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What Is Military Sexual Trauma?

Anyone can experience sexual harassment and assault during military service. The VA refers to these experiences as military sexual trauma (MST). MST is any event of sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment. It takes place during a Veteran's military service. This can include your service during active duty or during training for either active or inactive duty.

Sexual harassment is repeated, unwanted sexual comments or touching that are threatening. MST includes any sexual activity where you are involved against your will.

You may have been:

  • Pressured into sexual activities (For example, threatened with negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative or with implied better treatment in exchange for sex)

  • Unable to consent to sexual activities (For example, you were intoxicated)

  • Physically forced into sexual activities

Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include:

  • Unwanted touching or grabbing

  • Threatening, offensive remarks about your body or sexual activities

  • Threatening and unwelcome sexual advances

How common is MST?

VA's national screening program has found that about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men said they had experienced MST. Although rates of MST are higher among women, this is because there are many more men than women in the military. Although rates of MST are higher among women, MST is a concern for both men and women. There are many more Veterans who are men.

How MST affects Veterans

MST is an experience, not a diagnosis or a mental health problem. Just like with all forms of trauma, there are a number of ways you can react after MST. Your reaction will depend on factors such as:

  • Whether you have a prior history of trauma

  • The types of responses from others you received at the time of the MST

  • Whether the MST happened once or was repeated over time

Trauma can be a life-changing event. However, many people recover without help. Others may usually function well in their lives, but still have strong reactions in certain situations. For some, the experience of MST may continue to affect their health in important ways, even many years later. Some of the problems survivors of MST may have include:

  • Strong emotions, such as feeling depressed or feeling angry or irritable

  • Feelings of numbness, such as feeling emotionally "flat"

  • Sleeping problems, such as trouble falling or staying asleep

  • Trouble with attention, concentration, and memory

  • Problems with alcohol or other drugs

  • Difficulty with things that remind them of their experiences of sexual trauma

  • Relationship trouble, such as feeling isolated or disconnected from others

  • Physical health problems, such as sexual trouble or chronic pain 

PTSD is commonly associated with MST. But it is not the only diagnosis that can result from MST. You can also suffer from depression and other mood disorders, and substance use disorders. But you can recover from experiences of trauma. And VA has effective services to help you do this.

Linking Veterans to treatment

VA wants to help Veterans get the help they need to recover from MST. For more information, Veterans can:

  • Talk with their existing VA healthcare provider.

  • Contact the MST Coordinator at their nearest VA Medical Center.

  • Call Safe Helpline at 877-995-5247 to get private one-on-one help. Safe Helpline provides sexual assault support for the Department of Defense community, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

  • Contact your local Vet Center. Veterans should feel free to ask to meet with a healthcare provider of a certain gender if it would make them feel more comfortable.

  • Veterans can also learn more about VA's MST content. Watch video clips about Veterans who experienced MST and their stories of recovery. Or watch Veterans who developed PTSD after a MST turn their lives around with treatment at AboutFace.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 2/1/2018
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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