WASHINGTON — The Pentagon recorded a nearly 38 percent spike in sexual assaults reported by service members in 2018, according to data released Thursday, despite senior military officials repeatedly saying in recent years that they have a problem that must be addressed.
The statistics show about 20,500 instances of ‘‘unwanted sexual contact,’’ a category that includes rape, forcible sodomy, groping, and other offenses. Reported assaults increased from about 14,900 in 2016 and were about on par with the 20,300 documented in 2014, according to biennial survey results released by the Pentagon.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the survey makes clear that the Pentagon must do more to address the culture that allows sexual assaults and harassment to persist.
‘‘To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or each other,’’ he said in a memo. ‘‘This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on. We must, and will, do better.’’
The elevated numbers add fuel to a contentious debate about sexual misconduct in the military and the role commanders play in determining whether to initiate legal proceedings. That role is defended by many service members who see it as critical to command structure and condemned by critics who charge it is a holdover from an earlier era and fosters bias.