Sexual trauma can affect anyone in any profession, even those serving in the country’s armed forces.

When you join the military, you’re volunteering for rigorous, regimented training and the chance of one day being asked to give your life for a cause.

In a profession already geared toward facing danger and challenges, sexual trauma might not be one of the experiences you expect to encounter.

But military sexual trauma can occur for both men and women, and its effects can last long after your term of service has ended.

Military sexual trauma is any sexual harassment or assault that occurs during military service. Examples include:

  • inappropriate sexual comments or jokes
  • requests for sexual favors in exchange for benefits
  • forced or coerced sexual encounters
  • sexual encounters that occur while a person is unable to give consent
  • uncomfortable physical contact

MST isn’t a formal diagnosis, but it’s an experience that may play an important role in mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression.

Your overall experience, coping abilities, and personal features of resiliency can all dictate what effects MST might have.

Common symptoms include:

  • intense emotional shifts
  • negative feelings such as depression, anger, guilt, or shame
  • difficulty sleeping
  • feeling emotionally numb
  • experiencing intimate relationship challenges
  • sexual performance difficulties
  • feeling isolated
  • difficulty trusting others in authority roles
  • physical health changes such as chronic pain or weight fluctuation
  • substance misuse
  • cognitive challenges such as finding it hard to focus or concentrate
  • constantly feeling on edge
  • sensitivity to reminders of your experience
  • presence of mental health conditions such as PTSD or depression

Anyone in the military can experience MST.

It can happen regardless of gender, rank, job duties, or place of deployment.

While many people associate sexual trauma in the military as supervisor-perpetrated, MST can occur among peers, genders, or even as the result of enemy capture.

MST is specific to those who have served in the military, but according to the U.S. Department of Defense, a small number of reports from service men and women are made regarding experiences that happened prior to military enlistment.

The exact prevalence of military sexual trauma is unknown. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, fear of retaliation, as well as a sense the justice process would be unfair or dismissive, causes many cases to go unreported.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that approximately 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men respond “yes” when asked if they’ve experienced MST.

Research from 2021 estimates that more than 20,000 military personnel experience unwanted sexual contact annually. Of those, 13,000 are women and 7,500 are men.

In sexual harassment reports, the majority of survivors state that someone in their chain of command was responsible.

Approximately 6.3% of men report sexual harassment, compared to 24.2% of women.

Other sources suggest the numbers are higher.

A 2018 review including 69 studies on MST found that nearly 9% of men and 53% of women reported sexual harassment.

In a 2021 interview with PBS, Lynn Rosenthal, commission chair for President Joe Biden’s recent independent MST investigation, stated that 100% of military sexual assault survivors report suicidal ideation.

MST isn’t a formal diagnosis, but it can be identified in the same way as other trauma-based experiences.

A mental health professional can guide you through an evaluation process to assess how military sexual trauma is impacting your life.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), PTSD is the most common mental health condition associated with military sexual trauma.

In 2018, an estimated 12,000 PTSD claims related to MST were processed by the Veterans Benefits Administration.

PTSD isn’t the only mental health condition you can experience as a result of MST. The VA suggests that depression and other mood disorders, as well as substance use disorders, can also be linked to MST.

Even without the presence of a diagnosable condition, military sexual trauma can impact your mental health.

Low mood, emotional shifts, negative feelings, and cognitive changes can all follow MST, even if they aren’t at a level that disrupts your daily life.

Help for MST is available and there are ways to help you cope with your experience.

Professional help

Speaking with a healthcare or mental health professional or joining a support group can help you navigate your experience in a safe environment.

It can also offer the opportunity to develop new coping skills and helpful thought processes.

If you’re unsure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s hub on finding mental health support.

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) self-soothe skills

Praysha Spearman, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Atlanta, says, “I use DBT self-soothe skills with my clients who are trying to cope with traumatic memories and function in everyday life.”

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) self-soothe skills are sensory tasks designed to ground you when MST feels overwhelming. They can include activities such as:

  • focusing on nature sounds
  • chewing your favorite flavor of gum
  • cuddling your pet

Being kind to yourself

“You’re a survivor,” says Cierra Fisher, a licensed professional counselor in Charleston, South Carolina. “If you’re not yet ready to seek therapy or join a support group, focus on taking care of yourself, finding enjoyment in hobbies or other healthy, positive activities, and know that with time you will heal.”

Self-care for family members

Military sexual trauma not only affects you but also those closest to you. Fisher recommends family members focus on self-care to help boost their support capacity.

“Survivors of military sexual trauma will need their family members to be a consistent form of support and ready to listen when they’re ready to talk,” she says. “And you can’t provide that level of support if you aren’t OK yourself.”

Self-care can include focusing on a healthy lifestyle, cultivating relaxation techniques, and taking time to engage in fulfilling activities.

If you’re living with MST, you may find these additional resources helpful:

  • Beyond MST self-help mobile app
  • VA’s MST Coordinators for finding care services
  • VA’s general benefit information hotline: 800-827-1000
  • SAMHSA national helpline: 800-662-4357

Military sexual trauma affects both men and women and often goes unreported.

Professional guidance, as well as self-care strategies, can help you cope with MST. If military sexual trauma is preventing you from thriving in important areas of your life, it may be contributing to a mental health condition such as PTSD.