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Header Photo: DoD photo by Cpl. Branden P. O'Brien, U.S. Marine Corps.

Military Sexual Trauma

Both female and male veterans may have experienced sexual trauma while serving on active military duty. Military sexual trauma is defined by the Department of Veterans Affairs as: “sexual harassment that is threatening in character or physical assault of a sexual nature that occurred while the victim was in the military, regardless of geographic location of the trauma, gender of the victim, or the relationship to the perpetrator.” This definition includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and other acts of violence. It further defines sexual harassment as repeated unsolicited, verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature, which is threatening in nature.

Considerable research has shown that sexual trauma is associated with increased physical and mental health problems. For example, the following specific physical symptoms are seen with increased frequency in sexual trauma survivors: chronic pain (e.g., lower back pain, headaches and pelvic pain); gynecologic (e.g., sexual dysfunction, menstrual abnormalities, menopausal symptoms, and reproductive difficulties); gastrointestinal (e.g., diarrhea, indigestion, nausea, swallowing difficulties); and chronic fatigue, sudden weight changes and palpitations. In addition, sexual assault has been linked with increased risk for the following psychological effects: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD; depression; suicidal ideation and attempts (especially among patients with PTSD); panic disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; obsessive-compulsive disorder; and substance abuse. Like women, the majority of sexually assaulted men go on to develop PTSD symptoms. In addition, men who have been sexually assaulted are at higher risk for completed suicide than women.

There is also some evidence that military sexual trauma may have a more deleterious impact on mental health than sexual trauma that occurred outside the military experience. As a result, veterans whose combat experiences are complicated by MST may have their psychological combat trauma effects amplified.