Military Sexual Trauma or “MST” is all together too common. About one in four women seen at the VA report some form of military sexual trauma. While this does not include all women who have experienced MST, women are more likely to report this type of trauma. On the other hand, many men do not report MST; only 1 in 100 men disclose that they have experienced MST. Men tend to report less often as they are more likely to see MST as “hazing”, bullying, or physical abuse (https://www.sexualassault.army.mil/whatweknow_militarymen.aspx). Additionally, It is common for men feel too much shame to report sexual trauma feeling that it somehow makes them less of a man. That said, while women are at higher risk for MST, 40% of MST reports are made by men. So what exactly is Military Sexual Trauma?
Sexual harassment is defined as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character.”
An important piece to note is the act (MST) is sexual in nature and was against your will and was not wanted at the time it occurred, even if you initially liked the attention. When it becomes non-consensual or exploitive it is assault and it is not your fault.
So what does this even look like? It could be forced or coerced sexual encounters, sexual encounters perpetrated while a person is unwilling or unable to give their consent (could include but is not limited to alcohol consumption), inappropriate sexual jokes or lewd remarks, unwanted physical contact that makes you feel uncomfortable, repeated sexual advances, being offered something in exchange for sexual favors, or being threatened with negative consequences if you do not engage in the sexual activity. If these experiences occurred while you were on active duty or active duty for training they are considered to be MST. MST can occur on or off base/post, during war or peacetime, and while a service member is on or off duty. Perpetrators can be of any gender, military personal or civilians, superiors or subordinates, or someone you know (including a friend or intimate partner) or a stranger.
Impact of MST
An important thing about MST is to remember that trauma is trauma. Whether your trauma is from MST or combat or something traumatic that happened in your personal life, it is trauma, the body doesn’t know the difference. Both are equally real and both are devastating What makes MST so much more destructive is that service members are taught to be strong - that they are strong - and sexual trauma contradicts that because it is something that takes away their power. It destroys trust in a place where trusting your battle buddies is essential and thus expected. This betrayal not only creates a dangerous situation in the field, but also is confusing and devastating.
Some additional pieces particularly challenging for those who have experienced MST versus other sexual trauma is that the survivor may have had to continue to live and work with his/her perpetrator perhaps even relying on him/her/them for essential things like food, health care, or safety (e.g., watching your back in the field). The survivor may have worried about damaging team spirit or unit cohesion if their perpetrator was in the same unit, thus leading him/her/them to not report the violation. The survivor may have worried about appearing weak or vulnerable and thinking others won’t respect him/her/them if they reported the offense. The survivor may have thought if others found out it would end his/her/their career and destroy chances for promotion. For these and other reasons, the experience of MST can put service members in challenging situations leaving them feeling alone, hurt, scared, confused, and so much more.
Some survivors of MST meet criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and may receive that diagnosis when their MST is reported; even if a service member doesn’t meet full criteria, they may still experience common trauma-related symptoms. These symptom may surface immediately or months or years after the assault(s). Possible symptoms may include:
Even if you don’t have many of these symptoms, MST is still harmful and can still impact our relationships as our ability to trust has been compromised. Further, it is common for trauma, including MST, to manifest in the body through things like obesity, disordered eating, memory difficulties, gastrointestinal problems, and other health conditions.
Okay, so this is me, I see myself in this. So now what? It is essential to get help. Trauma symptoms do not heal or resolve on their own*. Since secrecy fuels shame, it is important to share your story with a trusted, emotionally safe person, someone who has “earned the right to hear your story” as Brene Brown says. The next step is to get treatment. That may be through the VA or you may choose to access a provider in the community. Either way, it is important for you to inform your mental health provider that you have experienced MST. Together you will develop a treatment plan for helping you heal. For more information on helpful treatments for PTSD see my previous post “Integrative Therapies for Healing from Trauma” .
Know that their is help and hope for living an empowered life after trauma. You can do this!
Things to remember:
For additional data on Military Sexual Trauma, check out this blog post from VA Claims Insider: https://vaclaimsinsider.com/what-do-i-need-to-know-about-mst/.
* In some cases, within the first few months of a trauma, some people’s brains are able to heal the trauma through their adaptive information processing system. This is less common and if you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, this is not the case for you; you will need treatment to heal.