Topless? Busted at Home

Should you be punished if children accidentally see you topless?

Posted Dec 15, 2019

A Utah woman has been busted for “lewdness” after her stepchildren walked in on her while she was dressed in pants but without a top. 

Tilli Buchanan, 27, and her husband were installing drywall alone in their garage. They both removed their shirts when they became itchy from the industrial fibers. 

When his children—Buchanan's stepchildren—ages 9, 10, and 13 walked in, they saw the two working topless. Both adults stayed calm. But after the children's birth mother found out, she contacted authorities, saying she was “alarmed.” City police responded and filed misdemeanor charges of “lewdness" towards the stepmother. 

The state's lewdness statute criminalizes exposure of “the female breast below the top of the areola” in the presence of a child in a private place “under circumstances the person should know will likely cause affront or alarm.” 

If convicted, Buchanan faces imprisonment, fines, and will have to register as a sex offender for 10 years. As a registered sex offender, she might not be able to live in her house, might not be able to see her stepchildren, and would be drastically limited in the kind of job she could have.

The law’s language requires a woman to accurately mind-read whether being topless is likely to cause “affront or alarm” in private. This subjective, burdensome law privileges the viewpoint of the most squeamish (or huffily moralistic) people she will ever encounter.

There will always be people who see illicit sexuality wherever they look—two men holding hands, a single woman buying condoms, or evidence-based school sex education. Once something is coded as sexual, it’s rarely completely private. Government, no matter how “conservative,” is almost invariably invited in.

In this life-depleting drama, the Utah legislature is not the worst player. The real villain is the kids’ birth mother (remember, Tilli is the stepmother). Was she really thinking, “Reporting their stepmother to the police, encouraging expensive and frightening legal action, possibly destroying this part of their family—that’s what’s best for these children”?

No way. At best, this is an act of panic. At worst, it’s an act of revenge. The woman could have contacted her ex-husband, Tilli, or a friendly third party (relative, clergy, school teacher). The woman could have demanded that all three parents sit with the three kids and discuss the event. What a wonderful “teachable moment” this family had just been handed: What is sex? Are breasts always sexual? What is privacy? What is embarrassment

It would have been easy to get Tilli and her husband to agree that “While we don’t think we did anything wrong, we’ll try to avoid such an incident again”—far better for the children, compared to police involvement and national publicity. 

No, the ex-wife was more interested in making trouble for her ex-husband and his new young wife than she was in caretaking her children. 

Predictably, social media weighed in. Some tweeters saw malevolence or prudery at work. Others mentioned their “disgust” at Tilli’s horrifying, aggressive, perverted boobs—itchy, dusty, and certainly as unsexy as possible. 

TV talkshow host Marie Osmond spoke for the decency mob when she recoiled from the dangerous danglers: “If my children walked in to see their stepmother and their father putting up drywall naked [actually, Marie, they were just topless], to me that would be a sense of pornography,” she said.

And, Marie, of course it’s better to upend your kids’ lives (and force their dad to spend food money on a lawyer) than to let them see a pair of particularly non-sexual boobs on a hard-working woman.

In February, a federal judge ruled that a Colorado law banning women from being topless in public was unconstitutional. After spending over $300,000 to defend its ban, the city of Fort Collins dropped the case. One day, perhaps Utah—and the rest of our national morality apparatus—will allow people the same rights in private that they have in public.

Meanwhile, may Tilli’s husband’s ex-wife have many dusty, itchy days and nights thinking of Tilli’s dusty, itchy breasts. Her kids have already forgotten about them; it may take the kids longer, though, to forgive their mother for selfishly exploiting them.