Military sexual trauma (MST) refers to sexual assault or threatening sexual harassment during military service. It includes any sexual activity to which a person doesn’t consent or is unable to consent (e.g., while asleep or intoxicated).
Some examples of MST are if someone feels pressured to engage in sexual activities, is physically forced into sexual activities, or receives unwanted sexual advances they find threatening. This may or may not include threats of punishment if the person doesn’t participate or promises of rewards if they do. It can also include comments about a person’s body or sexual activities or unwelcome physical advancements (e.g., being touched or grabbed) in ways that are threatening or that make them feel uncomfortable.
How Common is Military Sexual Trauma?
Military sexual trauma can affect anyone regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, or branch of service. Similar to civilian sexual trauma, MST is often underreported because of shame, guilt, fear of not being believed, or fear of repercussions. Generally speaking, studies show that 16% of all military personnel and Veterans experience MST; 38% of women and 4% of men reported being victims of MST.
Symptoms and Treatments for Military Sexual Trauma
The effects of MST vary from person to person, and while most survivors deal with chronic consequences, others may experience long-term symptoms or need clinical care to cope. Symptoms of MST may include:
- Post-traumatic stress (e.g., trouble sleeping, irritability, flashbacks, strong emotional reactions)
- Shame and/or guilt
- Eating disorders
- Excessive substance use or substance use disorder
It’s important to know that you may not experience symptoms right away following MST. It’s possible to experience your first symptoms years after the trauma.
Treatment for MST will likely be tailored to the person’s symptoms and needs. Clinicians may perform a mental health evaluation, a physical evaluation, and provide therapy for any mental health conditions related to MST. Types of therapy could include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)
- Experiential therapies like art therapy or equine therapy
- Group therapy
Self-Help and Coping Strategies
Below we have links to resources for active duty military and Veterans to get help – and much of that help is offered at no cost. However, MST survivors may not want professional help. In that case, here are some self-help strategies that might make coping easier:
- Positive psychology techniques:
- 3 Free Three: Every day, go outside for 15 minutes, listen to music you love, and find something that makes you laugh.
- Three Good Things: Every day, write down three good things that happened to you. Commit to doing it for 30 days and commit to not repeating yourself.
- Find Your Purpose: Read Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl to discover more about making meaning after tragedy.
- Meditate – Even taking 10 deep breaths can help you relax.
- Cut back on alcohol consumption and avoid using illegal drugs.
- Try to get a good night’s sleep.
- Talk to someone you trust or find a support group.
Where to Get Help
The most important thing to know is that you are not alone. MST is not your fault, help is available, and you deserve to live a happy life.
- If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call/text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
- For Active Duty Military, the Department of Defense Safe Helpline provides anonymous and confidential support for those affected by MST.
- For Veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides confidential, free support for MST. You do not need to have reported the assault or have documentation about it.
- The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) National Sexual Assault Online Hotline is not affiliated with the military or the government, but their hotline provides confidential support for someone who has experienced a sexual assault.
Additional Resources for Military Sexual Assault
- The VA’s page on MST Resources.
- The Wounded Warrior Project’s page on MST Resources.
- Youturn Health blog on symptoms of and treatments for PTSD.
- For more on trauma, please visit our Grief and Trauma Resources. For more on stress management, please visit our Stress Management and Burnout Resources.
- If you are a Youturn Heath member, please log in to the education platform and check out our courses on Stress Management, Burnout and Mindfulness, Trauma, and Depression.