Rape Trauma

The crime of rape does not discriminate; it can happen to anyone. Though the legal definition varies across states, rape is uniformly defined as forced or nonconsensual sexual contact. It is a form of sexual assault carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority, or against a person who cannot give valid consent.

Survivors of rape can suffer significant emotional trauma for a considerable period of time after an assault, and reactions to such trauma can vary greatly from person to person. It is important for survivors to resolve the issues that arise, and it is imperative for their friends and loved ones to learn more and know what to expect.


Myth #1

Women ask for it.

FACT: Nobody ever wants or asks to be sexually assaulted. The idea that women deserve to be raped because they dress or behave "provocatively" shifts responsibility away from the offender and on to the victim. Every woman should have the liberty to dress and behave as she chooses without fearing that she is inviting sexual assault.

Myth #2

Men can't be sexually assaulted.

FACT: Men are sexually assaulted. Any man can be sexually assaulted regardless of size, strength, appearance, or sexual orientation. Approximately 92,700 men are raped each year in the United States, according to statistics from the Illinois Attorney General's office.

Myth #3

Rape is committed only by strangers or crazed psychopaths who exist on the margins of society.

FACT: In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 80% of rape or sexual-assault victims not only knew the offender but stated that the crime was perpetrated by a boyfriend or girlfriend, relative, friend, or acquaintance. The overwhelming majority of rapists are seemingly normal people from a wide range of socioeconomic classes, occupations, and nationalities.

Myth #4

Rape is an impulsive act.

FACT: These crimes are not spontaneous, uncontrollable sexual acts. As many as 75% of all sexual assaults are planned in advance, often with the victim being targeted and monitored by the assailant.

Myth #5

A person who has really been sexually assaulted will be hysterical.

FACT: There is no "right" way to react to sexual assault. Sexual assault victims can be calm, hysterical, withdrawn, angry, in denial, or in shock.

Myth #6

If a person did not want to be raped, he/she could fight off the attacker.

FACT: Even if the attacker is not carrying a weapon, the element of surprise, shock or fear, or the threat of harm, as well as psychological manipulation and coersion, can overpower a victim.

Myth #7

Most people report rape or sexual assault to the police.

FACT: Rape and sexual assault are two of the most underreported crimes in our society. Estimates show that 50% to 90% of rapes go unreported. Factoring unreported rapes together with the odds of an arrest being made and the chances of getting a felony conviction, only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail. In other words: 15 of 16 rapists walk free.

Sources: The Truth About Rape | Rape Myths and Facts

Many rape survivors experience rape-related PTSD, also referred to as Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS). It is important to note that RTS is the natural response of a psychologically healthy person to the trauma of rape.

4 Major Symptoms

1. Re-Experiencing the Trauma: Rape survivors may experience recurrent nightmares about the assault, flashbacks, or may have an inability to stop remembering the rape (intrusive thoughts).
2. Social Withdrawal: This symptom also relates to emotional numbness and involves not experiencing feelings of any kind.
3. Avoidance Behaviors and Actions: Survivors avoid any feelings or thoughts that might trigger memories about the rape.
4. Increased Physiological Arousal: This can be marked by an exaggerated startle response, hyper-vigilance, sleep disorders, or difficulty concentrating.

Subsequent Risks

Additionally, victims of rape or sexual assault are...

3 times more likely to suffer from depression
6 times more likely to suffer from PTSD
13 times more likely to abuse alcohol
26 times more likely to abuse drugs
4 times more likely to contemplate suicide

It is important to receive counseling and treatment after experiencing a sexual assault in order to begin the healing process and avoid dealing with the trauma in counterproductive ways. According to the World Report on Violence and Health, the absence of trauma counseling often causes the negative effects to persist for a longer duration of time.

Sources: Rape Trauma Syndrome | Effects of Rape

RTS identifies three stages of psychological trauma a rape survivor goes through: the acute stage, the outer adjustment stage, and the renormalization stage.

Acute Stage

Duration: Several days to several weeks immediately following the assault.

Although there is no "typical" response amongst rape survivors, the U.S. Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) asserts that, in most cases, a rape victim's acute stage can be classified into one of three responses:

• Expressed: The survivor is openly emotional. He/she may appear agitated or hysterical; he/she may suffer from crying spells or anxiety attacks.

• Controlled: The survivor appears to be without emotion, and acts as if "nothing happened" and "everything is fine." This appearance of calm may be due to shock.

• Shocked/Disbelief: The survivor reacts with a strong sense of disorientation. He/she may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or doing everyday tasks. He/she may also have poor recall of the assault.

Behaviors present in the acute stage can include:

• Diminished alertness
• Numbness
• Dulled sensory, affective and memory functions
• Disorganized thought content
• Obsession to wash or clean themselves
• Confusion

Outer Adjustment Stage

Duration: Several months to many years following the assault.

Survivors in this stage seem to have resumed their normal lifestyle. However, they simultaneously suffer profound internal turmoil, which may manifest in a variety of ways as the survivor copes with the long-term trauma. In this stage, there are five primary coping techniques:

• Minimization: Pretends that "everything is fine" or that "it could have been worse."

• Dramatization: Cannot stop talking about the assault, and it is what dominates one's life and identity.

• Suppression: Refuses to discuss, acts as if it did not happen.

