Military Sexual Trauma: Causes, Impact, and Solutions

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Last Updated - 06/30/2024

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Updated 06/30/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is defined by the VA as sexual assault or threatening harassment during military service.
  • MST includes non-consensual sexual behaviors and can occur at any time, regardless of the victim’s duty status or location.
  • One in five female veterans and one in a hundred male veterans have disclosed experiences of MST to their VA healthcare provider.
  • Legislative efforts like the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023 aim to modernize the MST definition and improve the standard of proof for disability claims.
  • MST can lead to mental health challenges such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and can disrupt personal relationships and professional lives.
  • Recent studies show a prevalence of 41.5% for female and 4.0% for male U.S. veterans experiencing MST.
  • Physical consequences of MST include immediate injuries and long-term health issues, while social consequences involve stigma, relationship breakdown, and career impacts.
  • Prevention strategies in the military include education, policy reform, and enhanced reporting mechanisms.
  • Support services for MST survivors include counseling, medical treatment, legal assistance, and peer support.
  • Advancements in MST research and policy may leverage AI and other technologies for improved prevention and support.

Understanding Military Sexual Trauma (MST)

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to describe experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occur during military service. MST encompasses a range of non-consensual sexual behaviors, which can include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing, offensive remarks about one’s body or sexual activities, and unwelcome sexual advances. The legal and psychological definitions of MST recognize that the trauma can occur at any time during military service, regardless of the victim’s duty status or location. Importantly, the identity or characteristics of the perpetrator, as well as whether the victim was on or off duty or base, are irrelevant to the classification of the incident as MST.

Understanding the Legal Definition of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) encompasses a range of illegal and damaging acts experienced by service members. Legally, MST includes any sexual activity where a service member is involved against their will, or when they are unable to consent. This acknowledges the unique military circumstances where individuals may be unable to freely give consent due to power dynamics or rank. Legislative efforts like the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023 aim to modernize the MST definition to include technological abuse and update the standard of proof for disability claims. Specialized training and claims processing ensure those handling MST claims are prepared for the unique aspects of such cases.

Understanding the Psychological Perspective of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) encompasses a range of psychological and emotional responses resulting from sexual harassment or sexual assault experienced during military service. From a psychological standpoint, MST can lead to a variety of mental health challenges, including 

  • Stress-related disorders: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and other stress-related disorders are common effects of MST. 
  • Profound emotional effects: The emotional effects are profound, often involving feelings of shame, guilt, betrayal, and a sense of isolation. 
  • Disrupted sense of safety and trust: MST can disrupt an individual’s sense of safety and trust, particularly challenging given the military’s environment of camaraderie and reliance on fellow service members.

Long-Reaching Complications and Consequences of MST

Victims of MST may experience changes in their personality, suffer from sleep disturbances, have difficulty with concentration, and encounter obstacles in their personal relationships. The trauma can also result in avoidance behaviors, where survivors steer clear of places, people, or activities that may remind them of the assault, further impacting their social and professional lives. It’s crucial to recognize that the psychological definition of MST is not limited to the immediate aftermath of the incident but also includes the long-term psychological ramifications that can persist for years after the trauma.

Understanding the Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma

The prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant concern within military organizations. There is an urgent need for continued research, improved prevention strategies, and enhanced support services for those affected by MST.

Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma in the U.S. Military

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) represents a significant issue within the United States military, affecting both female and male service members. Studies have shown varying prevalence rates, with some data indicating that 41.5% of female veterans and 4.0% of male veterans have experienced MST. These figures are consistent with a meta-analysis reporting similar lifetime prevalence rates among U.S. military personnel and veterans.

Statistics of MST Reports

Recent reports from the Department of Defense acknowledge the gravity of the situation, with thousands of service members reporting incidents of sexual assault. In the fiscal year 2022 alone, 6,236 service members reported an incident of sexual assault, not including the additional reports from individuals who experienced assault prior to their service or from civilians and foreign nationals assaulted by service members.

Unreported MST Incidents

Despite these reported cases, a significant number of incidents remain unreported, highlighting a gap between occurrences and formal complaints. The underreporting of MST is a complex issue, often attributed to factors such as fear of retaliation, stigma, and lack of trust in the reporting process. Efforts by the military, including the establishment of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), aim to address MST by implementing prevention strategies, supporting survivors, and ensuring accountability.

