I babysat for a paedophile when I was a teenager. Twice. I did not know he was at the time, though it began to emerge in the months afterwards. First, he was accused of assaulting a boy who was in his early teens. It was hushed up. He and his wife were friends of my parents, and wanting to be supportive, my mother had invited them over. I remember he looked very uncomfortable. I know now that what he was feeling was probably guilt and embarrassment rather than fear.

A few months later he was accused again. The alleged assault was a more serious one this time, and with having been accused before, it had to be looked in to. I suppose it must have been pretty clear the second time as it was not hushed up.

I realise and recount this because of the stream of sexual-abuse-of-children stories in the news recently, in Britain at least. Cases cover a range of prominent people, celebrities, public figures and even former members of parliament have been implicated. Several of those mentioned are dead, limiting the scope for any kind of retribution. There have also been cases of children’s homes at which child abuse seems to have been almost cultural, in Rotherham and Belfast.

There was no hiding in plain sight with the paedophile I knew. No fake gold medallions. No creepiness, nothing obnoxious or unpleasant. He had a moustache I thought was strange, but I’ve never seen one I liked so I suppose that is just my preference. He was a musician and music teacher.

He must have known it was not a good idea to seek sexual gratification with a child. I suppose he wanted for a moment’s carnal pleasure, but rationally he must know that indulging it would destroy the life he had carved out for himself. He must have known that sex that was not consented to by both partners–which is what shagging choirboys boils down to if the emotional effect is stripped away–would land him in at least a dozen types of trouble. Touching children is about the most reprehensible crime around these days, followed closely by sex without consent with an adult, so the chances of re-carving out the same life again afterwards were virtually nought.

It does not take much emotional understanding to realise that he must have had these feelings for a long time. Presumably it develops like hetero- or homosexuality and reaches fruition in teenage years. Observation from what gets reported suggests that paedophiles seem to have a preference for boys in their early teens or girls in the few years after they go to school. In other words, embryonic masculinity or embryonic femininity, framed with a certain innocence.

Paedophilia has been around for a long time, and so it is unrealistic to expect it to vanish any time soon. Someone who fancies children, and perhaps always has, probably always will. Just like fancying men or women. The question on my mind is what we do about it.

The rape part is relatively straightforward to manage. We have a legal process for that, for example the Sexual Offences Act (2003). I think it is also fair to say that there is not the political will for it to be modified substantially in the next few decades. I do not advocate changing it. Forced sex with someone who does not understand what it is, or expect it, and is not yet able to make the decision about whether it is what they want, is wrong and can be damaging.

A less easy question is about what happens outside of the rape. What about someone who has those feelings but who has never ‘touched’ a child in his or her life? Is it safe for them to be around children? I fancy women and it is considered safe for me to walk past a beach on a warm summer’s day. Is it safe for an equivalent man in his 30s who fancies children to go to work at a school as a builder, say, or carpet layer?

Many would say it is not safe. I think this objection is a strong and well founded one. However the argument that it is not unsafe for such an individual to be near children is hard to answer. There is no criminal activity involved in feeling something. Feeling something does not mean any kind of action will follow. These observations make it hard to assess the value of the argument that such individuals should be kept at arm’s length from children. Just saying ‘as long as nothing weird, creepy or illegal happens’ is hardly a workable approach; political correctness means we are not in a position to set guidelines on how people who fancy children should behave.

This means a rational position on this is hard to find, especially when paedophiles seem to be increasing in prominence. Perhaps it is far more common than we like to believe. Homosexuality is commonly understood to be about 10% in human populations and estimates of bisexuality put it at about 30%, with the rest as heterosexual. Where does paedophilia fit in to that?

What I do think is more certain, is that we have seen an about-turn in the last hundred years or so, when it comes to sexuality. The Oscar Wilde trial showed that homosexuality was still a terrible no-no for the Victorians. So infamous was it, that it influenced behaviour between men for years afterwards and still does now. Paedophilia, as far as the evidence we have of that time suggests, was much less controversial in that period. It certainly was not punished in the way it is now.

Ultimately, we cannot change a person’s sexual feelings, nor can we allow them to be expressed when doing so can cause long-term and unnecessary emotional damage. However, unexpressed sexual emotion creates a frustration for those who feel it that may be just as damaging.

A heterosexual or homosexual person can masturbate, perhaps with the use of pornography. They could buy the services of a prostitute, to quench their sexual tension. In terms of what is permitted legally, a paedophile can masturbate with whilst recalling his/her fantasies, but that is about it. That might satisfy a short-term craving, but that is not enough to stop every paedophile from turning their life inside out and forever, because of those feelings. Perhaps the important thing for us to do is understand why a person would be driven to risk so much on a futile sexual encounter.

I never did know what happened to the man I babysat for. He disappeared from the radar, presumably intentionally, in order to start afresh somewhere else. A putative google search suggests that he might have moved to another part of the country, but it is not clear. I wonder if he feels as though he is on the run.