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Understanding and Managing Reactions from Experiences of Sexual Assault

Any service member can experience sexual assault. It involves uninvited sexual contact. Service members who experience sexual assault may develop psychological health concerns like sadness, anxiety or trouble sleeping. Without help, these concerns may lead to depression, substance misuse, posttraumatic stress disorder and more. If you experience sexual assault, seek help. The Defense Department has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and offers survivors many resources and protections. Sexual assault is different than sexual harassment. The Defense Department also has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment which happens at work and involves unwanted verbal or physical sexual attention.

Who is Most at Risk for Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault can affect warriors of any gender, race, rank or sexual orientation. However, women and LGBT service members experience the highest rates. Overall 4.3 percent of women and 4.5 percent of LGBT service members experience sexual assault. That is compared to 0.6 percent of males and 0.8 percent of those who don’t identify as LGBT. In 2016, women made up 77 percent of the 6,172 reports of sexual assault in the military. However, sexual assault is an under reported crime. The Defense Department estimates that about 14,900 service members experienced sexual assault in 2016.

Reactions to Sexual Assault

Understanding psychological reactions to sexual assault is key to personal health. Reactions may include:

  • Anger, shame, guilt or self-blame
  • Trouble with relationships or trust
  • Difficulty socializing
  • Problems at work
  • Trouble with concentration and memory
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Concern about sexuality
  • Poor sleep

Coping with sexual assault and the reactions you might have can be distracting or overwhelming. They can affect work and home life. They can also hurt unit cohesion and command readiness. If you notice these reactions in yourself or a fellow warrior, it is important to get help. You can get help at any time, but it is best to get care immediately after an assault.

Reporting Sexual Assault

Survivors may hesitate to report a sexual assault or get help for many reasons. They might worry about appearing weak, hurting their unit or facing intimidation. However, there are strong protections for survivors. You can’t be punished or retaliated against for reporting sexual assault. There are two ways you can report an assault. They are restricted and unrestricted reporting. You are provided immediate medical services and legal counseling with both, but there are important differences. You can make a restricted report by contacting a health care provider, a sexual assault response coordinator or sexual assault prevention and response victim advocate. Your identity is confidential. You have access to medical services and counseling. However, there will not be an official investigation. You can switch from restricted to unrestricted reporting at any time. Like a restricted report, you can make an unrestricted report by contacting a health care provider, SARC or SAPR VA. However, you can also contact law enforcement or your chain of command. Your command and investigators will know your identity and launch an investigation.

Sources for Support

It is important that a warrior seeks help and gets support following a sexual assault. In particular, those with psychological symptoms related to the assault should see a psychological health care provider. To find a provider, visit,, or go to the SARC at your unit or base. Additional support and resources are available confidentially, 24/7 including:

  • Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
  • Military and Veterans Crisis Line: Dial 988 and select Option 1 or text 838255. Are you calling the Military/Veterans Crisis Line from overseas? The country code to reach the United States will be required for each of these numbers, depending on your location.
    • Europe, call: 844-702-5495 or DSN 988
    • Pacific, call: 844-702-5493 or DSN 988
    • Southwest Asia, call: 855-422-7719 or DSN 988
  • DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, Victim Assistance
  • Vet Center Call Center, Department of Veterans Affairs: 877-WAR-VETS (877-927-8387)

Reaching out is a sign of strength. If you or a loved one needs additional support, you can contact the Psychological Health Resource Center to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants 24/7, call 866-966-1020 or use the Live Chat. You can also visit our “Seek Help, Find Care” page to see a list of key psychological health resources.

Additional Resources:


  1. Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. (2017). Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military Fiscal Year 2016.
  2. Street, Amy & Jane Stafford. (2004). Military sexual trauma: Issues in caring for veterans. Iraq War Clinician Guide 2nd Edition.
  3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.) Military Sexual Trauma.
Last Updated: April 09, 2024
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