Sexual Trauma in the Military


In the 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members, about 6% of active-duty women reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact. That is about 16 times the estimated incidence in the general population. Since low reporting is an issue, it is probably an underestimate, according to the researchers from Ibis Reproductive Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The DoD received 3,374 reports in 2012, although 26,000 active-duty members are estimated to have experienced sexual assault or harassment, say researchers.

Sexual trauma is associated with subsequent mental and physical health issues, including eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, menstrual problems, pelvic pain, and chronic fatigue.

Although the literature on military sexual trauma (MST) and its outcomes is building, little qualitative exploration of the subject exists, the researchers say. They could not find any studies taking an in-depth look at the barriers—real and perceived—in reporting MST and accessing MST-related services.

To fill the gap, the researchers conducted a study with 22 service women who were deployed overseas between 2002 and 2011. They asked open-ended questions about MST frequency, the women’s own experiences with MST, experiences of people they knew, barriers to reporting, and access to services. Most of the women had been in the military for 6 to 15 years and had been deployed once. Seven women (32%) had experienced MST during deployment, and 6 others described incidents involving women they knew.

The interviews highlighted 3 main factors that made reporting difficult: deployment dynamics, military culture, and lack of consequences. They pointed to stressors “unique” to deployment, such as high stress levels, high prevalence of alcohol use and other risky behaviors, and “changes in perceptions of ‘normal’ behavior that may occur during war.” The women also talked about widespread sexism in military culture, low ratios of women to men, and men outranking women. They felt military leadership “turned a blind eye” and failed to adequately address the issue with assailants rarely facing consequences.

While participants described a culture of blaming women who experience MST, they also in some cases blamed themselves or felt that women who were assaulted were irresponsible in a way that lead to their assault. One woman said, “It’s like the ’50s in the military all over again: ‘she was asking for it.’”

Of the 7 women who were assaulted, 4 reported the incidents, 2 did not, and 1 did not specify. Most of the participants felt it was common to not report MST during deployment. They cited factors such as negative reactions from superiors, including disbelief, blame, criticism, and lack of support.

Certain facts of military life present unique challenges. For example, the small-group environment gives rise to concerns about confidentiality. One woman pointed out that because there are only a few women in a group, it is usually obvious who is making the complaint. Moreover, the pressure to maintain unit cohesion—to not be the one “breaking up the team”—can be daunting enough to keep them from reporting. The researchers also say that while some barriers to reporting and care-seeking are common to both general and military populations, other research has suggested “secondary victimization,” or interactions that result in guilt, depression, anxiety, or distrust, may be common in the military.

The interviews underscored the critical need for timely access to confidential medical care, including access to emergency contraception. Military personnel have 2 reporting options, the researchers note: unrestricted, which initiates an official investigation; and restricted, which does not involve any investigative procedure. Both allow service members to receive confidential medical treatment and counseling but many of the interviewed women expressed concern about the confidentiality.

The participants and the researchers suggest the military could strengthen investigation and prosecution, which would also help deter assailants and increase reporting and care seeking. The participants also spoke of the need to increase awareness of what MST is and of available services. They suggested mandating MST briefings before, during, and after deployment, and mandating mental health treatment after an assault. They suggested creating a reporting system that allows women to report to women.

Burns B, Grindlay K, Holt K, Manski R, Grossman D. Am J Public Health. 2014;104(2):345-349.
doi: 10.2105/AJPH. 2013.301576.

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