Rape Trauma Syndrome


Rape and sexual assault are crisis provoking events. Although everyone responds differently to such experiences there are often stages which a person may pass through on the road to recovery.

Rape and other types of sexual assault happen to many people regardless of age, appearance, economic status, race, size, etc. It is never the fault of the survivor. You may feel like you made some unwise decision and even blame yourself for the assault, remember: No One wants to be or deserves to be assaulted or abused.

Following is some information about rape trauma syndrome. Being aware of responding to a crisis like rape may help you to identify your feelings, accept the feelings, and seek out appropriate support and help.

Stage I: The Acute Phase: Crisis and Disorganization (immediately following)

Description: Typically, there are two styles of responding to rape, 1) the Expressed style; you may cry, sob, experience restlessness, tenseness, 2) the Controlled style; you may feel and appear calm, subdued, numb.

Many survivors have their lives threatened or report that fear of losing their life was very great. It is common to fear that the attacker may return or retaliate. Usually this is not the case, it is wise to be aware, take protective measures and ask a friend to spend some time with you for the first few days and nights after the assault.

During the first few days; following the assault you may experience soreness, headaches, bruises (if they come out, tell the police so photos may be taken), sleeplessness, gastrointestinal distress such as nausea and or rectal itching and vaginal discharge.

During Stage I you need to be accepted, believed and understood, to feel safe, to regain a feeling of control over your life, and to make decisions regarding:

  1. seeking medical attention, rape evidence
  2. reporting to police, you can decide about prosecuting later
  3. telling the people close to you, family, friends, lovers

During Stage 1 it is important for you to make these decisions yourself. Others may try to help you be deciding what you should do and may even tell you what to do. It is important for you to take control and make your own decisions. Sometimes you might need more information or have certain questions about the medical, legal or judiciary processes involved after an assault. Contact your local rape crisis center or victim assistance program.

Stage II: Outward Satisfactory Adjustment (also called Denial or Fight into Health)

Description: At this stage you may attempt to return to your normal routine. You may strongly attempt to forget about the assault, may reject outside help and in general get on with your life. You may be able to suppress your feelings and memories of the incident so completely that you may even forget the details or that it even happened. If you have been talking with others about the assault, you may stop during this stage. What often happens in this stage is that the energy you have been using to deny and suppress the incident is not available for growth and every day living and you may begin to experience phobias, disturbing dreams/nightmares, uncomfortable feelings may be triggered by a specific incident and fear may set in. You may use drugs and alcohol to help you. Obviously, these experiences are not pleasant and at a subconscious level you are asking yourself for help in integrating the traumatic experience rather than deny it any longer.

During Stage II, you need to be allowed to cope with your experiences as you are able, to have help readily available if you need it, such as a counselor, friend, support group, minister, etc., to try to talk about your experiences and reactions, and to check out problem areas (fear of pregnancy, disease, physical or sexual concerns, progress in the legal procedures, effects on personal relationships -- fears).

Usually most survivors spend some time in this phase but will move on to Stage III as a result of some of the above mentioned experiences. It is important to receive help and support in dealing with these reactions. Some survivors stay in Stage II (Denial) for a very long period of time, but eventually Stage III comes along.

Stage III: Resurfacing of Problems

Description: In this stage you will no longer deny the experience. You may even relive the experience, fall into depression, have insomnia, sexual dysfunction, relationship problems, phobic reactions, nightmares, etc... You may feel overwhelmed by previously suppressed emotions. You may wish to talk to others about the incident only to find that family and friends thought you were "over it by now" and they may not be willing to offer support. This can be discouraging. This is a very good time to seek therapy. If you were seeing a counselor during Stage II and stopped, this is a time when you may be ready to begin again. You may feel like moving, changing jobs or in some way changing your lifestyle as a means of coping. These are normal feelings and it is very helpful to have a safe, supportive place to work on issues, make decisions and integrate the experience. Counseling is very appropriate. Often couples and or marital counseling is necessary for the other person in your life who is also experiencing trauma from the assault.

During Stage III, you need to get in touch with previously suppressed emotions such as anger, fear, grief, and express them and then integrate them; to resolve negative feelings about self and place the blame for the rape where it belongs-on the rapist; to re-establish feelings of safety and control over your life; to reduce fear and panic reactions; to clarify and work on goals and interpersonal relationships; to identify and work on sexual concerns and explore coping strategies.

Below are lists of factors that aid recovery and those that delay recovery. Be aware of where you are in terms of recovery and allow yourself time to identify and work on issues.

Factors Aiding Recovery

  • positive self-esteem
  • social support
  • previous success in coping with stress
  • minimization (little by little)
  • suppression (cognitive control)
  • economic security
  • accurate information about rape and rape trauma syndrome
  • action-implementing decisions

Factors Delaying Recovery

  • prior victimization
  • age & developmental stage
  • chronic life stressors
  • lack of social support
  • poor self-esteem
  • degree of violence during attack
  • lack of information regarding rape

Sexual Assault Response Team (SART)

The SART Program is a multidisciplinary approach to sexual assault investigation. Members of law enforcement, medical personnel, children services, victim assistance programs, and victim advocates work together to form a more victim sensitive, team approach to working with sexual assault victims.

