Newswise — Military sexual trauma (MST) can have a corrosive impact on trust within the U.S. military, as well as a number of negative effects on the individual. A recent study has examined the prevalence of MST history among U.S. Army Reserve/National Guard (USAR/NG) soldiers, the extent to which MST history predicts risk for alcohol misuse and problems, and potential sex differences in these experiences and outcomes. Findings indicate that MST is alarmingly prevalent for both female and male service members; in fact, the prevalence of MST appears to be much higher for male service members than is often reported.

These results and others will be shared at the 45th annual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) in Orlando, Florida.

“Despite recent efforts to tackle this issue, effective solutions require a better understanding of the nature and scope of the problem,” said Jennifer Fillo, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina. “The literature has largely focused on mental health, but more work is needed to understand how MST exposure contributes to … alcohol misuse and related problems. Additionally, there are important sex differences in the nature and prevalence of MST, which may have consequences for how it affects victims.”

While associations between sexual assault and substance use are well-established in the civilian literature, added Fillo, less attention has been paid to these links within military populations. “Furthermore,” she said, “USAR/NG soldiers often have less access to resources and must manage the stress of both military and civilian life, and the transitions between the two.” Fillo will discuss her findings at the RSA meeting on 27 June 2022.

Fillo examined data on 404 current and previous service members (334 males, 70 females) from Operation: SAFETY (Soldiers and Families Excelling Through the Years), an ongoing longitudinal study that examines the health and well-being of USAR/NG soldiers and their spouses/partners across New York State.

“Our research found that health-related consequences of MST can manifest differently in male and female victims,” said Fillo. “Our findings suggest that male service members may be more likely than female service members to misuse alcohol when they have a history of MST. However, for female service members, we found no relation between MST and any of the alcohol-related variables we examined.” Screening and care efforts, she added, need to be sensitive to these differences.

The majority of research on sexual harassment and sexual assault, both within and outside of military contexts, has focused on women because they are at higher risk for victimization at the individual level. “But risk of exposure to MST is also high among men,” noted Fillo, “and given that men make up roughly 85 percent of the US Armed Forces … they may make up about 60 percent of MST victims annually within the active-duty population. In other words, MST is an important issue relevant to all servicemembers, regardless of sex.” Fillo suggests greater study of MST alongside more ‘traditional’ notions of service-connected trauma such as combat exposure, traumatic brain injury, or severe injury.