Signs Of Rape Trauma Syndrome: Everything You Need To Know

What Is Rape Trauma Syndrome?

child abuse

Rape trauma syndrome is a type of Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder that is specific to rape survivors. The severity of sexual violence and the physical and emotional impact it has on the victim is not determined by the perpetrator, but by the victim’s reaction and coping mechanisms.

Stages of Rape Trauma Syndrome

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Researchers Ann Burgess and Lynda Holstrom are credited as the first people to identified Rape Trauma Syndrome in the 70s. In 1987, Mary Koss and Mary Harvey elaborated RTS by breaking it into four phases. Burges and Holstrom broke the reactions experienced by survivors into two broad stages. Acute stage; this is the immediate phase, and it involves disruptions and disorganizations. The second stage is a long phase of reorganization.

The time spent by victims in between the phases vary from one victim to another. Some victims spend time back and forth between stages. Over the years, researchers identified another phase, and they named it the Underground Phase. In every phase, there are different signs and symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome

Acute Stage

Emotional Reactions

Sexual violence victims describe a variety of feelings immediately after undergoing the horrific ordeal. Victims experience shock and disbelief due to the emotional and physical intensity of the assault. After a while, shock and disbelief reduce and fear takes over. Victims develop fear of mutilation, physical injury and death. They might also experience feelings of degradation, shame, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, self-blame, and revenge. This mixture of feelings may cause the victims to have severe mood swings.

Survivors have different ways of expressing their feelings. Victims either express themselves or control their emotions by hiding them. They might express their feelings by becoming visibly tense, being restless, or by crying and sobbing while recounting specific details of the ordeal. Those that control their emotions appear to be composed, calm, or subdued.

Physical Reactions

A feeling of the whole body being sore is described by many victims. Some victims point out specific body parts that are sore, and in most cases it is the parts which the assailant exerted force on. These include the arms, legs, chest and throat. They also report physical symptoms related to specific areas that were targeted by the perpetrator.

In cases where the victim was forced to have oral sex, they report having an irritation in their throats and mouths. Those forced to have vaginal sex may report having a vaginal discharge, pain during urination, itching and general pain. Victims forced to have anal sex may describe rectal pain and bleeding immediately after the assault.

Many survivors report a change in their sleep patterns. They report having disrupted and disorganized sleep patterns or difficulty sleeping.  Some of the victims that were raped while sleeping often wake up from their sleep at the time the ordeal took place. It is common for some victims to scream out while they are asleep.

Victims may also report disrupted eating patterns. Some lose their appetite while others start overeating. Some report a change of taste in foods they used to like. Others describe developing stomach pains. Some start experiencing nausea the moment they remember the assault, and this discourages them from eating. However, when dealing with female victims, it is important to determine whether the nausea is a symptom of rape trauma syndrome or it is a side effect of anti-pregnancy drugs.

Behavioral Reactions

During crisis situations, people react with fear and confusion. The same happens to victims of rape. Sometimes they lack the strength to complete daily activities. Their ability to solve problems may also decrease, and this leads to disorder and confusion. Victims may also find it hard to absorb new information. They may decide to relocate several times or change their phone number.

Depending on the victim, the acute phase lasts from a few days to a few weeks. During this phase, victims are highly vulnerable emotionally and therefore need as much support as they can get.

Underground Stage

During the underground stage of the rape trauma syndrome, victims try to go back to their normal lives as if nothing happened. They try to forget about the ordeal by blocking any thoughts of the incident. They may also want to avoid talking about it. Some of the symptoms that are common during this phase include; depression and lack of concentration.  Some victims get stuck in this phase for years while seeming to have moved on. However, most of the emotional issues are unresolved, and the victim uses avoidance as a coping mechanism.

Reorganization Stage

Reorganization is a long-term process that begins with the return of emotional turmoil. The trigger that causes the victim to relapse back to emotional turmoil include seeing the assailant again, a dream, a certain smell or receiving a subpoena. This is a very frightening and difficult time for survivors because they experience emotional pain all over again.  

Victims may develop fears and phobias that are specifically related to the appearance of the assailant or that are influenced by the circumstances under which they were raped. Disrupted eating and sleeping patterns can also return. Related dreams and nightmares combined with violent fantasies of revenge may also return.

These challenges are a normal part of integrating the experience into other life experiences and an attempt to reorganize one’s life. Several factors influence the reorganizing process; nature of the assault, social network and cultural background of the victim, and the developmental stage.

The relationship with the assailant, amount of force used, and the nature of the assault all have an impact on the victim’s recovery process and speed. Victims who were attacked by someone who is unknown to them often experience an amount of fear that is difficult to manage. They are forced to relocate, find a new job or alter their appearance and lifestyle in an attempt to reduce their vulnerability. On the other hand, those attacked by someone known to them often experience feelings of self-blame and guilt.

Development Stage

In this stage, it is important to understand how the victim perceives the attack and how they express it. The development stage also determines the role of ‘significant others’ in the victims journey towards recovery. We cannot assume we know how the victim perceives the assault. For example, a child may focus more on the harm caused to them, or on the betrayal aspect of the assault rather than on the sexual aspect. An older child or adult is likely to focus more on the sexual concept of the assault.

The development stage also impacts other spheres of the victim’s life. A victim may develop issues of trust, control, power, and independence depending on their development stage. Adolescents are highly concerned about the reaction of their peers and their parents. As victims, they need the support of their peers and parents, but this is in conflict with their natural need for independence.

Perception by Age

Children and teenagers that have been sexually assaulted may experience increased supervision and restrictions from their parents. Older victims of rape may experience the loss of independence especially when grown children interfere with their living arrangements.

Perception of Support Network

The perception of the family, friends and social institutions about the assault is important to the victim’s recovery process. Those close to the victim can opt to react either in a supportive or hurtful manner. The family and friends of the victim should maintain a balance of offering positive support while not becoming overprotective. Ignoring the victim’s disclosure can also hinder their recovery process. Lack of support from significant others may force the victims to seek validation elsewhere. In all cases, offering support to victims of rape will have a positive impact on their recovery process.

Cultural Background

Another factor that can influence the victim’s recovery process is their cultural background. Generally, rape affects the victim’s perspective towards sexuality, interpersonal relationships, trust, and self-concept. Additionally, some victims are faced with unique challenges especially due to their cultural background.

For example, a female victim who comes from a cultural or religious background that highly values virginity is more likely to struggle with the issues of sexuality and self-worth compared to a woman from a another culture or religion where virginity is not as important. The victim’s cultural background also determines the role that the social service system and the community play in his or her recovery process.


rape victim

Victims of rape respond differently to trauma. Many victims experience all of these symptoms while others experience only some of them or none at all. Every sexual assault incident is different and therefore victims do not have a uniform reaction.In order to support the recovery of those who have experienced rape, we must respect their boundaries and independence while also being willing to hear them out and comfort them appropriately. Genuine support from friends and family can make a real difference in their recovery.

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