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Defining the Issue

Recently, reports of sexual violence against women and men in the military have increased national attention to this issue. Sexual violence occurs when a person forces or manipulates another person into unwanted sexual activity without their consent (NSVRC, 2010). When this type of violence occurs within a military setting, whether in training, active duty, or at a military service academy, it can lead to a unique set of issues, concerns, and experiences.

Women and men who serve in the United States military live, work, train, learn, and socialize in tight-knit groups. The military operates under its own laws and policies, enforces its own rules and procedures, governs through a chain of command, and provides for the basic necessities of its members. The military setting promotes a strong sense of cohesion (Suris & Lind, 2008), one that operates much like a family unit.

Researchers have found that experiencing sexual assault or harassment from another military member can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression (Suris & Lind, 2008). In the past few years, the term Military Sexual Trauma (MST) has been used in a variety of ways to describe the traumatic experience of sexual violence committed by another service member. Unfortunately, no uniform definition of MST has been established (Suris & Lind, 2008).

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) defines MST as “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" (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2011). Other offices, organizations, and researchers identify an act of sexual violence as Military Sexual Trauma (Suris & Lind, 2008).

Too many definitions can pose problems in screening procedures and treatment. In one case, MST means the psychological response of the person experiencing a trauma; in another, it is the violent act of a perpetrator against a brother or sister service member. Additionally, some advocacy-based organizations challenge that using a term like Military Sexual Trauma fails to identify these violent actions as what they are: rape, sexual assault and harassment (SWAN, 2012).

The following resources offer some basic information on the prevalence of sexual violence committed by one service member against another. Additionally, some resources that briefly outline key issues related to the topic are included.

Understanding Prevalence
Due to the many different ways of screening for sexual assault or military sexual trauma, prevalence rates in published research vary widely (Suris & Lind, 2008). Similar to our understanding of prevalence in the civilian system, the DoD describes three different ways of gathering information. “Incidence” refers to the number of new cases of sexual assault and harassment over the course of a year. “Prevalence” describes the estimated number of lifetime experiences of sexual violence. “Reporting” statistics are limited to the number of people who make a report about this crime. According to the 2008 report of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the prevalence of sexual assault in the military, these rates are probably underestimated, as many service members who experience sexual violence never report it. Much of the scholarly research, and many news reports focus specifically on women’s experiences of sexual violence in the military, but both men and women are affected by it (Cater & Leach, 2011). According to research conducted by Kimmerling, Gima, Smith, Street and Frayne (2007) roughly equal numbers of men and women in the VA system screened positive for MST.
Identifying key issues for advocacy
The resources listed in this section offer an overview of topics that have surfaced on sexual violence in the military. Sexual harassment can create a hostile working and living environment. Traditionally a male-dominated profession, the military system established for training, working, and living has not fully integrated women or their needs. Finally, the stories of men and women who lived through and are healing from this violence offer a closer look at the issue.