London, England–“[Poor men are] condemned to perpetual celibacy. For of course it goes without saying that if a tramp finds no women at his own level, those above–even a very little above–are as far out of his reach as the moon…there is no doubt that women never, or hardly ever, condescend to men who are much poorer than themselves.”–George Orwell
George Orwell is one of my favorite authors, particularly his writings about the Spanish Civil War and the politics of the 1930s and early 1940s. His 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London is his semi-autobiographical account of living in poverty in both cities.
Orwell’s observations on the issue of gender and homelessness and of the enforced celibacy of poverty-stricken men are interesting. Orwell wrote:
“[Beyond hunger] The second great evil of a tramp’s life–it seems much smaller at first sight, but it is a good second–is that he is entirely cut off from contact with women. This point needs elaborating.
“Tramps are cut off from women, in the first place, because there are very few women at their level of society. One might imagine that among destitute people the sexes would be as equally balanced as elsewhere. But it is not so; in fact, one can almost say that below a certain level society is entirely male… at the [poverty] level men outnumber women by something like ten to one.
“The cause is presumably that unemployment affects women less than men; also that any presentable woman can, in the last resort, attach herself to some man. The result, for a tramp, is that he is condemned to perpetual celibacy. For of course it goes without saying that if a tramp finds no women at his own level, those above–even a very little above–are as far out of his reach as the moon…but there is no doubt that women never, or hardly ever, condescend to men who are much poorer than themselves.
“A tramp, therefore, is a celibate from the moment when he takes to the road. He is absolutely without hope of getting a wife, a mistress, or any kind of woman except–very rarely, when he can raise a few shillings–a prostitute…
“There is degradation worked in a man who knows that he is not even considered fit for marriage. The sexual impulse, not to put it any higher, is a fundamental impulse, and starvation of it can be almost as demoralizing as physical hunger. The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually. And there can be no doubt that sexual starvation contributes to this rotting process. Cut off from the whole race of women, a tramp feels himself degraded to the rank of a cripple or a lunatic. No humiliation could do more damage to a man’s self-respect.”
Thanks to Callum, a reader, for bringing this to my attention.