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Rape Trauma Syndrome

by Ashley Rondini

Few experiences are more traumatic than a rape or sexual assault. While the physical wounds may heal, the emotional wounds can fester for a lifetime. Following a sexual assault, a survivor may have to face difficult medical and legal experiences and decisions. But the process of dealing with a sexual assault doesn't end there.

Survivors may feel overwhelmed, disconnected from their feelings, or a combination of both. There is no such thing as a "correct" way to react to an attack, but there are common feelings that many survivors experience. Many sexual assault counselors call this experience rape trauma syndrome (RTS). RTS is a kind of posttraumatic stress disorder, which often occurs when people have potentially life-threatening experiences or have witnessed other people having them.

There are three main phases of RTS. Phases may last weeks or years. Recovering from the experience of an assault may mean moving back and forth within these phases over the course of a lifetime.

The Acute Phase

In most people, the initial (acute) phase of RTS occurs right after an assault. Although it varies for different people, this phase typically lasts for several weeks after the attack. People may assume that the "normal" response to an attack is to cry. This may be true for some survivors, but not all.

Survivors may display "expressed" or "controlled" emotional responses during the acute phase. Expressed responses release emotions through crying, laughing, shouting, talking, or any other way of letting out emotional tension.

Controlled responses hold back the emotions. People with controlled response may seem withdrawn, resistant to talking, silent, distracted, numb, or disconnected from their feelings.

During the acute phase, a survivor may also experience noticeable changes in sleeping and eating habits. Just as an assault often causes feelings of losing control over what is happening to one's body, the disturbances to normal sleeping or eating habits may also raise issues of control over the physical self. Survivors may also be extremely aware of their surroundings — for example, they may be very startled by unexpected sounds or occurrences.

The Reorganization Phase

In the second stage of RTS survivors begin to reorganize their lives after the assault has disrupted their routine. During this phase, some of the initial shock is likely to wear off, and the survivor's understanding of what has happened begins to really sink in. This may go on for months or even years.

Dealing with the reality of what has happened can be very painful. Survivors in the reorganization phase sometimes feel guilty or ashamed (even though being assaulted is never the survivor's fault). Nevertheless, survivors may feel hatred toward their bodies and may punish themselves with unhealthy eating patterns.

Survivors may do other things that seem out of character — like withdraw from the activities and people that they usually enjoy. Sometimes, survivors may indulge in uncharacteristically self-destructive or risky behavior like abusing drugs to block their feelings or cutting themselves in attempts to release feelings they cannot otherwise express.

The effort to reorganize may affect a survivor's sexual relationships. For some survivors, being sexually intimate after an attack can be frightening, and they may find it difficult to be close to someone in a sexual way. But for others, the response is exactly the opposite. Being assaulted may cause people to feel disconnected from their bodies, and they may seek out as many sexual experiences as possible in order to try to erase or replace the memory of the assault.

The Resolution Phase

Survivors who come to terms with their experience are in the resolution phase. They may still be sad, angry, or hurt by the assault, but in this phase, survivors may begin to focus on recovering and moving forward with their lives. This does not necessarily mean that they've gotten over the experience. What it does mean is that they are getting stronger and learning ways to manage feelings about the attack in order to feel a greater sense of control in their lives.

Survivors who have reached the resolution phase can still experience flashbacks and nightmares. Flashbacks can be triggered by certain sounds, places, or smells that remind them of the assault. Healing is a lifelong process. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network can provide counseling and assistance for survivors of rape. Call 1-800-656-HOPE or visit its website for additional information and support.

Anti- rape bracelet stirs debate
Idea put forward by candidate for Rome mayor
(ANSA) - Rome, April 22 - A proposal to protect women from rape by fitting them with special tracking bracelets is stirring heated debate in Italy.

The idea was put forward by outgoing Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, who is running for Rome mayor.

Rutelli suggested that women who were forced to cross risky areas of the city alone at night be given bracelets which would alert the police in the event of danger.

The proposal followed a brutal sex attack on an African woman in Rome last Thursday which turned law and order into a top issue in the Sunday-Monday mayoral vote.

Rutelli, who served two terms as Rome mayor from 1993 to 2001, said the alarm bracelets could be introduced on an experimental basis for ''women alone in isolated areas''.

The device would allow the wearer to transmit an alarm signal to the nearest police station and also contain a tracking signal allowing police to then find the wearer.

Rutelli's aides explained that the device would be similar to the electronic ankle tags worn by some types of offenders in Britain. But Rutelli's centre-right rival for the mayoral post, Giovanni Alemanno, was scathing.

''This is a case of do-it-yourself safety in which citizens are supposed to compensate for the failings of the state and the city,'' said Alemanno, a former agriculture minister.

''Rutelli should be the one made to wear the bracelet,'' he said.

Isabella Bertolini, a top member of premier-in-waiting Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party, said that ''this is a ridiculous and offensive proposal''.

Other centre-right female politicians said the bracelets were ''humiliating' ' and that the only way to make the city safer for women was by putting more police on the streets and increasing surveillance in dangerous areas.

But women's rights activist Manuela Moroli said she liked the idea.

''Why not? The bracelets wouldn't be obligatory and if they make women feel safer and more protected, then all the better,'' Moroli said.

Late last Thursday night, a 31-year-old woman from Lesotho was knifed and raped at a railway station, La Storta, on the outskirts of Rome.

A 37-year-old Romanian who was living in an illegal encampment near the station has been arrested in connection with the crime.

Parallels were immediately drawn with a savage murder at the end of October which horrified the nation and led to the expulsion of dozens of Romanians considered a threat to public order.

In that case, a 47-year-old Italian woman was beaten, raped, robbed and then left to die by a 24-year-old Romanian gypsy in an early evening attack outside another railway station very near to La Storta.

The woman died after spending two days in a coma.

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