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Support for victims of sexual violence, trauma continues year round

Image of Military personnel for a teal ribbon on a flight deck. Click to open a larger version of the image. Sailors assigned to the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington form a teal ribbon on the flight deck for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, April 26, 2021. The teal ribbon represents a symbol of support for the cause (Photo by: Navy Petty Officer 2ndClass John Bellino).

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Bringing attention to and preventing sexual assault and military sexual trauma is an every-day, year-long goal. While National Sexual Awareness and Prevention Month is recognized in April, bringing attention to and preventing sexual assault and military sexual trauma is an every-day, year-long goal.

Some people may not be sure how to start fighting sexual assault in the military, but knowing where to find help and support is an important first step. Sexual assault can include unwanted or forcible sexual advances, touching, or any sexual activity that occurs without your consent. It also might include sexual harassment, inappropriate jokes and flirtation, pressure to engage in sexual activity, or rape.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of gender – whether the assaulter is someone you know, a stranger, or even your romantic partner.

Military sexual trauma (MST) is the experience of sexual assault within the military or among military personnel. According to the Department of Defense, MST includes sexual assault, sexual threats or harassment, unwanted touching or grabbing, or any sexual activity that occurs without consent during active-duty military service (regardless of location). MST also includes the trauma that a survivor might experience as a result.

Despite there being fewer women in the military, more female service members report experiencing MST than males. Still, it's estimated that about the same number of men and women in the military experience sexual assault during their service.

Impact of sexual assault on performance

Sexual trauma takes a terrible toll on people who experience it, and it can harm their mission performance. Common emotional responses after an assault – such as feeling depressed, agitated, upset, or angry – can impair a service member's ability to stay focused and alert on the job.

Other consequences of sexual trauma that impede performance include feeling 'numb' to both positive and negative experiences, nightmares, and trouble sleeping.

Survivors of MST can find it hard to connect to others, feel isolated or lonely and have a hard time developing trust with their partner. Since it can be very hard to address the feelings that come with sexual trauma, people often will engage in coping strategies that feel good right away but have negative long-term consequences. For example, some service members might use alcohol or drugs, which can further impede performance.

Get help

It takes a lot of courage to face or report sexual assault, particularly in the military. If you have experienced MST, understand you are not alone. It's also important to know what resources are available, so you can overcome any challenges that can affect your performance. With support and treatment, growth is possible after trauma.

If it feels hard to reach out, start by learning more about military sexual trauma.

Visit Health.mil's Sexual Assault Prevention section for information on DOD programs and resources, as well as a video and links to additional articles.

Learn more about MST and support services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Military Sexual Trauma and National Center for PTSD web pages.

If you're ready to seek support, consider the following resources and services provided by the military.

The DOD Safe Helpline offers confidential, 24/7 phone support at 877-995-5247. You also can access live help, individual and group online chat support, text help, or other self-care information with the mobile app.

The DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) offers many resources on reporting and support services. SAPRO also provides links to branch-specific policies and resources. Or visit the websites for the different branches:

Call or reach out to your branch Sexual Assault Response Counselor 24/7. Contact Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 to learn more.

VA medical centers have MST coordinators who can guide you to specific resources and programs. Each center also provides information on onsite MST-related counseling services.

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