere. Isn't that considered running away from your problems? I didn't need to move to a new location to get the respect I now have and deserve.

Not that it was an easy road. It took a long time to learn to love and respect myself. My advice to "Repented" would be, "Believe in yourself." -- AVID READER

DEAR AVID READER: It will please you to know that I have been bombarded with mail from readers who disagreed with my answer. Many said that since the girl has repented, the matter is now between her and God, and she should hold her head up with pride and ride it out. Read on for a letter that shows particular insight:

DEAR ABBY: Your reply to "Repented" was sexist and old-fashioned. The reality is that none of us would like to be judged by what we did when we were younger. All of us have done things that we regret, but our lives go on. Those who condemn us for our past actions are not behaving with compassion and should be ignored.

George Sand said, "There are no more thorough prudes than those who have some little secret to hide." I know this to be true. After I was raped, I was promiscuous for a year. I refused to acknowledge what had happened to me or what I was doing to myself. After I married, I began acting like a prude, judging others, spreading malicious gossip and acting the part of a chaste woman. But deep down I hated myself.

I finally went into therapy. Although I'm not proud of what I did all those years ago, I understand now that I was surviving the only way I knew how. I now feel more regret for how I treated others when I gossiped and judged than about my past promiscuous behavior. I'm a different person than I was years ago; I feel compassion for others. I'm finally free of self-loathing.

Your advice sounded like "Repented" should feel shame for her past. Our society holds women by a different standard than men. I find it hard to believe she's the only person in that community who has done something she regrets. If people treat her badly, she should remember that it says more about who they are than who she is. -- FORGAVE MYSELF, GREAT FALLS, MONT.

DEAR FORGAVE MYSELF: If my advice sounded like "Repented" should feel shame for her past, it was not intentional. She has my sympathy. If she wishes to remain where she is -- and people can see that she has changed her lifestyle -- she may eventually rebuild her reputation. But it will take a long time, and she said that she is now practically friendless.

I thought she was asking how to start over. That is why I told her that starting over in a new location would be easier, faster and probably more effective.

Readers, I'll print more on this subject tomorrow.

To receive a collection of Abby's most memorable -- and most frequently requested -- poems and essays, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby's "Keepers," P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600