Rape trauma syndrome (RTS) is the medical term given to the response that most survivors have to rape. It is very important to note that RTS is the natural response of a psychologically healthy person to the trauma of rape so these symptoms do not constitute a mental disorder or illness.
The most powerful factor in determining how people respond to rape is the nature of the traumatic event itself. Not only is there the element of surprise, the threat of death and the threat of injury, there is also the violation of the person. This violation is physical, emotional and moral and associated with the closest human intimacy of sexual contact. The intention of the rapist is often to profane this most private aspect of the person and render the victim utterly helpless. Rape by its very nature is intentionally designed to produce psychological trauma. It is form of organised social violence comparable only to the combat of war. We get nowhere in our understanding of Rape Trauma Syndrome if we think of rape as simply being unwanted sex. Where combat veterans suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, rape survivors experience similar symptoms on a physical, behavioural and psychological level.
RTS symptoms are broke down into physical, behavioural and psychological responses. You may experience any variety of these symptom, or only a few.
PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS OF RAPE TRAUMA SYNDROME
Physical symptoms are those things which manifest in or upon the survivor’s body that are evident to her and under physical examination by a nurse or doctor. Some of these are only present immediately after the rape while others only appear at a later stage.
- Immediately after a rape, survivors often experience shock. They are likely to feel cold, faint, become mentally confused (disorientated), tremble, feel nauseous and sometimes vomit
- Gynaecological problems. Irregular, heavier and/or painful periods. Vaginal discharges, bladder infections. Sexually transmitted diseases
- Bleeding and/or infections from tears or cuts in the vagina or rectum
- A soreness of the body. There may also be bruising, grazes, cuts or other injuries
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Throat irritations and/or soreness due to forced oral sex
- Tension headaches
- Pain in the lower back and/or in the stomach
- Sleep disturbances. This may be difficulty in sleeping or feeling exhausted and needing to sleep more than usual
- Eating disturbances. This may be not eating or eating less or needing to eat more than usual
BEHAVIOURAL SYMPTOMS OF RAPE TRAUMA SYNDROME
Behavioural symptoms are those things the survivor does, expresses or feels that are generally visible to others. This includes observable reactions, patterns of behaviour, lifestyle changes and changes in relationships.
- Crying more than usual
- Difficulty concentrating
- Being restless, agitated and unable to relax or feeling listless and unmotivated
- Not wanting to socialise or see anybody or socialising more than usual, so as to fill up every minute of the day
- Not wanting to be alone
- Stuttering or stammering
- Avoiding anything that reminds the survivor of the rape
- Being more easily frightened or startled than usual
- Being very alert and watchful
- Becoming easily upset by small things
- Relationship problems, with family, friends, lovers and spouses
- Fear of sex, loss of interest in sex or loss of sexual pleasure
- Changes in lifestyle such as moving house, changing jobs, not functioning at work or at school or changes to appearance
- Drop in school, occupational or work performance
- Increased substance abuse
- Increased washing or bathing
- Behaving as if the rape didn’t occur, trying to live life as it was before the rape, this is called denial
- Suicide attempts and other self-destructive behaviour such as substance abuse or self- mutilation
PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS OF RAPE TRAUMA SYNDROME
Psychological symptoms are much less visible and can in fact be completely hidden to others so survivors need to offer this information or be carefully and sensitively questioned in order to elicit them. They generally refer to inner thoughts, ideas and emotions.
- Increased fear and anxiety
- Self-blame and guilt
- Helplessness, no longer feeling in control of your life
- Humiliation and shame
- Lowering of self esteem
- Feeling dirty or contaminated by the rape
- Feeling alone and that no one understands
- Losing hope in the future
- Emotional numbness
- Loss of memory
- Constantly thinking about the rape
- Having flashbacks to the rape, feeling like it is happening again
- Becoming suicidal
It is important that we recognise that people respond differently to trauma. While most survivors will experience these symptoms, some survivors may only experience a few of these symptoms or none at all. We must be careful not to judge whether someone has been raped by the number of symptoms that they display.
The trauma of rape is often compounded by the myths, prejudice and stigma associated with rape. Survivors who have internalised these myths have to fight feelings of guilt and shame. The burden can be overwhelming especially if the people they come into contact with reinforce those myths and prejudices. It is never a survivor’s fault for being raped. No one asks to be raped or deserves to be raped.