Content Warning: Sexual violence and assault are discussed in this article. If you or a loved one is the victim of rape or sexual assault, know that there are safe places you can go to find help and support. RAINN is an anti-sexual violence organization that’s partnered with over 1,000 assault service providers nationwide and offers confidential support 24/7.
After surviving a disturbing and distressing event, it’s common (and normal) to have intense emotional and/or physical reactions. Rape trauma syndrome (RTS) is a condition that may occur after a person experiences rape, sexual assault, or other forms of sexual abuse. While RTS is considered to be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there are symptoms, behaviors, and feelings that may be specific to survivors of sexual assault.
What Is Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS)?
The term “rape trauma syndrome” was first introduced in a paper published by sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom and nurse Ann Wolbert Burgess in the mid-1970s. It describes a cluster of emotional and physical symptoms seen in survivors of rape and sexual assault.
While not all sexual assault and rape survivors struggle with the same symptoms, there are several thoughts, feelings, and patterns of behavior that are frequently and consistently experienced after sexual assault.
RTS and PTSD
An estimated 5% of people in the US will develop PTSD symptoms after a traumatic event. RTS is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that describes the symptoms and coping mechanisms frequently seen in victims of rape and sexual assault. Similarly to PTSD, RTS symptoms can continue for months or years after a traumatic event.
“Rape trauma syndrome is a much-needed specific breakdown of phases after a sexual assault. Many times, law enforcement, medical workers, and even family need to understand the possible emotional and behavioral states that a person can go through after this trauma.”Talkspace therapist Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD
The Phases of Rape Trauma Syndrome
RTS includes several specific stages of psychological trauma that a sexual assault or rape survivor may go through. Understanding each of the phases can be key in helping someone come to terms with what they experienced.
The acute stage begins in the moments, days, and weeks after an assault and can last for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. While people respond to trauma in a variety of ways, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) notes that most emotional responses fall into 1 of 3 categories:
- Controlled: Someone with a controlled response may outwardly appear to be calm. They might claim to be fine or act as though the traumatic event didn’t actually occur.
- Expressive: This response involves intense outward displays of emotion. Anxiety, crying spells, and agitation are all common symptoms.
- Shocked: When someone is in shock, they might feel disoriented and struggle to focus on what’s happening around them. It can be difficult for them to recall the traumatic event.
Outward adjustment phase
During this stage, it may appear as though a survivor has moved on from the event. However, while victims might cease to show outward signs of trauma, they often continue to internally struggle with anxiety, stress, and even denial of their own experiences.
Research shows that nearly all survivors of rape develop unhealthy coping mechanisms after their assault. It can be common for rape survivors to minimize their experience by pretending everything’s back to normal or refusing to discuss what happened to them. Some may try to analyze the event, while others can find it difficult to stop talking about their assault. During this stage, a survivor might make dramatic life changes, like altering their appearance or moving to a new location.
In the reorganization phase, survivors work to process their feelings about themselves and their trauma. While this stage is beneficial, it’s often marked by a return of emotional distress and turmoil. Many survivors develop fears related to their trauma, such as:
- Phobias directly related to the event or assailant, like fears when exposed to specific smells or sounds
- Feeling paranoid around strangers or people who are the same gender as their abuser
- Fear of crowds
- Fear of physical touch
- Fear of being left alone
With the help of a strong support system and mental health professionals, rape survivors can work through the trauma they’ve experienced. While they may still feel pain or distress, they can learn how to prevent the trauma from being a major focus of their lives.
During this stage, survivors let go of unhealthy coping mechanisms and self-blame. They’re able to resolve feelings of guilt and shame and move forward. While this is the final stage of RTS, it’s not uncommon for someone to occasionally relapse to earlier stages in the future.
Common Behaviors and Symptoms of RTS
Symptoms of RTS are similar to symptoms of PTSD. While not all survivors respond to trauma in the same way, some common symptoms include:
- Social withdrawal
- Mood swings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling guilty or ashamed
- Recurrent nightmares
- Feeling helpless
- Suicidal ideation
“Feelings of not being safe in any environment could be a symptom that shows up as anxiety and hypervigilance. Having a therapist to talk to can be helpful in providing a safe place to communicate these thoughts and feelings and to reestablish stability.”Talkspace therapist Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD
Victims of sexual violence are also at increased risk of developing substance use disorder and other mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Without treatment, symptoms can continue for years.
What Causes Rape Trauma Syndrome?
When it comes to what causes PTSD in the form of RTS, it can occur after any form of sexual assault. It’s important to note that while someone can develop RTS after a rape, it’s also possible to experience symptoms after attempted rape or other forced sexual acts or sexual contact.
Not everyone who experiences sexual violence will develop RTS, but the symptoms we’ve discussed are a normal reaction to such a traumatic event.
How to Treat Rape Trauma Syndrome
If you’re struggling with RTS symptoms, you’re not alone. While there’s no way to erase your trauma, treatment can help you begin to process your feelings so that you can heal. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, family, and other loved ones for support during this difficult time.
If you’re finding it hard to figure out how to deal with being raped or sexually assaulted, you may benefit from talking with people who’ve had similar experiences. A support group for survivors of sexual violence can help you understand your feelings and remind you that you’re not alone. One-on-one online therapy with a mental health professional can also help start the healing process.
Get Professional Help for RTS with Talkspace
Recovering from the trauma of sexual violence can be a long and difficult process. The symptoms of rape trauma syndrome can be deeply distressing, but you don’t have to go through this alone. Talkspace can provide you with the support you need to cope and recover from the trauma that you’ve experienced.
At Talkspace, you can connect with an online therapist who understands RTS and the pain you’re going through. It won’t be easy, but over time, with the right support and guidance, you’ll be able to process the trauma you experienced so you can learn to trust and connect with others again.