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Military Sexual Trauma

What is Military Sexual Trauma?

Military sexual trauma is both sexual harassment and sexual assault that occurs in military settings. As in civilian life, both men and women can experience military sexual trauma and the perpetrator can be of the same or opposite gender. Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that occurs in the workplace or an academic or training setting. It includes gender harassment, “put downs” based on gender, unwanted sexual attention, offensive remarks about sexual activities or of one’s body, and sexual coercion, defined as implied special treatment for sexual cooperation. Sexual assault is defined as any sort of sexual activity between at least two people in which one of the individuals is involved against their will. Physical force may or may not be used.

Are There Unique Aspects of Sexual Trauma Associated with Military Service?

Sexual trauma associated with military service most often occurs in settings where victims live and work. In most cases, victims must continue to live and work closely with their perpetrators, often leading to an increased sense of feeling helpless, powerless, and at risk for additional victimization. In addition, sexual victimization that occurs in these settings often indicates that victims are relying on their perpetrators (or associates of the perpetrator) to provide for basic needs including medical and psychological care. Similarly, because military sexual trauma occurs within the workplace, this form of victimization disrupts the career goals of many of its victims. Perpetrators are frequently peers or supervisors responsible for making decisions about work-related evaluations and promotions.

Most military groups are characterized by a tight level of unit cohesion, particularly during combat. Because organizational cohesion is so highly valued within the military environment, divulging any negative information about a fellow soldier is considered taboo, causing many victims to be reluctant to report sexual trauma. Many victims say there were no available methods for reporting their experiences to authorities. Many have had their reports ignored, or even worse, have been blamed for the ordeal. Having this type of invalidating experience following a sexual trauma is likely to have a significant negative impact on the victim’s post-traumatic adjustment.

What Type of Psychological Responses are Associated with Military Sexual Trauma Victimization?

Given the range of sexual victimization cases (ranging from inappropriate sexual jokes or flirtation, to pressure for sexual favors, to completed forcible rape), there are a wide range of emotional reactions reported by veterans in response to these events. Even in the aftermath of severe forms of victimization, there is not a universally singular manner in which victims respond. Instead, the intensity, duration, and trajectory of psychological responses all vary based on factors such as the veteran’s previous trauma history, their appraisal of the traumatic event, and the quality of their support systems following the trauma. In addition, the victim’s gender may play a role in the intensity of post-traumatic reactions. While the types of psychological reactions experienced by men and women are often similar, the experience of sexual victimization may be even more stigmatizing for men than it is for women. This is due to the victimizing experiences having an emasculating effect to the prescribed male gender role. Accordingly, men may experience more severe symptomalogy than women, may be more likely to feel shame about their victimization, and may be less likely to seek professional help.

Links and Resources

Women Veterans Health Care: Military Sexual Trauma
Military Sexual Trauma: Stories From Survivors
Military.com: Sexual Trauma