Rape Trauma Syndrome

Rape trauma syndrome (RTS) is a topic about which experts testify in legal cases. It is most often used by prosecutors in sexual assault cases to counter a defendant’s claim that the sexual contact in question was consensual. The specific nature of the testimony varies from case to case but often includes a description of the common effects of rape and an opinion that a particular complainant’s behavior is consistent with—or not inconsistent with—having been raped. Judicial decisions regarding the admissibility of RTS testimony have varied because of differences in the specific nature of the testimony given as well as changes over time and across jurisdictions in rules regarding the admissibility of expert testimony. Nonetheless, expert testimony on RTS generally is admissible, particularly when it is offered to educate the jury (versus to prove that a rape occurred).

Definition of Rape Trauma Syndrome

The term rape trauma syndrome was first coined by Burgess and Holmstrom in 1974 to describe a two-stage model of reactions to rape among adult rape victims. Their model was a description of symptoms observed in a sample of 92 adult female rape victims seen in a hospital emergency room. Based on interviews with these women, Burgess and Holmstrom described an acute phase of the recovery process, which was characterized by a great deal of disorganization in the victim’s lifestyle. Physical (e.g., muscle tension) and emotional (e.g., fear, self-blame) symptoms were common during this phase. The second (reorganization) phase began 2 to 3 weeks after the rape. Victims often moved during this phase, and trauma symptoms (e.g., nightmares, fears) were still common. Although the term RTS continues to be used in legal decisions and commentary, subsequent research has conceptualized rape trauma in terms of specific diagnoses and symptoms rather than stages of recovery.

RTS is sometimes referred to as a specific type of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in expert testimony, case law, and legal commentary. Indeed, rape is an example of a traumatic event that can lead to PTSD as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM outlines very specific criteria that must be met for individuals to be diagnosed with PTSD: (a) They must have experienced a traumatic event that involved actual or threatened death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity and react to that event with intense fear, helplessness, or horror; (b) they must report a specified number of symptoms involving reexperiencing the event, avoidance, and heightened arousal; and (c) the symptoms must last for at least 1 month and cause clinically significant distress or impairment in functioning. Studies suggest that the vast majority of rape victims meet the criteria for PTSD immediately postrape and that approximately 50% continue to meet the criteria at 1 year postrape. Current PTSD prevalence rates among victims raped several years previously range from 12% to 17%. Several studies have found that rape victims report more symptoms of PTSD than nonvictims and victims of other types of traumas.

Although case law tends to focus on PTSD, several other symptoms are also common following a sexual assault, including fear, anxiety, depression, health problems, and substance abuse. These symptoms are both common in rape victims and more common in victims than in nonvictims. Some argue that only evidence that symptoms are more common in victims than nonvictims is relevant to whether a rape occurred. Evidence that symptoms are common among rape victims is not relevant if the symptoms are equally common among nonvictims. However, evidence that a symptom is not common following rape, but is consistent with having been raped (i.e., is a possible consequence), is relevant if the defense claims that the symptom is inconsistent with having been raped.

In summary, RTS has been used to refer to the description of the effects of rape in Burgess and Holmstrom’s 1974 study, research on rape-related PTSD, and research on other effects of rape. This can be very misleading because the RTS symptoms described by Burgess and Holmstrom are not the same as those described in the DSM criteria for PTSD. In addition, unlike PTSD, RTS is a description rather than a diagnosis with specific criteria. Some of the symptoms described by Burgess and Holmstrom have been found to be more common in victims than in nonvictims in subsequent research, but this research has not replicated Burgess and Holmstrom’s stage model. The term RTS will be used here to refer to the entire body of research on the effects of rape.

Expert Testimony on Rape Trauma Syndrome

Most often, the purpose of expert testimony on RTS is to counter a defendant’s claim that the sexual contact in question was consensual. It can be difficult to prove nonconsent because there are often no witnesses or other physical evidence, and the complainant often knows the defendant. Expert testimony regarding psychological trauma experienced by a complainant is considered to be the strongest evidence available in consent defense cases.

Expert testimony on RTS was first introduced in U.S. courts in the early 1980s. Most states that have ruled on its admissibility have found it to be admissible although decisions vary depending on the specific nature and purpose of the testimony in a particular case. For example, the testimony offered can differ in terms of whether the expert provides only a general description of the common aftereffects of rape or whether the expert also provides an opinion regarding whether a particular complainant is suffering from RTS. Testimony also differs in terms of whether the expert refers to RTS or to PTSD.

Several criteria determine whether expert testimony is deemed admissible. First, the expert has to be qualified. Various kinds of professionals (e.g., psychologists, psychiatrists, crisis workers) have provided testimony, but their qualifications have rarely been an issue in determining the admissibility of RTS evidence. The second criterion is that the evidence should be scientifically reliable and valid. RTS evidence generally is seen as reliable if it focuses on whether RTS is a generally accepted response to sexual assault and is not seen as reliable in determining whether a rape occurred. The third criterion is that the evidence should be helpful to the jury. In general, the testimony is seen as helpful in educating jurors about the common effects of rape and particularly common misconceptions about rape and rape victim behavior. The final criterion is that the testimony should not be unfairly prejudicial to the defendant. This has been the most controversial aspect of the testimony, but the degree of prejudice depends on the nature of the testimony. The testimony is generally viewed as less prejudicial if the expert uses the term PTSD versus RTS, if the testimony is used to rebut a defendant’s claim that a complainant’s behavior was inconsistent with having been raped, and if the testimony concerns victims as a class versus the specific complainant. The testimony is viewed as unfairly prejudicial and as invading the province of the jury if it is used to prove that a rape occurred (e.g., if the expert states that he or she believes that the victim was raped or definitely has RTS).

Although RTS evidence was initially introduced in sexual assault cases to corroborate the complainant’s claim that sexual contact was nonconsensual, defendants have also sought to use the testimony to support their version of the facts. For example, a defendant may try to offer expert testimony that, because a complainant does not have RTS, she must not have been raped. Compelling complainants to be examined by defense experts undermines protections introduced by rape shield laws and could deter reporting. Nonetheless, concerns about complainants must be balanced against the rights of the accused. The admissibility of RTS evidence by the defense depends on several factors. For example, expert testimony offered by the defense is more likely to be admissible if the prosecution first offered the testimony. Some argue that it should only be admissible in these circumstances. In addition, some argue that the defense should be allowed to compel an examination of a complainant if the prosecution expert did an examination but not if the prosecution expert only provided general testimony about the effects of sexual assault.


  1. Davis, K. (1998). Rape, resurrection, and the quest for truth: The law and science of rape trauma syndrome in constitutional balance with the rights of the accused. Hastings Law Journal, 49, 1511-1570.
  2. Frazier, P. (2005). Rape trauma syndrome: Scientific status. In D. Faigman, D. Kaye, M. Saks, & J. Sanders (Eds.), Modern scientific evidence: The law and science of expert testimony (Vol. 2, pp. 317-343). Eagan, MN: Thomson West.
  3. Frazier, P., & Borgida, E. (1992). Rape trauma syndrome: A review of case law and psychological research. Law and Human Behavior, 16, 293-311.
  4. Garrison, A. (2000). Rape trauma syndrome: A review of a behavioral science theory and its admissibility in criminal trials. American Journal of Trial Advocacy, 23, 591-657.

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