Health Consequences of Sexual Assault
last updated February 1, 2006

The health consequences of sexual assault can be severe. In addition to the injuries that may be sustained as a result of physical abuse that may accompany the sexual assault, forced sexual contact can also result in genital injuries and gynecological complications, such as bleeding, infection, chronic pelvic pain, pelvic inflammatory disease, and urinary tract infections. Sexual violence an also put women at risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS; unwanted pregnancies may lead to an unsafe abortion or to injuries sustained during an abortion.

From State of the World Population 2000: Lives Together, Worlds Apart: Men and Women in a Time of Change, United Nations Population Fund (2000); Ending Violence Against Women, in Population Reports, vol. 7, no. 4 (December 1999); World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health162 (2002).

Victims of sexual assault can experience a wide range of psychological and emotional disorders, including shock, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or rape trauma syndrome, and other trauma-related mental health issues. Victims may also experience disturbed sleep, loss of self-esteem, sexual dysfunctions, and behavioral and eating disorders. Psychological and emotional trauma can also manifest itself in physical reactions such as stomachaches, headaches, and back problems. Sexual assault victims are more likely to attempt or to commit suicide. According to the World Health Organization, studies indicate that 33% of women with a history of sexual abuse and 15% of women with a history of physical abuse showed signs of a psychiatric disorder. Only 6% of women without a history of abuse show signs of psychiatric problems. From World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health 163 (2002).

Studies indicate that a high percentage of women who have been the victims of sexual assault suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or "rape trauma syndrome." Studies in France, New Zealand, and the United States indicate that the "chances that a woman will develop PTSD after being raped are between 50% and 95%." From Ending Violence Against Women, Population Reports, vol. 7, no. 4, December 1999.

Rape trauma syndrome generally refers to the "cluster of emotional responses to the extreme stress experienced by the victim during the sexual assault." These responses can include feelings of hopelessness, loss of control, anger and guilt, as well as "phobias, depression, sexual difficulties, failure to resume previous social or sexual relationships, failure to return to work, substance abuse, suicidal ideation." From Ivana Bacik, Catherine Maunsell, & Susan Gogan, The Legal Process and Victims of Rape 27 (September 1998). Other symptoms of PTSD or rape trauma syndrome can include recurrent nightmares or intrusive memories (flashbacks) of the event, social withdrawal, anxiety and feelings of numbness. From Rape, Illustrated Health Encyclopedia. One study found that almost a third of all victims develop PTSD sometime during their lives. From Sue Orsillo, Sexual Assault Against Females, National Center for PTSD (2003). Another study "found that the psychological effects of being raped were comparable to the effects of being tortured or kidnapped." Ending Violence Against Women, Population Reports, vol. 7, no. 4 (December 1999).

In addition, women who have been the victims of sexual assaults may experience problems in relationships with intimate partners and friends. Women may be reluctant to trust others, and may withdraw from social situations. Victims of sexual assault may also experience sexual dysfunction; they may be "afraid of and try to avoid any sexual activity; they may experience an overall decrease in sexual interest and desire." From Sue Orsillo, Sexual Assault Against Females, National Center for PTSD (2003).

Victims often blame themselves for the assault. Self-blame, in turn, can have further serious and significant psychological consequences for victims. Self-blame is associated with feelings such as fear, depression and anxiety. As one expert has explained:

The more women blamed themselves for the rape, the more suicidal they had been since the rape, the greater the likelihood that they had been psychiatrically hospitalized, and the lower their self-esteem. In total, nearly one-third of rape victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and thirteen percent of rape victims attempt suicide.

From Testimony of Professor Michelle J. Anderson before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System (6 December 2001) (citations omitted).

Studies have indicated that victims of marital or date rape are eleven times more clinically depressed, and six times more likely to experience social phobia than are non-victims. Victims also may be more likely to abuse substances as a coping mechanism. In one study, sexual assault was found to increase the odds of substance abuse by a factor of 2.5 percent. From National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Rape Fact Sheet: Prevalence and Incidence.

For women in refugee camps, sexual assault and the threat of sexual assault can not only affect their physical and emotional health, but also their and their children's nutritional health. When camp conditions do not provide for women's safety when they go to gather firewood or water, women may restrict their participation in such activities, as a result of which they and their children may not have be able to provide for themselves nutritionally. From Ending Violence Against Women, in Population Reports, vol. 7, no. 4 (December 1999).

For a collection of research and reports on the health consequences of sexual assault, click here.