Sexual Harassment, Assault, Stalking More Prevalent for LGBTQ Soldiers

Researchers hope military leaders pay attention to emerging data showing that queer service members experience disproportionately high rates of sexual harassment, assault, and stalking.
Reuters/ Jason Reed

LGBTQ troops experience greater risk of sexual harassment, assault, and stalking than cisgender straight service members, according to a survey of more than 500 troops commissioned by the Obama administration’s Department of Defense, but carried out during the Trump administration.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress and featured researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Southern California, found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) respondents reported stalking twice as much as heterosexual respondents, and respondents with less than two years of service were less likely to report stalking compared to those who had been in the military for more than two years.

Importantly, however, the data also revealed disparities on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. Women of all sexual orientations experience sexual harassment in the armed forces, but queer men face far more sexual harassment than straight men.

Gay, bi men, women, trans folks suffer disproportionate risk of harassment in military

The study encompassed 544 individuals between the ages of 18 and 54, but only 503 were utilized for data because 41 did not submit complete surveys. Within the final group, 276 were non-LGBTQ, 171 were LGB, and 56 were transgender.

A majority of all service members reported sexual harassment, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Fifty-five percent of non-LGBTQ service members experienced sexual harassment compared to 80.7 percent of LGB respondents and 83.9 percent of transgender respondents.

“Although heterosexual service members assigned male sex at birth had more than a 50 percent likelihood of having experienced sexual harassment, sexual minority service members of all assigned sexes as well as heterosexual service members assigned female sex at birth had more than a 70 percent likelihood of sexual harassment.

Regarding the gender differences in sexual harassment, researchers suggested that the numbers could stem from the workplace environment.

“There are aspects of military culture that contribute to [the differences in sexual harassment by gender and sexual orientation] and one of them is the value system that values masculine ideals,” Ashley C. Schuyler, a Ph.D. student at Oregon State  who is the lead author on the study, said in a phone interview. “That could prompt someone to act out against women and gay and bi men. There’s high risk for women, but we also see a difference for gay and bi men.”

Transgender service members also experience sexual assault more than their LGB and non-LGBTQ counterparts: Of the trans respondents, 30.4 percent said they experienced sexual assault, exceeding the 25.7 percent of LGB respondents and 14.1 percent of non-LGBTQ people.

Those numbers were significantly different when it came to the issue of stalking. LGB folks made up the greatest share of stalking victims — 38.6 percent — followed by transgender service members (30.4 percent) and non-LGBTQ troops (23.6 percent).

The report marks the second DOD-funded LGBTQ-related study to be released in recent months. The other study, also commissioned by the Obama administration and completed in the Trump era, found that two-thirds of service members who responded to a survey said they support transgender people serving in the military — a clear rebuke of the Trump administration’s ban on transgender service members.

There is already research showing that sexual harassment and assault in the military can lead to post-tramautic stress disorder, substance use issues, and suicidal behavior, and LGBTQ veterans have historically reported those problems at greater rates.

Researchers stated that the purpose of the study was to examine LGBTQ victimization in the military and use that data to inform future policies aimed at preventing those experiences in the future. Researchers said they are suggesting further research into LGBTQ service members and, in the meantime, they hope military leaders and healthcare providers can become more educated on the data.

“Something the military has started to acknowledge is this idea of a continuum of harm, where if you experience sexual harassment or gender discrimination behaviors, you’re at higher risk of more severe encounters down the road, like assault,” Schuyer said. “We’re trying to understand where stalking fits into that spectrum of experiences, so we can intervene to help people who we know experience harassment or stalking and prevent potential assault in the future.”

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