Sexual Abuse In Military Veterans

Keren Cabrera, AMFT on May 17, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Military veterans experience a great deal of mental health conditions due to the traumatic environment that they are exposed to during training and combat. Many military veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. While military veterans are exposed to traumatic environments due to combat, many are also exposed to traumas such as sexual assault and abuse.

What defines sexual abuse?

It is any form of sexual violence, including rape, child molestation, incest, and similar forms of non-consensual sexual contact. Sexual abuse is never only about sex but often about gaining power over victims.

Sexual Abuse in the Military

While sexual assault and abuse occurs most often to women, U.S. military men are 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than civilian men.

According to a 2014 report, nearly 5% of all women and 1% of all men on active duty reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact. Nearly half of cases reported by women involved penetrative sexual assault while 35% of cases reported by men involved penetrative sexual assault. Due to gender ratios in the military, men experience more sexual violence than women.

Due to the stigma associated with reporting sexual assault and abuse in the military, many veterans do not report. This can increase the number of sexual abuse victims.

Therapy and Sexual Abuse

Sexual assault and abuse are traumas that are difficult to address on our own. Seeking a mental health professional is an important aspect of resolving and addressing these types of traumas. Various evidence-based therapeutic approaches such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, Trauma Focused-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy have demonstrated a significant impact in addressing trauma.

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

Psychodynamic psychotherapy has been effective in patients with PTSD resulting from sexual assault. Through psychodynamic psychotherapy, therapists can focus on the affect and expression of emotions, exploration of attempts to avoid triggers of the experience, identify recurrent themes and patterns, past experiences, interpersonal relationship, and therapeutic relationship. Through this therapeutic approach, the therapist works through a non-judgmental lens, understanding the difficulty of addressing the trauma and creating a safe place for the client to process their trauma.

Trauma Focused-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

TF-CBT is a short-term therapy that focuses on trauma-impacted individuals. TF-CBT has been proven to have a higher efficacy in veterans than other modalities of therapeutic approaches. This approach helps individuals with psychoeducation about trauma to learn cognitive skills and relaxation skills to address the physiological trauma response. The therapist works with the client to assess automatic thoughts and distorted cognitions. The therapist focuses on building a healing relationship to create a safe environment for the client to process the trauma.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR helps individuals reduce distress associated with the traumatic event. In this therapeutic approach, therapists help clients bring forth emotional disturbing material while focusing on external stimuli. The therapist then helps the client slowly shift negative beliefs to positive beliefs in small sequential doses. Through this process, the clinician is able to help the client desensitize the distress caused by the traumatic event. The client also learns to implement skills called EMDR resourcing such as deep breathing, creating a safe place, and other grounding techniques. The client is then able to build their confidence, self-esteem, and a greater sense of who they are as a survivor of the trauma.

There are many types of traumas, such as sexual abuse and sexual assault, and military veterans are not exempt from these traumas. There is help and resources for every veteran. Allowing a mental health professional to provide support and resources is the first step of the healing process. You are not alone. Start today with a call to a mental health provider.


Keren Cabrera is a Associate Marriage & Family Therapist in Suite 331, CA.

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