In both civilian and military settings, service members can experience a range of unwanted sexual behaviors that they may find distressing. These experiences happen to both women and men. "Military sexual trauma" or MST is the term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to refer to experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment.
The definition of MST used by the VA is given by U.S. Code (1720D of Title 38). It is "psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training." Sexual harassment is further defined as "repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character."
In more concrete terms, MST includes any sexual activity where you are involved against your will. You may have been pressured into sexual activities. For example, you may have been threatened with negative consequences for refusing to go along. It may have been implied that you would get faster promotions or better treatment in exchange for sex. You may not have been able to consent to sexual activities, for example, if you were intoxicated. You may have been physically forced into sexual activities. Other MST experiences include:
If these experiences occurred while you were on active duty or active duty for training, they are considered to be MST.
Data from VA's universal screening program give us an idea of how common MST is. Under this program, all Veterans seen at Veterans Health Administration (VHA) facilities are asked whether they went through sexual trauma during their military service. Veterans who respond "yes" are asked if they are interested in learning about MST-related services. Not every Veteran who responds "yes" needs to be treated or wants to learn about treatment.
Please note that the rates obtained from VA screening cannot be used to estimate the rate of MST among all those serving in the U.S. military. The screening data are drawn only from Veterans who have chosen to seek VA health care. Also, keep in mind that a positive response does not mean that the person who committed the sexual trauma was a member of the military.
About 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men seen in VHA respond "yes" when screened for MST. Though rates of MST are higher among women, there are almost as many men seen in VA that have experienced MST as there are women. This is because there are many more men in the military than there are women.
It's important to remember that MST is an experience. It is not a diagnosis or a mental health condition in and of itself. Given that Veterans report a wide range of distressing sexually-related experiences, it is not surprising that they have a wide range of emotional responses.
There is no one way that every person will respond, even after a very distressing experience. A Veteran's response may vary in terms of the type of response, how severe it is, and how long it lasts. For some Veterans, experiences of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health, even many years later. Your response may depend on factors such as:
Here are some of the difficulties both female and male survivors of MST may have:
Among users of VA healthcare, medical record data indicate that the mental health problems most often seen with MST are:
Fortunately, people can recover from experiences of trauma.VA has services to help Veterans do this. Since 1992 VA has been developing programs related to:
Services available to Veterans include:
Veterans can receive free, confidential counseling and treatment for mental and physical health conditions related to MST. Veterans do not need to be service-connected (have a VA disability rating). You may be able to receive this benefit even if you are not eligible for other VA care. You do not need to have reported the incident(s) when they happened. You do not need to have proof that they occurred.
For more information, you can:
People can recover from experiences of trauma. Please contact VA to learn more.