Understanding Military Sexual Trauma: Causes, Impact, and Solutions

Medically Reviewed

Up to Date

Editorial Policy

View our editorial policy

Updated 03/08/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Military Sexual Trauma (MST) includes a range of non-consensual and unwanted sexual behaviors experienced during military service.
  • MST affects service members of all genders and backgrounds, with the VA providing support and resources for survivors.
  • Prevalence of MST is higher among female and younger veterans, with significant barriers to reporting due to fear of reprisal and stigma.
  • Certain branches like the U.S. Marines and Navy report higher rates of MST, indicating a need for branch-specific prevention strategies.
  • Gender disparities in MST prevalence and reporting highlight the unique challenges faced by male and female survivors.
  • MST has long-lasting psychological, physical, and social consequences, including PTSD, depression, and isolation.
  • The reporting process for MST is complex, with high denial rates for claims and systemic issues in handling cases.
  • Prevention and treatment of MST require a multifaceted approach, including education, training, and accessible care for survivors.
  • VA provides MST-related services to veterans, with telehealth and mobile apps expanding access to care.
  • Effective MST prevention programs should involve a comprehensive approach that addresses individual, relational, and cultural factors.

Understanding Military Sexual Trauma (MST)

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant and distressing issue within the armed forces, encompassing a range of non-consensual and unwanted sexual behaviors. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) defines MST as sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurs during military service. This definition is in accordance with Federal law (Title 38 U.S. Code 1720D), which considers MST to be a form of psychological trauma.

MST includes any sexual activity where a service member is involved against their will. Examples of such activities are forced or coerced sexual encounters, sexual encounters without the ability to consent, and experiencing unwelcome sexual advances or threats. The identity of the perpetrator, the duty status of the survivor, or the location of the incident (on or off base) are irrelevant to the categorization of the experience as MST.

It is important to note that MST is not limited to a specific gender or background; veterans of all genders and from diverse backgrounds have reported experiencing MST. The VA provides support and resources to those who have endured MST, recognizing the profound impact it can have on an individual's mental and physical health.

For more detailed information on MST and the support available, please refer to the National Center for PTSD and the Veterans Affairs websites.

Understanding the Spectrum of Military Sexual Trauma (MST)

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) encompasses a range of non-consensual and harmful sexual behaviors experienced by service members. These behaviors fall into two primary categories: sexual harassment and sexual assault. Sexual harassment within MST can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that contribute to a hostile work environment. Sexual assault, a more severe form of MST, refers to any unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature, whether it involves physical force or occurs without the explicit consent of the individual.

MST is not limited by the gender or background of the victim and can occur under various circumstances. It does not matter whether the victim was on or off duty, or on or off base at the time of the incident. Importantly, the identity or characteristics of the perpetrator are also not a defining factor of MST. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes that MST can have long-lasting effects on the mental and physical health of service members, and it encourages those affected to seek support and file claims for disability compensation if they have health conditions related to their MST experience.

Resources such as the VA's services for MST offer assistance and treatment options to help survivors cope with the aftermath of these traumatic events. It is crucial to understand the broad scope of behaviors that constitute MST, as this knowledge is vital for prevention efforts, treatment provision, and supporting survivors in their recovery journey.

Understanding the Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) remains a significant issue within the United States military, affecting service members across various branches, genders, and age groups. A comprehensive study published on PubMed revealed an overall MST prevalence of 7.6%, with disparities observed between female and male veterans (32.4% vs 4.8%, respectively) and among different age groups, with younger veterans aged 18-29 reporting a higher prevalence (22.8%) compared to those aged 60 and above (4.5%).

Further research indicates that the prevalence of MST is on the rise, and veterans are increasingly seeking healthcare services outside of the Veterans Affairs Medical Centers. This trend underscores the pervasive nature of MST and its extensive impact on the physical, psychological, and psychosocial well-being of both female and male veterans. The prevalence of MST among LGBT service members also highlights the intersection of sexual orientation discrimination and MST, suggesting a need for enhanced protections and accountability within the military.

