PTSD and sexual assault: The necessary, but uncomf...

PTSD and sexual assault: The necessary, but uncomfortable, research

Earlier this year, students Nolwandle Mgoqi-Mbalo, Sam Ntuili, and Muyu Zhang of the University of Limpopo in South Africa and the University of California in Los Angeles, published a study on the “Risk factors for PTSD and depression in female survivors of rape” in Psychological Trauma Theory Research Practice and Policy (grab the PDF here).

The objective of the study was to understand how economic status, location of assault, violence, and support given impacted the risk of PTSD the women faced after the rape.

The Study

South Africa has the highest rate of sexual violence in the world.

Therefore, to proceed with their study, Mgoqi-Mbalo, Zhang, and Ntuili interviewed 100 Black women from three different provinces in South Africa. Those provinces were: Limpopo, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal. The women studied were all in their 20’s but diverse in their socio-economic, marital, and employment status.

What They Found

 All survivors don’t suffer from PTSD but the likelihood that they will relies on a plethora of factors.

In this case, interviews showed that women who had experienced depression before were likely to develop PTSD after rape. The same was true for unmarried and unemployed women as well as women hit or beaten during the rape, raped inside of their home, and shown very little support throughout the healing process.

The interviews not only proved that this was true but showcased that women from KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) were more likely to experience depression and PTSD six months after a rape than the women in the other two provinces.

…interviews showed that women who had experienced depression before were likely to develop PTSD after rape. The same was true for unmarried and unemployed women as well as women hit or beaten during the rape…


What the study got right:

I believe the research study meant to do well and right by the women who volunteered.  Mgoqi-Mbalo, Zhang, and Ntuili did their homework and didn’t choose the women at random. They sought the advice of professionals and recruited all of the survivors from medical facilities like: hospitals and victim empowerment centers. Interviewers also made sure to follow the protocol and guidelines of the Institutional Review Board housed at their respective universities including the University of Cape Town and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Moreover, all interviews were voluntary and held face-to-face. Safe spaces were also prioritized and the sources cited in the investigation will serve to educate allies and better support survivors.

What the study could have done better:

When I initially read the research study I was so surprised by how short it was. Admittedly, the work was summarized in a digestible and easy to retain manner, but considering the topic and the fact that there were three provinces of women surveyed, I would have preferred a more thorough study that involved hearing from the women.

For instance, we know that the women volunteered to interview face-to-face for the research paper, and so it would have been helpful to see direct quotes from them and to hear more of their stories. However, this is not to say that reading direct quotes would have made their truth of survival any more real, and perhaps there were reasons why the research study doesn’t have more of a personal touch. Ultimately, though, I found myself wary of seeing the women as numbers or statistics. I yearned to know them a bit more personally. Again, not to validate their story, but to make them, as women, more visible.

Which brings me to this question. Is work like this exploitive? Is it ethical to do research with rape survivors? Personally, I believe this type of work is necessary. We should know how to properly advocate and support survivors. It is also imperative to know of their experiences and hold those who assault accountable for their transgressions. Still, were there reasons not discussed in the research paper that kept their stories and responses, outside of the general info about the kinds of questions asked, out of the paper?

Ultimately, though, I found myself wary of seeing the women as numbers or statistics. I yearned to know them a bit more personally. Again, not to verify their story, but to make them more visible.

That being said, these are other questions worth considering:

Outside of follow-up appointments at victim empowerment centers, were the women given any more support? Perhaps financially? The study highlighted that the results of their research showcased that women who were poor, unemployed, or had previous bouts of depression were more likely to experience PTSD after surviving a rape.

Risk factors for PTSD and depression in female survivors of rape

Visual by Guillermo Alvite de Pablo

Research also found that this was especially true for women who lived in the KwaZulu-Natal province. Thus, it would make sense that in conjunction with mental and emotional support, the women would receive some form of stipend or financial compensation for having to relive, via an interview, their history of assault as well.

Another question that plagued me as I read the research findings was: is there such a thing as a hierarchy of rape? In their findings Mgoqi-Mbalo, Zhang, and Ntuili found that women who were beaten or threatened while raped were more likely to experience PTSD as opposed to women who were only just raped. I struggled with this concept, but this does not mean it isn’t true. I wonder though, isn’t rape already violent? Aren’t raped women (hit or verbally threatened) already under attack?

I cringe when I think of the many people who normalize rape, and expect and accept that all men will eventually become an aggressor. I cringe also when I realize that some people may see this study and believe that there is a such thing as a rape that isn’t so bad. I don’t believe this is the researchers’ cross to bear. It isn’t their fault if others pull this synopsis from their findings, however, it still hurts.

Overall, despite my many questions and thoughts, I believe this kind of work is necessary. Rape isn’t just a physical attack but it’s a psychological one and while the research study may not do this perfectly, I believe it does advocate for this truth.

I am not sure if those who rape, sodomize, and hurt will ever experience persecution as they should. I’m personally not hopeful that people will stop normalizing rape. Still, it doesn’t mean that the work to support survivors and the work to prevent rape should end.

Thus, despite the challenges that this research study faced and the things they could have done differently or better, work like theirs should continue in the provinces of South Africa and around the rest of the world. Work like theirs should also continue to insist on the helpful hands and expertise of medical professionals, counselors, social workers, families of survivors, government officials, and the community.


(Photo by Julien Harneis)


About Randie Chapman

I am a Gates Millennium Scholar and first-generation college graduate from the College of Wooster where I majored in English and Africana Studies. In the fourth grade a librarian told me I wouldn't be able to finish the first Harry Potter book and just to spite her I've been reading ever since. In addition to loving a great book I am passionate about access, people, and justice and I believe writing is the only way to manifest this love and survive 45's America. When I'm not writing for High Faluter I am intentional about normalizing honesty, vulnerability, and truth-telling on my personal blog, Words with Randie. I currently reside in Atlanta, Ga with my husband and dog, Groot where you can find us watching Game of Thrones and Insecure.