Military Sexual Trauma

Sexual violence is a serious problem within militaries around the world, including here in Canada. Such incidents can have lasting and profound impacts on Canadian Armed Forces members and Veterans, as well as their Families, the military institution, and society.

This page offers information related to incidents of sexual violence and discrimination (Military Sexual Misconduct) and associated harms (Military Sexual Trauma).

Stay tuned for additional resources in the coming months.

Military Sexual Misconduct and Military Sexual Trauma Fact Sheet (PDF, 208 KB)

What is Military Sexual Trauma (MST)?

Although there is currently no “official” definition of MST in Canada, there are generally accepted descriptions being used, which are largely based on the definition from the United States. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, MST refers to “experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment” experienced during military service, including sexual activity that you are involved with against your will.

MST is not a diagnosable condition, but rather a term that describes the psychological, physical, and social impacts or “wounds” that people who experience or witness military sexual misconduct may feel.

What is Military Sexual Misconduct?

Military Sexual Misconduct is defined, in Canada, as “conduct of a sexual nature that can cause or causes harm to others” and takes place within the military.

Military sexual misconduct includes:

  • Actions or words that devalue you on the basis of your sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,
  • Jokes of a sexual nature, sexual remarks, advances of a sexual nature or verbal abuse of a sexual nature in the workplace,
  • Harassment of a sexual nature, including initiation rites of a sexual nature,
  • Viewing, accessing, distributing or displaying sexually-explicit material in the workplace,
  • Any Criminal Code offence of a sexual nature.

Military sexual misconduct can occur in your physical work location or in the greater work environment where work-related functions and activities take place and work relationships exist. It can occur while you on or off duty, on or off base, deployed or not deployed.

How Common is Military Sexual Misconduct?

Thousands of Canadian Armed Forces members are impacted by military sexual misconduct at some point during their career. If you are among those impacted, it is important to know that you are not alone.

In 2016 and 2018, Statistics Canada was contracted by the Canadian Armed Forces to conduct “The Survey on Sexual Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces.” Some of the data presented below is from this survey, which defines and categorizes sexual misconduct into these three main categories:

Sexual Assault
Includes being sexually attacked, experiencing unwanted sexual touching, or being engaged in sexual activity when you are unable to give your consent.

Sexualized Behaviour
Includes hearing sexual jokes or comments, receiving unwanted sexual attention, receiving or being shown offensive and sexually explicit content, having sexually suggestive or explicit footage taken of you without your consent, being deliberately exposed to someone’s private parts, or being pressured into unwanted sexual or romantic behaviours.

Discriminatory Behaviour
Includes being subjected to comments and actions that discriminate against or devalue your being, based on your gender identity, sexual identity, sexual orientation or expression.

Statistics

Regular Force

Since joining the Canadian Armed Forces, approximately: 25% of women, and 4% of men who are Regular Force members have experienced sexual assault at least once.
Over a 12 month period, approximately: 13% of men, 28% of women, and 35% of gender diverse people who are Canadian Armed Forces Regular Force members experienced targeted sexualized or discriminatory behaviours.
Over a 12 month period, approximately: 70% of men, 75% of women, and 76% of gender diverse people who are Canadian Armed Forces Regular Force members witnessed or experienced sexualized or discriminatory behaviours.

Primary Reserve

Over a 12 month period, approximately: 7% of women, and 1.2% of men who are Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve members experienced sexual assault.
Over a 12 month period, approximately: 13% of men, and 34% of women who are Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve members experienced targeted sexualized or discriminatory behaviours.
Over a 12 month period, approximately: 70% of men, and 78% of women who are Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve members witnessed or experienced sexualized or discriminatory behaviours.

Students at Canadian military colleges

There is also data presented from the 2019 Survey on Individual Safety in the Postsecondary Student Population, which included students in Canadian military colleges. The definition of sexual assault used in this survey differs slightly from the one outlined above to also include instances where you have been engaged in sexual activity without consent after consenting to another kind of sexual activity. Over a 12 month period, approximately: 15% of women , and 3.6% of men who are students at Canadian military colleges experienced sexual assault.
Over a 12 month period, approximately: 33% of men, and 56% of women who are students at Canadian military colleges personally experienced unwanted sexualized or discriminatory behaviours.
Over a 12 month period, approximately: 66% of men, and 83% of women who are students at Canadian military colleges witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized or discriminatory behaviours.

Various factors make it difficult to understand the true scope and extent of the problem

However, what we do know is that military sexual misconduct is an under-reported issue that disproportionately affects certain groups more than others.

Factors that increase risk of being targeted

Anyone can be impacted by military sexual misconduct. However, you may be more targeted if you identify with certain groups. This is often linked to imbalances in power, which may be systemic (due to societal policies and practices that result in unfair disadvantages, barriers, and/or harmful treatment), situational or both. Not everyone who identifies with these groups will be impacted by military sexual misconduct. Further, in no way do these factors suggest that you, as a person impacted by military sexual misconduct, are responsible for your experience(s). Responsibility for these incidents always falls on the perpetrator(s).

