The Psychology of Rape

1st November 2015  By Melody Sundberg

In many countries, a culture of rape is woven into the very fabric of society. In countries of war, the unimaginably traumatic and humiliating experience of rape is often used as a weapon. It is important to understand the effects of rape, as survivors have to live through the aftermath of the trauma.

Women are much more likely than men to be victims of sexual harassment, battering, rape and incest.[1]Their frequently lower social status puts them at a high risk for sexual abuse, and it is estimated that 14-25 percent of women around the world have been raped at some point their lifetime.[2]

Rape is very common in areas plagued by war. In Somalia, sexual violence is extremely common due to decades of conflict. Here, women live in constant fear of rape by armed gangs and security agents, but also by known neighbors – all of who do so with complete impunity. Similarly, in South Sudan the civil war has claimed many rape victims, and abduction of women is a frequent occurrence. In an interview by Human Rights Watch, Amy Braunschweiger, who conducted interviews on an United Nations base near Bentiu, tells that 56 out of the 123 interviewed women had been raped.

In some countries, rape is a problem deeply rooted in society, a practice born out of a highly accentuated gender hierarchy. This seems to especially ring true in South Africa, a country that has been called the rape capital of the world due to its high yearly reports of rape. In a study conducted in South Africa in 2010, 466 out of the 1686 men participating in the research, had forced a woman to have sex with them against her will. Most commonly, they stated that they did this out of a sense of sexual entitlement. In other cases, they raped to inflict punishment on girlfriends and other women, or sometimes simply as entertainment.

The issue of extreme gender inequality is also a reality in Ethiopia, where a woman is often blamed after being raped. Addis Standard writes that public opinion initially often puts the blame on the perpetrator. However, after a while the blame shifts to the victim as people try to justify the rape by arguing that the woman must have done or said something to provoke her assailant. As a result, many victims of rape never go public.

Many women are exposed to abuse and sexual violence, and rape is often used to assert power over the victim. The importance of this issue is highlighted through the staggering statistics above, but the numbers tell only part of the story. It is equally important to understand the effects of rape, as survivors have to live through the aftermath of the trauma. In this article, we will take a look at the psychological effects of rape.

The Trauma of Being Raped

Rape is a highly traumatic experience that leaves a multitude of negative long-term effects on the psychological wellbeing of the victim. According to the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, survivors usually go through a set of stages after being exposed to sexual violence.

Often, the survivor experiences an initial crisis wherein the assault may seem unreal. This feeling of disbelief is often accompanied by symptoms of shock, weakness and nausea. Some individuals experience feelings of numbness, while others feel heightened and intense emotions. In the second stage, referred to as “outward adjustment”, the survivor might feel pressure to continue with life as usual. This is followed by an outward illusion of normalcy while the survivor tries to cope and deal with the event by inwardly suppressing memories and feelings.

The outward adjustment can serve as an important self-protecting and coping mechanism in the short term, but eventually many survivors face a secondary crisis. This can happen when something in their life triggers the suppressed memories and associated feelings of the event. Suddenly, the rape no longer feels unreal, and the victim is confronted with the full reality of the rape. Depression, flashbacks and obsessive thoughts, as well as feelings of intense anger are common.

Eventually, if the victim is able to successfully cope and deal with the physical and emotional trauma, the experience and feelings of the assault can become easier to bear and it is possible for the lingering painful feelings to become less intense over time.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

After being raped, as much as 95 percent of survivors experience feelings of stress so severe that it can be qualified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),[3] a psychological disorder that can manifest after experiencing strong traumatic events.[4]

Feelings of intense distress are a common symptom of PTSD. This can occur in a situation where the traumatized person is in some way reminded of the trauma.[5] When exposed to an environmental trigger, victims can be reminded of the rape in a way that plays the event – like a film – over and over again in their head, even if they try to think of something else. These memories, and the emotional reactions they evoke, can be so vivid that it feels like living the experience all over again. As a coping mechanism, the person may start to avoid the activities, people and places that they associate with the traumatic event. For example, if a woman was raped after a visit to the cinema, she might now avoid going to the cinema. Even sounds and images can conjure up repressed memories and create fear and panic. Sufferers of PTSD might also feel that they constantly need to be on guard.

The Support of Others is Important

An unsupportive environment adds to the psychological strain the survivor feels after being exposed to sexual assault or rape.[6]If the survivor tries to deny, suppress or even hide what has happened, the risk of PTSD, as well as other mental health problems, increase.

Healing is possible, but requires work. It is incredibly important that survivors of sexual assault get the professional help and support they need. Even the long-term risk of PTSD can be reduced if a survivor is surrounded by a supporting and compassionate environment, such as family and friends.[7] It is however important to remember that every individual is unique, and that all individuals cope with the trauma in their own way.

More Education Needed

Rape leaves a severe and long-term psychological impact on the survivor, and a culture where rape is an accepted practice has detrimental effects on the individual as well as the society. In cultures where gender inequality is a societal norm, education becomes a crucial vehicle to foster the values of gender equality and respect towards women. Due to the positive effects of a supportive environment, there is also a need for community education on the physiological and psychological effects of rape and how best to support a victim.

For more information on how to support a person who has been raped, visit Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center‘s site for more information.




[1]Nolen-Hoeksema,S.(Ed.4).(2008). Abnormal psychology.NewYork:McGraw-Hill higher education.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Melody Sundberg
Project manager of Untold Stories. Photographer and artist. Educated in Psychology.

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