The Medical University of South Carolina reports that 13 percent of American women are victims of rape, and 31 percent of those victims have developed PTSD. That amounts to nearly 3.8 million women suffering from rape-related PTSD in America. And, according to the Department of Labor, 20 to 48% of female veterans were sexually assaulted in the military. More women leave the military with post-traumatic stress disorder from rape that from combat.

In hopes of preventing the onset of PTSD in rape victims, researchers from the Department of Clinical Science and Education at the Karlinska Institutet studied the incidence of PTSD in women six months after sexual assault. Led by Anna Tiihonene Möller, the research group hoped to confirm these statistics as well as identify the risk factors and variables foreshadowing PTSD.

The Experiment

Within one month of assault, 201 female victims of rape or attempted rape began the six-month long study conducted in Sweden. Subjects had to be at least 18 years old and literate in Swedish in order to participate. All participants were required to provide details of the assault. At the one-month mark, participants completed the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), the Post-traumatic Stress Diagnostic Scale (PDS), and the Stanford Acute Stress Reaction Questionnaire (SASRQ). These tools measured:

  • PTSD severity, symptoms, and development
  • Level of physical violence
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Anxiety levels

Again at the six-month mark, the participants completed the BDI and the SASRQ. In addition to these assessments, Möller use the PTSD Module of the Structured Clinical Interview for the DSM-IV to diagnose patients with PTSD.

Key Characteristics and Indicators of PTSD in Rape Victims

Möller found that 54 of the 201 women, who were not diagnosed with PTSD prior to the study, now met all six criteria for PTSD. According to the Beck Depression Inventory, nearly 48 percent showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression.

Compared to the women without PTSD, Möller found that “one out of five of the women in the PTSD group had experienced more than five earlier traumas." The women in the PTSD group reported histories of psychiatric treatment, lifetime depression, and childhood sexual trauma. In addition, they reported their latest sexual assault incident as more physically violent.

Möller ran three regression analyses to analyze psychometric variables, victim characteristics, and assault characteristics. The analyses identified seven significant indicators of developing PTSD after sexual assault:

  • Sexual assault by group
  • Pre-existing PTSD
  • Multiple acts during assault
  • Physical injury
  • Severe depression at baseline
  • History of more than two traumatic events
  • Psychiatric treatment history
  • Perceived life threat
  • Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)

“There was an alarmingly high occurrence of psychopathology found shortly after the sexual assault with almost 80 percent of women suffering from ASD at the two weeks assessment," notes Möller. Although the majority showed signs of ASD, only 43 percent of those women developed PTSD. At this point, Möller does not consider ASD an “optimal predictor" of PTSD in rape victims. Further research specifically examining the characteristics of ASD in conjunction with sexual assault needs to be completed before conclusions can be drawn.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: September 20, 2016