Putting an End to the “Sorority Houses are Brothels” Rumor

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I was sitting in class one day a few weeks ago when I overheard the following discussion:

Girl 1: “Why do sororities not have their own houses downtown?”
Girl 2: “Oh, haven’t you heard the brothel rule? It’s illegal in Pennsylvania to have that many girls living under one roof.”
Girl 1: “Hahahahaha that makes sense.”

…No.

I’m not even in a sorority and their conversation made me cringe. I’ve been hearing about this “brothel law” since I was a freshman, and for a time, I believed it too. I’m not sure how this rumor began, but it’s so commonly talked about, even occasionally on tours with prospective students, that many think it’s true.

I’d like to set the record straight once and for all and tell you that there is no ancient Pennsylvania law that equates a certain number of unrelated women living together as a brothel. Records prove there was never a law set forth by the borough of State College or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania restricting a large group of women from renting or owning a residence. In the borough’s zoning laws, there is no distinction between sorority and fraternity houses.

Let’s delve into the history of sorority houses on campus. Stone House was the first sorority house, which in 1928 became home to the women’s social club Nita-Nee — known as Kappa Alpha Theta today. Women in KAT and other sororities occupied these on-campus cottages until 1949 when the university came to need additional housing. Penn State destroyed some of the cottages to build new residence halls and offered sororities the opportunity to rent a suite and floor for members.

As the residence halls were new and the remaining cottages were in bad condition, the sororities decided to move out in favor of the halls.

“Some sororities had houses prior to the 1950s, however, after World War II, they decided to move out of their aging homes and into residence halls with newly available suites,” said Panhellenic Council VP of Communications Pamela Gramlich.

Private housing post-World War II was expensive and discouraged off-campus sorority houses. For the next six decades, chapters rented from the university, a tradition that continues to this day.

Today, sororities rent a floor and a large suite on the ground floor of the building that is like a large living room with a small kitchen attached. That suite is used for weekly chapter meetings, recruitment events, sisterhood events, studying, and just hanging out. Penn State does not tack on additional fees for the students who live on sorority floors in Pollock and South.

Even if a sorority did want to move off campus, it would be nearly impossible at this point to find an area in the borough zoned for sororities and fraternities, not to mention expensive. The State College borough is split into three main zones: commercial, university, and residence. Under a State College ordinance, an establishment located in a residence zone cannot have more than three unrelated people occupying it, regardless of gender. So if a large group of women wanted to buy a home located in a commercial zone, they are allowed, but it would be hard to find. Most houses were designated in the residence zone years ago.

So it looks like for the forseeable future, chapters will remain on campus. Many sororities have requirements for the number of semesters a member must live on the floor. But ask Gramlich, and she’ll tell you she’s glad she chose to move in with her chapter last spring.

“Living in sorority housing makes it so easy for me to hang out with my sisters whenever I want to,” Gramlich said. “Living so close to all of my classes is extremely convenient, especially in the cold weather.”

Photo By: Dave Cole

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Jessica Tully

Jessica Tully is a senior majoring in journalism and political science from Wexford, Pa. She is one of three members of the Tully family currently enrolled at Penn State. Jessica has also written for USA TODAY, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and The Daily Collegian.

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