Sexual Abuse and Harassment in the Military

In 2001, the Millennium Cohort Study launched a large, longitudinal, population-based study on the health outcomes related to military service.  This post briefly highlights some of the specific results of this study related to sexual abuse and women in the military.

Those who originally participated in the study complete in-depth questionnaires every three years, which examines their occupation and life experiences.  The goal of the study was to examine environmental and individual factors, which included deployment, combat, officer status, etc. in relation to sexual assault and harassment in the military. 


This study was with 13,262 active-duty women who provided detailed and complete information about their sexual harassment and sexual assault experiences. The women were then classified according to the type of sexual abuse they reported:

  • Sexual harassment and sexual assault: 152 women
  • Sexual harassment only: 1089 women
  • Sexual assault only: 121 women
  • No sexual abuse: 11,900 women

Between the three-period of the baseline study and follow-up questionnaire, nearly 10% reported at least one episode of a sexual stressor.  About 20% of those women were actually deployed during the time of the sexual stressor or harassment.  Women who were deployed in combat zones experienced the highest incidences of sexual stressors and reported twice as many incidents as those who were not deployed or in non-combat areas.  Interestingly, women who were deployed before the baseline survey were not as likely to report a sexual stressor compared to those who were not deployed before the baseline measures; however, this result was only statistically significant among women who reported both sexual assault and harassment. 

Women born after 1980 were five times more likely to report sexual abuse in the form of assault or harassment than women who were before 1960.  Women who acknowledged sexual stressors on the initial questionnaire were five times more likely to report further sexual stressors in the military.  Higher incidences of sexual stressors were associated with other factors including more life stress in general, divorce or separation since the initial survey, having a mental disorder at the initial survey, being in the Marines, and enlisted versus officer status.

This survey was performed to better define and understand the issue of sexual stressors military women experience.  Some of the findings weren’t surprising and actually confirm research done on military women in the past.  Women recently divorced or separated, younger women, women who have more general life stressors, women who have binge drinking or other mental health conditions have shown to be more vulnerable and likely to experience sexual stressors both in and out of the military.  It’s not surprising, but it is still unfortunate that there is a high incidence of sexual stress that occurs among women in combat roles, which is a male-dominated, high stress environment. 

Many military women will leave the service and bring these experiences with them when they return home.  This study has confirmed the importance of screening for sexual stressors particularly among women in the military who served in combat roles. 

Women who have experienced sexual abuse are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health disorders and require treatment to recover from abuse.  Because our effective treatment for depression relies on evidence based practices, our Intensive Outpatient Program shares many common methods with other successful treatment methods.  The foundation of our treatment program for relies on the principles of the stages of change, cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused treatment, skills training and identifying repetitive dysfunctional behavioral relationship patterns to promote recovery from depression and other mental health disorders.  In fact, our Intensive Outpatient Program in Memphis, TN that has been proven to be effective in the treatment of these disorders in six peer reviewed treatment outcome studies.   Our treatment center provides services to those who need more treatment than one hour a week, but less than 24 hour care, by providing three hours of treatment per day, three to five days per week, in an intensive outpatient setting.  If you or a loved one is showing signs of depression or anxiety, they should be assessed by a trained mental health professional who can help design a treatment plan that can result in recovery.  Treatment for depression and anxiety can be highly successful.  Call us at 901-682-6136 to schedule an appointment.