Last November, after a string of relationships with men had gone wrong, I decided to go to Los Angeles for a few months to try to fulfil my lifelong dream of having sex with an A-list celebrity. I have romanticised LA ever since, aged 14, I stumbled across that pinnacle of reality TV, The Hills. I fell in love with the idea of this star-studded city; a place where everyone can do a headstand, no one drinks wine at lunch, and it is totally normal to drive your car while outrageously stoned.
The first time I visited LA, I went to Lady Gaga’s house. The second time, I danced with Drake’s dad in a club in west Hollywood. On this third visit, I stayed with my best friend in her family’s pool house, and the A-lister in my sights was Cousin Greg from Succession.
During that trip, some of my friends and I decided to fly to Las Vegas for one night to go to a music festival. Las Vegas isn’t really my vibe. It reminds me of a heavily edited Instagram picture: it looks good at first glance, but if you squint, you notice the lies – the lamppost curving around the person’s waist, and the superimposed eyelashes.
As we touched down, I was acutely aware I only had 24 hours in the city of sin, and I was determined to soak up all the demented energy it had to offer. Taking a cue from the 40C weather, I was on heat. I bounced from casino to casino, a Marlboro Green in my mouth and a spicy margarita in my hand. I was in my element. There wasn’t a single soul I wasn’t flirting with. Later, my friends and I made our way to the festival, where everyone was stoned and had forgotten how to dance. Itching to carry on the night, we headed to a club. I kept thinking I could see Pitbull about to come on stage, but there were just lots of bald men.
At this club, I met a man. I can’t remember his name and it’s possible I never even asked him. I remember he was from Colorado, because I asked him if he knew Heidi Montag from The Hills (he didn’t). He was good-looking. I fancied him – although not quite as much as he fancied himself. He looked like the kind of guy who still used Facebook to keep up to date with his friends. A man who would caption an Instagram post “haters are my motivators” with a rocket-ship emoji.
But it was Vegas. And what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? So I flirted with him, turning my London accent up so I sounded sometimes like an extra in Bridgerton, and at others like a character from Top Boy. After a couple hours of shouting in each other’s ears over the thumping bassline and awkwardly gyrating to Alesso, we decided to leave our friends and go to one of the all-night casinos. It felt fun. Who knows, I thought, maybe we’ll get married.
Once we were in the casino, neither of us actually gambled. Instead, I made him take pictures of me next to slot machines, which I sent to my WhatsApp group with the girls at home. We didn’t ask each other personal questions, either. It just wasn’t the vibe.
We tried to get a hotel room, but without success. Soon we were traversing the Las Vegas strip, trying to find somewhere, anywhere to have sex. Something you should know about me is that I’m open and unashamed about my sex life, and these kinds of hijinks are usually my bread and butter.
Eventually, we headed to the hotel where I was sharing a room with my friends. The man from Colorado who didn’t know Heidi Montag and I stumbled across a stairwell exclusively used by hotel staff. We got situated and I took my Converses off because I had the most awful blisters, which had left bloody stains on the inside of the trainers.
In this weird, private stairwell we had sex. It was fun. Up to this point everything I’d done with this man had been consensual. I wanted to do it; I was enjoying the excitement.
After we had sex, using the one condom I’d optimistically packed, I told him I wanted to go back to my hotel room. As we tried to leave, I realised that the door we had come in through was locked. I couldn’t get out. I phoned reception and told them I was a guest in the hotel and that I was stuck. The woman on the other end started to laugh. She drawled, hardly trying to hide her contempt: “Oh, you’re stuck in the stairwell, are you?”
Trying my best not to sound hysterical, I snapped: “I’m stuck and I wanna get out so you need to send someone. Now.” In her best customer service voice, she assured me that someone would come soon.
The man from Colorado who didn’t know Heidi Montag didn’t seem too pressed about the fact that we were stuck. I waited impatiently. An hour passed. No one came. I fell asleep on the cold metal stairs, using my bag as a pillow.
When I woke up, the man from Colorado who didn’t know Heidi Montag was having anal sex with me. It hurt like hell. I politely asked him to stop. Apparently taking this to mean the anal element, he responded, casually: “I put it in there ’cos I couldn’t find a condom.”
“No. Stop completely,” I said.
He didn’t. I tried to push him off me, but his body was a dead weight. I was being pressed into the stairs. I could feel my shins being indented by the sharp edges, and I could feel it bruising.
Eventually he came. No, not the security guard I was praying would let us out of this stairwell, but the man from Colorado. His body slackened on top of me and I slid out and up.
I was done waiting for security. Calmly, I left him there. Bloody shoes in tow, I walked down flights and flights of stairs and eventually found a door that had been left open. I made it to my hotel room and got into bed. I couldn’t believe it. I was 27, halfway across the world, and this man had tried to ruin sex for me.
As a standup comedian, and author, I am frequently praised for my “sex-positivity”; as someone who is open and unashamed about sex – the good, the bad, the fanny farts, and so on. Once, someone described my stage persona as a “sexually promiscuous woman equipped with the confidence of a man who went to Eton and the vocabulary of Tracy Beaker”.
I’m a comedian who loves to talk about my vagina; about what’s gone in and what’s gone out, and even what’s been within a five-yard radius. My intention was never to be a “sex-positive comedian”. It was just that men, and my sex life, provided me with so much material. I know my openness about sex has helped people. That’s something I’ve been told a lot by young women; that my comedy, and my book, Amazing Disgrace, has made them feel less alone. I take pride in comments such as: “When you write about sex, I feel as if I’m listening to my own thoughts.”
