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Rape trauma syndrome is the medical term for the response most rape survivors have following their attacks. As rape trauma syndrome is the body’s natural response to extreme sexual trauma, it is not considered a mental disorder or illness. The syndrome was first described in 1974 by Ann Wolbert Burgess, a psychiatrist, and Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, a sociologist.
Rape trauma syndrome is often shortened to the acronym RTS.
The symptoms of rape trauma syndrome are similar to those experienced by combat veterans suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Like vets, rape survivors typically experience physical, behavioral, and psychological side effects.
Physical symptoms may be evident immediately after a rape or present at a later stage. They might include bleeding around the vagina and/or rectum, gynecological problems, pregnancy, nausea, and vomiting. The behavioral symptoms of rape trauma syndrome are the things a survivor does or feels noticeable to others. These might include crying, lacking concentration, feeling unmotivated or unsociable, stuttering, increasing alertness, or attempting suicide. Psychological symptoms are less likely to be visible to people around the rape survivor. They might include feelings of fear, anxiety, shame, anger, confusion, and depression.
Certain symptoms are typically associated with the stages of rape trauma syndrome. Some theorists suggest three stages: the acute phase, the outward adjustment phase, and the resolution phase. In the acute phase, immediately after the assault, individuals may be openly emotional, very controlled in their responses, or in a state of shock and disbelief. The outward adjustment phase follows. In this phase, the survivor attempts to resume his or her normal life. Minimization, suppression, explanation, and the flight response are all common during this phase. Finally, the survivor enters the resolution or re-normalization phase, when the survivor accepts the rape occurred and attempts to move on.
Some theorists suggest an additional first stage, known as the impact phase, to describe what occurs immediately after the assault. In this reading, the acute phase that follows describes what happens in the days and weeks immediately following the attack.
Some people progress linearly through the phases, while others move backwards and forwards as they come to terms with their attack. The symptoms a rape survivor experiences vary significantly. Some might experience all the symptoms listed, while others experience only a few or even none at all. So it’s important to never judge whether a person has been raped or not based on the symptoms they present with.
The symptoms of rape trauma syndrome may last for months or even years after the attack. Counseling can help rape survivors manage their symptoms and move on with their lives.