Rape Trauma

Whether it was 10 days ago or 10 years ago, emotions and thoughts may seem overwhelming following a sexual assault. In learning the facts about rape and how to get help, the symptoms that are experienced, while confusing, are to be expected given the trauma of such an attack.

Sexual assault is never the victim's fault--ever. No matter what was said or what clothing was worn, whether there was alcohol involved, or if the perpetrator was not a stranger. Your body is your own, and no one has permission to do anything against your wishes.

We often think of a sex offender as a faceless monster, but this just isn't the case. While stranger rape is what most people fear, it isn't the most prevalent type of sexual assault. Studies show that 76% of sexual assaults committed are by a current or former spouse, lover, friend, or date.

There are some circumstances in which a person is not able to give consent: when forced to engage in the activity; when harm is threatened (either personally or to another); if the person is drugged, drunk or unconscious; if they are a minor; are developmentally disabled; or undergoing a medical procedure.

Sexual assault is defined as any sort of sexual activity in which a person is involved against their will. We know that a sexual assault takes place approximately every two minutes; however, these numbers may be low because these offences are rarely reported.

The Phases of Recovering from Rape Trauma

One of the myths of rape is that after a certain period of time, the victim must be "over it." This is rarely the case, but if a long time has passed since the assault, one may not be able to connect current issues with the past trauma suffered. There are several phases of trauma based on the time frame since the assault:

  1. The Acute Phase.
    • The Acute phase begins during the attack and lasts several days to several weeks, and while the symptoms experienced during this phase are to be expected, it doesn't make them any less frightening and difficult. The victim may feel as if they can't erase the memory of the assault, have nightmares, or feel edgy all the time.
    • They may feel shock, confusion and denial, in which they don't fully acknowledge what's happened, or downplay the experience. Physical symptoms may include disturbances in eating and sleeping, infections, stomachaches, headaches, fatigue and sleeplessness, or soreness and bruising following the assault.
  2. The Reorganization Phase.
    • The Reorganization Phase comes next as the victim starts to resolve and integrate the sexual assault into their life. It's important for them to seek help to resolve issues, such as lifestyle changes that might not be in their best interest, nightmares, phobias, fears and lingering physical issues. In addition, they may develop something known as "all or nothing" thinking, they are irreparably damaged.
    • Longer-term reactions following sexual assault can include depression, anger, shame, and guilt, social and sexual problems. Severe symptoms may signal rape-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
    • The goal at this stage is to move from victim to survivor in an effort to regain control over one's life. It is typically at this stage that the person may consider returning to work or changing careers, considering long-term therapy, self-defense courses and strategizing about having more contact with family.
    • Seeking help, particularly for a crime as intimate and intrusive as sexual assault, can seem overwhelming; however, there are many compassionate and skilled therapists and victim service professionals eager to help people through recovery. In addition, support groups for survivors and partners can prove invaluable during recovery. When a person is able to recognize their own needs in terms of recovery, it can be helpful for building confidence.
  3. The Emotional Impact
    • While the absence of physical injuries is obviously preferable, the fact remains that there are emotional injuries that others cannot see. There are those who believe that the lack of physical injuries after a rape means that the victim was willing. This is another myth. Every victim does the best they can at the time, and those actions should not be questioned after the fact. The assumptions of others shouldn't be a barrier to recovery; it's best for the victim to be surrounded by those who will believe them and provide the compassion and empathy needed at this traumatic time.
    • Sex offenders often leave their victims with far worse emotional scars than physical, and the grief that the perpetrator visits on the marriage and family can reach proportions that may seem unthinkable. The intimacy that was once so comforting and special between partners may have changed. Distance and a feeling of isolation, as if both partners are suffering separately, are not uncommon.
    • The victim's partner has experienced the trauma as well. Of course, the primary concern is the sexual assault victim; however, it's important to recognize that the spouse or significant other may be overwhelmed by what has happened, and having confusing feelings such as guilt, rage, and helplessness.
    • Many partners feel the need to do something and take action, and this is the time that the victim of a traumatic crime can expect to be comforted with unconditional love and support.
  4. The Physical Impact
    • The fear of touching and being touched following sexual assault is a tragic consequence and one that can be discussed with a therapist. Although it may take some time to develop comfort in discussing these subjects, it is an important investment in therapy.
    • Some people may also suffer from some long-lasting physical symptoms including chronic pelvic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, and premenstrual syndrome that make a sexual relationship difficult. Chronic disorders may also be present such as headaches, backaches and facial pain.
    • A victim's partner can be instrumental in recovery from sexual assault. Patience and expert guidance can help a rape victim better communicate their needs to their partner and build an intimate relationship through the sharing of this experience. The bond that is formed by partners who work through recovery together often strengthens a relationship beyond what was considered possible.


  • Gift From WithinThis site provides education and support through the development of videotapes, articles, books, resources and a roster of survivors who provide peer support.
  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network): RAINN is the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organization providing counseling resources, prevention suggestions and more.

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