PTSD and Rape

An estimated 683,000 forcible rapes occur each year. (National Center for Victims of Crime and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1992.)

Nearly one-third of all rape victims develop Rape-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (RR-PTSD) sometime in their lifetimes, and more than eleven percent suffer from RR-PTSD at the present time. (National Center for Victims of Crime and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1992.)


The study of traumatic stress has strongly emerged within the last decade. Scholars have traced its roots to the earliest medical writings in 1900 B.C.; there have been many concepts to emerge which describe the same phenomenon.

However, beginning in the early 1980s, for the first time, the symptoms which are now called "Posttraumatic Stress Disorders" (PTSD) began to take form. It identified the concept of PTSD to describe a set of symptoms that was known in the past as Railway Spine or Shell Shock, Acute Battle Reaction, Combat Fatigue, Compact Exhaustion, Battered Women's Syndrome, Disaster Victims Disorder or Concentration Camp Syndrome, as well as Rape Trauma Syndrome.

PTSD is defined as an emotional state of discomfort and stress resulting from memories of an extraordinary catastrophic experience which shattered the survivor's sense of invulnerability to harm. Characteristics of PTSD are the helplessness and vulnerability that survivors feel.

This bulletin will discuss Rape-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (RR-PTSD), a form of PTSD specifically resulting from experiencing a sexual assault or rape.

Four Major Symptoms of Rape-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

  • The first symptom of RR-PTSD is the reliving or re-experiencing of the trauma which is characterized by intrusive thoughts about the rape that the victim cannot control. The victim is essentially unable to stop remembering the incident. This translates for many rape victims into nightmares and dreams which are usually not metaphorical, but closely approximate the rape itself.

    In addition, victims may relive the event through flashbacks which are similar to remembering scenes in a movie, except that the victim of the rape experiences the flashbacks as if they were happening now. Additionally, victims are distressed by any event that symbolizes the trauma of rape. Victims avoid talking about the event and will avoid any stimuli or situations which reminds them of the rape.

  • The second major RR-PTSD symptom for rape survivors is social withdrawal. It has been described as psychic numbing, denial, and a feeling of being emotionally dead. They do not experience feelings of any kind. One way it shows up in the lives of survivors is a diminished interest in living. It is not that they are suicidal, but they have no interest in their children, in their jobs, and what feelings they do experience have a very narrow range.

    Victims experiencing RR-PTSD may not feel joy, pain, or really much of anything; many experience a kind of amnesia. In addition victims with RR-PTSD may not remember the details of what happened to them.

  • The third set of symptoms of RR-PTSD are avoidance behaviors and actions. Victims may experience a general tendency to avoid any thoughts, feelings, or cues which could bring up the catastrophic and most traumatizing elements of the rape. This may be characterized by refusing to drive near the spot where the rape occurred.

  • Increased physiological arousal characterizes the fourth set of symptoms. There may be an exaggerated startle response -- hyper-alertness and hyper-vigilance -- which requires that the victim pay attention to every sound and sight in their environment. Many experience sleep disorders which result in poor sleep patterns for chronic RR-PTSD victims. In addition, memory may be impaired, and many victims have difficulties concentrating, which effects tasks that must be completed in their daily lives. Victims may exhibit a kind of irritability, hostility, rage and anger that produce further isolation. Some disturbing new research indicates that certain physiological changes in the brain may be permanent conditions. Some survivors with RR-PTSD are unable to accurately gauge the passage of time. Consequently, they are likely to show up for appointments late, early, or not at all.

  • Another possible permanent side effect is a kind of tunnel vision. Victims may be unable to see the "big picture" which results in difficulty distinguishing between a little crisis and a big crisis. Therefore, all events in their lives are viewed as crises.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are approximately 96.3 million adult women in the United States age 18 or older. In a study entitled "Rape in America: A Report to the Nation," by the National Center for Victims of Crime and the Medical University of South Carolina Crime Victims Center, 13 percent of American women surveyed had been raped and 31 percent of theses rape victims developed RR-PTSD.

The study showed that with 683,000 women raped each year in this country, approximately 211,000 will develop RR-PTSD each year. In their attempts to cope with RR-PTSD symptoms, many victims may develop major depression. The above mentioned Report indicates that rape victims are three times more likely than non-victims of crime to have a major depression episode.

Rape victims are 4.1 times more likely than non-crime victims to contemplate suicide. In fact, 13 percent of all rape victims actually attempt suicide, which confirms the devastating and potentially life threatening mental health impact of rape. In attempting to cope with the above symptoms, drug and alcohol consumption are likely to be companions in the victim's attempt to gain relief from these symptoms.

Compared to non-victims of crime, rape victims in the Report mention above are: 13.4 times more likely to have two or more major alcohol problems; and Twenty-six times more likely to have two or more major serious drug abuse problems. With a growing body of knowledge about RR-PTSD, help is available through most rape crisis and trauma centers. Support groups have been established where survivors can meet regularly to share experiences to help relieve the symptoms of RR-PTSD.

For some survivors, medication prescribed along with therapy is the best combination to relieve the pain.


Figley, Charles R. (1992). "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Part 1." Violence Update, 2(7): 1, p.8-9.

Harvey, Mary R. And Judith L. Herman. (1992). "The Trauma of Sexual Victimization: Feminist Contributions to Theory, Research, and Practice." PTSD Research Quarterly, 3(3): 1-3.

National Center for Victims of Crime and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center. (1992). " Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. " Arlington, VA.

For additional information, please contact:

Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center,
Medical University of South Carolina
171 Ashley Avenue
Charleston, SC 29425
(843) 792-2945

Center for Women's Policy Studies
2000 P Street, NW, Suite 508
Washington, D.C. 20036
(202) 872-1770

Director of Field Services
511 East John Carpenter Freeway, Suite 700
Irving, TX 75062
(214) 744-6233

FYI: A Program of the National Center for Victims of Crime. All rights reserved. Copyright © 1992 by the National Center for Victims of Crime. This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, in its entirety and includes this copyright notice.