Members of the armed forces experience stress that ordinary civilians do not. Imagine being a part of an institution that dictates most facets of your life- your schedule, where you live, what you wear, how you make your bed, etc. This loss of control can be exacerbated when someone simultaneously endures a traumatic event, such as sexual trauma. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 female veterans and 1 in 100 male veterans in the VA healthcare system reported experiencing sexual trauma while serving on active duty- a statistic that is far too heavy of a weight on the backs of those who dedicated their lives serving our nation.
What is Military Sexual Trauma?
Military sexual Trauma (MST) is a term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that refers to sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service. Service members of all genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds have experienced MST. Examples include:
- Being pressured or coerced into sexual activities, or with promises of better treatment in exchange for sex
- Someone having sexual contact with without consent, such as while being asleep or intoxicated
- Being physically forced to have sex
- Being touched in a sexual way that caused discomfort
- Repeated comments about sexual activities
- Threatening and unwanted sexual advances
It’s important to be mindful of the subjectivity around trauma. Trauma can be overt and easily identified, but it can also come in covert forms such as slut-shaming, non-consensual nude imagery, and catcalling. One person may react in a situation with sheer terror while another may feel unimpacted. If something feels traumatic, then it is trauma, period.
MST often goes unreported because there are too few protections in place for survivors. When sexual trauma happens in the military, it is reported through the member’s chain of command and not an independent human resource department. This leaves room for fears around retaliation. And, while cases of MST are on the rise, hardly any perpetrators are held accountable for their actions further legitimizing the fears around reporting in the military.
How Does Military Sexual Trauma Impact Service Members?
Experiences of MST can cause severe mental and physical health problems if not addressed. Difficulties related to MST can include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological health issues such as depression and anxiety
- Difficulty with relationships and social functioning
- Physical health problems
- Substance abuse
MST is often experienced between individuals at the same command or duty station. There’s something about being betrayed this way by a member of a group- a group that’s conditioned to protect one another. This affects one tremendously when that sense of protection has been compromised through assault or sexual harassment.
Sex After Military Sexual Trauma
MST affects people’s relationships with sex and intimacy differently. A survivor of sexual trauma may avoid sex altogether, or they may experience hypersexuality. Sex educator Emily Nagoski describes how trauma can affect your sexual accelerator in her book titled Come As You Are:
“Sometimes, too, survivors find themselves locked in a pattern of sexual behavior. Their brains become compulsive about undoing the trauma, redoing it differently, or simply understanding it. Like biting on a cold sore or squeezing a pimple, the brain can’t leave the trauma alone, even though you know you’d heal faster if you could. The result is that the survivor has multiple partners, often following a habitual pattern, without feeling perfectly in control of the decision to have those partners.”
Fortunately, there’s hope in finding pleasure for those who’ve experienced sexual trauma. If you or your partner have experienced MST, seeking education around trauma and can be very beneficial towards hosting a healthy relationship with sex. This would include implementing sexual boundaries and continuing to evaluate boundaries through consistent communication. Also, it can be helpful to debrief with your partner immediately after sex in order to ensure that everyone feels safe and regulated.
Resources for Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma
Survivors can receive free care through the VA healthcare system for any mental or physical health conditions that surface as a result of MST. They don’t require any documentation of the incident or VA disability rating. Even if you received an Other Than Honorable discharge, you can still seek treatment through your local vet center. One of the benefits of going to seek mental health care at the VA in lieu of another facility is that they have trained therapists whose focus is on traumas that occur in the military environment. However, it’s important to note any triggers that may surface from being at a VA facility, and seeking help elsewhere may be more beneficial in this case. Our therapists may be able to help you unpack emotional baggage that comes with experiencing MST. In addition, group therapy has shown promising results in the treatment for symptoms related to MST. Group therapy isn’t for everyone, but for some it can be a comforting reminder that we’re not alone in our journey when healing from trauma.
Filing a Claim
Aside from seeking treatment, someone who’s experiencing mental and physical health issues as a result of MST can apply for a monthly disability compensation- even if it’s been years since discharging from service. This can be a difficult process to navigate, so it would be advantageous to work with an advocate or local VA representative. There are MST outreach coordinators listed by state linked here. Connecting with a coordinator closest to you would be the first step in filing a formal claim.
If you or someone you know has experienced MST, we believe you, and it’s never too late to get help- even if it’s been decades since the incident. The journey in healing sexual trauma can be a long and difficult process. It’s okay to take your time and to go at a slower pace. Once you understand the level of control you have over your healing, the faster you can gain control over your life. There’s no shame in seeking help for your recovery!