Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a time to talk openly about a topic that we should all be concerned about, sexual assault and harassment of U.S. military members. Sexual assault not only devastates the individual who is harmed, but it also hurts unit esprit de corps and the morale of everyone involved, and critically impairs the mission of the Department of Defense (DoD).
Over the last decade we’ve been learning a lot about the psychological impact of sexual assault in the military, and how to best respond and support those who are assaulted. We’re also working hard to reduce sexual assault and harassment in the DoD, but there is one area that warrants more attention. Sexual assault prevention and outreach has often focused primarily on the sexual assault of women, but men are also assaulted.
Behind the Numbers
Did you know that more U.S. military men are sexually assaulted every year than women? In 2014, women’s risk of sexual assault was almost five times higher than men’s risk, but estimates indicate a greater number of men were assaulted (because women comprise a much lower percentage of the total force).
According to the RAND Military Workplace Study, approximately 0.9 percent of men and 4.9 percent of women indicated in an anonymous survey that they experienced a sexual assault in 2014. Extrapolating these rates to the full force suggests that an estimated 10,600 servicemen and 9,600 servicewomen experienced a penetrating or contact sexual crime in the year prior to being surveyed. Most respondents indicated their offense involved a service member perpetrator.
The Fiscal Year 2015 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military from the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) shows a different story with regard to reporting these crimes to DoD authorities. Of the 4,700 sexual assault incidents reported by service members, 19 percent came from men.
Research is very limited on the long-term impact of sexual assault on men, and how male responses may differ from female responses. However, several studies indicate that risk for posttraumatic stress disorder related to sexual assault is higher for men – even higher than what would be expected from exposure to violence in combat.
The RAND study was the first large survey to reveal important gender differences related to male and female experience of sexual assault in the military. Compared to military women, military men who self-reported they were sexually assaulted were more likely to have experienced multiple incidents in the past year. They also were more likely to indicate they were assaulted by multiple offenders during a single incident, and to have been assaulted at work or during duty hours. Men were more likely to label the event “hazing” and to perceive the sexually assaultive behavior as intended to abuse or humiliate them. Male sexual assaults were less likely to involve alcohol and men were less likely to report the assault to authorities or to tell anyone at all about the incident. In fact, men account for less than 20 percent of the service members making an unrestricted or restricted report to the department each year.
To address these issues, the DoD recently released the DoD Plan to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Assault of Military Men to ensure its existing programs and services meet the needs of all service members, both male and female.
How Can Health Care Providers Help?
- Remember that men can and do experience sexual assault, and many find it difficult to talk about or seek help. They may characterize the incidents as horseplay, hazing or bullying – and not acknowledge their experience as sexual assault.
- Be sensitive and compassionate to their circumstances, concerns and viewpoints. Create a safe and understanding environment for them to feel able to share their experience when ready – and shy away from terms like “victim,” “victimized,” and “survivor” in conversations. These terms create substantive cognitive dissonance for male and female warriors alike.
- Be knowledgeable about the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force) and Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (Army) programs - which include substantial support for men and women. Policies governing these programs also outline expectations for health care providers when responding to patients who disclose sexual assault. Contacting the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for consultation preserves your active-duty patient’s reporting options.
- Discuss the research findings outlined in this blog with your staff. This may improve your outcomes when gathering medical history, conducting intakes and planning treatment. Changing how you and your staff talk with men about sexual assault could overcome their hesitancy to talk about it with you.
For Further Information on Sexual Assault in the Military:
The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.