During Melbourne's brief liberation from eternal lockdown, I went out to dinner with friends and I must have been giddy with freedom, because I shared a story that I would normally keep under wraps.
The story involved a man who, after several perfectly adequate dates, had developed a habit of pushing me to send nudes.
"He tried all these different approaches," I told them. "But his favourite method is to imply that if I was cool and adventurous like 'other women', I'd be leaping at the chance to send pictures."
My friends nodded emphatically.
"And when I said no, he responded with 'you're no fun.' or 'how boring' – as if I'm the one who's being unreasonable."
I was surprised when my newly-single friend Holly* waded in with a story of her own.
"I was chatting to this guy on Tinder and we were getting along really well," said Holly. "Then somehow he sort of coaxed the conversation toward sex stories. I tried to change the subject but he was persistent, and I felt bad saying no, so I ended up telling him this fairly tame story from high school."
Holly gazed at her lap. "But later I was like, 'Why did I tell him that?'"
As it turned out, my friends and I had been quietly collecting these stories of pushy men.
Men who coaxed and cajoled, who appealed to women's need to please, who insisted intently that "a cool girl would do it." Men who, when rejected, turned to labels: prude, boring, uptight, no fun.
And, in many cases, the tactic had worked. We had relented.
Turning the stories over in my mind later that night, I wondered why we had been so reluctant to unveil them. We had never shied away from sharing embarrassing or raunchy tales with one another – in fact, we normally relished the opportunity to make a grand performance of the most sordid details.
It occurred to me there was a sense of embarrassment, of shame, in our hushed admissions that, in some cases, the cajoling of these men had worked.
The feminist in me knew that this stuff was in no way our 'fault' – so why had we felt embarrassed enough to keep our stories to ourselves?
I asked women to write in with stories of their own, and found that the tactic was worryingly universal.
"I was dating a guy who wanted to get me into kink," wrote Lucy*, "but I knew from my research that trust is vital before your first time.
"When I told him I wanted to try having vanilla sex before we went any further, he got p*ssed off and said that I was 'too old to be so inexperienced'.
"In the end, I gave in to having vanilla sex without protection, because I felt like I had already been 'difficult' enough. Later I felt ashamed that I hadn't stood up for myself."
Rachel* had been dating a guy for a while when he began to insist they have sex without protection. "I didn't want to be the prudish, high-maintenance woman," admits Rachel. "So I caved. Afterwards, when he found out I had gone to get an STD test, he got really angry that I was 'accusing him of sleeping around'.
"In the moment I was so scared of losing him that I back-pedaled and made excuses. It was only looking back that I could see that he was the one being an unreasonable jerk."
Scouring the internet for advice on boundary-setting while dating, I was met with was an encyclopaedia of 'dating advice' that disregarded women's needs entirely – "How to appeal to a man's secret desires", "How to make yourself irresistible to a man" – right down to word-for-word texting "scripts" designed to give you that cool-girl vibe he can't resist!
I could find little advice for women on how to get to know their own needs and desires, or how to set boundaries accordingly.
It came as a stark reminder that women are taught to appeal to men not by asserting their own needs, but by embodying the type of woman they think meets the man's desires.
"I call myself a feminist, but I have this need to please and submit to men that I would never voice to some of my friends," said Rachel. "I associate saying no with emotional pain. It's just a really tough thing to do."
In the stories I was sent, men exploited this tendency by implying that an adventurous, fun woman would love nothing more than to fulfil his needs.
"There's a lot of competition on dating sites," admitted Lucy. "So when a guy is pushing for something, I do think, 'well, if other women are doing it, I probably should be too.' I don't want to be the one backward, boring girl."
"It's such a hard thing to negotiate," said Rachel on being pressured to fulfil a request, "because it can be hard to tell if you're doing it because you want to be adventurous and sexy, or if you're doing it because the guy wants you to be adventurous and sexy."
"I've told myself I'm consenting to things because I'm feeling empowered and confident," wrote Lucy, "but that's definitely not how I always feel afterwards. I think a lot of the time, we don't realise our boundaries have been crossed till after the fact. There's this feeling of ickiness and shame that you don't tune into till later."
Gaslighting is the practice of seeking to manipulate a person's perception of what is real, or what is reasonable. What shocked me while researching was just how successful some men seemed to be at gaslighting women into believing that if they wanted to be sexy and cool, they needed to be fulfilling male desires.
More alarming still, was that my friends and I were not immune. It's no surprise we'd been reluctant to discuss it: we pride ourselves on being self-possessed, take-no-bullsh*t thirty-somethings, and this was an admission that beneath all that, we were still trying to please douchey men.
But the stories also reveal a hidden truth: none of us is that confident or sure of what we're doing in the dating world, and the cool girl that we're all competing with is a myth, foisted upon us by men and the media.
If we can find the courage to talk to each other about our experiences, we can begin letting go of the notion that we need to be the cool girl. We can start getting to know our own desires and our own boundaries, and we can hold men who gaslight women accountable for their sh*tty behaviour.