Military Sexual Trauma (MST)
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 the broader public.
This page offers information related to incidents of sexual violence and discrimination (Military Sexual Misconduct) and as well as the associated harms (Military Sexual Trauma).
Military Sexual Misconduct and Military Sexual Trauma Fact Sheet
Military Sexual Misconduct
Military Sexual Misconduct (MSM) is defined in Canada as “conduct of a sexual nature that can cause or causes harm to others” and takes place within the military.
- 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
MSM can occur in your physical work location or in the greater work environment, such as work-related functions, or activities with colleagues. It can occur while you are on or off duty, on or off base, deployed or not deployed.
Military Sexual Trauma
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is not a specific diagnosable condition, but rather a term that describes the psychological, physical and social “wounds” that people who experience or witness military sexual misconduct may feel. MST is a broadly applied term to cover a range of impacts.
There is currently no single “official” definition of MST in Canada, but there are generally accepted descriptions which are largely based on the definition from the United States. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, MST refers to the lingering impacts of experiencing “sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment” during military service, including sexual activity that you are involved with against your will.
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 a “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 three main categories:
- Being sexually attacked
- Experiencing unwanted sexual touching
- Being engaged in sexual activity when you are unable to give your consent
- 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
- Being pressured into unwanted sexual or romantic behaviours
- Being subjected to comments and actions that discriminate against or devalue your being, based on your gender identity, sexual identity, sexual orientation or expression
It is difficult to understand the true scope and extent of the problem facing the military and Veterans. However, what we do know is that military sexual misconduct is an under-reported issue that disproportionately affects certain groups more than others.
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, situational or both. Systemic imbalances arise from societal policies and practices that result in unfair disadvantages, barriers, and/or harmful treatment, such as when one demographic or cultural group has more power in an organization’s structure than another. Not everyone who identifies with groups affected by systemic imbalances 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 what has happened. Responsibility for these incidents always falls on the perpetrator (or perpetrators).
The following groups experience increased targeting:
- Single persons
- Young persons (<39 years old)
- Junior non-commissioned officers or junior officers
- Persons with disabilities
- 2SLGBTQ+ persons
- Indigenous Persons
- People of Colour
Disclosure and reporting
Our knowledge 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.
- 57% of sexual assault incidents go unreported
- On average, just 47% 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 or reported due to many barriers, including:
- Fear of negative career repercussions
- Fear of not being believed
- Fear of being removed from one’s unit or released from the military
- Fear of lack of confidentiality
- Fear that no change will result from formally reporting an incident or incidents.
There is also a broad misconception that sexual assault is only committed against women by men. As such, added stigmas and shame—over and above the trauma of assault itself—can be associated with persons of the following identities experiencing sexual assault, which may even be compounded when identities intersect:
- 2SLGBTQ+ persons
- Persons with disabilities
- Indigenous Persons
- People of Colour
Symptoms and reactions
If you have experienced MSM, you may react in 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 a minimal reaction. You may experience a reaction right away, or it may be delayed for a long time. You may suffer from a number of diagnosable mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, or other 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
- Shame or guilt
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory problems
- Loss of motivation
- Anxiety disorders, including panic attacks
- Acute stress or PTSD
- Mood disorders such as major depression
- Suicidal ideation (thoughts) or behaviours
- Increased alcohol or drug use to cope with trauma symptoms, such as sleep disturbance, avoidance, change in mood, feelings of hypervigilance or decreased safety
- 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 a 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
- Avoiding places, people, or situations, that remind you of the traumatic event(s),
- Alienating or pushing away friends, family and other individuals in your life
- Absenteeism from work or taking extended time away from your job
- Feeling forced to choose between your military career and continued contact with the perpetrator(s)
- Divided loyalty to yourself, to your unit, and to the military,
- Real or feared negative repercussions on your career and career progression, including removal from your unit or release from the military
- Real or feared retaliation by peers and supervisors
- Real or feared negative perceptions of you, including perceptions that you are “weak” or a “trouble maker”
- Real or feared financial difficulties, including loss of income
- Feeling or experiencing that reporting what happened will not make a difference
Supporting your loved one
When you learn a someone has experienced MST, it can be difficult to know what to say or how to react. Here is some guidance on helpful reactions that can provide support.
- Listen without judgement
- Allow the person impacted by MST to guide the pace and direction of the conversation
- Do not interrupt
- Listen without minimizing or amplifying any of the facts shared with you
- Do not ask about unnecessary details
- Do not expect the person impacted by MST to share details that they are uncomfortable sharing
- Validate their experience and reactions
- Do not come across as doubtful or skeptical
- Emphasize to them that they are not at fault—the perpetrator(s) are solely responsible
- Commend them for their courage to talk about the situation
- Do not implicitly or explicitly blame them for the situation
Supporting a person impacted by MST can be challenging. Ensure your own well-being while taking care of your loved one by:
- Talking to someone about the situation (e.g., 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 live with a mental or physical condition due to a service-related sexual trauma (e.g., PTSD, 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.
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 Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families, 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.
Atlas 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.