Though it is expected that military service generally confers risks, it may come as a surprise that sexual trauma is one of them–especially for women. A growing body of research finds disproportionately high rates of sexual assault among servicewomen. According to previous estimates, approximately 32% of female veterans and 5% of male veterans had positive screening results for sexual trauma that occurred during military service, and new findings by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) show that 41% of women who served in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom experienced sexual trauma while there, compared to 4% of men.1,2
Another new VA study found that women of most age groups had higher odds of sexual trauma, sexual harassment, and physical victimization while in service.3 The most pronounced differences were observed in middle-aged women, who had a sexual assault odds ratio of 3.81. “Rates of sexual assault against women—both during military service and in civilian life—are disturbingly high, and the reasons why are unclear,” study co-author Carolyn Gibson, PhD, MPH, a women’s health research fellow at the San Francisco VA, told Psychiatry Advisor. “Sexual assault is typically an expression of dominance and control, more likely to occur within the context of an accepted culture of sexual harassment and devaluation of women,” she explains.
Her results also indicate that the traumatic experiences reported by women in the middle-aged bracket were linked with greater negative effects on their self-reported health, in line with previous research showing that military sexual assault is associated with a wide range poor health outcomes, including posttraumatic stress disorder, impaired physical function, and chronic health conditions, as described in her paper. Other findings have linked military sexual assault with higher rates of suicide mortality4 and suicidal ideation.5