Comparative Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma: U.S. vs. International Forces

The prevalence and impact of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant concern across global military organizations. A study published in BMC Public Health reveals that within the French military, 4.2% of men and 14.9% of women experienced some form of sexual oppression, including coercion, unwanted attention, or assault. By contrast, a meta-analysis of U.S. military personnel and veterans indicated that approximately 3.9% of men and 38.4% of women reported experiencing MST, highlighting a stark difference in reported cases between the two countries. Factors contributing to these differences may include reporting mechanisms, cultural attitudes, and support systems. 

Understanding the prevalence of MST in different military contexts is crucial for developing effective prevention and support strategies. International comparisons can provide insights into how different military organizations address the issue and may guide improvements in policies and practices to support MST victims.

Understanding the Multifaceted Impact of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant concern within the armed forces, encompassing any form of sexual harassment or assault experienced during military service. The impact of MST is profound and multifaceted, affecting survivors psychologically, physically, and socially. 

The barriers to seeking and receiving treatment for MST-related conditions are significant. Stigma, institutional betrayal, and gender-related barriers often prevent survivors from accessing the care they need. Even when treatment is initiated, challenges in maintaining engagement can result in suboptimal outcomes. This highlights the need for targeted support services and interventions to address the unique challenges faced by MST survivors.

Understanding the Psychological Aftermath of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a significant issue that affects service members, leaving a lasting psychological imprint. The psychological impact of MST can manifest in various forms, most notably Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Studies have shown that individuals who experience MST are at a heightened risk for developing these mental health conditions. 

  • PTSD is particularly prevalent, characterized by symptoms such as intrusive memories, avoidance behaviors, negative changes in thinking and mood, and heightened physical and emotional reactions. Research indicates that the severity of PTSD symptoms can be exacerbated by factors such as anxiety sensitivity, which has been linked to MST.
  • Depression is another common outcome of MST, often presenting in conjunction with PTSD. This dual diagnosis can complicate the treatment and prolong recovery, as the symptoms of both conditions may overlap and reinforce each other. 
  • The presence of anxiety disorders in MST survivors is also notable, with studies suggesting a strong correlation between the experience of MST and the development of anxiety symptoms. Recent research emphasizes the importance of understanding the comorbidity of these disorders to effectively address the full spectrum of psychological impact.

MST Psychological Complications and Comorbities

Furthermore, the psychological ramifications of MST can extend beyond these conditions, with some survivors experiencing substance use disorders, emotional dysregulation, and other psychiatric comorbidities. It is crucial for prevention programs to support the development of emotion regulation strategies and for support services to provide comprehensive care that addresses the multifaceted nature of MST’s psychological effects.

Physical Health Consequences of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) encompasses not only psychological but also significant physical health implications for survivors. The physical aftermath of MST can manifest as immediate injuries or develop into chronic health issues over time. Such injuries can have lasting effects, potentially leading to long-term health complications including chronic pain, especially in cases of head, neck, or back injuries. Survivors of MST may also experience a decline in general health up to a decade after the initial trauma, underscoring the profound and enduring impact of these experiences. It is also important to note that the physical consequences of MST are not limited to the initial injuries. Survivors may face increased susceptibility to certain illnesses due to immunosuppression from sustained stress and trauma.

Social Consequences of Military Sexual Trauma

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) has profound social consequences that extend beyond the individual to affect various aspects of their lives. 

  • Stigma: The stigma associated with MST often mirrors the stigma faced by those with mental health issues, leading to discrimination and social isolation.
  • Breakdown in relationships: Victims of MST may experience a breakdown in relationships due to misunderstanding and lack of support from friends and family. This misunderstanding can lead to weakened bonds and fractured relationships, as the social network may lack the knowledge or empathy required to provide appropriate support.
  • Employment problems: Victims’ career progression can also be adversely affected by MST. The stigma can result in negative attitudes from employers and colleagues, decreasing the likelihood of hiring or promotion for those with a history of MST. Disclosure of such trauma may lead to job loss or hinder job-seeking efforts, as victims grapple with the ‘Why Try’ effect, where anticipated discrimination and self-stigma reduce their motivation and effort to seek or maintain employment. Furthermore, stigma acts as a barrier to seeking healthcare, which can exacerbate health conditions and lead to adverse occupational outcomes like frequent sick leaves or job loss.

