First Advisor

Christina Nicolaidis

Term of Graduation

Summer 2020

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Work and Social Research


Social Work




Sexual harassment in the military -- United States, Rape in the military -- United States, Sexual abuse victims -- Attitudes, Sexual abuse victims -- Services for, Veterans -- Services for, Command of troops, Rape -- Prevention, Rape trauma syndrome, Gender identity in the workplace, Sex discrimination



Physical Description

1 onine resource (xii, 206 pages)


Background: The return of military sexual trauma (MST) to the national spotlight has been fueled by a combination of continued reports of sexual assaults across the various military branches, increased visibility of sexual abuse scandals in the media, and mounting calls for accountability from veteran advocacy groups and legislators. Although there have been numerous reforms implemented by the military, there still exists a significant gap between the military's official efforts and the reality of the survivors' experiences. Consequently, more research is needed to understand how survivors perceive the military's efforts, how these efforts affect their experiences, and how future MST prevention and response programs can be improved.

Methods: This qualitative study was based on open-ended and semi-structured interviews with a national sample of 21 Army, Navy, and Air Force service members who experienced sexual harassment and/or sexual assault in the military between 2003 and 2019. We conducted a thematic analysis with a secondary coder to identify semantic and latent themes within the lived experiences of MST survivors.

Findings: Four key findings that emerged from the interviews: (a) the military's culture of sexism and misogyny contributes to MST, (b) the leadership and the chain of command matters, (c) response efforts were often (re)traumatizing; and (d) prevention efforts, particularly training, are important and often inadequate. Additionally, the participants provided eight recommendations for military leaders to improve the culture, as well as their MST prevention and response efforts.

Conclusion: The study findings suggest that the MST prevention/response strategies needs to (a) be consistent with military values and culture; b) be balanced with consistent accountability and military justice policies, and (c) ensure that prevention training facilitators have a robust skillset to deal with difficult/sensitive subject matter. Additionally, participants pointed out examples of what a survivor-centered prevention and response strategy could look like.

Implications: This qualitative study provides a baseline for future MST research in the area of sexual assault and prevention programming in both the military and veteran communities. This study also offers civilian practitioners in the fields of social work and social work education additional insight into sexual trauma within the context of the military culture.


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