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Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a form of psychological trauma and post traumatic stress disorder experienced by a rape victim, consisting of disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal characteristics. The theory was first described by psychiatrist Ann Wolbert Burgess and sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom in 1974.[1]

RTS describes a cluster of psychological and physical signs, symptoms and reactions common to most rape victims, during, immediately following, and for months or years after a rape.[2] While most research into RTS has focused on female victims, males who are sexually abused (whether by male or female perpetrators) have also exhibited RTS symptoms.[3] [4] RTS also paved the way for consideration of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can more accurately describe the consequences of serious, protracted trauma than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder alone.[5]

Common Stages of RTS

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

The acute stage occurs in the days or weeks after a rape. Durations vary as to the amount of time a survivor may remain in the acute stage. The immediate symptoms may last a few days to a few weeks and may overlap with the outward adjustment stage.

According to Scarse[6] there is no "typical" response amongst rape victims. However, the U.S. Rape Abuse and Incest National Network[7] (RAINN) asserts that, in most cases, a rape survivor's acute stage can be classified as one of three responses: expressed ("He or she may appear agitated or hysterical, [and] 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'"); or shock/disbelief ("the survivor reacts with a strong sense of disorientation. They may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or doing everyday tasks. They may also have poor recall of the assault"). Not all rape survivors show their emotions outwardly. Some may appear calm and unaffected by the assault.[8]

Behaviors present in the acute stage can include:

  • Diminished alertness.
  • Numbness.
  • Dulled sensory, affective and memory functions.
  • Disorganized thought content.
  • Vomiting. [9]
  • Nausea.
  • Paralyzing anxiety.
  • Pronounced internal tremor.
  • Obsession to wash or clean themselves.
  • Hysteria, confusion and crying.
  • Bewilderment.
  • Acute sensitivity to the reaction of other people.

The Outward Adjustment Stage

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 of a rape. In a 1976 paper, Burgess and Holmstrom[10] note that all but 1 of their 92 subjects exhibited maladaptive coping mechanisms after a rape. The outward adjustment stage may last from several months to many years after a rape.

RAINN[11] identifies five main coping strategies during the outward adjustment phase:

  • Minimization (pretending 'everything is fine')
  • Dramatization (cannot stop talking about the assault)
  • Suppression (refuses to discuss the rape)
  • Explanation (analyzes what happened)
  • Flight (moves to a new home or city, alters appearance)

Other coping mechanisms that may appear during the outward adjustment phase include:

  • Poor health in general.[12]
  • Continuing anxiety
  • Sense of helplessness
  • Persistent fear and or depression at much higher rates than the general population[13]
  • Mood swings from relatively happy to depression or anger
  • Extreme anger and hostility (more typical of male or masculine victims than female or feminine victims[14])
  • Sleep disturbances such as vivid dreams, recurrent nightmares
  • insomnia, wakefulness, night terrors[15]
  • flashbacks
  • dissociation (feeling like one is not attached to one's body)
  • panic attacks
  • Reliance on coping mechanisms, some of which may be beneficial (e.g., philosophy and family support), and others that may ultimately be counterproductive (e.g., self harm, drug, or alcohol abuse[16][17])


Survivors in this stage can have their lifestyle affected in some of the following ways:

  • Their sense of personal security or safety is damaged.
  • They feel hesitant to enter new relationships.
  • Questioning their sexual identity or sexual orientation (more typical of men raped by other men[18][19]).
  • Sexual relationships become disturbed.[20] Many survivors have reported that they were unable to re-establish normal sexual relations and often shied away from sexual contact for some time after the rape. Some report inhibited sexual response and flashbacks to the rape during intercourse. Conversely, some rape survivors become hyper-sexual or promiscuous following sexual attacks, sometimes as a way to reassert a measure of control over their sexual relations.

Some rape survivors now see the world as a more threatening place to live after the rape so they will place restrictions on their lives so that normal activities will be interrupted. For example, they may discontinue previously active involvements in societies, groups or clubs, or a mother who was a survivor of rape may place restrictions on the freedom of her children.

Physiological Responses

Whether or not they were injured during a sexual assault, rape survivors exhibit higher rates of poor health in the months and years after an assault[21], including acute somatoform disorders (physical symptoms with no identifiable cause).[22] Physiological reactions such as tension headaches, fatigue, general feelings of soreness or localized pain in the chest, throat, arms or legs. Specific symptoms may occur that relate to the area of the body assaulted. Survivors of oral rape may have a variety of mouth and throat complaints, while survivors of vaginal or anal rape have physical reactions related to these areas.

Nature of the Assault

  • The nature of the act, the relationship with the offender, the type and amount of forced used, and the circumstances of the assault all influence the impact of an assault on the person victimized.
  • When the assault is committed by a stranger, fear seems to be the most difficult emotion to manage for many people.(Feelings of vulnerability arise).
  • More commonly, assaults are committed by someone the victim knows and trusts. May be heightened feelings of self-blame and guilt.

Underground Stage

  • Victims attempt to return to their lives as if nothing happened.
  • May block thoughts of the assault from their minds and may not want to talk about the incident or any of the related issues. (They don't want to think about it).
  • Victims may have difficulty in concentrating and some depression.
  • Dissociation and trying to get back to their lives before the assault.
  • The underground stage may last for years and the victim seems as though that they are "over it", despite the fact the emotional issues are not resolved.

