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In just a few weeks, most college kids will head back to school. Inevitably, some roommate/lab partner/friend/professor/tour guide/lacrosse team mascot is going to tell one of those kids about how, according to “an old law still on the books,” any house with more than a certain number of female residents constitutes a brothel.
If you happen to be a college kid who hears this story this fall, or used to be a college kid who heard it years ago, I have some news for you: the brothel law thing is bunk. Don’t feel bad, though. This story has been circulating around the United States for decades and may well be the most widespread and persistent piece of campus folklore in the country.
The story about brothel laws has been recorded since the 1960s—a decade that saw a huge uptick in the number of women attending college—and may even be older than that. No one seems to know at which school the story started. Every college's version differs in the details. The number of women needed to make a brothel varies from telling to telling. (After a quick, unscientific survey, four and six seem to be the most common numbers).
The story is often told to explain the absence of sorority houses on certain campuses. But for as many times as the tale is told, these laws have never actually been documented anywhere. In 1998, a group of eight Tulane University students searched through municipal and state law books going as far back as the 1800s and came up empty. I did a little digging of my own closer to home; I couldn’t find any laws in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or the municipalities where I went to school.
Housing Laws That Do Exist
How did this myth start? It’s possible that too much binge drinking might have led to the jumbling of zoning laws and morality-motivated “blue laws” in the mind of some mid-century proto-Bro. Certain municipalities do actually have zoning laws that prohibit more than a specified number of people, male or female, from living together. Often, this is to keep groups of possibly rowdy young people from overrunning quiet, mostly family-occupied neighborhoods.
In State College borough, where almost everyone in my family except me went to Penn State, houses in residential zones can’t have more than three unrelated people occupying them. This prevents student housing from overrunning family housing and driving down property values in neighborhoods. Students who find a house in a commercial zone aren’t subject to the same occupation rules.
Many states also have blue laws that enforce certain religious standards, usually the observance of Sunday as a day of worship or rest. These laws are the reason why you can’t buy liquor most places on a Sunday in Pennsylvania or go to a horse race on Sunday in certain towns in Illinois.
Even in these cases, though, households that violate the zoning codes aren’t considered brothels. There are anti-brothel laws in some places in America, but houses of prostitution earn that designation by having prostitution going on inside them, not by having a certain number of residents with lady parts.
Here’s one more twist to the myth: Even in municipalities that limit the number of unrelated persons in the same dwelling, the laws often provide exceptions for buildings meant for communal living, like YMCAs, convents and fraternity/sorority houses.
Have you heard about brothel laws at school? What other campus folklore have you always wondered about?