I have become Lynda Lee-Potter, reactionary and scared of a little innuendo

Martin burst out: "How disgusting and ridiculous" - as he read the newspaper article being passed around the table. "I can't believe this French Connection story," he continued. He was talking about a series of advertisements for television and print that has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority. The one I saw appeared in FHM and showed a "young" girl, with a scrubbed, childishly clean face, holding on to what may (or may not) have been a piece of rope from a swing. Next to this sweet, innocent picture were the words: "Fancy conquering unchartered territory?"

"I agree," I said. "What a foul ad, and what the hell has some girl's virginity got to do with clothing?" I looked around and was met by stony glares and silence.

"No, Lauren, we were furious the ads were banned. I mean, what is the world coming to? What about the freedom of our industry?" The men all nodded vigorously; the only other woman muttered sheepishly that, before she passed judgement, she'd like to see the ad "in its proper context . . ." A visit to the website of FCUK, the company responsible for the "innocent" advertisements, may have helped make up her mind.

The other banned ad ran in the London Evening Standard, and told readers: "The powers that be have decided our new TV commercial 'kinky buggers' contains an unacceptable level of sexual innuendo." The company claimed to be "saddened and disgusted by the complaint". On its website, anyone can view a show specially tailored to the "type of kinky bugger you are". The banned ads are all there and include an entirely innocent video of a young couple having sex. As the girl unzips the boy's trousers and kisses his navel, he pants: "FCU . . . kinky bugger."

At dinner with the advertising executives, I found myself becoming Lynda Lee-Potter, a reactionary who would curtail the most reasonable of freedoms because I was scared of a little sensuality and innuendo in advertising. What I was seeing was all in my head; no one else could see the implication of the words "unchartered territory" - making me the pervert.

As we were tucking into our steaks, a group of children nearby were having a "sleepover" at a friend of mine's house. Her partner was outside "playing" with the girls. He is 30 and has lived with my friend for years. Around the garden he ran, in his good-natured way, until, exhausted, he and the ten little girls all collapsed laughing into the tent in the garden. Then they watched a movie together, while the mother, who was supervising the party, was busy with a baby and cleaning extra bedding for them. When it got cold at 2am, all the girls decided to go into the house, leaving only my friend's daughter and her stepfather together in the tent. That night, he drunkenly rubbed himself against the nine-year-old, telling her how much she turns him on. Curling around her semi-naked body, he moaned: "This is how Mummy and I sleep."

My friend is angry with him, but says coolly that she won't contact the police because he "didn't actually do anything". Since then, we have all colluded in one way or another with this man's distinction between child abuse and the kind of drunken "mistake" that "anyone could make". Don't overreact, be cool - it's the modern way. Kinky sex used to sell clothes? Be cool. A 30-year-old man talking dirty to a child? Be cool.

Four days later, with the man still in the family home, I called the police for advice. "He's still in the house with two kids and we're worried."

"What do you expect us to do?"

"Can't you get him, question him? Make him leave? Contact social services?"

"No. He hasn't committed a crime."

It isn't a crime to talk dirty to a nine-year-old. And Martin had the last word, before forcefully changing the subject. "The girl [in the ad] looks at least 18 and I don't find the words 'unchartered territory' at all offensive." The men threw their heads back and laughed; we women looked at our plates.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?