Advantages to SART:

  • Multidisciplinary team approach
  • Single victim interview
  • Higher rate of prosecution
  • Victim advocacy and support
  • Enhanced quality of case documentation
  • Single evidence collector (SANE)
  • Optimum use of resources
  • Case coordination and review
  • Follow-up care to the victim

Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE)

A SANE nurse is a registered nurse who has completed standards and educational requirements in the area of Forensic Nursing with an emphasis on care of the sexual assault victim. Education includes, but is not limited to:

  • Rape Trauma Syndrome
  • Identification of injury consistent with sexual assault
  • Evidence collection techniques and rationale
  • Use of colposcopy and other photography techniques
  • Sexual assault and the law


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Myths And Facts




1. Rape is an act of sex. Rape is experienced as an act of violence, wherein sex is used as the method to commit the violent act.
2. No woman can be raped against her will. Women often react like a deer who has light shined in her eyes. The fear of death or injury is often enough to gain her compliance. Additionally the average rapist is 25 lbs. Heavier and 3" taller than his victim. He has the element of surprise on his side. Weapons or threats are used approximately 85% of the time.
3. A woman can't be raped by her husband. Almost one half of the states in this country support this myth in some way. Women are not property to be used in any manner seen to be fit by the "owner".
4. Survivors become hysterical (i.e., a calm person alleging rape is probably lying). People express themselves in various styles ranging from complete calm to hysteria, and some survivors deny any feelings/reactions.
5. Only young and attractive women are raped. Women, children, and men are assaulted because they are perceived to be vulnerable. Statistics reveal victims range in age from several weeks to the elderly: youngest male (FBI statistics) - 6 months (anal rape); oldest victim (in Bergen County) - 96-year-old woman.
6. Women fantasize about being raped. A woman's fantasy might be that the man of her dreams won't take no for an answer, a tribute to her desirability. In her fantasy he acts for her pleasure and she has control. That is in no way like the purely violent act of aggression that we call rape. No one enjoys being raped. It is a brutal intrusion into the mind and body that may cause long lasting mental and physical trauma.
7. If you allow a man to be sexually active with you he won't be able to control himself. Men are responsible for their behavior. Even if a woman initially agrees to a sexual encounter, changes her mind, and is then forced, it is rape.
8. Rapists are impulsive and motivated by uncontrollable sexual desire. Studies have revealed that approximately 75% of rapes are planned in advance. Of those studied 2/3 of the offenders had a normal sex life with a wife or girlfriend. They raped to control, degrade and humiliate the victim.
9. Rapists are psychopathic, deranged and from poor backgrounds. Rapists are found in all socioeconomic classes. The rapist might be a car mechanic, delivery man, classmate, or he might be a doctor, lawyer, or business man in a three-piece suit.
10. Women are raped by strange men in dark alleys. Studies indicate that between 50 and 75% of the time the victim and the assailant were friends or acquaintances. Statistics reveal that between a quarter and a third of sexual assaults occur in the victim's home.
11. Most rapes are interracial. Rapes are intra-racial approximately 93% of the time. Caucasians rape Caucasians, African-Americans rape African-Americans, Hispanics rape Hispanics, etc. In addition, 70 to 75% occur between people of the same socioeconomic class.
12. Rapes occur at night. Rapes occur at all times of the day. One source states that 68% of rapes occur between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m. The incidence of rape rises on weekends.
13. There is a "right" way to respond to a rape situation. Each rapist has his own pattern of attack. The best approach (if possible) is to observe cues from the rapist and to follow one's instincts. If a victim escapes alive she/he has responded in the "right" way. (And, sometimes there is no "right" way to respond.
14. Rapists never return to the same victim, so fear of retaliation is unrealistic. Cases of the rapist returning have been reported.
15. Men cannot be sexually assaulted. Though statistically documented much less frequently than women, men are sexually assaulted. Men suffer the same aftermath as women, but are even more reluctant to report or seek help. The level of violence in male rape is generally higher. The question of "Why didn't you fight him off?" is difficult for a woman, but devastating to a man. Typical situations involving male rape include robberies, gang attacks, detention centers and prisons.
16. Children who are molested by members of the same sex will become homosexual. The profound trauma to a child does not appear to include sexual identity confusion.
17. Women falsely charge rape. Statistics demonstrate that 5% of reported rapes are unfounded. There are no more false charges of rape than there are for the crimes of burglary or robbery. Rape is the most under-reported crime. It is estimated that only one in ten sexual assaults is reported.
18. "It will not/cannot happen to me." The misconception that only a "certain kind" of woman is raped may serve as a false sense of security against the knowledge that anyone can be victimized.
19. "Women are asking for it by their dress or actions." Rapists, whether involved in stranger or acquaintance rape, look for available targets they perceive as vulnerable, not women who dress in a particular way. No person asks to be hurt or degraded, just as no one asks to be robbed because they are carrying money in their pocket. No woman - whatever her behaviors - "deserves" to be raped by one or seven or eleven men. Rape is the responsibility of the rapist(s), not the victim.



