Women make up an increasing proportion of the US armed forces and have moved into direct combat roles (Statistics on Women in the Military, 2011). Although military sexual trauma among female US service members has long been recognized as a significant problem, the media scrutiny and urgency from the public as well as military and civilian leaders to prevent these heinous acts has increased significantly in recent years. Recent DOD surveillance data suggests that 23 percent of active duty women were sexually harassed and 6 percent were sexually assaulted during the past year (Rock, 2013).
In the military setting, sexual trauma may be particularly traumatic given its context. The military encourages service members to think of each other as a family with the trust that implies. Not only is military sexual trauma a violation of the victim’s rights, it goes against the whole concept of military cohesiveness. Military service requires high levels of performance frequently in austere, stress and/or dangerous environments. Regardless of the identity of the perpetrator, sexual trauma’s potential adverse impact on mental health resiliency could have significant consequences on military mission success.
Our study longitudinally evaluated the effects of sexual trauma on the health, functional status and occupational outcomes of US Service women by linking data from the Millennium Cohort Study, the largest prospective study in US military history, with military administrative data from the Defense Manpower Data Center. This is the first study to examine the associations of sexual trauma on specific military-related occupational outcomes and the first to account for history of combat deployments.
Our findings indicate that recent sexual trauma increases the risk of poor mental and physical functional health among service women that extends to a reduction in their perceived ability to work and take part in other important activities. These adverse health and functional effects likely not only have a negative personal impact on the victim but may result in significant degradation in the operational readiness of units in which sexual trauma has occurred. Not only does the victim’s reduced physical and emotional health likely reduce her individual operational capability, but the disruption in unit cohesion and trust in peers and leadership could be substantial.
Among women who separated from military service during the study period, women with a history of recent sexual trauma were proportionally more likely to separate from the service with a disability and be unemployed compared to those without recent report of sexual trauma. These findings suggest that the effects of sexual trauma go beyond military service and come with social costs beyond that to military readiness.
In summary, our study found that recent sexual trauma had an association with adverse health and occupational outcomes among a population of women in the US armed forces. This study provides evidence of the negative consequences of sexual trauma to US military women, including decrements in functionality in the workplace and potentially on military readiness. Given the increasing roles and responsibilities of women with the military, prevention and mitigation against sexual trauma should remain a high priority. These data support the urgent need for effective strategies to prevent sexual trauma and provide important information for developing programs to assist women who have experience sexual trauma.
Millegan, J., Milburn, E. K., LeardMann, C. A., Street, A. E., Williams, D., Trone, D. W., & Crum‐Cianflone, N. F. (2015). Recent sexual trauma and adverse health and occupational outcomes among US Service women. Journal of traumatic stress, 28(4), 298-306.
About the Authors:
Jeffrey Millegan, MD MPH
is an active-duty Navy psychiatrist at Naval Medical Center San Diego and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, MD.
Cynthia LeardMann, MPH
is a senior epidemiologist at the Naval Health Research Center where she serves as a co-investigator of the Millennium Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Family Study.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, nor the U.S. Government.
Statistics on Women in the Military
. (2011). Washington, DC Women In Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.womensmemorial.org/PDFs/StatsonWIM.pdf
Rock, L. (2013). Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members, Alexandria, VA: Defense Manpower Data Center, Survey Note No. 2013-007, March 15, 2013. As of June 4, 2014: http://www.sapr.mil/public/docs/research/2012_Workplace_and_Gender_Relations_Survey_of_Active_duty_Members_Survey_Note_and_Briefing.pdf