The following groups experience increased targeting:

  • Women
  • Single persons
  • Young persons (<39 years old)
  • Junior non-commissioned officers or junior officers
  • Persons with disabilities
  • 2SLGBTQ+ persons
  • Indigenous Persons, and
  • People of Colour

Factors that impact disclosure and reporting

Factors that impact disclosure and reporting – Text version

Much of what we know about military sexual misconduct and military sexual trauma comes from what is reported. However, many individuals choose not to report incidents of military sexual misconduct that occur during service. The ‘official figures’ may be just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Over half (57%) of sexual assault incidents go unreported,
  • On average, just under half (47.4%) of incidents of sexualized or discriminatory behaviour go unreported,
  • 74% of women and 91% of men did not seek out professional support services following their sexual assault(s).

A large percentage of incidents of sexual assault are not disclosed and/or reported due to a number of general and population-specific barriers, including:

  • Fear of negative career repercussions,
  • Fear of not being believed,
  • Fear of being removed from one’s unit or release from the military,
  • Fear of lack of confidentiality,
  • Fear that no change will result from a formal report on military sexual misconduct.

There are also societal stigmas associated with persons of the following identities experiencing sexual assault, which may be compounded when identities intersect:

  • Men
  • 2SLGBTQ+ persons
  • Persons with disabilities
  • Indigenous Persons
  • People of Colour

How does sexual trauma related to military service manifest itself?

If you have experienced military sexual misconduct, you may react in many different ways. There is no right way to feel or react. You may have strong emotional and/or physical reactions, just as you may have no or minimal reactions. You may experience an emotional and/or physical reaction right away, or it may be delayed for months or years after the incident(s). You may also suffer from a number of diagnosable conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, as well as a number of diagnosable physical conditions. Your reactions may also be influenced by your gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, previous exposures to adversity or abuse, and other factors.

If you are experiencing impacts on your mental, emotional, physical, and social well-being, you are not alone. The following is a list of common feelings, reactions, and behaviours related to MST:

 
  • Anxiety and panic
  • Nightmares
  • Self-doubt
  • Sadness
  • Shame or guilt
  • Anger
  • Betrayal
  • Suspiciousness
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Numbness
  • Denial
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Distractibility
  • Memory problems
  • Loss of motivation
  • Fear
 
  • Anxiety disorders, including panic attacks,
  • Acute stress or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),
  • Mood Disorders such as Major Depression,
  • Self-harm,
  • Suicidal ideation (thoughts) or behaviours,
  • Increased alcohol or drug use to cope with trauma symptoms (sleep disturbance, avoidance, change in mood, feelings of hypervigilance or decreased safety).
 
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Chronic pain
  • Digestive or gastrointestinal problems
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Reproductive health problems
  • Change in sexual arousal, performance, and enjoyment
  • Pain during sex
 
  • Increased agitation, anger, or change in mood that affects your relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and others,
  • Difficulty trusting and feeling safe around others,
  • Changes or difficulty engaging in social activities,
  • Isolation or loneliness,
  • Loss of faith or confidence in authority figures,
  • Avoidance or increased dependence on certain individuals.
 
  • Places, people, or situations, that remind you of the traumatic event(s),
  • Friends, family, and other individuals in your life,
  • Going to work,
  • Taking time off work.
 
  • Feel forced to choose between your military career and continued contact with the perpetrator(s),
  • Feel torn between loyalty to yourself, to your unit, and to the military,
  • Fear (or have experienced) negative repercussions on your career and career progression, including removal from your unit or release from the military,
  • Fear (or have experienced) retaliation by peers and supervisors,
  • Fear (or have experienced) negative perceptions of you, including perceptions that you are “weak” or a “trouble maker,”
  • Fear (or have experienced) financial difficulties, including loss of income,
  • Fear (or have experienced) that reporting what happened will not make a difference.

How to Support a Loved One

When a loved one tells you they’ve experienced MST it can be difficult to know what to say or how to react. Here is some guidance on how to provide helpful support.

Helpful ReactionsHarmful Reactions
Listening
Listen to the person impacted by MST without judgement, allowing them to guide the pace and direction of the conversation. Do not interrupt them. Listen to them without minimizing or amplifying any of the facts they have shared with you.
Judgement
Do not ask about unnecessary details or expect the person impacted by MST to share details that they are uncomfortable sharing.
Believing
Believe their story and validate their experience and reactions.
Doubt
Do not come across as doubtful or skeptical of what they disclose to you.
Removing blame
Emphasize to them that they are not at fault—the perpetrator(s) are solely responsible for the situation. Further, commend them for their courage to talk about the situation.
Blame
Do not explicitly or implicitly blame them for the situation. Do not suggest that they could have done things differently or that they are responsible for the situation.