Reorganization Stage

  • May return to emotional turmoil
  • It can be extremely frightening to people in this stage to once again find themselves in the same emotional pain.
  • Fears and phobias may develop. They may be related specificity to the assailant or the circumstances or the attack or they may be much more generalized.
  • Nightmares, night terrors feel like they plague the victim.
  • Violent fantasies of revenge may also arise.


A common psychological defense that is seen in rape survivors is the development of fears and phobias specific to the circumstances of the rape, for example:

  • A fear of being in crowds.
  • A fear of being left alone anywhere.
  • A fear of men.
  • A fear of women.
  • A fear of going out at all, agoraphobia.
  • A fear of being touched, hapnophobia.
  • Specific fears related to certain characteristics of the assailant, e.g. mustache, curly hair, the smell of alcohol or cigarettes, type of clothing or car.
  • Some survivors develop very suspicious, paranoid feelings about strangers.
  • Some feel a pervasive fear of most or all other people.

The Renormalization Stage

In this stage, the survivor begins to recognize their adjustment phase. Particularly important is recognizing the impact of the rape for survivors who were in denial, and recognizing the secondary damage of any counterproductive coping tactics (e.g., recognizing that one's drug abuse began to help cope with the aftermath of a rape). Typical of male victims is a long interval between the sexual assault and the victim's seeking psychotherapy -- according to Lacey and Roberts,[23] less than half of male victims sought therapy within six months and the average interval between assault and therapy was 2.5 years; King and Woollett's[24] study of over 100 male rape victims found that the mean interval between assault and therapy was 16.4 years.

During renormalization, the survivor integrates the sexual assault into their life so that the rape is no longer the central focus of their life. During this stage negative feelings such as guilt and shame become resolved and the survivor no longer blames themselves for the attack.

Typical Statements of Victims Experiencing RTS

  • I'm going crazy.
  • I can't remember what I wanted to do next.
  • I want to drink all the time, I just want to forget about it.
  • I can't get to work on time or meet simple deadlines.
  • I'm having nightmares and flashbacks all the time.
  • I can't eat or sleep.
  • All I want to do is eat.
  • I'll never trust anyone again.
  • All I want to do is sleep.
  • Everything is just fine. Everyone is making such a big deal about this.

See also


  1. Burgess, Ann Wolbert and Lynda Lytle Holmstrom. "Rape Trauma Syndrome". Am J Psychiatry 131:981-986, September 1974 doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.131.9.981
  2. [1] Sandoval, Johnathan. Handbook of Crisis Counseling, Intervention, and Prevention in the Schools.
  3. Philip M. Sarrel1 and William H. Masters. (1982). Sexual molestation of men by women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 11:2.
  4. Tewksbury, Richard. Effects of Sexual Assaults on Men: Physical, Mental and Sexual Consequences. International Journal of Men’s Health, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 2007.
  5. Bessel A. van der Kolk, Susan Roth, David Pelcovitz, Susanne Sunday, and Joseph Spinazzola1. Disorders of Extreme Stress: The Empirical Foundation of a Complex Adaptation to Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 18, No. 5, October 2005, pp. 389–399.
  6. Scarce, M. (1997). Male on male rape: The toll of stigma and Shame. New York: Insight Books.
  8. [2] Handbook of Crisis Counseling, Intervention, and Prevention in the Schools By Jonathan Sandoval
  9. What is Rape Trauma Syndrome?
  12. Tewksbury, 2007.
  13. King, M., Coxell, A., & Mezey, G. (2002). Sexual molestation of males: Associations with psychological disturbance. British Journal of Psychiatry, 181, 153-157.
  14. Groth, N., & Burgess, A. W. (1980). Male rape: Offenders and victims. American Journal of Psychiatry, 137, 806-810.
  15. Choquet, M., Darves-Bornoz, J. M., Ledoux, S., Manfredi, R., & Hassler, C. (1997). Selfreported health and behavioral problems among adolescent victims of rape in France: Results of a cross-sectional survey. Child Abuse and Neglect, 21, 823-832.
  16. Burnam, M. A., Stein, J. A., Golding, J. M, Siegel, J. M., Sorenson, S. B., Forsythe, A. B., et al. (1988). Sexual assault and mental disorders in a community population. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 843-850.
  17. Choquet, M., Darves-Bornoz, J. M., Ledoux, S., Manfredi, R., & Hassler, C. (1997). Self-reported health and behavioral problems among adolescent victims of rape in France: Results of a cross-sectional survey. Child Abuse and Neglect, 21, 823-832.
  18. Garnets, L., & Herek, G. (1990). Violence and victimization of lesbians and gay men: Mental health consequences. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 5, 366-383.
  19. Struckman-Johnson, C., & Struckman-Johnson, D. (1994). Men pressured and forced into sexual experience. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 23, 93-114.
  20. deVisser, R. O., Smith, A. M., Rissel, C. E., Richters, J., & Grulich, A. E. (2003). Sex in Australia: Experiences of sexual coercion among a representative sample of adults. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 27, 198-203.
  21. Tewksbury, 2007.
  22. Burgess, Ann Wolbert and Lynda Lytle Holmstrom. "Rape Trauma Syndrome". Am J Psychiatry 131:981-986, September 1974 doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.131.9.981
  23. Lacey, H. G., & Roberts, R. (1991). Sexual assault on men. International Journal of STD and AIDS, 2, 258-260.
  24. King, M., & Woollett, E. (1997). Sexually assaulted males: 115 men consulting a counseling service. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26, 579-588.

Further reading

  • Burgess, Holstrom (1978). Rape Trauma Syndrome. Boston, Mass: American Psychiatric Association.

External links

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