However, in the aftermath of that night in Las Vegas, I felt resentful of this sex-positive label, and I felt guilty for feeling resentful. Every time someone asked me, “Why didn’t you go to the police?” I felt as if the joke was on me. Me? Go to the police? The girl who once got up on stage and told a room of 400 people that she doesn’t even need lube when she does anal is now claiming that she was anally raped? The girl who has bragged about how many public places she’s had sex in is saying she didn’t want to have sex in a hotel corridor? The same girl who rode a dick-shaped cloud on the cover of her book? The girl who describes herself as a slut, who has openly discussed which STDs she’s had? The one who has said that men tell her she “smells like sex”?
To me and my friends, this openness is completely normal, but when I checked in with the reality that, in a police station, would be used against me, I spiralled. I was imagining the ways I would be ripped apart. I thought about passages from my book, my Instagram, or my standup being taken out of context in order to paint me as this whore who was deserving of her comeuppance.
Then I thought about what people might say about my account of that night.
“Well … she did already have consensual sex with him? Maybe he was just confused?” “She said she was flirting outrageously.” “She did say she likes the excitement of spontaneous sex.”
The thing is, I know I didn’t consent. I couldn’t have. You can’t consent to something while you are unconscious
The thing is, I know I didn’t consent. I couldn’t have. You cannot consent to something while you are unconscious. It’s that simple. When I woke up and asked him to stop, and he didn’t, I was doing the opposite of consenting. What he did was wrong. But unfortunately, I know how these things play out.
In the last decade, we’ve seen time and again that rape victims do not receive adequate protection from legal systems. My friends and I follow rape trials and the way they can end prematurely, because we want to know what might happen to us if we went to the police. We have memorised the facts. We know that in the year to September 2021, in England and Wales alone, 63,136 allegations of rape were taken to the police. Only 820 resulted in a charge or summons. That’s 1.3% of rape accusations.
The physical evidence that can ensure a conviction needs to be collected within a week, so if someone decides weeks, or months, or even years later that they want to go to the police, their case could be weakened. All too often, it’s your word against theirs, and their word is male, and it is louder than yours.
As one woman who went to police with an allegation of rape told the BBC: “It felt as though I was the one being investigated.” Her case didn’t make it to trial. When you go to the police, your phone can be taken away from you. Past messages, photos and correspondence on dating apps can be used as evidence, along with medical records, including alcohol use, mental health issues, STI history. Not every survivor of rape is equipped for the stress that all of this entails.
When it happened to me, I was also keenly aware that I was in the US. A country where rapes on college campuses are rarely brought to justice. A country where Brett Kavanaugh can be appointed to the supreme court despite accusations of sexual assault, which he has denied. And now, a place where that same court is stripping women of autonomy over their bodies in overturning Roe v Wade.
Knowing that, and knowing what narrative would be created around me, I just thought: I’d rather not. Can you blame me?
I have often wondered what that guy thought, after I stormed away from him that night. I’m sure he knew he’d done something wrong. Did he feel guilty? Did he worry that I might go to the police? Or did he think: she won’t do that. It made me feel weak.
Of those two moments, the one before I fell asleep, which I’d enjoyed, and the one I woke up to, which was a violation, it felt like one had completely taken away from the other. The rape had made me feel totally out of control of my body. It was trying to make me fearful of sex, and of men. It made me feel as if I was just a spectator.
I could have looked back on that night with a hilarious story of the time I shagged in the hotel staff stairwell. But instead someone else’s actions ruined that memory for me, and there wasn’t too much I could do to get back at him.
I had really thought that more was changing in terms of the collective male psyche. I’d hoped that since #MeToo, men now had a better understanding of consent, of why certain events or actions aren’t acceptable. But after Las Vegas, I’ve had a few uncomfortable experiences talking to men that have made me question that.
Recently, I was at a festival and a guy came up to me to ask for a picture. His girlfriend was a huge fan, he explained, and she’d be so jealous that he’d met me. After I took a picture for his girlfriend, he stuck around, and started chatting to me and my friends. After a while, he tried to kiss me. I was baffled: this was the same man I’d just taken a picture with to send to his girlfriend. I stepped back and said: “Erm, you have a girlfriend.”
He laughed. “Yeah but, you don’t care, do you?”
I was deeply offended. Of course I cared that some guy who just used his girlfriend as a reason to talk to me was trying to get with me. Why did he think I wouldn’t care? It bugged me for ages.
The following week I was on a date with a guy who had slid into my DMs and seemed nice. I told him what had happened at the festival.
He said: “Well, what did you expect? It’s ’cos people think you’re loose.”
I was stunned. “Why the fuck would people think I’m loose?”
“Because I swear all you do is talk about sex.”
I was enraged. Because I’ve spent years encouraging young women to feel empowered masturbating, or to ask for more sexually, or to develop boundaries, that means that I will get with anyone?
Not long after that date, I was at the pub with some friends. In confidence, I told a male friend what had happened in Las Vegas. He wanted to know if this experience had changed how I felt about men. I explained that I still love and trust loads of men and that, in fact, the comedy show I’ve written and am taking to the Edinburgh fringe is about my obsession with men. The show, it is worth adding, has no mention of rape.
He thought about this for a second and asked: “Do you think there’s a connection between you being so obsessed with men, and you getting raped?” I felt nauseous. How can someone I know, and should trust, suggest that my obsession with men got me raped? It made something really clear. The world loves to praise a sex-positive woman until she is challenging the very things about the world that have made her want to be sex-positive.
I can be a cocky, self-proclaimed slut, who wears revealing tops, and writes shows about being obsessed with men, and I can also be raped. Those two things can exist at the same time. I know this, because it’s what happened to me.
• Grace Campbell: A Show About Me(n) is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh, until 29 August.