Despite efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment, both continue to persist, creating an environment where MST is likely to occur and difficult to report. The fear of reprisal, additional violence, demotion, and ostracism by colleagues are significant barriers that survivors face. The gender-based differences in reporting MST are notable, with a meta-analysis suggesting that while 38% of women reported MST, only 4% of men did so. This disparity is critical for understanding the unique challenges and barriers faced by survivors in seeking support and treatment.

Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma Across Armed Forces Branches

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant issue within the United States Armed Forces, affecting service members across all branches. Research indicates that certain branches may experience higher rates of MST. For instance, the U.S. Marines and the Navy have been reported to have the highest rates of MST among their service members. This is particularly concerning given the stringent demands and close-knit nature of these service environments.

Within the Air Force, a study highlighted that the lifetime prevalence of rape among active-duty women was notably higher than in other demographics, pointing to a critical concern for female service members. The Army also faces challenges with MST, with reports of sexual offenses in separate cases involving senior officers. However, the prevalence and reporting of MST within the Army are not fully represented in the provided research.

Addressing MST is complex, as evidenced by the disparities in PTSD claim denials related to MST, with a higher denial rate for these claims compared to combat-related PTSD claims. This suggests that veterans seeking support for MST-related issues face additional barriers, which may include racial and gender disparities. The denial rates for PTSD claims related to MST were significantly higher for Black veterans, indicating systemic issues that may affect the reporting and treatment of MST.

Efforts to address the prevalence and impact of MST must be tailored to the unique cultures and challenges of each military branch. As such, understanding the nuances of MST across the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines is essential for developing effective prevention and support strategies.

Gender Disparities in the Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a pervasive issue that affects service members regardless of gender, but prevalence rates and experiences can differ significantly between men and women. While both genders can be victims of MST, which includes sexual harassment and sexual assault, the impact and reporting rates are often gendered. A meta-analysis highlighted stark differences in MST reporting, with 1.9% of men and 23.6% of women reporting sexual assault, and 8.9% of men and 52.5% of women reporting sexual harassment within military contexts ( source ).

These statistics underscore the heightened vulnerability of women to MST, but it is also important to recognize the experiences of men. Research indicates that men may face unique challenges and stigmatization due to societal gender norms, which can affect their willingness to report incidents and seek help ( source ). It is crucial to consider these gendered differences when addressing MST, as they can influence the effectiveness of prevention, reporting, and treatment strategies.

The prevalence of MST among different genders also intersects with other issues such as mental health disorders. Women have a higher lifetime prevalence of mood or anxiety disorders, which may compound the psychological impact of MST ( source ). Conversely, men may be more likely to suffer from externalizing disorders such as conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder ( source ). Considering these co-occurring conditions is essential for providing comprehensive care to all MST survivors.

Consequences of Military Sexual Trauma on Service Members

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a pervasive issue within the armed forces that extends far beyond the immediate event, leaving lasting psychological, physical, and social scars on victims. Research from the National Center for PTSD and other studies has documented the multifaceted impact of MST, which can persist for decades after the trauma. Psychological sequelae include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and a profound sense of betrayal that can erode trust in military comrades and command structures. The disintegration of support within the military context is particularly egregious, given the high-stakes environment where trust is paramount for survival.

Physically, victims of MST may suffer from injuries and sexually transmitted diseases. Furthermore, the trauma can significantly impair later life functioning, leading to increased rates of disability and decreased physical functioning—an indicator of quality of life and successful aging. Socially, victims often face ostracism, isolation, and disruptions in unit cohesion, which are particularly challenging in a setting where individuals live and work closely together. The fear of reprisal, including additional violence, demotions, and unwanted job reassignments, makes reporting and seeking help difficult. These factors contribute to an environment where escaping the effects of MST may seem impossible, and the stigma surrounding mental health needs further complicates the pursuit of treatment and care.

