Rape trauma syndrome
Women's Web gratefully acknowledges the University
of Alberta Sexual Assault Center (UASAC) for granting us
permission to repint its materials and resources on our website.
Be sure to visit the UASAC
website for additional information, resources, and link
to other sites.
If you have been sexually assaulted, be sure to go
immediately to your local hospital or police detachment.
If you are unable to get to a hospital, call the police, your
community sexual assault center, or your community's 24-hour
Sexual assault is a serious crime. Compassionate
support is available and such crimes must be reported to the
Rape Trauma 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 own speed and intensity.
It is essential to remember that recovery time can vary
a great deal because of each survivor's personalized experience
of the assault and the events that followed it.
Phase one: the acute phase
Immediately following the sexual 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 common.
During this phase the survivor is constantly thinking about the
assault. There are often a lot of triggers, flashbacks, and nightmares
causing the survivor to experience a wide rage of emotional reactions.
These emotional reactions are most commonly manifested in one
of two ways:
The survivor exhibits obvious outward expression such as crying,
shaking, tenseness, restlessness.
The survivor appears to be quite calm and rational about the
Guilt, shame, and self-blame may be expressed. Anger and hostility,
not just toward the assailant, but toward the people trying to
help he, may be present. There may be a fear of infection or if
the survivor is a female, a fear of pregnancy.
During the first few weeks following the assault, acute physical
symptoms are often experienced which can include soreness and
bruising on various parts of the body. There may be gynecological
symptoms if the survivor is a female 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, venereal disease, sexually
transmitted infections, or HIV/AIDS
- fear of retaliation by assailant or fear of being alone
- decision about pressing charges
- concerns about publicity
Phase two: outward adjustment
In this next phase toward recovery, the realities of the survivor's
life may be the focus while, the trauma of the assault appears
to be less obvious. This is often referred to as "denial"
as the survivor is trying to get their life back on track and
trying to forget about the assault.
Anxieties and fears may become less prominent as the survivor
begins again to involve herself in her normal activities. While
she may seem to have forgotten the incident and gone on with her
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 may begin making some practical decisions
around the place where she lives, the people she considers friends,
her work associates, and activities she chooses to continue or
This phase can last a few months, to a few years or several years,
until such time that the survivor experiences triggers/flashbacks
that remind her that she hasn't "gotten over the assault."
This event is what forces her into the next phase.
Phase three: long-term reorganization
In this phase, the survivor acknowledges the sexual assault and
seeks to reintegrate the experience into her daily life. It is
during this phase that the survivor is most likely to reach out
Long-term adjustment to sexual assault depends on several factors
that come into play around the event. Factors may include the
degree of support experienced by the survivor from friends and
family, the survivor's previous self-concept, her personal strength,
treatment by professionals following the assault, involvement
with the criminal justice system, the survivor's prior knowledge
of the assault, 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
attitudes toward the gender or her assailant in general. 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 the assault in Phase Two, and they may think something is
wrong with them because these feelings have come back.