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Mental Health Center

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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
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