Sexual assault and posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the biological, psychological and sociological factors and treatments

Mcgill J Med. 2006 Jul;9(2):111-8.


Sexual assault occurs with alarming frequency in Canada. The prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in assault survivors is drastically higher than the national prevalence of the disorder, which is a strong indication that the current therapies for sexual-assault-related PTSD are in need of improvement. Increasing knowledge and understanding of the pathologies associated with rape trauma in biological, psychological and sociological domains will help to develop more effective treatments for survivors. A dysregulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis is observed in survivors of sexual assault and this may be a fundamental cause of the structural and functional abnormalities contributing to PTSD symptoms. Pharmacotherapies are available to treat PTSD; however, they are often inadequate or unwanted by the survivor. Psychological health is compromised following interpersonal trauma and many psychological therapies are available, but with varying efficacy. A person's cognitions have a dramatic effect on the onset, severity, and progress of PTSD following sexual assault. Sociological impacts of assault influence the development of PTSD through victim-blaming attitudes and the perpetuation of rape myths. Perceived positive regard and early social support is shown to be important to successful recovery. Education is vital in rape prevention and to foster a supportive environment for survivors. The biological, psychological and sociological impacts and treatments should not remain mutually exclusive. A better appreciation of the biopsychosocial repercussions of sexual assault will aid in developing a more holistic and individualized therapy to help alleviate the physical and emotional pain following the trauma of rape.

Keywords: pharmacotherapy; posttraumatic stress disorder; rape; sexual assault; trauma.