Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS)
RTS is a cluster of emotional responses to the extreme stress experienced by the survivor during the sexual assault. More specifically, RTS is a response to the profound fear of death that almost all survivors experience during an assault. RTS occurs in two phases:
- The Acute Phase: This phase usually happens within hours of the incident, however can often begin within days as well.
- The Reorganization Phase: This phase continues after a few days and up to a few weeks after the incident.
Often, the end of the Acute Phase will overlap the beginning of the Reorganization Phase. Each phase is characterized by particular emotional and physical concerns that most survivors experience.
During The Acute Phase the survivor experiences a complete disruption of their life, responding to the fear of death they experienced. Survivors may display any of a number of contrasting emotional responses. A survivor may cry, shout, swear, laugh nervously, be silent, discuss the weather, or sit calmly. Responses will vary and no response is inappropriate!
However, responses fall into one of two main styles:
- Expressed— If a survivor uses this style, they openly display their emotions. They may be agitated and restless, talk a lot, cry, swear, shout, and laugh. Any emotion is appropriate—because every person has his or her own unique way of responding to events in their life.
- Controlled— If a survivor uses this style, they contain their emotions. Most of the survivor’s energy is directed toward maintaining composure. They may sit calmly, respond to questions in a detached, logical way, and downplay their fear, sadness, anger, and anxiety.
Concerns In the Acute Phase (RTS):
Usually, the survivor will report a general soreness and aches throughout their body. Survivors will also report pain in the specific areas of the body that were targeted during the assault. These specific pains may be the result of actual physical trauma, or may be psychosomatic responses. Both reasons are equally valid and real.
The survivor will often notice disruptions in their usual sleeping and eating patterns. They may not be able to eat or sleep, or may eat more than usual and be unable to stay awake. Survivors may report nightmares in which they relive the assault. These may evolve into dreams in which the survivor takes the violent role in some way, in effect reclaiming the control lost during the assault. Although both types of dreams may upset a person, they are part of the healing process. Sexual assault is such a traumatic event that the survivor may dream about it in some way throughout their life.
During The Reorganization Phase of RTS, the survivor reorganizes herself/himself and their life after the sexual assault. Basically, they learn to cope again. Several factors influence the survivor’s ability to reorganize their life after the sexual assault:
- Personality: What coping mechanisms does a person already possess?
- How successfully have they coped with stress and trauma in the past?
- Support System: Does she/he have a strong system of friends and family for emotional support? Does the survivor truly feel they can go to them for support? Is a survivor treated with empathy?
- Existing Life Problems: Does this person have a drinking or drug problem? Are they experiencing a divorce or other break-up? Do they have emotional or psychological problems? Even if the survivor had these life problems under control prior to the assault, the trauma of the assault may reactivate them.
- Prior Sexual Victimization: Was the survivor assaulted previously, especially within the last two years? If so, recovery may be much more difficult.
Concerns in the Reorganization Phase (RTS):
Social: Difficulty returning to pre-assault social patterns; an increased distrust toward others in general and, with male rapists involved, an increased suspicion of men in particular; may have a shorter temper, or easily break into tears.
Psychological: Depression, guilt, and a general loss of self-esteem are all common psychological reactions. Denial of the effects of the assault, or of the assault itself, is also a common reaction during the reorganization phase, however if it lasts longer than a few hours or days it is detrimental to recovery. Survivors may experience a general paranoia, or panic attacks.
Sexual: The assault may disrupt the sexual life of the survivor because sex, which usually involves pleasure, was instead used as a weapon to humiliate, control and punish. It will probably take some time for the survivor to disassociate the sexual assault from consensual sex. At the other extreme, some survivors may desire sex all the time. If the survivor was a virgin at the time of the assault, she/he may have a heightened fear of a first consensual sexual encounter.
Physical: Continuing gynecological/genital problems, STD’s, pregnancy, or nightmares.