Rape, not surprisingly, is rampant in societies that condone or ignore it because of women's lowly status. But even in places that afford women and girls a higher measure of legal protection and respect, rape remains an ever-present problem.
As the daily news demonstrates all too clearly, legal deterrents don't stop aggressors hell-bent on violating females. But maybe a new invention will, which brings me to an intriguing story out of India.
Three engineering students at SRM University in Chennai have invented what they are calling anti-rape lingerie, capable of knocking down an assailant with up to 82 high-voltage shocks without harming the woman who is wearing it. The garment even sends automatic text messages to police and family members, complete with the incident's GPS location.
The young inventors, two female and one male, say they are reacting against their country's culture of rape. They are calling their creation Society Harnessing Equipment, or SHE.
It resembles a plain white slip, but the bra portion is wired to zap an attacker with a disabling 3,800 kilovolts. The charge, which is the same as that of many commercial stun guns, is set off by pressure. The theory is that an assailant will grab first at the target's breasts, and when he does he'll get the shock of his life.
An insulated lining on the inside keeps the wearer safe. She can turn the charge on and off, depending on when she feels unsafe or threatened.
The prototype still needs some work -- the inventors are looking for the right fabric so the slip can be laundered -- and they would like to make it affordable.
The idea is not just novel, but appropriate. Rape, after all, is about power more than it's about sex, so deterring it with power seems like poetic justice.
A video about the prototype is online on The Times of India website, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/videoshow/19472341.cms.
It's easy to make light of this idea -- R. Crumb-style cartoons of buxom women shooting lighting bolts from their brassieres leap to mind -- but think about it a minute. How many predators would repeat their offense once they'd had their hands fried?
Maybe the students should go a step further and wire the slip's derriere as well.
The inventors say they were spurred by several high-profile gang rapes in India, where too many officials view rape as a no-big-deal, men-will-be-men situation, and local police often blame victims for "asking for it." That attitude, sadly, persists in certain quarters even in "modern" societies, including our own.
As a result, it's never easy to get an accurate count in any country of how widespread the problem is.
First, among all violent crimes, rape is the most under-reported.
Second, the definition of rape is often woefully short of reality. In the United States, for example, the FBI long considered rape to be "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will."
That description, which had not been changed for 80 years, excluded forced oral or anal sex, statutory rape, rape with an object, victims who are male, transgendered or disabled, and those with diminished ability to consent due to drug or alcohol consumption.
Finally, in 2011, the official definition was changed by unanimous vote of the Uniform Crime Report Subcommittee. Rape is now considered to be "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."
What this means is that, going forward from 2011, the FBI's official rape statistics are a more accurate reflection of the crime's actual occurrence, which will no doubt show higher numbers and, one hopes, create an impetus to provide more resources for prevention and prosecution. It also means that the counts going back in time fall far short of what we now understand to constitute rape.
Whether or not the anti-rape lingerie turns out to be feasible or practical for even a small number of women, it's heartening to see young engineers turning their talents toward solving one of the world's most intractable problems. The best defense has always been a good offense.
Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1610).