Despite these challenges, it is critical to address the barriers victims face in accessing care, such as institutional betrayal and gender-related obstacles, to improve engagement and treatment outcomes. With approximately 16% of military personnel and veterans reporting MST, with marked gender differences, it is clear that both prevention and responsive treatment are essential to mitigate the long-term consequences of MST on service members.

Understanding the Psychological Aftermath of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant factor contributing to enduring psychological distress among service members. Research published in Military Medicine indicates that MST increases the risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression, potentially leading to suicidal ideation and cardiovascular disease. Women, in particular, are more susceptible to severe forms of MST and are more likely to report mental health symptoms, including depression and positive PTSD screening scores, as compared to their male counterparts.

Survivors of MST often face a complex interplay of psychological repercussions. The trauma experienced can lead to a breakdown in trust within military units, isolation from peers, and a fear of reprisal, which may include further violence or career-related consequences. These factors can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and depression, creating a cycle that hinders recovery. Furthermore, the persistent nature of harassment and assault within the military contributes to an environment where MST is likely to occur and difficult to report, intensifying the psychological impact on victims.

Long-term studies have shown that the effects of MST can persist for decades, affecting life functioning and increasing rates of disability. This highlights the need for effective screening, detection, and treatment interventions to address the psychological sequelae of MST. Unfortunately, barriers such as institutional betrayal, stigma surrounding mental health, and challenges in recognizing symptoms as PTSD-related can impede access to care. It's crucial for military institutions to foster an environment that supports MST survivors in seeking and receiving the help they need to heal from the psychological trauma inflicted.

Physical Health Consequences of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) can lead to a multitude of physical health issues for victims. These include acute injuries from the assault itself, as well as long-term health consequences such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The prevalence of STIs among victims of sexual assault is a significant concern, given the potential for life-altering complications. Research indicates that the transmission of STIs can occur through various forms of contact, including genital-genital, oral-genital, and anal-genital. This underscores the importance of timely medical evaluation and treatment following MST to mitigate these risks.

Victims of MST may face complications such as pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to chronic pelvic pain and infertility. Other STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis, can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early. However, some STIs like genital herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV) are not curable and may have persistent health implications, including an increased risk of certain cancers. The CDC's guidelines emphasize the importance of screening for STIs in the aftermath of sexual assault to address these health concerns promptly.

The physical impact of MST extends beyond STIs to include potential injuries and trauma to the body. The psychological toll of MST often compounds these physical effects, making comprehensive care essential for recovery. This includes not only medical treatment for physical injuries and infections but also psychological support to address the trauma associated with MST.

Understanding the Reporting Process and Institutional Response to Military Sexual Trauma

The reporting of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) within the military and the subsequent responses by military institutions are critical components in addressing the prevalence and impact of such incidents. The process of reporting MST is often fraught with challenges, including fear of reprisal, concerns about unit cohesion, and the potential for career repercussions. Studies have shown that survivors may face additional violence, demotions, or unwanted job reassignments, contributing to a reluctance to report. Research indicates that this environment can make escaping the effects of MST nearly impossible, especially when the perpetrator is a colleague or superior within the same unit.

When MST claims are filed, they face a higher denial rate compared to combat-related PTSD claims, with a noted disparity in acceptance rates based on race and gender. The VA has been reported to incorrectly process a significant percentage of denied MST claims, highlighting systemic issues in handling such cases. The VA Office of Inspector General cited noncompliance with recommendations aimed at improving the MST claims process, leading to an increase in processing errors and a call for unified policies that prioritize the well-being of veterans ( source ).

Despite these challenges, the VA encourages veterans to file disability claims related to MST and offers various services, including therapy and support groups, to aid recovery. It is crucial for military institutions to streamline the reporting process, ensure fair and thorough investigation of claims, and provide adequate support and treatment for survivors of MST. This includes improving screening, detection, and secondary prevention efforts to mitigate the long-term consequences of MST and foster a culture of safety and respect within the military ranks.