Implications of Social Stigma

Societal stigma compounds these challenges by perpetuating a cycle of status loss and discrimination. The distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is prevalent, where victims of MST may be viewed as less competent or dangerous, leading to further marginalization. The social implications of MST are severe, necessitating comprehensive support systems to address not only the psychological and physical impacts but also the social ramifications that hinder recovery and reintegration into society.

Strategies for Preventing and Responding to Military Sexual Trauma

Strategies for Preventing Military Sexual Trauma

Preventing Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a critical priority within military organizations. Effective prevention strategies are multifaceted and encompass three concepts: 

  • Education: Comprehensive training programs aim to raise awareness about MST, promote understanding of consent, and foster a culture of respect and accountability. These programs are designed not only for service members but also for military leadership, ensuring that they are equipped to address and prevent instances of sexual trauma.
  • Policy changes: This includes the implementation of stringent policies that clearly define unacceptable behaviors and the consequences thereof. Policies are enforced through a transparent legal process that protects victims and holds perpetrators accountable. 
  • Enhanced reporting mechanisms: Military institutions are working to create an environment where reporting sexual trauma is encouraged and supported. This involves establishing confidential reporting channels and ensuring that victims receive the necessary support without fear of retribution or career jeopardy.

Together, these measures aim to create a safer environment for all service members and contribute to the eradication of MST. It is crucial that prevention efforts are ongoing and adapt to the evolving challenges within military settings.

Available Support Services for Military Sexual Trauma Victims

Victims of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) have access to a range of support services aimed at facilitating recovery and providing assistance in various aspects of their lives. The VA offers various specialized services for MST survivors. These services are available to veterans and certain former service members, regardless of their length of service or discharge status. Notably, eligibility for MST-related care does not require a veteran to have other VA benefits. Some of these services include the following:

  • Counseling: The VA provides mental health services to help veterans cope with the aftermath of MST. This includes therapy and support for conditions such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
  • Medical Services: Treatment for physical health issues resulting from MST is available, including care for injuries and disabilities linked to the trauma.
  • Legal Assistance: Veterans can receive help with legal matters, including guidance on filing for VA disability benefits and addressing other legal concerns related to MST.
  • VA MST Coordinators: Each VA health care facility has an MST Coordinator who can assist with accessing these services. Veterans can also utilize VA telehealth technologies to connect with their care team remotely.
  • Additional Resources: The Office for Victims of Crime provides federal funds to support crime victim assistance programs, which may cover expenses for medical and mental health services. Organizations like the National Veterans Legal Services Program offer free legal representation to veterans with MST-related claims.

It’s important for MST survivors to know they are not alone and that comprehensive support is available to help them navigate their path to recovery.

Advancements in Military Sexual Trauma Research and Policy

The landscape of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) research and policy is poised for significant advancements in the coming years. As technology and healthcare continue to evolve, there is potential for improved prevention strategies, response mechanisms, and support systems for MST survivors. Two particular technological advances include the following:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare can revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of MST-related conditions by enabling precision medicine and personalized care. AI’s analytical capabilities can also assist in identifying risk patterns and improving reporting and response systems within military environments.
  • Future research may focus on the integration of innovative technologies like brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) to aid in the treatment of psychological effects of MST, such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. 

These technologies could offer new avenues for rehabilitation and recovery by facilitating neural restoration and improving mental health outcomes. 

Possibilities in Prevention of MST

Moreover, the shift towards preventive care in healthcare policy could lead to the development of more proactive measures to prevent MST, including comprehensive education programs and policy changes that address the root causes of sexual trauma in the military. Comparative studies across international militaries may also provide insights into effective prevention and support strategies, fostering a global exchange of knowledge. As research continues to shed light on the complex nature of MST and its far-reaching impacts, policy makers are challenged to incorporate these findings into tangible improvements for the safety and well-being of military personnel.

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