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Sexual Assault Against Servicemen Is Worse Than We Thought

A new report highlights the troubling reality of sexual assault for men in the military.
U.S. Marines salute and hold the American Flag at a Monday night football game in Seattle, Washington. (Photo: Kevin Casey/Getty Images)

U.S. Marines salute and hold the American Flag at a Monday night football game in Seattle, Washington. (Photo: Kevin Casey/Getty Images)

A new report on sexual abuse within the American military sheds light on male rape and assault—and how little is actually known about the issue. Rates of military sexual trauma among men may be as much as 15 times higher than previously thought, according to the American Psychological Association, which published this new research in its journal Psychological Services.

Military sexual trauma (MST) includes sexual assault, sexual battery, or repeated sexual harassment experienced throughout service. According to several studies in a recent issue of Psychological Services—which was devoted entirely to military sexual trauma among both men and women—there's very limited research on male MST. Because of that, the military needs more male-specific sexual assault treatment, researchers argue.

A few highlights from Psychological Services:

  • A study of male military sexual trauma among 180 combat veterans shows rates of sexual assault may be more than 15 times higher than what is generally reported even in most anonymous surveys. Fears of being ostracized or not taken seriously may be to blame for this underreporting. The hyper-masculinity and heterosexuality reinforced by military culture also creates particular challenges for men who are victims of sexuality. "[A]fter experiencing MST, men may feel pressure to be 'stoic warriors' and may feel their 'manhood' earned through service has been stripped," the authors write.
  • A study of military culture and male rape finds men are less likely than women to report or seek treatment for sexual assault. According to the Department of Defense, about 67 percent of female and 81 percent of male victims don't report being sexually assaulted in the military. According to the same study, roughly half of the military's assaults are against menbut most research focuses on female assault. In fact, very few publications regarding sexual violence against adult males exist prior to 2000, according to the authors of the study.
  • Male victims of sexual assault commonly experience confusion surrounding their sexual identity and any physical responses experience during an assault—particularly during penetration, when the prostate may be stimulated, resulting in erection or ejaculation. "As a result of questioning their sexual identities and their identities as men, many men we treat take on extreme, almost caricatured, versions of masculinity as an identity," the authors write. Hypersexual behavior to prove one's masculinity and heterosexuality is one common response to sexual trauma.
  • Military culture amplifies male rape myths, including the notion that it's physically impossible for men to be raped, and that "real" men are strong enough to fight off a sexual assault. In the military, men are often rewarded for strength, and de-valued for weakness. According to a 2004 study by the Office of Naval Inspector General, all-male crews believed that sexual assault awareness programs weren't even needed at all in the first place. Male victims are further ostracized if the perpetrator is female, according to the authors: "The idea of a man being raped by someone who is supposed to be a conquest or 'weak' may be especially discordant with the strong military identity."
  • Male veterans are less likely to receive treatment at Veterans Affairs facilities for military sexual trauma, in part because there are fewer VA residential programs specializing specifically in male sexual assault. According to a 2011 report from the Office of Mental Health Operations of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Mental Health Services, 38 percent of men who experienced MST received mental health treatment, compared to 54 percent of women.
  • Sexual assault may impact the mental health of men more so than women, perhaps because it may be more unexpected and more stigmatizing for men. According to a study of male and female patients in a residential MST program from 2000 to 2007, men experienced higher symptoms and higher elevations of conditions like schizophrenia and hypomania.

As Pacific Standard has reported before, rates of sexual assault among men in the military is almost 100 times that of men across the country (1.2 percent of male active duty service members, compared to 0.014 percent of American male civilians). Yet still, male MST is often overlooked.

"Institutional questionnaires, forms, and treatment all assume female victims," writes Wendy Christensen, a sociologist who has studied the military for nearly a decade. "Discharge papers write off victims as mentally ill. Men cannot actually be considered victims—there's no structure in place for this to happen—and instead they are aggressors learning how to dominate one another before dominating the battlefield."

Effective treatment for male MST should combat male rape myths and dispel the notion that military sexual trauma among men is rare, the researchers argue. But for now, it remains an unfortunately overlooked, under-researched, and under-treated systemic issue.