What Is Rape Trauma Syndrome?

Rape Trauma Syndrome

What Is Rape Trauma Syndrome?

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Rape trauma syndrome (or RTS) is related to post-traumatic stress disorder but is more specific to sexual assault. RTS describes symptoms of trauma including disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive and interpersonal behavior.

Major symptoms of RTS are:

  • ​Re-Experiencing the Trauma: Rape victims may experience recurrent nightmares about the rape, flashbacks or may have an inability to stop remembering the rape.
  • Social Withdrawal: This symptom has been called ‘psychic numbing’ and involves not experiencing feelings of any kind.
  • Avoidance Behaviors and Actions: Victims may desire to avoid any feelings or thoughts that might recall to mind events about the rape.
  • Increased Physiological Arousal Characteristics: This symptom can be marked by an exaggerated startle response, hypervigilance, sleep disorders or difficulty concentrating.

​Although each individual’s experience is unique, people experiencing rape trauma syndrome often process their trauma in a series of stages

Acute Stage

The acute stage can begin days or weeks after a sexual assault and generally lasts for between a few days and a few weeks. Often, victims begin experiencing symptoms of the acute stage after the initial shock of an assault has worn off. Symptoms at this stage may include:

  • Diminished alertness or hyper-alertness
  • Numbness
  • Dulled sensory, affective and memory functions
  • Disorganized thought content
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Paralyzing anxiety
  • Obsession to wash or clean themselves
  • Confusion about everyday life
  • Acute sensitivity to the reaction of other people
  • Thoughts of and increased risk of suicide

Outward Adjustment Stage

​Outward adjustment often begins when the Acute stage ends, and can last for between a few months and several years, if it is not interrupted. During this stage, the victim may outwardly appear to have “moved on” from an assault, but this stage is marked by serious inner turmoil. Victims may employ a wide range of coping mechanisms, including:

  • ​​​​Minimization (pretending “everything is fine”, or that the assault “wasn’t a big deal”)
  • ​​Dramatization (cannot stop talking about the assault)
  • ​​​Suppression (refuses to discuss the incident)
  • ​​Explanation (analyzes what happened)
  • ​​Flight (moves to a new home or city, alters appearance)

​Victims may show a wide variety of symptoms, but some common symptoms during this phase include:

  • ​​Poor health in general
  • ​​Continuing anxiety
  • ​​Sense of helplessness
  • ​​Hypervigilance
  • ​​Inability to maintain previously close relationships
  • ​​Experiencing a general response of nervousness or “startle response”
  • ​​Persistent fear
  • Mood swings from relatively happy to depression or anger extreme anger and hostility (more common for male or masculine victims than female or feminine victims)
  • Sleep disturbances such as insomnia, vivid dreams, and recurring nightmares
  • Flashbacks and intrusive thoughts about the assault
  • Dissociation (feeling one is not attached to one’s body)
  • Panic attacks

​Victims in the Outward Adjustment Stage may increase their reliance on coping mechanisms, some of which may be adaptive, such as relying on the support of family or friends, mindfulness​, or increased self-care, but others may be counterproductive in the long term, such as self-harm, drug or alcohol abuse, high risk sexual behaviors or disordered eating as a way of regaining control.

During this stage, victims may feel their lifestyles being changed in a variety of ways, including:

  • Sense of personal security or safety is damaged, which may lead to a changing of behaviors and abandonment of activities previously enjoyed
  • Hesitance to enter new relationships.
  • Questioning of sexual identity or sexual orientation (more typical of people assaulted by someone outside of their orientation).
  • Disrupted sexual relationships or sexuality, including difficulty re-establishing normal sexual relations, inhibited sexual response and flashbacks to the rape during sexual activity, or hyper-sexuality.

Underground Stage

​During the underground stage, victims may work to return to their more “normal” lives. This stage may last for years, with limited disruptions to daily life, although emotional issues surrounding the assault may continue to be unresolved. In the underground stage victims may:

  • Attempt to return to their lives as if nothing happened
  • Block thoughts of the assault from their minds and may not want to talk about the incident or any of the related issues
  • Have difficulty in concentrating and some depression
  • May experience some dissociation and/or symptoms of hypervigilance

Reorganization Stage

The Reorganization Stage can begin when there is an external trigger than moves a survivor from the Underground or Outward Adjustment stage, or when there is a life transition, or for other reasons that may not be clear to the survivor or their loved ones.

The length of reorganization can vary widely, and can end when a survivor returns to Outward Adjustment or Underground, or when they are able to resolve the trauma and move to the Renormalization stage.