• Explanation: Analyzes what happened; what the victim did, what the rapist was thinking and/or feeling.

• Flight: Tries to escape the pain by moving, changing jobs, changing appearance, changing relationships, etc.

Renormalization/Resolution Stage

Recognizing the impact of the rape for survivors who were in denial, and recognizing the secondary damage of any counterproductive coping tactics (e.g., that drug abuse began to help cope with the aftermath of a rape) is particularly important. During renormalization, the survivor integrates the sexual assault into their life so that it is no longer the central focus of their life. Negative feelings such as guilt and shame become resolved, memories and flashbacks fade, and the survivor feels ready to let go and move on.

  Note that this model assumes that individuals will take steps forward and backward in their healing process. While there are common phases, it is not a linear progression and will be different for every person.

Sources: Rape Trauma Syndrome | How Long Does it Take to Recover?

For survivors of sexual abuse, molestation, rape or other traumatic events, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can affect the way a survivor acts and reacts in different situations, which can affect the quality of day to day life.

It can be difficult for someone living with a sufferer of Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS)/PTSD to understand the sufferer's reactions to events and situations, as their emotions may appear to be irrational. Perpetrators of abuse do not only make victims out of the person the abuse was against, but also for every person the survivor has a relationship with in the future. It is common for sexual abuse survivors to experience failed relationships with friends and family, and to have intimate relationships that also end quite quickly.

To ensure a lasting partnership, it is crucial for partners to begin to understand the behaviors that can be associated with having PTSD and/or suffering from RTS.


It can be very difficult for a survivor with PTSD to be sexually intimate. Sexual experiences, even with a loving partner, can lead to memories or flashbacks of the traumatic experience, and at times you, as the survivor's partner, will not appear to the survivor as yourself, but instead as the perpetrator who inflicted the painful experience. The survivor will feel as though they are experiencing the event again, and can actually feel the pain, feel the fear.


The survivor might begin crying, or become very still and quiet, shaking, or even attempt to push you away. If you notice a sudden unexpected change in behaviour that leads you to believe something is not right, it could be an indication that the survivor is no longer comfortable with the intimacy and that the PTSD is taking over.

Best Course of Action

The best thing for you to do in this situation is to move away, possibly to the other side of the bed so that you are not too far away to support the survivor, and allow time for the feelings and images to pass. It is important for you to remember that the survivor is not reacting in this way to you; but is instead reacting to the event that they went through in the past. There may be some sexual acts that are too triggering or traumatic, and therefore may never be a part of your relationship. Do not try to surprise the survivor with sex, such as waking the survivor by caress, or surprising them naked, as these situations can place too much emphasis on sexual acts. Different types of sexual experiments may also be too traumatic for the survivor to participate in.

Personal Space

Sexual abuse survivors who suffer from PTSD will appreciate and benefit from personal space. In a social conversation it is polite to allow three feet of space between yourself and who you are talking to, but for the survivor this personal space should be slightly wider, such as five feet.


Often survivors unconsciously feel the need to keep a part of their body free, in order to avoid feeling trapped. They may do this by avoiding hugs that involve the whole body, feeling safer to arch their back to prevent the pelvis from touching, turning a hip, or turning their face to the side. These tactics will help the survivor to avoid the unbearable feeling of being trapped. Many survivors will not feel safe if you attempt to join them in a shower, for example, as the small space will make them feel vulnerable, panic stricken and defensive.

Best Course of Action

It is important not to lean the survivor into a surface such as a kitchen worktop, or to shock the survivor by coming up from behind and giving a backwards hug. Instead you could put your hand on the survivor's back to get their attention and wait for them to turn towards you, so that they feel safe in the knowledge it is you, and not a surprise attacker. Even when a survivor is bending down to reach something from a fridge, if you came up behind and tried to hug the survivor it can lead to panic as you have blocked off a possible escape route; there is a fridge in front, a door on the side, and you blocking the other direction.

PTSD reactions can be as simple as a tightening of the muscles, or a panicked, full blown scream. The survivor may try to attack verbally or physically. In this sort of situation the best thing for you to do is to step back, allow space, and give the survivor time to realise it is you, and not an attacker. While the survivor is reacting to the emotions and fears they could hit out, not caring or even realising who is in front of them, as they are too caught up in feelings of danger and needing to get the person away from them.

The above information, as well as many more tips and situational examples, are available on the Survivor Matters page, Living with your Partner's PTSD.

Source: Living with your Partner's PTSD


One tactic that perpetrators often use to violate consent and gain control over someone is coercion.

In the context of sexual violence, coercion is using manipulation against someone until they give in. When people are coerced, they are not saying "yes" on their own terms. This looks very different from consensual sexual activity.

Coercion is used in many sexual assaults. It can look different in different situations, but ultimately all coercion is manipulation.


It can happen through:

• Pressuring: e.g. repeatedly asking someone until they are worn down
• Threatening: e.g. "I'll break up with you if you don't have sex with me"
• Intimidating: e.g. smashing something when someone says "no"
• Blackmailing: e.g. "I'll tell everyone you're gay if you don't"
• Guilt-tripping: e.g "If you really loved me you would have sex with me"

It's important to understand that the person was not given the space to freely say "no." It's not that they did not say "no," but that they could not say "no." This happens often and is brushed off as the way sex is, when in fact this is sexual assault.

Source: ConsentEd - Coercion