15 February 2023

‘Hyena from the Riverina’ in boxing fight to stop violence against women

| Oliver Jacques
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Jess Spence in a boxing stance

Jess Spence is in intensive training for her fight. Photo: Supplied.

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses domestic and family violence.

A life-changing trauma in 2018 has led to Griffith-born Jess Spence putting on boxing gloves for the first time to raise money for Full Stop Australia, a not-for-profit dedicated to eradicating family and sexual violence in Australia.

Dubbed the ”Hyena from the Riverina”, the 32-year-old construction communications manager is undergoing intense training for a charity fight night on Saturday, 18 March, in Sydney. She’s aiming to raise well in excess of the nominal target of $2000 through her donation page.

Her choice of charity was motivated by her own experience.

“In 2018, I was sexually assaulted after a work event. My life went downhill from there, I started drinking heavily,” she alleged.

“I reported it … but felt I didn’t get much support.”

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After being told criminal action was not possible due to lack of evidence, she pursued a civil suit against her alleged perpetrator. During a four-year legal battle, Ms Spence said she felt she was the one on trial.

“The defence lawyers pulled every part of my life to shreds,” she said. ”They dug up my police records, my previous speeding fines, bank statements, my medical records.

“I’d received counselling [to deal with the assault trauma], they wanted access to those records. They also wanted access to records for all previous counselling I had received even before the event, to use that against me. They were twisting words and conversations I had, to show I was crazy or lying … the whole process took so much out of me.”

Living in Sydney since 2019, Ms Spence said she had been in a “bad head space” for a while and fell into bad relationships, the first physically abusive and the second mentally destructive.

“In a way, the emotional abuse was worse than the physical abuse.”

As her life gets back on track, she is determined to both help women in similar situations and change a legal system she claims treated her as badly as the men who allegedly harmed her.

“Full Stop Australia does a lot of trauma specialist counselling, something I found very hard to access.”

Jess Spence in a boxing ring

Jess Spence in the ring. Photo: Supplied.

The organisation also pressures governments to change laws, like making coercive control a criminal offence in NSW.

Ms Spence also connected with another not-for-profit group, Corporate Fighter, which organises a 10-week boxing training program that culminates in a charity boxing night.

“I’ve never done boxing before. But I played a lot of representative basketball in Griffith, as well as netball and AFL for the Griffith Swans. It’s still tough. We are training six days a week. There are 30 of us in the group, but only six girls, so we fight and train with a lot of guys.

“My basketball days make me good at dodging, but it is very confronting and brings up bad memories when we are sparring with guys most evenings. It’s challenging, but I am learning to face my fears head-on.

“Fighting for this cause is both symbolic and poetic, I am fighting to put a full stop to violence against women.”

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There’s also symbolism in her new stage name, the Hyena from the Riverina.

“My work colleagues were throwing a bunch of names and that’s the one I liked. I don’t want to ever forget where I came from. I want to make sure people know where the Riverina is, and that we’re bred tough in the country. I’m also pretty feisty and aggressive. I used to get fouled off nearly every game in basketball. Hyena suits me.”

Donations for the charity fight night can be made through the Hyena’s website and supporters can watch a live stream or buy tickets to the Sydney event on the Corporate Fighter page.

If this story has raised any issues for you, you can call 1800 Respect, a 24-hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line, on 1800 737 732.

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