It can be hard to understand how to handle sexual assault in the military, but knowing where to find help and support is an important first step. Sexual assault can include unwanted or forcible sexual advances, touching, or any sexual activity that occurs without your consent. It also might include sexual harassment, inappropriate jokes and flirtation, pressure to engage in sexual activity, or rape. Sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of gender—whether the assaulter is someone you know, a stranger, or even your romantic partner.
Military sexual trauma (MST) is the experience of sexual assault within the military or among military personnel. According to DoD, MST includes sexual assault, sexual threats or harassment, unwanted touching or grabbing, or any sexual activity that occurs without consent during active-duty military service (regardless of location). MST also includes the trauma that a survivor might experience as a result. Since there are fewer women in the military, the percentage of female Service Members who report experiencing MST compared to their male counterparts is high. Still, it’s estimated that about the same number of men and women in the military experience sexual assault during their service.
Impact of sexual assault on performance
Sexual trauma can impact performance for a short period and in the long term. Common emotional responses after an assault—such as feeling depressed, agitated, upset, or angry—can detract from a Service Member’s ability to stay focused and alert on the job. Other consequences of sexual trauma that impede performance are feeling “numb” to both positive and negative experiences, nightmares, and trouble sleeping. Survivors of MST can find it hard to connect to others. They might feel isolated or lonely too. You also might notice you feel uncomfortable or have a hard time developing trust with your partner. Since it can be very hard to address the feelings that come with sexual trauma, people often will engage in coping strategies that feel good right away, but have negative long-term consequences. For example, some Service Members might use alcohol or drugs, which will likely further impede performance.
It takes a lot of courage to face or report sexual assault, particularly in the military. If you have experienced MST, understand you’re not alone. It’s also important to know what resources are available, so you can overcome any challenges that can affect your performance. With support and treatment, growth is possible after trauma.
If it feels hard to reach out, start by learning more about military sexual trauma.
- Visit Health.mil’s Sexual Assault Prevention section for information on DoD programs and resources, as well as a video and links to additional articles.
- Learn more about MST and support services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Military Sexual Trauma and National Center for PTSD web pages.
If you’re ready to seek support, consider the following resources and services provided by the military.
- The DoD Safe Helpline offers confidential, 24/7 phone support at 877-995-5247. You also can access live help, individual and group online chat support, text help, or other self-care information with the mobile app.
- The DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) offers many resources on reporting and support services. SAPRO also provides links to branch-specific policies and resources. Or visit the websites for the different branches:
- Army: Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention (SHARP)
- Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR)
- Navy Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program
- Marine Corps: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR)
- National Guard: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program
- Coast Guard: Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Program (SAPR)
- Call or reach out to your branch Sexual Assault Response Counselor (SARC) 24/7. Contact Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 to learn more.
- VA medical centers have MST coordinators who can guide you to specific resources and programs. Each center also provides information on onsite MST-related counseling services.
Other organizations outside of the military provide help and information too.
- The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. To talk to someone right away, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-4673 or use their live chat services. RAINN staff can help you find a healthcare provider in your area too.
- NO MORE offers help and resources to those affected by domestic violence and sexual assault. In addition, NO MORE staff can provide information if you or someone you know needs immediate help.
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Klingensmith, K., Tsai, J., Mota, N., Southwick, S. M., & Pietrzak, R. H. (2014). Military sexual trauma in US Veterans: Results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, e1133–e1139. doi:10.4088/JCP.14m09244
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