Patterns Of Rape

Anger Rape

In this type of rape, sexuality becomes a hostile act. Anger Rape, nationwide, accounts for approximately forty percent (40%) of rape occurrences. Anger rape is characterized by physical brutality; far more force is used than is necessary to subdue the victim. Anger rape can either be a blitz attach wherein the victim is caught completely off guard, or it could involve a confidence style approach, wherein the victim afterward will report that "he seemed very pleasant at first." The experience for the offender is one of conscious anger and rage. He expresses his fury both physically and verbally. The anger rapist's aim is to hurt and debase his victim. He expresses his contempt through abusive and profane language. The anger rapist considers rape the ultimate offense he can commit against another person. The anger rapist strikes sporadically and infrequently, because the assault discharges his anger, and then it takes time for his frustrations and aggravation to reach the boiling point again. He wants to hurt and degrade his victim--his weapon is sex and his motive is revenge.

Victim Impact -- Anger Rape

  • The medical exam generally reveals considerable physical trauma
  • Victims report experiencing the rape as a life-threatening situation
  • Despite the brutality, the psychological trauma may not be prolonged, for several reasons:
    1. Her visible injuries evoke sympathy and validate use of force;
    2. There is usually much concrete evidence of an assault;
    3. There is generally little suspicion of either a false accusation or victim participation;
    4. The victim generally receives support and comfort from those she encounters immediately after the rape;
    5. The victim's goal was probably to survive that attack, and because she has done so, she can go on with her life;
    6. Her feelings of guilt may be minimal;
    7. Her feelings of anger may be strong, which is healthy and will lead to recovery.



Power Rape

The goal of a power rapist is to control the victim, not to hurt her. The perpetrator's sexuality becomes a means of compensation for underlying feelings of inadequacy and serves to express issues of mastery, strength, control, authority, identity, and capability. He uses only the amount of force necessary to subdue his victim. The power rapist relies upon verbal threats, and intimidation with a weapon. This form of rape accounts for approximately fifty-five percent (55%) nationally, according to some studies. In fact, it may be even more common than this.

The power rapist relates to fantasies about sexual conquest and rape--his scenario may be that even though the victim initially resists, he will overpower her, she will be unable to resist his sexual prowess, and ultimately will enjoy being raped. Because this is only fantasy, he does not feel reassured by either his own performance or the victim's response--he must find another victim, this time, "the right one". Hence, his offenses may become repetitive and compulsive--he may commit a series of rapes over a short period of time.

The power rapist's offenses can be either premeditated, when the offender goes in search of a victim with the clear intent of sexual assault, or opportunistic, a situation may present itself which gives him access to a victim. The power rapist's choice of a victim is predominantly determined by availability, accessibility, and vulnerability.

Power rapist's are likely to engage in conversation of a sexual nature, both assertive, as in giving instructions, and inquisitive, as in questioning her about her sexual interests and his sexual prowess. The power rapist needs to believe that the victim enjoyed "it" and he may even ask her for a date later. Power rapists tend to keep their victims captive after the assaults. They drive around, take their victims to some location of their choosing, such as an abandoned building. This captivity phase allows him to maintain the control he has established.

Victim Impact -- Power Rape

  • At the hospital, the victim will have minimal or inconclusive evidence of physical trauma. The people she encounters are likely to be accusatory and express doubts about her efforts to resist.
  • Her fear continues--the offender usually learned a great deal about her, such as where she lives and with whom, and he may threaten to come back.
  • Her sense of helplessness is overwhelming. She has been totally controlled by another. She desperately needs to regain control and make decisions.
  • Her guilt may be especially strong, because during the assault her primary goal may have been to resist the rape or to escape from the perpetrator--in this, she may feel that she has failed, that she should have done more.



Sadistic Rape

In sadistic rape, there is a sexual transformation of anger and power so that aggression, itself, becomes eroticized. The sadistic rapist finds intentional maltreatment of his victim sexually gratifying. He will take pleasure in her torment, anguish, and distress. Fortunately, this type of rape accounts for only about five (5%) nationally.

Sadistic rape usually involves bondage and torture. It may take on a bizarre or ritualistic quality. The rapist will subject his victim to indignities such as urinating on her or ejaculating in her face. Her injuries will be focused on sexual areas of her body; there may be mutilation of these areas. The sadistic rapist may penetrate her with some type of instrument or a foreign object.

Prostitutes are often targets of the sadistic rapist, along with other women who are perceived by the perpetrator as "promiscuous". The sadistic rapists' assaults are deliberate, calculated, and pre-planned. The offender will often wear a disguise, or will blindfold his victim.

Victim Impact--Sadistic Rape

  • The victim of a sadistic rapist may not survive the attack. For some offenders, the ultimate satisfaction is gained from murdering the victim. These assaults have a high incidence of physical injuries.
  • If the victim survives, she will usually need extended psychological care. She may suffer from severe depression, and her risk of suicide is high. She may display other compulsive behaviors.

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