This column was published as part of the Commencement Issue for the Class of 2015.
One dewy morning in the spring of 2010 (I remember — the grass was very wet), I, then a high school junior, took my first campus tour of Yale. Our guide, a petite, vivacious senior from Trinidad named Rheaya, walked backwards, her arms gesticulating, peppering the typical spiel about Yale’s many gems with little-known factoids to make us laugh, and, I suspected, to give us something other than the usual college tour fodder to hang onto.
This is not a story about how I chose Yale, or why I chose it, or how, even, I am feeling now that I have come full circle. No, it is a story about how one of Rheaya’s little asides left an indelible imprint on my college experience.
At a certain point during our tour, a timid, mousy-sounding girl raised her hand and asked Rheaya to discuss Greek life at Yale.
Fraternity parties were an opt-in sort of social scene — there if you wanted them, totally invisible if not. Sororities were such a small portion of campus, she said, that Yale had only three at the time. And because of an old Connecticut law on the books since the colonial era, no more than seven women could live in each sorority house. Any household containing more than seven unrelated women was legally considered a brothel.
Two full years later, when the time came to decide about sophomore housing, I knew I wanted a change. I’d come to Yale in search of community, but the extracurriculars I’d joined – the News, a psychology lab – didn’t offer the same social scenes as my suitemates’ activities, the marching band and the Frisbee team. What was more, I only lived with two other girls, and we all deeply wanted more suite-mates with whom we could gossip and host spontaneous dance parties.
We joined forces with three other girls living across the hall, but there were too many groups vying for Berkeley’s limited number of sophomore girl sextets. So one of us reached out to a pair of floaters and invited them to our suite for a “housing meeting.”
What ensued was an hour I’ll never forget: a get-together that began awkwardly and ended with our two new additions performing a choreographed dance routine to Beyoncé’s “Love On Top” while the rest of us whooped and cheered.
We were going to live together, which meant we would sign up for Berkeley’s only octet, which meant that eight girls would be living together in one “household” in Berkeley. In short, we were a Brothel.
The Berkeley Brothel.
It was silly and perhaps wildly inappropriate, but the Berkeley Brothel (or BKB, as we like to abbreviate it) became our home and our identity. After dinner, my suitemate Carla typically turned to me and asked, “Are you studying in the Brothel tonight?” When any one of us bumped into another on the street and asked where we were headed, a perfunctory “the Brothel” was enough. One time, one of my suitemates wrote my dean an email and CC’d “the Brothel” – a moniker that, thankfully, she didn’t question.
Over the summer, we ordered BKB shot glasses and a stainless steel cocktail shaker monogrammed with the initials “B.K.B.” We formed a Google group and inaugurated a semesterly advice column called “Ask Annie,” in which all of us would submit obnoxiously pointed questions like “What is the proper etiquette on showering with one’s partner in a public bathroom?” (A resident Brothelite was infamously guilty for committing such a crime.) We hosted many parties, but as much as we joked, none of them ended up “red light district”-themed.
It was funny. Despite our name, none of us lived particularly Brothel-esque lives. We took on the 12-college challenge as a group and only made it about halfway through. Mostly, we were a group of girls (and over the years, a handful of guys) who stuck together because we could look beyond Yale norms — GPAs, achievements, frat parties, hookups — to support each other for the simple thing that we were: friends. Our Brothel provided us with a safe space to feel desired and a group of people who would be there no matter how far we strayed.
At the end of sophomore year, the Berkeley Brothel faced its first real test. One of our suitemates, Karin Shedd ’16, decided to take a year off, and we filled her spot in the octet we’d selected for our junior year with our guy friend Andres Bustamante ’15. With Andres, the Brothel was no longer technically a brothel. But to acknowledge as much would have been to jettison all the “BKB” cutlery and attire we’d acquired, not to mention the communal significance we’d attached to the name. Instead, we wholeheartedly (if nonsensically) anointed Andres a full brothel member.
In any case, it was clear that the Brothel constituted far more than eight girls living precariously above the law. It was a group of friends, ever growing, who like me had been seeking to carve out a true family at Yale. And even though many of us floated through other communities, this artificial one we’d shaped felt the most authentic of all.
This year, I live in a sextet with five of the original eight Brothelites. Two of us became frocos, the last just finished her junior year over in Swing Space, and Andres, our ninth member, lives across the courtyard. Still, our brothel mailing list (which doubles as the guest list for all closed Brothel events) now numbers 14 people.
As I write these words, I’m sitting in a fellow Brothelite’s Cape Cod home, where we’ve come to spend dead week. Before starting, I procrastinated a little by googling Rheaya’s “brothel law” explanation. As you may have suspected, dear reader, it turns out that the brothel law, the one on which I’d built my Yale family, doesn’t really exist. It is, the Internet tells me, one of the longest-enduring folktales in the history of higher education.
It seems silly that none of us had thought to look up the law sooner. Perhaps we were in denial, subconsciously afraid to throw off an order that felt so fortuitously perfect. Or perhaps we knew that even if Connecticut didn’t legally recognize us as a brothel, we always would identify ourselves that way, no matter where we were living. And that’s the true value of the thing. Though we will no doubt mature out of our Brothel antics, I know that we will stay united in spirit, one figurative household living precariously above the law.
Michelle Hackman is a senior in Berkeley College. She was a city editor on the Managing Board of 2015.