Reorganization is characterized by a return to internal and external emotional turmoil. Friends and family may be confused by a return of feelings and behaviors in the victim that they thought were resolved.

Victims may also feel surprise, fear, and confusion in this stage as strong feelings about the assault return. In the reorganization phase, victims may experience:

Fears and phobias that may be related specifically to the assailant or the circumstances or the attack, or may be much more generalized. These phobias often include:

  • Fear of being in crowds.
  • Fear of being left alone anywhere.
  • Fear of men or women.
  • Fear of going out at all.
  • Fear of being touched.
  • Specific fears related to certain characteristics of the assailant, e.g. side-burns, straight hair, the smell of alcohol or cigarettes, type of clothing or car.
  • General suspicious or paranoid feelings about strangers.
  • Appetite disturbances such as nausea and vomiting. Survivors may also develop disordered eating patterns at this time.
  • Nightmares and other sleep disturbances.
  • Violent fantasies of revenge may also arise.
  • Increased thoughts and risk of suicide.

Renormalization Stage

​​In this stage, survivors reprocess their experience and are able to integrate it into their lives. The sexual assault or rape is no longer a central focus, and feeling such as guilt or shame resolve.

Survivors in this stage are also able to recognize and address secondary consequences of maladaptive coping mechanisms.

While victims may look upon the sexual assault and its aftermath with sadness, the feelings generated by the assault in other stages are not as strong, overwhelming, or disruptive as they once were.​

​Information for this page gathered from King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, Rape Crisis Capetown Trust, RAINN

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Источник: https://students.wustl.edu/rape-trauma-syndrome/

Rape Trauma Syndrome (Forensic Psychology)

What Is Rape Trauma Syndrome?

Rape trauma syndrome (RTS) is a topic about which experts testify in legal cases. It is most often used by prosecutors in sexual assault cases to counter a defendant’s claim that the sexual contact in question was consensual.

The specific nature of the testimony varies from case to case but often includes a description of the common effects of rape and an opinion that a particular complainant’s behavior is consistent with—or not inconsistent with—having been raped.

Judicial decisions regarding the admissibility of RTS testimony have varied because of differences in the specific nature of the testimony given as well as changes over time and across jurisdictions in rules regarding the admissibility of expert testimony.

Nonetheless, expert testimony on RTS generally is admissible, particularly when it is offered to educate the jury (versus to prove that a rape occurred).

Definition of Rape Trauma Syndrome

The term rape trauma syndrome was first coined by Burgess and Holmstrom in 1974 to describe a two-stage model of reactions to rape among adult rape victims. Their model was a description of symptoms observed in a sample of 92 adult female rape victims seen in a hospital emergency room.

interviews with these women, Burgess and Holmstrom described an acute phase of the recovery process, which was characterized by a great deal of disorganization in the victim’s lifestyle. Physical (e.g., muscle tension) and emotional (e.g., fear, self-blame) symptoms were common during this phase.

The second (reorganization) phase began 2 to 3 weeks after the rape. Victims often moved during this phase, and trauma symptoms (e.g., nightmares, fears) were still common.

Although the term RTS continues to be used in legal decisions and commentary, subsequent research has conceptualized rape trauma in terms of specific diagnoses and symptoms rather than stages of recovery.

RTS is sometimes referred to as a specific type of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in expert testimony, case law, and legal commentary. Indeed, rape is an example of a traumatic event that can lead to PTSD as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association.

The DSM outlines very specific criteria that must be met for individuals to be diagnosed with PTSD: (a) They must have experienced a traumatic event that involved actual or threatened death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity and react to that event with intense fear, helplessness, or horror; (b) they must report a specified number of symptoms involving reexperiencing the event, avoidance, and heightened arousal; and (c) the symptoms must last for at least 1 month and cause clinically significant distress or impairment in functioning. Studies suggest that the vast majority of rape victims meet the criteria for PTSD immediately postrape and that approximately 50% continue to meet the criteria at 1 year postrape. Current PTSD prevalence rates among victims raped several years previously range from 12% to 17%. Several studies have found that rape victims report more symptoms of PTSD than nonvictims and victims of other types of traumas.

Although case law tends to focus on PTSD, several other symptoms are also common following a sexual assault, including fear, anxiety, depression, health problems, and substance abuse. These symptoms are both common in rape victims and more common in victims than in nonvictims.

Some argue that only evidence that symptoms are more common in victims than nonvictims is relevant to whether a rape occurred. Evidence that symptoms are common among rape victims is not relevant if the symptoms are equally common among nonvictims. However, evidence that a symptom is not common following rape, but is consistent with having been raped (i.e.

