Labeling of Deployment Sexual Harassment Experiences Among Male and Female Veterans

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Objective: Victims’ conceptualizations of traumatic experiences can impact screening responses and decisions to utilize health care. Despite experiencing events constituting sexual harassment, many victims do not label their experiences as such. In the military, specific situational factors (e.g., occurred on-duty, higher ranking harasser) and victim appraisals of experiences (e.g., offensive, threatening) have been associated with increased labeling of sexual harassment. However, no research has examined sexual harassment labeling among those deployed in recent Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, where the context of harassment may differ from peacetime settings. The purpose of the present study was to examine frequencies of labeling sexual harassment during deployment, factors associated with labeling, and associations between labeling and perceived need for and use of mental health services. Method: 2,348 veterans (51% women, 49% men) drawn from a random sample of veterans deployed in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq completed a mail survey. Results: Women were significantly more likely than men to label experiences as harassment. Whereas appraisals of events were associated with both women’s and men’s labeling, situational factors were only associated with women’s labeling. Among women, labeling was associated with a greater perceived need for and use of mental health services among those who experienced nonassaultive harassment. Conclusions: These results confirm the importance of using behavioral language when screening for experiences of harassment among veterans returning from deployment. We discuss strategies for addressing labeling in the context of mental health treatment.

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