Kaylyn Ahn

How trauma led to advocacy

When Kaylyn Ahn contacted the police in 2021 to report she had been raped by an acquaintance, she was told that prosecu­tors would never pick up her case. Instead, a sergeant advised her to try not to let it happen again and move on.

Ahn, then 17, had been drinking and was voluntarily intoxicated at the time of the assault. Because of that, the officer explained, the case would be extremely difficult to prosecute and would likely go nowhere.

“I was devastated,” says Ahn, now a third-year SESP student. “I hadn’t told anyone what happened, and I had been agonizing over the decision, should I report or not? The police didn’t take me seriously at all. It felt like a second loss of agency, like I had no choice—first in the assault and then with the legal system.”

Instead of giving up, she appealed to state representative Mark Walker, in whose office she had been interning. At the time, “consent” per Illinois statute hinged on whether an assailant had administered the substance that incapacitated the victim.

Walker spearheaded legislation to address the loophole, adding language to make clear that if someone is unable to give consent, it doesn’t matter how or why. “The responsibility for the crime is on the perpetrator,” Walker says. “It’s long past the time to stop blaming the victims of these crimes.”

Some say the situation reflects a larger problem. A 2020 study found that 80 to 90 percent of sexual harm reports made in the prior decade to the Chicago Police Depart­ment did not result in an arrest.

“It is incredibly difficult to get a case that is reported to law enforcement charged, prosecuted, and convicted,” says Madeleine Behr, policy director at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, which offers free legal support to survivors of sexual assault. “Even after the #MeToo and other movements, we still find so many reasons not to believe victims when they come forward.”

Ahn testified in support of the new legis­lation, which was signed into law by Illinois governor JB Pritzker in 2022 with Ahn stand­ing alongside him; life has been a whirlwind since. Now 19, Ahn has crisscrossed the nation speaking about gender and violence. She spent a summer in Washington, DC, for an internship in the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, where she worked on a policy paper about gender-based violence in Afghanistan.

In July, Pritzker appointed her to the Illinois Council on Women and Girls. For the next two years, Ahn will advise the governor and General Assembly on policy issues, and next summer she’ll work abroad at an embassy or consulate as part of a US Foreign Service program.

That’s all on top of her studies at North­western, where she’s double-majoring in social policy and legal studies. She still struggles with the aftermath of trauma, including sleepless nights, but she’s trying to be patient with herself and the pace of social change.

“Trauma has a way of ripping away your voice and power,” Ahn says, but helping get the bill passed “was a reminder of how much power I truly have, and it was proof that I could make good change in the world.”

-- By Colleen McNamera. Photos by Stacey Wescott