Jenn Gibbons was on her way to becoming the first person to row the entire 1,500-mile perimeter of Lake Michigan, a feat she was undertaking with the goal of helping raise awareness of the role exercise plays in the fight against breast cancer. She was more than halfway through the two-month journey when a man boarded her boat on Sunday and sexually assaulted her.
Gibbons had been attempting to raise money for the nonprofit she founded, Recovery on Water (Row4ROW), but her focus has since changed. She is determined to finish her journey, this time as an advocate for sexual assault victims.
“This is an experience that changes my trip. Because I need to be safer. But it doesn’t mean that it has to become such an overwhelming aspect of what I’m doing that I can’t go on,” she said. “I’m absolutely going to continue and continue to share.”
As she’s still concerned about her safety – and who wouldn’t be, especially as police think she was targeted by her assailant – she’s making different arrangements for her trip. She’s at home with her family, but she said she plans to continue on:
Tomorrow, [her vessel] Liv will be trailered to a secure location in Muskegon, Michigan until I can continue the trip on water sometime next week. From that point to Chicago we can ensure my safety on water since we’re confident that there are enough harbors and enough resources and volunteers to make it possible. Because we are unsure that I can be kept safe on the water in the miles between where I am currently and the point at which I will start rowing again, I will tackle them on land.
With thanks to a generous donor and the support of amazing volunteers, later this week I will continue traveling Lake Michigan’s perimeter by bicycle. A support crew will accompany me and ensure my safety day in and day out. When I get to Muskegon, Liv and I will reunite and keep pushing to get to Chicago sometime in mid-August, as we had originally planned.
On one hand, I am horrified by the fact that this woman who is out on a great adventure with the goal of helping other people was targeted and attacked by some horrible man. It enrages me to know that there are people in the world who encounter a woman on her own and see nothing but an opportunity to bolster their own pitiful sense of self at the expense of her right to safety and bodily integrity.
I would like to think that something like this should go without saying, but I have seen too many people in the world bend themselves into the most contorted rhetorical knots to explain why a victim of sexual assault bears some responsibility for what happened to her that I feel it cannot be overstated enough – Gibbons has a right to do what she is doing, and the man who stalked and raped her had no right to do what he did. It sucks that I have to state that, but there it is.
All that said, I am filled with admiration for Gibbons, not only for the fact that she was even trying to do this in the first place, but for the conviction and strength with which she has handled the aftermath of her assault. No one could blame her if she decided that she didn’t want to keep on with her journey, and yet she is. And not only that, but she is choosing to be open about what happened to her, and she is doing so in a culture that still attaches such stigma to victims of sexual assault that most victims never even try to seek redress in the criminal justice system.
And as a survivor, I have to say that I deeply appreciate that she is fighting back and showing that it is possible to survive sexual assault and not be destroyed by it. One of the things I often hear in our culture that makes me sick with anger is this idea that it is better to be killed than raped, that a woman who is raped would be better off dead. I was raped, and it was horrible, and yet somehow I have not only managed to heal, but I have also become more resilient, because if I can survive being raped as a little kid, I can survive just about anything.
The idea that a woman who is sexually assaulted is ruined forever needs to die a quick and fiery death, and I have a ton of respect for Gibbons on a personal level for refusing to be crushed not only by her attacker but also by a culture that often fails to treat survivors with care.
There are some things we can do to support her. The first is that we can keep our eyes out for her assailant, who is still on the loose. Police describe him as “a white male in his 30s, approximately 5’8” to 6’ tall, with a fair amount of facial stubble hair, but not a full beard nor mustache. The man has light eyes, an average to athletic build and shorter well-kept hair. He was wearing a grayish green t-shirt, jean shorts and tennis shoes.” He was last seen driving a yellow Jeep Wrangler with a smiley face on the spare tire cover. They’ve also released a suspect sketch. If you think you see the suspect, call police.
We can also help the support Gibbons’ cause, either through donations or, if you are in the area, volunteering at one of the events around the lake. More information about supporting Row4ROW can be found on her website. Finally, you can show support for her on her Facebook fan page. Let’s show Gibbons that she’s got a whole bunch of people who’ve got her back.
(Thanks to Erica for the tip!)