Sexual Satisfaction and Military Service

The impact of stress on sexual satisfaction

Posted Apr 09, 2012

During the 2008 Wounded Troops and Partners Conference, former Surgeon General David Satcher stated: “Sexuality is an integral part of human lives…It is intricately bound to physical, mental, and spiritual health.” Sexual health however may be a casualty of military deployment.

The Department of Defense’s Military Deployment Guide: Preparing You and Your Family for the Road Ahead (2011) describes reintegration as the time period after service members return from active deployment and reintegrate into family life and the community. The guide acknowledges that sexual issues are a common occurrence during the reintegration phase; it states that in many cases, “Sex can resume immediately.” But in other cases it doesn’t, even after a long period of time.

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, a federally funded program established to address concerns of the Department of Defense regarding the psychological impact and health consequences of trauma, reports that sexual activity is a recurrent source of dissatisfaction for couples during the reintegration stage. In its resource Courage to Care: Becoming A Couple Again, couples are advised, “Coming together as a couple after war deployment isn’t always easy or something that happens naturally.” Stephen Cozza M.D., associate director of the Center, informed me that his program tends to focus on more encompassing intimacy issues that returning troops—both single and married—experience rather than spotlighting only sexual mechanics. While some couples may indeed be struggling primarily with sexual concerns, for others, intimacy as exhibited by simply holding hands and engaging in loving dialogue has been impacted.

Laurie Watson, a certified sex therapist, licensed couple’s therapist, and fellow blogger with Psychology Today (“Married and Still Doing It”), is currently training the military regarding sexual issues. She isn’t surprised that day-to-day intimacy is a problem for returning troops. Many have developed a warrior mentality, a mindset necessary for survival during active duty but which can be difficult to shut off once community and family reintegration occurs. Laurie reported many military service personnel were confronted with scenes of carnage and destruction, often repeatedly, while facing daily threats to their own lives. The warrior mentality places a precedent on survival and minimizing one’s own emotional response; it may be the only way to adapt to an onslaught of horrific experiences. However, upon reintegration, troops are then expected to adjust to their post-deployment lives in which the most critical occurrences may be a child’s misbehavior in school, a noisy neighbor, and unresolved relationship issues. In Laurie’s experience, returning military service personnel are just as likely to be hyposexual as hypersexual, and acts such as simply holding hands and engaging in “pillow talk” are simply impossible.

Thus it seems that military deployment risks a deleterious impact on intimacy, whether or not a physical or mental health problem occurs as a result of active duty.