Barriers to Reporting Military Sexual Trauma

Reporting Military Sexual Trauma (MST) poses significant challenges for survivors, often due to systemic issues within military and veterans' affairs institutions. A Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General report highlighted that an estimated 57% of denied MST claims were not processed correctly, with errors including missing MST markers, failure to obtain required records, and not requesting exams when appropriate. This noncompliance with recommendations for improving the MST claims process resulted in an increased error rate in processing claims, underscoring the need for unified policies and procedures that prioritize the best interests of veterans ( source ).

Survivors also face barriers in mental health treatment access and retention, suggesting a need for policy changes to better connect those who have experienced MST to therapy ( source ). Furthermore, survivors often experience psychological impacts such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, which can compound the difficulties in reporting and seeking care ( source ). These challenges are exacerbated by the military setting, which may make recovery from MST particularly difficult due to the unique culture and structure of the Armed Forces ( source ).

Recognizing the barriers to reporting and the subsequent impacts on survivors is crucial for implementing effective support systems. This includes understanding the psychological and physical aftermath of MST, the institutional hurdles in reporting and claims processing, and the need for improved mental health services tailored to the needs of military members.

Evaluating Military Responses to Military Sexual Trauma Reports

The response of military institutions to reports of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) has been a critical concern, with various studies and reports indicating challenges in both the reporting process and the subsequent institutional response. A report by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General highlighted that an estimated 57% of denied MST claims were not processed correctly, pointing to significant errors in the claims process. This includes missing MST markers, failing to obtain required records, and not requesting exams when appropriate, suggesting a lack of compliance with recommendations to improve accuracy and support for survivors.

Furthermore, research from the RAND Corporation underscores the persistence of sexual assault and harassment within the Department of Defense (DoD), with most incidents going unreported. The study calls for bold action to address serious gaps in the prevention infrastructure. Survivors often fear reprisal, additional violence, and career repercussions, contributing to the underreporting of MST. The military's own culture and environment can exacerbate these issues, making it difficult for survivors to come forward and trust the response process.

Additionally, the VA research indicates that the military's response to MST can affect the survivor's long-term well-being, with military sexual harassment and discrimination being linked to lasting impairment and decreased quality of life. The VA's efforts in screening and secondary prevention are critical, yet the prevalence of MST among men remains understudied and underreported compared to women. This gap in knowledge and response underscores the need for a more gender-inclusive approach to MST response and treatment.

In conclusion, while the military has taken steps to address MST, including the restructuring of response programs and the implementation of prevention strategies, the effectiveness of these responses remains a significant concern. There is a need for continued improvement in processing claims, supporting survivors, and ensuring a culture change within military institutions to effectively counter MST.

Strategies for Prevention and Treatment of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant concern within military communities, and addressing it requires a multifaceted approach combining prevention and treatment. Prevention frameworks are crucial, as they guide the planning and implementation of programs aimed at reducing the incidence of MST. A comprehensive prevention strategy may include education, training, and policies designed to foster a culture of respect and accountability within the military.

Treatment for MST victims is equally important and should be readily accessible. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides MST-related services to veterans and former service members, regardless of their length of service or discharge status. These services include counseling, therapy, and medical care, facilitated through VA health care facilities and the Veterans Crisis Line. Additionally, VA telehealth technologies have made it easier for victims to connect with their care teams from various locations.

Recent advancements, such as the adoption of telehealth and regulatory flexibilities for Opioid Treatment Programs (OTPs), have expanded access to care and support for individuals with substance use disorders, which can be a co-occurring issue with MST. SAMHSA's Prevention Framework and the new Community Harm Reduction and Engagement Initiative aim to bridge harm reduction and low-threshold treatment, offering a more holistic approach to addressing the needs of those affected by MST.

Furthermore, evidence-based treatments like Multisystemic Therapy (MST), not to be confused with Military Sexual Trauma, offer intensive support for youth with severe conduct problems, which may include behaviors stemming from trauma. The MST approach is tailored to the individual's needs and involves the family and community, highlighting the importance of a supportive network in the recovery process.

