Rape Trauma Syndrome Essay

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Prior to the 1970s, rape was shrouded in secrecy and shame. It was during the late 1960s and 1970s when women began to meet in consciousness raising groups that rape and other forms of violence against women began to be identified and discussed in public. Rape trauma syndrome was a term coined by researchers Ann Burgess and Lynda Holmstrom following their preliminary and pioneering research on the effects of rape on a cohort of women who had been raped and then treated medically at a Boston hospital emergency room. They originally published their findings in 1974. Theirs was one of the first published descriptions of rape based on research findings as a traumatic stressor and its effects as posttraumatic responses; it anteceded by 6 years the publication of the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III in 1980. Since then, women’s responses to rape have been conceptualized within the PTSD framework, since symptoms closely resemble those within each of the three primary criteria of PTSD (intrusive, avoidant, and hyperarousal phenomena).

Rape trauma syndrome refers to both immediate (acute) and longer-term (chronic and reorganization) effects in the aftermath of a rape. Burgess and Holmstrom noted that many rape victims experience similar reactions following assault. The acute phase, including impact reactions such as shock and disbelief and somatic reactions having to do with any physical trauma, was characterized by disorganization lasting from several hours to several weeks. The reorganization phase, a longer-term process, consisted of active lifestyle changes and chronic disturbances such as fear, shame, and nightmares. The following are the most common psychological aftereffects that have been identified as part of the rape trauma syndrome: fear and anxiety; all symptoms associated with PTSD, including fear and avoidance, feelings of unreality, physical symptoms, depression, re-experiencing, nightmares, startle response, and general hyper arousal; depression, including in some cases a high level of suicidal ideation and attempts; negative self-esteem including self-blame, guilt, and shame; negative impact on social adjustment, including poorer overall economic and social, work, leisure, and intimate relationship and/or marital adjustment; problems with sexual functioning, including avoidance and low sexual satisfaction; feelings of anger, hostility, alienation, and confusion; and feelings of fatigue. Additionally, rape victims turn to drugs and alcohol more often than nonvictims, and some develop severe psychopathology subsequent to their rape.

Rape trauma syndrome has largely been substantiated in follow-up research; however, it is now recognized that not all victims respond in the same way and not all develop PTSD immediately or later. Variables such as prior psychological functioning (including any prior victimization, major life stressors, and/or PTSD), severity of the assault (including level of violence) and resultant physical damage, identity of the perpetrator, cognitive appraisals and perceived threat, initial level of distress, participation in the criminal justice system, presence of social support from significant others, and personal attributions all contribute to severity of reactions.


  1. Burgess, A. W., & Holmstrom, L. L. (1974). Rape trauma syndrome. American Journal of Psychiatry, 136, 981–986.

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