Depressive symptoms after a sexual assault among women: understanding victim-perpetrator relationships and the role of social perceptions

  • N Abrahams
  • R Jewkes
  • S Mathews
Keywords: Sexual assault, Depression, Rape, Victim-perpetrator relationship


Objective: Although mental health impact of gender based violence has been documented for many decades, the impact of the socio-cultural dimensions and type of perpetrator on mental health outcomes has not been described outside of developed countries. We explore depression symptomatology four to six weeks post-rape in South Africa and examine whether this differs according to the circumstances of the rape.

Method: 140 participants recruited from public hospital services in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces were interviewed within two weeks after completing the post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) medication. A structured questionnaire was used to collect data on socio-demographic and sexual assault characteristics including perpetrator. Depressive symptomatology was measured using the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale.

Results: 84.3% (95% CI: 78.1-90.3) women were found to have high levels of depressive symptoms, but lower levels were found among women raped in circumstances in which there was a lesser likelihood of blame such as those raped by strangers rather than intimate partners (Odds Ratio: (OR) 0.28 (95% Confidence Intervals (CI): 0.11-0.69) and higher levels were associated with experiencing four or more side effects related to PEP medication (OR: 3.79: CI: 1.03-13.94). Receiving support and severe sexual assaults (involving weapons and multiple perpetrators) were not associated with depression.

Conclusion: The study does not support the general assumption that more violent rape causes more psychological harm. These results have  important implications for individual treatment because it is more generally assumed that multiple perpetrator rapes, stranger rapes and those with weapons would result in more psychological trauma and thus more  enduring symptoms. Our findings point to the importance of understanding
the socio-cultural dimensions, including dynamics of blame and stigma, of rape on mental health sequelae.

Keywords: Sexual assault; Depression; Rape; Victim-perpetrator relationship


Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1994-8220