Whilst the nation’s inquiry into child sexual abuse continues to think on the terms it will use to define its investigation, it is most likely that it won’t include addressing the deeper causes of child abuse, and will focus instead on which department failed to make “that call”, or use the right form. That is hardly going to satisfy victims of child abuse, nor should it satisfy the public, either. (We will be writing a piece on the Inquiry next week, so we’d like to offer more thoughts on that later).

But a chance encounter with a paedophile online last week left us convinced that in order to make the most of the inquiry, we must first understand exactly how paedophilia works, and the many different mindsets that come to it.

On the evening of the 21st March, we were tweeting about child welfare matters, as we do, and happened to mention that research suggested a great many individuals who had been arrested for paedophilia related offences were in fact school teachers. This prompted a response from an online paedophile, Simon Falko.

What transpired was a hugely thought-provoking, and provocative conversation.

Simon Falko is one of a significant number of paedophiles using Twitter, but he is not underground. The police won’t need to scour the underbelly of the internet to find him, nor will they need to interrogate him about where he stands on paedophilia. All they need to do is read his Twitter feed. This is because Simon belongs to a group of paedophiles who label themselves as non-offending, actively and openly using social media to highlight paedophilia and access support. And within that group, Simon is something of an activist.

Like many vocal paedophiles online who define themselves as non offending (those who haven’t had sex with, or groomed children) and who view non offending as an important distinction in the paedophilia debate, he is open about his preferences. His Twitter biography simply says, “I started to realize in puberty I am not only attracted to women but also to young boys.”

Simon’s lists of people he follows and who follow him, make for sobering reading. Accounts belonging to young boys, toddlers, and naked men with large genitalia, as well as various accounts which clearly belong to paedophiles, their biographies declarations of underage desire – “I am sexually and emotionally attracted to children”; “I am attracted to young girls. Very young.”; “I am attracted to little girls.”; “Paedophile activist.”; “Christian boy lover,” all sit quietly alongside one another on the Twitter page.

There are also what appear to be accounts which share films about young boys, though not sexual in nature (films like Pagnol’s Glory to My Father, and the family comedy, Yours Mine and Ours”). A fascination with psychology, sexual behaviour and human rights also features, with accounts from Richard Dawkins to professors studying sexual violence against children evident. Simon also follows an association which provides treatment for sexual abusers.

It is a fascinating online community, and it is unique amongst paedophiles. For a start the community is visible, actively engaging members of the public on the stigmas it feels exist in relation to the practice of paedophilia, and of course, its members all label themselves as non offending. Simon’s own followers, like others in the community, distinguish themselves from other paedophiles through the medium of their Twitter bio – “I am a non offending pedophile”; “I am sexually attracted to prepubescent boys but I never have, and never will, touch a child sexually.”; “My sexual attraction to children does not prevent me from following my country’s laws, or practicing good ethics.”

It is a hugely political and often eloquent community, but why are they really there, and what do they hope to achieve by engaging the rest of us in a debate on the stigmatisation of paedophilia?

Simon told us that he wanted to be a teacher, but wasn’t sure he could be around children. When we asked him why he was so open about his sexual preferences on Twitter, his response was that he wanted to discuss paedophilia because, he felt, people had a distorted image of what it really was.

In particular, he was concerned that the term paedophilia was automatically associated with child molestation, rather than what he felt was a more romantic view of the preference or urge. Paedophilia, Simon explained, was also an emotional pursuit, where adults can and do, fall in love with children. Essentially, he wanted a distinction to be made between those who sexually assault children, and those who simply fall in love with them. But in reality, that is not such an easy distinction to make.

When we asked Simon if the line between offending and non offending paedophiles was stable, his reply was a little defensive.  We then asked him what stopped non offending paedophiles from crossing that line: social conformity and a fear of punishment were, Simon felt, effective deterrents. But perhaps not deterrents that always lasted forever.

And then we discussed the mindset of those paedophiles who did molest children.

Simon told us that paedophiles who have sex with children, fall into two categories: those who simply didn’t care about whether their actions were hurting others, and those who had genuine difficulty controlling their urges. We asked Simon if he thought mental health could play a part in one or both of those categories, but we never got a reply, and then he silently slipped back into the Twitter stream.

We know that paedophilia is a world-wide phenomenon, crossing boundaries, cultures and class divides, but our research on its prevalence in society and those who either engage or fall prey to it is still too limited. There are many theories today about why some adults engage in paedophilia, and although Simon and other non offending paedophiles would like a distinction to be made between those paedophiles that offend and those that do not, in practice this seems futile. The law already makes that distinction to some degree by charging and registering sex offenders, but as Simon points out, the risk of non offending paedophiles remaining non offending is not guaranteed.

So should we take to social media forums, hunt out these non offending paedophiles because they haven’t offended – yet – and demand that they turn themselves in? Absolutely not. This online community of visible paedophiles represents a remarkable milestone in the movements to both understand paedophilia better and to give paedophiles who want to contain their urges the tools to do so. There is of course, no denying that the internet also provides unfettered access to images and content featuring young children.

The question over whether paedophilia, defined in some quarters as an abnormal interest in children, is a mental illness is hotly debated. One school of thought tells us “the single greatest cause that drives an adult to sexually interact with a child is a sexual desire for a little girl or boy,” and that this type of urge is effectively a disorder, defined as such by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-IV-TR. Whether paedophiles can contain this disorder, with or without treatment, is still unclear.

Simon’s Twitter account highlights that ongoing struggle. Juxtaposed accounts featuring research on paedophilia, sexuality and the ethics of sex sit awkwardly with accounts held, allegedly, by “Minor-Attraction/Pedo Friendly” thirteen year old boys, and young, gay men. Are Simon, and others in the community, using the internet to indulge in conversation and file sharing whilst using research and conversation to deter them from acting further on their impulses? Is there a darker side to their discourse? Nestled in amongst his followers is an account which claims to be “resisting the 21st century holocaust due to paedohysteria and creeping feminist sexual offence laws.” Simon is not following this account.

The community of non offending paedophiles online is a brave one. Willing to engage, and to discuss the issues, they represent a level of self awareness which should be encouraged and supported. As Simon told me, those paedophiles who do not go on to molest, make that choice because they don’t want to harm the children they love and some change their preferences over time, no longer drawn sexually to children. But not all paedophiles can make that choice or find their sexual preferences change.

If we consider that a romantic, or sexual desire for young children is indicative of a mental disorder, and we do, it is communities like these which offer us the best chance of understanding the phenomenon and greater opportunities for paedophiles looking for help and support, to find it.

You can read the conversation with Simon in full, below: