Occasional Papers Series 1992
What is Rape Trauma Syndrome?
Occasional Paper 4-92
Many people experience physical, psychological and behavioural problems after suffering a serious trauma like losing someone they love or being disabled in a car accident. These problems have been called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This condition is a normal reaction to abnormal stress. People who have not previously had a mental illness or psychological problems can suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Different kinds of traumas can produce different reactions. Take rape for example: Rape is not just unwanted sex, it is a highly traumatic experience and like other serious traumas, it has negative effects on those who survive it. Rape is usually experienced as life threatening and as an extreme violation of a person. It is not surprising then, that many rape survivors suffer from a particular kind of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, known as Rape Trauma Syndrome:
PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS OF RAPE TRAUMA SYNDROME
BEHAVIOURAL SYMPTOMS OF RAPE TRAUMA SYNDROME
PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS OF RAPE TRAUMA SYNDROME
Human beings respond to trauma in different ways. Although many rape survivors suffer from the symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome, not all survivors respond to rape in the same way - some rape survivors may have none of these symptoms and others may suffer only a few. Therefore, if a person experiences many of the symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome, it is highly likely that s/he has been raped; but if a person claims to have been raped, yet experiences none of these symptoms, or only a few, it is not a sign that s/he has not actually been raped. Because most rape survivors are afraid to tell anyone that they have been raped, any person who claims to have been raped, should be treated as if they have been raped.
It is important to treat each rape survivor as an individual and to try and understand what the rape means to that particular person. A person's religion, culture, class, race and gender may affect how they feel about being raped. The impact of a rape may be worse if the victim is physically or mentally handicapped, if they were raped by more than one person, or on more than one occasion; and/or if they were raped by someone they knew. Coping with being rape may also be more difficult if family, friends and colleagues are not supportive and/or blame the survivor.
Rape survivors seem to experience different symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome over time. In the first couple of days immediately after a rape, a survivor usually experiences a state of shock. After this shock has passed, some survivors try to act as if nothing has happened. This is their way of trying to block out the rape, because they feel that they won't be able to cope if they let themselves remember what happened to them. So, they may look as if they have not been affected by the rape. This has been called the stage of denial or pseudo-adjustment.
However, if a rape survivor is going to recover well from the impact of a rape, s/he must let her/himself remember the rape and feel whatever s/he is feeling inside. When s/he does start remembering and feeling, s/he will also start suffering from symptoms, but these usually improve gradually over time. It often helps a survivor to have counselling if s/he is experiencing symptoms that upset her/him.
The effects of rape are long term. Rape survivors never forget being raped, but many learn how to deal with the memory. Studies have shown that the symptoms suffered by a rape survivor three months after a rape usually continue over the next three to four years, although they do seem to improve over time. Rape survivors who have strong self-esteem before being raped, those who have good relationships with people and those who have few major changes in their fives in the year, before a rape; seem to recover more quickly from the effects of rape.
Rape Trauma Syndrome has been introduced in court cases overseas in a number of ways: to corroborate a victim's claim that s/he did not consent to having sex; to explain a rape survivor's poor memory about a rape; and to help the court decide on a sentence for a rapist. The negative effects of rape are not yet widely known or recognised in South Africa. Many of our courts are still operating under the false impression that rape is merely unwanted sex and therefore, that it does not damage rape survivors especially in the long term. Rape Trauma Syndrome is only now being introduced as evidence in South African courts.
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Institute of Criminology, University of Cape Town
Contact: Resource Centre Co-ordinator
Date: 21 October 2003