Self-care

Supporting a person impacted by MST is not always easy. Ensure your own well-being while taking care of your loved one by:

  • Talking to someone about the situation (Sexual Misconduct Response Centre),
  • Maintaining your routine and lifestyle,
  • Allowing yourself time to relax and making plans to give yourself a break,
  • Recognizing the signs of vicarious trauma.

Compensation and Benefits

  • If you experienced sexual harassment, assault, or discrimination while serving, you may be eligible for compensation from the CAF-DND Sexual Misconduct Class Action Settlement
  • If you have a condition due to a service-related sexual trauma (e.g. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, anxiety, etc.), you can apply to Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) for disability benefits. You may now be eligible for VAC disability benefits even if you have been denied in the past. Find out how to review or appeal a previous decision.

Acknowledgements

This information is adapted from a fact sheet provided courtesy of the Canadian Military Sexual Trauma Community of Practice (PDF, 72 KB), a collaboration of scientists, members of intermediary organizations, government departments, and an MST stakeholder/peer support group. Major contributions to this resource were provided by the Centre of Excellence on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), McMaster University, Veterans Affairs Canada, and Its Not Just 700 (INJ700) (formerly known as It’s Just 700 – IJ700). We would like to acknowledge Tara Leach (Royal Ottawa) for her contributions to the development of this resource.

The Centre of Excellence on PTSD does not provide mental health counselling or treatment. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 911 or refer to one of the resources above.

References

Alberta Health Services. (2021). Military sexual trauma. https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=ug4317spec&lang=en-ca#ug4317spec-Bib.

Avalon Sexual Assault Centre. (2021). How to support a survivor. https://avaloncentre.ca/how-to-support-a-survivor/.

Bryant-Davis, T., Chung, H., & Tillman, S. (2009). From the margins to the center: Ethnic minority women and the mental health effects of sexual assault. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 10(4), 330-357.

Burczycka, M. (2019). Sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve, 2018. Statistics Canada.

Cichowski, S. B., Rogers, R. G., Clark, E. A., Murata, E., Murata, A., & Murata, G. (2017). Military sexual trauma in female veterans is associated with chronic pain conditions. Military Medicine, 182(9), e1895–e1899.

Cotter, A. (2016). Sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, 2016. Statistics Canada.

Cotter, A. (2019). Sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces Regular Force, 2018. Statistics Canada.

Department of National Defence. (2019a). Use of terminology. Government of Canada.  https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/benefits-military/conflict-misconduct/operation-honour/orders-policies-directives/operation-honour-manual/use-of-terminology.html.

Department of National Defence. (2019b). Harmful and helpful reactions to a disclosure. Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/benefits-military/conflict-misconduct/operation-honour/support-someone/harmful-helpful-reactions-disclosure.html.

Department of National Defence. (2019b). Self-care for someone supporting a victim. Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/benefits-military/conflict-misconduct/operation-honour/support-someone/self-care-supporting-victim.html.

Deschamps, M. (2015). External review into sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces. External Review Authority. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/corporate/reports-publications/sexual-misbehaviour/external-review-2015.html.

Disabled American Veterans (DAV). (2021). Military Sexual Trauma – MST. https://www.dav.org/veterans/resources/military-sexual-trauma-mst/.

Hajizadeh, M., Aiken, A., & Cox, C. (2019). Risk factors associated with sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces: Does it vary by sexual and environmental command? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(8), 2581–2594.

Make The Connection. (n.d.). Effects of military sexual trauma. https://www.maketheconnection.net/conditions/military-sexual-trauma.

Maxwell, A. (2020). Experiences of unwanted sexualized and discriminatory behaviours and sexual assault among students at Canadian military colleges, 2019. Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue, (85-002).

Murray, S., & Powell, A. (2008). Sexual assault and adults with a disability: Enabling recognition, disclosure and a just response. Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault. https://aifs.gov.au/sites/default/files/publication-documents/acssa_issues9.pdf

Orchowski, L. M., & Gidycz, C. (Eds.). (2018). Sexual assault risk reduction and resistance: Theory, research, and practice. Academic Press.

Tillman, S., Bryant-Davis, T., Smith, K., & Marks, A. (2010). Shattering silence: Exploring barriers to disclosure for African American sexual assault survivors. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 11(2), 59-70.

US Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020a). Military Sexual Trauma. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/mst_general_factsheet.pdf.

US Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020b). You’re Not Alone in Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/mst/MST_General_Brochure_2016_English_508.pdf.

Watkins, K., Bennett, R., Zamorski, M. A., & Richer, I. (2017). Military-related sexual assault in Canada: a cross-sectional survey. CMAJ Open, 5(2), E496–E507.