Rape Trauma Syndrome

To understand the reactions and process a survivor of sexual assault moves through, it is necessary to look at the Rape Trauma Syndrome. The syndrome has three characteristic phases and may continue over a lengthy period of time.  It is important to recognize that each survivor will go through the process at her or his own speed and intensity. Recovery time can vary a great deal because of each survivor’s personalized experience of the assault and the events that followed it.

The Acute Phase

“Immediately following the assault, the survivor may experience a very wide range of emotional reactions which result from being faced with a life-threatening situation. Shock, dismay, and disbelief are fairly basic.”(1)

These emotional reactions are most commonly manifested in one of two ways:

  1. Expressive – obvious outward expression such as crying, shaking, tenseness, restlessness.
  2. Controlled – the survivor appears to be quite calm and rational about the situation.

“Guilt, shame, and self-blame may be expressed. Anger and hostility towards the assailant and the people trying to help her or him may be present.  There may be a fear of pregnancy or infection.  During the first few weeks following the assault, acute physical symptoms are often experienced, for example, soreness and bruising on various parts of the body. There may be gynecological symptoms such as vaginal discharge, burning sensations, pain, or itchiness. Also, the person may experience tension headaches, fatigue, stomach pains, nausea, loss of appetite, or disturbed sleep patterns, such as, insomnia or nightmares.

In the period immediately following the assault, the survivor may have many practical problems to deal with:

  • informing family and friends
  • physical examination
  • question of pregnancy, VD, STD, or AIDS
  • fear of retaliation by the assailant or fear of being alone
  • decision about pressing charges
  • concerns about publicity.”(2)

Outward Adjustment

In the next phase toward recovery, the realities of the survivor’s life may be the focus and the trauma of the assault appears to be less obvious. Anxieties and fears may become less prominent as the survivor begins again to involve her/himself in her/his normal activities. While the survivor may seem to have forgotten the incident and gone on with her/his life, there is usually a high level of denial and repression of feelings around the incident. The survivor will most likely not care to talk about the assault during this phase. She or he may begin making some practical decisions around the place where they live, the people they consider friends, their work associates, and activities they choose to continue or discontinue.

Long Term Reorganization

Long-term adjustment to sexual assault depends on several factors that come into play around the event. Factors may be the degree of support experienced by the survivor from friends and family, previous self-concept of the survivor, personal strength of the survivor, treatment by professionals following the assault, involvement with the criminal justice system, the survivors prior knowledge of the assailant and more. “Some of the difficulties of this phase are the need to integrate a new view of the self; the survivor must accept the event realistically. The survivor must resolve feelings about the assailant and her/his attitudes towards the gender of the offender. Often the survivor will really want to talk at this stage. Many survivors feel they are losing control because they thought they had dealt with it in phase two. They think something is wrong with them because these feelings have come back.”(3)  “To change a particular coping pattern, you have to assess its positive and negative aspects, recognize the underlying need it meets, and then gradually find healthier ways to meet those needs.”(4)

Sources – University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre:

  1. Volunteer Training Manual. Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton. Edmonton, 1992.
  2. Ibid University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Courage to Heal. Davis, Laura & Bass, Ellen. P. 161, 1988