Rape Trauma Syndrome

What Is Rape Trauma Syndrome?

Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is the medical term used to refer to the effects depicted by rape victims. It is very important to note that RTS is the natural response of a psychologically healthy person to the rape trauma and therefore, these symptoms do not constitute a mental disorder or illness.

The nature of the traumatic event itself is the most powerful factor in determining the response of people to rape. Not only there is the element of surprise, the threat of injury and death, there is also the violation of the person physically, emotionally and morally and related to the closest human intimacy of sexual contact.

The intention of the rapist is mostly to profane this most private aspect of the person and render the victim utterly helpless. Rape Trauma Syndromeby its very nature is purposely designed to produce psychological trauma. It is a form of organized social violence that’s only comparable to the combat of the war.

Our understanding of Rape Trauma Syndrome would be shallow if we simply think of rape as unwanted sex. Rape survivors often experience similar symptoms on a physical, behavioral and psychological level as combat veterans suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

RTS symptoms are broken down into physical, behavioral and mental responses. Victims may experience one or several of the above stated signs.

Rape Trauma Syndrome 2



Physical symptoms are things that manifest in or upon the survivor’s body evident to her and under physical examination by a nurse or doctor. Some of these are only there immediately after the rape while others appear at a later stage.

  • Immediately after a rape, victims often experience shock. This may be followed by a hilly feeling, confusion, shaking, woozy feeling and vomiting.
  • Pregnancy
  • Gynecological problems such as irregular, heavier and/or painful periods, vaginal discharges, bladder infections and sexually transmitted diseases
  • Bleeding and/or infections as a result of tears or cuts in the vagina or rectum
  • A soreness of the body due to bruises, grazes, cuts or other injuries
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Throat irritations and/or soreness as a result of forced oral sex
  • Tension headaches
  • Pain in the lower part of the back as well as abdominal aches.
  • Sleep disturbances. This may be difficulty in sleeping or feeling exhausted and needing to sleep more than normal.
  • Eating disturbances such as not eating or eating less or needing to eat more than usual

Behaviour Changes

Behavioral symptoms refer to the things the victim does, expresses or feels that are generally visible to others. This includes visible reactions, behavioral patterns, lifestyle and relationship changes.

  • Prolonged crying
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Restlessness, agitation, and inability to relax or feeling restless and unmotivated
  • Not wanting to socialize or see anybody or socializing more than normally, in order to fill up every minute of the day
  • Not wanting to be alone
  • Stuttering or stammering
  • Avoiding anything that reminds the victim of the rape
  • Being more easily terrified than usual
  • Being very alert and watchful
  • Becoming easily upset and angry by small things
  • Deterred relations with spouses, friends and other relatives
  • Fear of sex, loss of interest in sex or loss of sexual pleasure
  • Changes in lifestyle such as moving house, switching jobs, not functioning at work or at school or changes in appearance
  • Lowered performance in school, occupation or work.
  • High substance abuse
  • Increased washing or bathing
  • Denial in that, behaving as if the rape didn’t occur, trying to live as it was before the rape.
  • Suicidal attempts and other self-destructive characters such as substance abuse or self- mutilation


Psychological symptoms are less visible and can, in fact, be completely hidden from others. The victims require to offer this information or be carefully and sensitively interviewed to elicit them. They are generally the inner thoughts, emotions and ideas.

  • Guilt and self-blaming
  • Increased fear and anxiety
  • Helplessness, no longer feeling in control of your life
  • Humiliation and shame
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Feeling contaminated by the incidence of rape
  • Anger
  • Feeling lonely and depressed
  • Losing hope in the future
  • Emotional numbness
  • Confusion/disorientation
  • Memory loss
  • Constantly thinking about the rape
  • Nightmares
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts.

However, it’s worth noting that people respond differently to trauma. As most victims experience these symptoms, some may only experience a few of these symptoms or none at all. We must be careful not to judge if someone has been raped by the number of symptoms displayed.

Myths, prejudice and stigma associated with rape often compound rape trauma Syndrome. Victims who have internalized these myths must fight feelings of guilt and shame.

Coming into contact with people who reinforce those myths and prejudices tend to increase the victim’s burden. It is never the intention of the victim to be raped as no one asks to be raped or deserves rape.


Critical Stage

This stage occurs immediately after the assault and may last a couple days or several weeks. The victim often feels violated, fearful and may be depressed, even suicidal. The victim fights with feelings of loss of control changing her appetite sleep habits or social function.

At this stage the victim may: –

  • seem agitated, hysterical or she may seem totally calm
  • experience anxiety attacks and be unable to stop crying
  • experience disorientated concentration, decision making, and doing simple daily tasks
  • show little emotion and act as numb
  • lose memory and experience poor recall of the rape or other memories

Rape Trauma Syndrome 1Rape Trauma Syndrome 1

Outward Correction Stage

At this stage, the victims seem to begin resolving their issues though in reality denial normally covers hidden problems as victims try to re-establish the routines of lives and have some semblance of control. There are dramatic changes made by victims in their lifestyle or environment, like quitting a long-standing job, moving to a new location or sudden changes in their appearance.

It is at this stage that the victim resumes what appears to be a normal life, but there is a considerable agony that may manifest itself by any of the following behaviors: –

  • continued anxiety
  • the sense of helplessness
  • persistent fear and/or depression
  • intense mood swings
  • recurrent nightmares or insomnia
  • physical ailments
  • disrupted appetite
  • denial efforts of the assault and/or to minimize its impact
  • withdrawal from friends and family
  • preoccupied with personal safety
  • reluctance to move out of the house
  • distrust in existing relationships or reluctance to form new relationships
  • sexual complications and problems
  • disrupted normal daily routines

The victim no longer denies the assault and is more willing to talk about the event. They are more willing to get support and get in touch with rape associated feelings and emotions.

Victims are mostly overwhelmed in their attempt to come to terms with the suppressed feelings since the assault. Often sensory stimulations trigger memories that call to mind the sexual assault. The victim appears as if re-living the trauma as the rape comes to life again.

Tenacity Stage

At this stage, the rape is no longer the focus center in the victim’s life. She begins to realize that as she will never forget the assault, the pain and memories related to it are lessening. The victims accept the rape as part of their life experience and choose to move on. Some behaviors in the second stage may sometimes pop up but are less frequent and less intense. Any woman who has survived moves from being a “victim” to a “survivor”


  1. urnam, M. A.; et al. (1988). “Sexual assault and mental disorders in a community population. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology”. 56: 843–850.
  2. Choquet, M., Darves-Bornoz, J. M., Ledoux, S., Manfredi, R. and Hassler, C. (1997). “Self-reported health and behavioral problems among adolescent victims of rape in France: Results of a cross-sectional survey”. Child Abuse and Neglect. 21 (9): 823–832. doi:10.1016/S0145-2134(97)00044-6. PMID 9298260.
  3. Garnets, L.; Herek, G. (1990). “Violence and victimization of lesbians and gay men: Mental health consequences”. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 5 (3): 366–383. doi:10.1177/088626090005003010.
  4. Struckman-Johnson, C.; Struckman-Johnson, D. (1994). “Men pressured and forced into sexual experience”. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 23 (1): 93–114. doi:10.1007/BF01541620. PMID 8135654.
  5. deVisser, R. O., Smith, A. M., Rissel, C. E., Richters, J. and Grulich, A. E. (2003). “Sex in Australia: Experiences of sexual coercion among a representative sample of adults”. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. 27 (2): 198–203. doi:10.1111/j.1467-842X.2003.tb00808.x. PMID 14696711.

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