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Military Sexual Trauma

Topic Overview

What is military sexual trauma?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) defines military sexual trauma (MST) as experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment.1 These traumas occur when a person is in the military.1 The location, the genders of the people involved, and their relationship do not matter.2

Sexual harassment may include:

  • A put-down of your gender.
  • Flirting when you've made clear it's not welcome.
  • Sexual comments or gestures about your body or lifestyle.
  • Pressure for sexual favors.

Sexual assault can be any sort of activity that you don't want. It doesn't have to be physical. Sexual threats or bullying are sexual assault. Rape is not the only type of sexual assault. Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual act, including touching or grabbing.

People who have been sexually assaulted often feel that no one can help, that they have no power, and that it may happen again. People may tell you or indicate that the assault was your fault or that you just need to get over it. Your military experience may make these feelings worse. This is because the person responsible or his or her colleagues:

  • May work with and live close to you.
  • May have some control over your needs, such as medical care.
  • May have some control over your promotions and career.

The bonding within your unit can make it hard to report your assault. You may feel torn between loyalty to your unit and to yourself, and you may feel you need to keep quiet for the good of the group. You may feel forced to choose between your military career and continued contact with the person who assaulted you.

Who gets MST?

MST can happen during war, peace, or training. It can be man-to-woman, woman-to-man, woman-to-woman, or man-to-man.

  • Among veterans using VA health care, about:
    • 23 out of 100 women reported sexual assault when in the military.1
    • 55 out of 100 women and 38 out of 100 men have experienced sexual harassment when in the military.1

What happens?

There is no set reaction to MST. You may feel fear, shame, anger, embarrassment, or guilt. You may have a response right away, or it may be delayed for months or years. You may feel sad or scared months or years after the assault.

After MST you may:

  • Avoid places or things that remind you of what happened.
  • Avoid your friends, family, and other people.
  • Have trouble sleeping or have nightmares.
  • Feel numb or feel nothing at all.
  • Have relationship problems.
  • Think about death or killing yourself.

Some people try to deal with their feelings by pulling away from other people, working all the time, or using drugs or alcohol. They also may feel depressed or have panic attacks.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a sexual assault is common.

What can I do?

After a sexual assault, many veterans keep quiet. They worry what others will think of them, and that talking about the assault will hurt their military careers. But the VA can help.

The VA has qualified MST counselors at every hospital. Many Vet Centers also have an MST coordinator. This person can discuss treatment with you and help you find the services that best fit your needs. Many VA and Vet Centers offer services specific to men and women.

Counseling often is used to treat MST. Your doctor also may prescribe medicines that help with symptoms. Treatment can help you cope with trauma and regain confidence and self-esteem.

For more information, see the topic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

References

Citations

  1. Veterans Health Administration (2004). Veterans Health Initiative: Military Sexual Trauma. Available online: http://www.publichealth.va.gov/docs/vhi/military_sexual_trauma.pdf.
  2. Veterans Health Administration (2012). Military sexual trauma. Available online: http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/mst_general_factsheet.pdf.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Jessica Hamblen, PhD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Last Revised January 9, 2013

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