The association between military sexual stress and psychiatric symptoms after controlling for other stressors

Maureen Murdoch, John B. Pryor, Melissa A. Polusny, Melanie M. Wall, Diane Cowper Ripley, Gary Dean Gackstetter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Objective: Several researchers have identified associations between exposure to occupational sexual stressors (e.g., sexual harassment) and severer psychiatric symptoms in military personnel. However, few controlled for participants' exposures to other high-magnitude stressors, which could have confounded results. We examined the unique association between military sexual stress and severity of participants' psychiatric symptoms after controlling for their other high-magnitude stressor experiences. Organizational- and individual-level predictors of military sexual stress were also assessed. Method: We surveyed by mail all active duty troops registered in the Department of Veterans Affairs' Enrollment Database (2001-2003). The questionnaire contained well-validated measures. Results: Eighty-four percent responded (total sample N = 611); of these 56% reported at least one sexual stressor exposure. A highly significant association between military sexual stress and psychiatric symptoms attenuated by two thirds and lost statistical significance once other stressor experiences were controlled. Besides sociodemographics, the strongest correlates of military sexual stress were working in an environment perceived to tolerate sexual harassment, reporting severer childhood maltreatment, and reporting more high-magnitude stressors. A gender-stratified analysis generated similar findings for men and women. Conclusions: Little unique variance in psychiatric symptom reporting was explained by military sexual stressor exposure after controlling for other stressors. Childhood maltreatment and other high-magnitude stressors acted as risk factors for and confounders of military sexual stress. Understanding how and why these stressors inter-relate could lead to better, more effective interventions to reduce them all-and their sequelae. Findings also highlight the need to routinely include men in sexual stress research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1129-1136
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Psychiatric Research
Issue number16
StatePublished - Dec 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding was provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Services Research and Development (HSR&D) Service (IIR 96-014). Drs. Murdoch and Polusny are core investigators for CCDOR, a VA HSR&D Service Center of Excellence. Dr. Cowper Ripley is Associate Director/Co-PI and Research Health Scientist at VA HSR&D′s RORC Research Enhancement Award Program. The Department of Veterans Affairs and VA HSR&D Service had no further role in study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; or in the decision to submit the paper for publication.


  • Child abuse
  • Mental health
  • Military personnel
  • Occupational exposure
  • Organizational culture
  • Rape
  • Sexual harassment


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