LGBT Service Members Report More Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment and Stalking than their Cisgender Heterosexual Peers
Ashley Schuyler, Cary Leonard Klemmer, Mary Marney, Sheree Schrager, Jeremy Goldbach, Ian Holloway, & Carl Castro
April 1, 2020
Read the article about this research in U.S. News & World Report.
In the United States military, approximately 1 in 16 service members identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGB), or transgender (Meadows et al., 2018). Recent years have seen a shift in the military’s treatment of sexual and gender minority (i.e., LGBT) service members, particularly following the 2011 repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). This policy confined LGB service members to live in secrecy, under threat of discharge if their sexual identity was disclosed. Although it was meant to protect LGB service members by allowing them to serve and keep their sexual identity confidential, DADT likely encouraged discrimination and created an atmosphere of fear and stigma for LGB service members (Castro & Goldbach, 2018).
Military environments marked by sexual prejudice and discrimination can create an atmosphere where acts of sexual harassment and assault are normalized (Castro et al., 2015; Hunter, 2007; Sadler et al., 2003). Effects of the DADT environment may linger, and extend to transgender service members given recent policy decisions restricting their eligibility to serve. There is also little information on experiences of stalking during service, a potential risk factor for sexual assault (Kintzle et al. 2019). Understanding the burden of sexual and stalking victimization among LGBT service members is crucial for military leaders, as well as clinicians and researchers working to promote and protect LGBT service members’ well-being.
Our study examined sexual and stalking victimization experiences among a sample of LGBT and non-LGBT service members, using data from one of the first Department of Defense-funded efforts to study LGBT service members’ integration and well-being (the Military Acceptance Project [MAP]). We used an anonymous online survey to collect data from over 500 active duty service members in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps., recruited through respondent-driven sampling (RDS). Under this approach, an initial set of “seeds” shared the study information with service members; those who participated were provided with referral links (and an extra incentive) to recruit members of their military social network for the survey.
The survey assessed a range of health-related topics including experiences with sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking since joining the military. We assessed the proportion of LGB, transgender, and non-LGBT service members who experienced sexual harassment, assault, or stalking during service; we also examined individual-level correlates of victimization experiences including sexual and gender identity. Service members indicating an experience of sexual assault were asked if they reported the experience.
Experiences of sexual assault during military service were roughly twice as common among LGB and transgender service members (26% and 30%, respectively) compared to non-LGBT service members (14%). Approximately 1 in 4 service members who indicated sexual assault reported their experience to military authorities. The large majority of LGB (81%) and transgender service members (84%) indicated experiencing sexual harassment during service, compared to approximately half (55%) of non-LGBT service members. Stalking during service was also more common among LGB (39%) and transgender service members (30%), compared to their non-LGBT counterparts (24%). Adjusted logistic regression models found that the odds of sexual/stalking victimization experiences were 2-4 times greater among sexual minority service members compared to those who are heterosexual.
Our findings suggest that LGBT members remain at elevated risk of sexual and stalking victimization experiences in the post-DADT military environment. Sexual victimization during service has been linked with a range of adverse psychological and physical health outcomes among veterans (Suris & Lind, 2008), which may be especially likely for those identifying as LGBT (Lehavot & Simpson, 2014; Sexton et al., 2018). There is a critical need for research that examines how victimization experiences impact the health and readiness of service members in active duty, and identifies key points of intervention.
Our study is one of the first to examine stalking among active duty service members, and points to the need for additional research into the dynamics and trajectories of these experiences. Systematic efforts to mitigate the risk of sexual/stalking victimization and related health outcomes for LGBT service members across the military are warranted. Similar to efforts in the Veterans Healthcare Administration system (e.g., Kauth & Shipherd, 2016), this should include strategies to equip military leaders and healthcare providers with the knowledge and skills needed to build inclusive and comprehensive systems of care for LGBT service members.
Castro, C. A., & Goldbach, J. (2018). The perpetrator hypothesis: Victimization involving LGBT service members. In L. W. Roberts & C. H. Warner (Eds.), Military and veteran mental health: A comprehensive guide (pp. 145–156). New York, NY: Springer.
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Kintzle, S., Schuyler, A. C., Alday-Mejia, E., & Castro, C. A. (2019). The continuum of sexual trauma: An examination of stalking and sexual assault in former U.S. service members. Military Psychology, 31, 474–480. https://doi.org/10.1080/08995605.2019.1664367
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Schuyler, A.C., Klemmer, C., Mamey, M.R., Schrager, S.M., Goldbach, J.T., Holloway, I.W. and Castro, C.A. (2020), Experiences of Sexual Harassment, Stalking, and Sexual Assault During Military Service Among LGBT and Non‐LGBT Service Members. Journal of Traumatic Stress
Questions for Discussion:
- How can current military and civilian healthcare systems be adapted to as to support LGBT service members in seeking care for sexual/stalking victimization experiences?
- The perpetrator hypothesis (Castro & Goldbach, 2018) suggests that organizational factors (e.g., leadership behavior) moderate the effects of victimization experiences on functional outcomes such as mental health, help-seeking, job satisfaction, and military career intentions. How might research and intervention efforts be designed so as to identify and intervene on moderating factors related to the military environment, in order to prevent negative effects on health and military readiness?
Ashley C. Schuyler, MPH, is a PhD student in public health at Oregon State University, within the Health Promotion & Health Behavior program. Her research focuses on sexual health and sexual trauma, including the impact of sexual trauma on long-term health outcomes and help-seeking behavior such as the adoption of HIV prevention innovations.
About the Authors
Cary Leonard Klemmer, MSW (he/they), is a PhD candidate in social work. He is nearing completion of his dissertation which uses mixed-methods to examine the schooling experiences of transgender young people and identifies challenges that they navigate and the resilience they exhibit. Cary hopes to promote a society supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people through social work practice, teaching and research.
Mary Rose Mamey, PhD, MA, is an Assistant Research Professor in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. She works as a biostatistician and applies her skills in both SEM and psychometrics to focus on areas such as LGBTQ adolescents, psychopharmacology, and in the child medical field.
Sheree M. Schrager, PhD, MS, is a university administrator and research professor whose work examines the behavioral health and risk outcomes of sexual and gender minority youth and young adults, with an emphasis on the role of minority stress over the course of adolescence and early adulthood.
Jeremy Goldbach, PhD, LMSW, is an Associate Professor at the Suzanne Dworak Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, and Director of the Center for LGBT Health Equity. Dr. Goldbach focuses on the relationship between social stigma, stress, and health among minority populations, particularly LGBT children and adolescents.
Ian W. Holloway, PhD, LCSW, MPH, is a licensed clinical social worker and an associate professor of social welfare in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Professor Holloway’s applied behavioral health research examines the contextual factors that contribute to heath disparities among sexual and gender minority populations.
Carl Castro, PhD (Colonel, U.S. Army retired), MA, is currently Professor and Director of the
Military and Veteran Programs at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at
the University of Southern California. Dr. Castro is one of the leading military health
theorists in the world today.