, is a possible consequence), is relevant if the defense claims that the symptom is inconsistent with having been raped.

In summary, RTS has been used to refer to the description of the effects of rape in Burgess and Holmstrom’s 1974 study, research on rape-related PTSD, and research on other effects of rape. This can be very misleading because the RTS symptoms described by Burgess and Holmstrom are not the same as those described in the DSM criteria for PTSD.

In addition, un PTSD, RTS is a description rather than a diagnosis with specific criteria. Some of the symptoms described by Burgess and Holmstrom have been found to be more common in victims than in nonvictims in subsequent research, but this research has not replicated Burgess and Holmstrom’s stage model.

The term RTS will be used here to refer to the entire body of research on the effects of rape.

Expert Testimony on Rape Trauma Syndrome

Most often, the purpose of expert testimony on RTS is to counter a defendant’s claim that the sexual contact in question was consensual.

It can be difficult to prove nonconsent because there are often no witnesses or other physical evidence, and the complainant often knows the defendant.

Expert testimony regarding psychological trauma experienced by a complainant is considered to be the strongest evidence available in consent defense cases.

Expert testimony on RTS was first introduced in U.S. courts in the early 1980s. Most states that have ruled on its admissibility have found it to be admissible although decisions vary depending on the specific nature and purpose of the testimony in a particular case.

For example, the testimony offered can differ in terms of whether the expert provides only a general description of the common aftereffects of rape or whether the expert also provides an opinion regarding whether a particular complainant is suffering from RTS.

Testimony also differs in terms of whether the expert refers to RTS or to PTSD.

Several criteria determine whether expert testimony is deemed admissible. First, the expert has to be qualified. Various kinds of professionals (e.g.

, psychologists, psychiatrists, crisis workers) have provided testimony, but their qualifications have rarely been an issue in determining the admissibility of RTS evidence. The second criterion is that the evidence should be scientifically reliable and valid.

RTS evidence generally is seen as reliable if it focuses on whether RTS is a generally accepted response to sexual assault and is not seen as reliable in determining whether a rape occurred. The third criterion is that the evidence should be helpful to the jury.

In general, the testimony is seen as helpful in educating jurors about the common effects of rape and particularly common misconceptions about rape and rape victim behavior. The final criterion is that the testimony should not be unfairly prejudicial to the defendant.

This has been the most controversial aspect of the testimony, but the degree of prejudice depends on the nature of the testimony.

The testimony is generally viewed as less prejudicial if the expert uses the term PTSD versus RTS, if the testimony is used to rebut a defendant’s claim that a complainant’s behavior was inconsistent with having been raped, and if the testimony concerns victims as a class versus the specific complainant. The testimony is viewed as unfairly prejudicial and as invading the province of the jury if it is used to prove that a rape occurred (e.g., if the expert states that he or she believes that the victim was raped or definitely has RTS).

Although RTS evidence was initially introduced in sexual assault cases to corroborate the complainant’s claim that sexual contact was nonconsensual, defendants have also sought to use the testimony to support their version of the facts. For example, a defendant may try to offer expert testimony that, because a complainant does not have RTS, she must not have been raped.

Compelling complainants to be examined by defense experts undermines protections introduced by rape shield laws and could deter reporting. Nonetheless, concerns about complainants must be balanced against the rights of the accused. The admissibility of RTS evidence by the defense depends on several factors.

For example, expert testimony offered by the defense is more ly to be admissible if the prosecution first offered the testimony. Some argue that it should only be admissible in these circumstances.

In addition, some argue that the defense should be allowed to compel an examination of a complainant if the prosecution expert did an examination but not if the prosecution expert only provided general testimony about the effects of sexual assault.


  1. Davis, K. (1998). Rape, resurrection, and the quest for truth: The law and science of rape trauma syndrome in constitutional balance with the rights of the accused. Hastings Law Journal, 49, 1511-1570.
  2. Frazier, P. (2005). Rape trauma syndrome: Scientific status. In D. Faigman, D. Kaye, M. Saks, & J. Sanders (Eds.

    ), Modern scientific evidence: The law and science of expert testimony (Vol. 2, pp. 317-343). Eagan, MN: Thomson West.

  3. Frazier, P., & Borgida, E. (1992). Rape trauma syndrome: A review of case law and psychological research. Law and Human Behavior, 16, 293-311.
  4. Garrison, A. (2000).

    Rape trauma syndrome: A review of a behavioral science theory and its admissibility in criminal trials. American Journal of Trial Advocacy, 23, 591-657.

See also:

Источник: http://criminal-justice.iresearchnet.com/forensic-psychology/rape-trauma-syndrome/

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