Effective Prevention Programs for Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant issue within the armed forces, and effective prevention programs are critical to reducing its occurrence. While the provided research primarily discusses Multisystemic Therapy (MST) in the context of juvenile offenders and does not directly relate to Military Sexual Trauma, the principles of comprehensive, systemic intervention could be extrapolated to inform MST prevention strategies. A prevention program for MST would likely benefit from a multi-faceted approach that addresses individual, relational, and cultural factors contributing to sexual violence in the military.

Effective MST prevention programs would involve education and training at all levels of the military hierarchy, promoting a culture of respect and zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault. Initiatives such as bystander intervention training could empower service members to act in situations that could lead to sexual violence. Additionally, programs that focus on leadership accountability and the establishment of clear reporting procedures could significantly impact the rates of MST.

To assess the effectiveness of these programs, rigorous evaluation methods, such as randomized controlled trials, should be employed. The success of these programs could be measured by a reduction in the incidence of reported MST cases, improvements in the attitudes and beliefs about sexual violence among military personnel, and increased confidence in the military's response to such reports.

Ultimately, the goal of MST prevention programs is to create a safe environment for all service members, where sexual violence is not tolerated, and victims feel supported in coming forward. Implementing evidence-based prevention strategies, adapted from successful interventions like Multisystemic Therapy, could provide a framework for reducing the prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma.

Comprehensive Treatment Options for Military Sexual Trauma Survivors

Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) have access to a range of treatment options aimed at supporting their recovery and well-being. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plays a critical role in providing these services, which are available to veterans and some former service members, regardless of their length of service or discharge status. MST-related care includes therapy, medication, and support groups, tailored to address the unique challenges faced by MST survivors.

Therapeutic interventions are a cornerstone of MST treatment, with specialized modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and prolonged exposure therapy often employed to help individuals cope with PTSD, depression, and anxiety stemming from their trauma. Additionally, medication may be prescribed to manage symptoms related to these psychological conditions. Support groups provide a community of peers who understand the MST experience, facilitating a shared healing journey.

For those seeking flexible options, the VA offers telehealth services, allowing survivors to connect with their care team remotely. The Beyond MST mobile app is another resource, offering over 30 specialized tools to assist survivors in managing symptoms and improving their quality of life. Advocacy groups, such as the American Legion, have also called for more flexible treatment options to accommodate the diverse needs of MST survivors. The VA's National Center for PTSD provides additional information on mental health care for those affected by MST, emphasizing the importance of screening and effective treatment strategies.

There are quite a few different options for people who are seeking treatment for drug & alcohol addiction. Your individualized treatment plan at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake may include:

  • Medical detox : Patients detox from substances in a clinical environment where doctors monitor health and provide medications to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Inpatient treatment : Patients in inpatient treatment live at our facility and attend a full schedule of individual and group therapy, counseling and peer support sessions.
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP) : PHPs provide patients with additional flexibility and independence than inpatient programs.
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP): IOPs help patients transition to life outside of rehab, with fewer hours of care and more time building skills and habits for recovery.
  • Outpatient treatment : Outpatient care provides ongoing treatment after an inpatient stay and supports clients as they transition back into their daily lives.
  • Aftercare : Aftercare programs help support long-term recovery through clinical and medical recommendations for follow-up care, relapse prevention plans and more.

If you or someone you love is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, help is available. The Recovery Village Palmer Lake is here to support you throughout the entire recovery process. It's time to get your life back. Call our Recovery Advocates today.


Get your life back

Recovery is possible. Begin your journey today

Call Us Now Admissions Check Insurance

What To Expect

When you call our team, you will speak to a Recovery Advocate who will answer any questions and perform a pre-assessment to determine your eligibility for treatment. If eligible, we will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. If The Recovery Village is not the right fit for you or your loved one, we will help refer you to a facility that is. All calls are 100% free and confidential.

All calls are 100% free and confidential.