Parents would rather have a woman, but if it has to be a man, they'd actually prefer him to be gay. Emma Cook hears some startling views on male carers
Catherine is a successful publishing director in her late thirties with two daughters under the age of five. She and her husband employ a full-time nanny - an Australian girl in her early twenties. They pride themselves on their liberal outlook; her husband Bill is a lecturer in cultural studies at a local college. Ask them their opinion on the mother who raised a storm in the press last week about the fostering of her 11-year-old son by a gay couple, or the row over the Scout Association's decision to allow gay scoutmasters, and Bill retorts, "Typical reactionary hysteria." Catherine, also, is suitably sniffy. "It's the assumption that gay men are more promiscuous than other men, that they're attracted to everyone regardless of age, as long as they're male.'

Yet ask Catherine and Bill how they'd feel personally were a gay man to step into their own nanny's shoes and take charge of Georgia, four, and Alice, two, and the right-on sheen begins to muddy - though not for the reasons you might expect. Catherine is unequivocal. "No question - I'd definitely prefer a gay man to look after my daughters than a straight one. Somehow, at the back of my mind, there'd be a doubt that he may be concealing something - that I didn't know the whole picture about him with regard to his sexuality and whether he's attracted to young children. At least if a gay man is 'out', he's far less likely to do something perverted."

Much has been made of the fears parents feel at the prospect of gay men caring for children. The mother of the boy in the gay foster-couple story told one newspaper, "I can't bear the thought of him sitting on the lap of a man who has sexual feelings for other men, especially as he's just arriving at puberty." It's not just the concern over physical abuse, as one parent I spoke to explained, "I'd worry that he may have an influence on my son - that he'd pass on his own values and beliefs. At the back of my mind, I'd think, 'He may grow up gay.'" Another said: 'I'd like things to be as uncomplicated as possible.'

Yet, talking about these issues to a range of parents last week, it emerged that, although there were fears about gay carers, these were overshadowed by much stronger doubts concerning heterosexual men. People admitted that, given the choice, they would prefer to employ a woman. But if they were to choose a man, they'd actually prefer it if he were homosexual.

"I think it comes down to straight men's sexuality, " says Catherine. "It's something that women especially feel they don't understand, or they think there's a dark side to it. I keep thinking about that statistic which says one in ten men see a prostitute without their wives knowing - that's how little we really know about men. Also, logically, there must be more straight male paedophiles around because there are more straight men. And you hardly ever hear about women paedophiles."

Paul, 33, a teacher and father of two-year-old Natalie, agrees. "If I was to choose a male nanny, I'd rather he was gay. Most child abuse isn't committed by gay men - that's my perception, anyway. It's prejudiced, but I would be more suspicious of a male nanny who wasn't gay. I'd think it was a bit weird and, at some level, question his sexual motives . Unless he came with a very good recommendation I would never consider it.'

What came across loud and clear from the 25 parents I interviewed - both women and men - was that heterosexual man is barely to be trusted as a competent parent in his own right, let alone as a carer of other people's children. Emily, a physiotherapist with a four-year-old son, put it bluntly: 'I wouldn't have a male nanny full stop, because men are hopeless at looking after children. It's not the paedophile issue that bothers me - I fully believe that I personally could spot them a mile off. No, it's because I don't feel that men are as good at bringing up children - especially if they are not fathers themselves. They'd just spend their whole time reading a newspaper." Talking to shoppers outside Asda in East London, a similar picture emerged. Moira, 35, pushing her trolley across the car park, told me she is bringing up her two sons alone. She couldn't understand why a mother would be anxious about a gay couple foste ring her son. "Why would it make any difference? I'd prefer a gay man - you can't be 100 per cent sure when you hear about all the violent crimes straight men commit on kids." Although there was the expected traditional reaction - "No man's going to loo k after my kid," said one young man with a crew cut and pierced ears leaning over his son's pram, "The only person I'd trust - apart from my wife - is my mum" - others were more balanced. "If everyone knows they are gay - like the foster couple or the Sc outs - at least it's all out in the open," said another young mother. But in reality, sexual orientation is no more an indicator of a potential child-abuser than hair colour. Mike Taylor, director of children's services for the NSPCC, explains, "The vast majority of all abuse - physical and sexual - is perpetrated by men w ithin the home. But their sexuality certainly isn't a predisposing factor and it's only one factor in assessing risk." Although he does say, "There is an image of gay men being tender and caring and I think that's the link these parents are making. It's an understandable response, although there's no evidence to support it.' Anya Palmer, spokeswoman for Stonewall, which campaigns for equal rights for lesbians and gay men, isn't impressed by the parents' preference. "It's not a good idea to make judgements about people as members of a group rather than as individuals," she sa ys. The stereotype of the "sensitive" gay man, who, by virtue of his sexuality, can respond more tenderly to children, may in any case be misleading. Ironically, the four couples I spoke to who did employ male au pairs or nannies, said they felt extremely po sitive about it because the men were typically "masculine". Angie, who works in the film industry, employed a male nanny through the Dulwich Nanny Agency to look after her two daughters. "It was great for the children to have an alternative role model and not to see them playing with Barbie dolls. He had loads of energy and there was lots of rough and tumble playing - like climbing trees." David, 38, an administrator who employs a male au pair for his two young sons, agreed, and added: "Of course I don't worry about abuse; we know that women are just as capable of doing awful things to children." At heart David, like all the other parents who spoke candidly, feels that no-one, regardless of gender and sexual persuasion, is really above suspicion. As he says, "We're all obsessed with the danger of abuse - it's all you ever hear about." In such a c limate of mistrust, parents spend their time searching for arbitrary clues that could somehow distinguish responsible adults from abusers. Thus if a gay man is "open" and "honest" about his sexuality then the hope is, some parents feel, that it provides them with some security. This isn't much comfort to Josef, 20, who is gay and has worked as an au pair. He can't understand why his sexuality should be viewed as significant either way. "It should be irrelevant," he says. "Surely it's just good for children to look up to other m ales apart from daddy and to know that there are actually men who enjoy taking care of them." Liberal parents would certainly agree. Whether most of them really believe it in their heart of hearts is a very different question. Parents' names have been changed at their request.