Secondary Victimization
last updated August 2013
Secondary victimization often occurs in cases of military sexual assault. Secondary victimization is defined as “the victim-blaming attitudes, behaviors, and practices engaged in by community service providers, which results in additional trauma for sexual assault survivors.”[1] In many cases, women have been encouraged to lie after reporting incidents of sexual assault. Their superiors frequently blame victims for the incident if alcohol consumption is involved. The culture surrounding sexual assault in the military can lead to women refusing to report the incident due to fear of harassment or negative effects it might have on their career.
The United States military has resources and protocol regarding sexual assault. The program is known as the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program (SHARP). SHARP’s prevention tools, for both individuals and units, heavily focus on the victim rather than the perpetrators. The program recommends basic tips regarding assertiveness, preparedness, and alertness. The tips specifically target women and tell them to, “be assertive and clearly state if they are uncomfortable.”[2] For example, a prevention poster authored by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program received significant criticism for touting the slogan “Don’t risk it... Ask her when she’s sober.”[3] Disregarding tools for preventive action of perpetrators does not successfully prevent sexual assault and outdated prevention strategies minimize the seriousness of the issue. Including tips for women on how to avoid sexual assault is a form of victim-blaming.
In many cases, victims who seek legal and medical assistance report feeling blamed or reluctant to seek further help. Victimization of sexual assault survivors can include questions regarding their previous sexual history or how they were dressed at the time of the incident. A study conducted by Rebecca Campbell and Sheela Raja in 2005 explored the emotional results of secondary victimization within the United States military. In many instances the cases were not dealt with properly - 70% of victims were encouraged not to report their incident, 65% were refused the ability to report the incident, and 70% were told that their cases were not severe enough to report. Further indications of secondary victimization appeared in the study results:  78% of victims asked if they resisted the perpetrator; 26% were questioned on the way they were dressed at the time of the incident; and 17% were asked if they were willing to take a lie detector test. As a result of secondary victimization, 83% of victims said they were reluctant to seek further help.[4]
Retaliation in the form of Psychiatric Discharge 
Some victims face retaliation for reporting sexual assaults in the form of a psychiatric diagnosis and military discharge. CNN interviewed women from all branches of the armed forces who faced psychiatric discharge for personality disorder or adjustment disorder after reporting sexual assaults.[5]
Adjustment disorder is defined as an excessive response to a stressful experience that occurs within three months of experiencing the stressor. It differs from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because it lasts for no more than six months after the stressful experience ends.[6] The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines personality disorder as a “long-standing, inflexible pattern of maladaptive behavior and coping, beginning in adolescence or early adulthood.”[7]This means that women diagnosed with personality disorder must have had this disorder before they entered the military. However, this is often inconsistent with the medical histories of sexual assault victims. Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network Anu Bhagwati states:
It makes absolutely no sense medically for people to be diagnosed all of a sudden after being sexually assaulted as an adult in the military to say 'No, you've had this all along'…These women have clearly been able to function. They've made it through basic training. They've made it through all the follow-on training. Many of them are deployed overseas in war, and they've done fine there. But, when they're sexually assaulted, and then report it, it seems very suspicious that the military would suddenly stamp them with a pre-existing condition that bars them from serving anymore.[8]
In fact, personality and adjustment disorders have very similar symptoms to PTSD. However, a psychiatric discharge for having a personality or adjustment disorder has very different implications than a discharge for PTSD. For example, a diagnosis of a personality or adjustment disorder can prevent veterans from accessing “disability pay from the Defense Department or service-connected disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs that they would have received if they had been discharged on the basis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or another disability.”[9] A psychiatric diagnosis also can be viewed by future employers who have access to the victim’s military paperwork. Furthermore, sexual assault victims have sometimes been forced to repay their enlistment bonuses.[10] Soldiers may also lose education benefits under the GI bill.[11]
Women in the military are disproportionally diagnosed with personality disorder. Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic conducted a study on personality disorder discharges. At the time of the study, although 16% of the soldiers in the Army were female soldiers, women constituted 24% of the soldiers discharged for personality disorders. In the Air Force at that time, 21% of the Force were women, but women constituted 35% of the personality disorder discharges. Similar disparities existed in the Navy and the Marines.[12]
These diagnoses are often made hastily. For example, after Anna Moore reported that a fellow soldier attempted to rape her in 2002, an Army counselor changed Moore’s diagnosis “from severe depression to borderline personality disorder after only a half-hour session.”[13] Diagnoses of personality disorders occur even though Dr. Liza Gold, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, warns that psychiatrists should not make diagnoses of personality disorders while patients are in the middle of recovering from traumatic experiences, like sexual assaults.[14]
After pressure from the United States Congress in 2008, the Pentagon instituted a new rule requiring only psychiatrists or psychologists with a Ph.D. to diagnose soldiers with personality disorder. Since this change has been implemented, personality disorder diagnoses have decreased significantly. Over the years, the United States Department of Defense has found hundreds of previous illegal personality disorder discharges. For example, only 8.9 percent of the personality disorder discharges in the Navy in 2008 and 2009 were legal.[15] And, a United States Government Accountability Office report from 2010 found that as many as 60% of soldiers received a diagnosis of a personality disorder from someone insufficiently qualified.[16]
In July 2013, the United States House of Representatives approved an amendment to the 2014 defense spending bill that would provide funds “to identify individuals who were separated from the military on the grounds of a disorder subsequent to reporting a sexual assault and, if appropriate, correct their record.”[17] Discharged soldiers can apply to upgrade their discharges and/or change their reenlistment eligibility by petitioning a Discharge Review Board or a Board for Correction of Military Records. Attorneys are not provided for these cases but are recommended. More information on the upgrading process can be found in this chapter of The American Veterans & Servicemembers Survival Guide written by Kathleen Gilberd. For additional information about legal assistance, please consult this list of resources created by the Service Women’s Action Network as well as StopVAW’s list of resources.    
Additionally, in June 2013, the United States House of Representatives passed the Ruth Moore Act, a bill that would lower the evidentiary standard for victims of military sexual trauma filing mental health condition claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill was designed to make it easier for victims of military sexual trauma to receive disability benefits.[18] As of this August 2013, the bill is still waiting for the approval of the U.S. Senate.

[1]Rebecca Campbell and Sheela Raja, "The Sexual Assault and Secondary Victimization of Female Veterans," Psychology of Women Quarterly, February 23, 2005,
[2]“Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program, United States Military, accessed August 14, 2008,  
[3]Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, 2011 Hurts One, Affects All Campaign: Navy Poster Facilitator’s Guide, 2011,; Marty Kaplan, “Ask Her When She’s Sober,” Huffington Post, March 26, 2012,
[4]Rebecca Campbell and Sheela Raja, supra note 1.  
[5]David S. Martin, “Rape victims say military labels them 'crazy',” CNN, April 14, 2012,
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9]“Frequently Asked Questions on the Defense Department's Wrongful Discharge of Nearly 26,000 Service Members,” Vietnam Veterans of America, last modified 2010,
[10] Karisa King, “Twice Betrayed: In the military, sex assault victims labeled as mentally ill, forced out,” My San Antonio, May 28, 2013,
[11]David S. Martin, supra note 5. 
[12] David S. Martin, supra note 5.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Karisa King, supra note 10.
[16] Ibid.
[17] “House Passes Military Sexual Assault Provisions; Pentagon Letters Challenge Sen. Gillibrand's Sexual Assault Proposal,” National Partnership for Women & Families, July 25, 2013,
[18] “House Passes Ruth Moore Act of 2013,” House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, June 4, 2013,