The Topless Stepmother Conundrum: When Ethics Work Better Than Laws


A lawyer for Utah’s chapter of the ACLU asked Utah Judge Kara Pettit to rule that the state’s lewdness law violates the Constitution by treating women differently than men and thus violating the Equal Protection Clause. The  statute makes it a crime to expose “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.”

Tilli Buchanan, 27, faces imprisonment, fines and the requirement to register as a sex offender for 10 years if convicted of violating the law, which she certainly did. Buchanan and her husband had been installing drywall in the garage, and they had taken off their shirts that had become scratchy from the fibers, she told reporters.  When her stepchildren, aged 9, 10 and 13, walked in, she “explained she considers herself a feminist and wanted to make a point that everybody should be fine with walking around their house or elsewhere with skin showing,” her lawyers wrote in court documents. Here’s Tilli…

Just kidding.

Lawyer Leah Farrell of the ACLU says the law requires women to do a “mental calculation” about whether going topless would cause alarm. But men can go shirtless without violating the law and without making that calculation. “That really sets up an unequal and unfair dichotomy,” Farrell says.

Prosecutors say that Buchanan stripped in front of the children and  was under the influence of alcohol at the time. They also claim she said she would put her shirt back on if her husband showed her his penis.


Tilli will go into the Ethics Alarms pool for the end of 2019 honor of “Asshole of The Year.,” or perhaps “Jerk of the Year.”  I suspect she has a good chance of winning—the law suit, that is— if she presses the issue, which is also a good reason for the prosecutors to drop the charges, and for Utah to tone down or repeal the draconian law.  There are some societal matters that are better handled by ethics than legislation, and this is certainly one of them.

Coincidentally, I happened to hear the opening number of “Fiddler on the Roof” this morning on the Sirius-XM Broadway channel. There are social norms and traditions that work well and make sense yet nonetheless cannot be persuasively or effectively reduced to law. It is far better to rely on citizens’ respect for others, sense of responsibility, and reasonableness. Unfortunately, there have always been people like Tilli Buchanan, whose narcissism, selfishness, and unethical instincts will lead them to try to challenge such norms just to cause trouble.

It is easy, though intellectually dishonest, to argue that Tilli is no different from the brave feminists who challenged restrictions on where women could work, or what they could wear, whether they could smoke, or run for office. Women who defied those norms had reason, justice and common sense on their side. Tilli’s rebellion is rebellion for its own sake, though she probably can’t see the distinction.

Society does regard a woman’s chest as materially different from a man’s chest, and has for centuries.  I’m from Boston: we don’t think it’s particularly civil or dignified for either sex to go around bare-chested. For the most part, Americans can rely on their fellow citizens to confine their exhibitionism to the bedroom or the sensibilities of adults.  Then there are the Tilli Buchanans among us, who want to tear down social norms, not really knowing what the consequences will be over the long term, just for the hell of it. In addition to being irresponsible and disrespectful, they are also lousy citizens.

They are not, however, criminals. She should be able to walk around naked in front of her children, just as we allow parents to engage in all sorts of other dubious practices. That she can doesn’t mean she should, but this is part of a long, long list where we must rely on ethics rather than law.


Pointer and Source: ABA Journal

14 thoughts on “The Topless Stepmother Conundrum: When Ethics Work Better Than Laws

  1. I’m Canadian, and up here we have to be really careful. We’ll layer up on clothing, undershirt, shirt, sweater, jacket, parka, underwear, long johns, pants, snow pants…. You get the idea. And we have to do this, not because it’s cold out, but because up here in Canada, if the bare arm of a man brushes up against the bare arm of a woman, we’ll… that’s Sex. And you have to be careful. a topless guy swinging his arms all over the place is about three steps and a couple arms away from being a serial rapist, or at least a sex offender.

    • The particular focus on the age of 11 is a bit disingenuous.The previous law said those over 11 could not walk around topless. There is no indication that this was about specifically a 11 y/o girl advocating for that freedom.

    • ”The particular focus on the age of 11 is a bit disingenuous.”

      How’s that? 11 year-olds couldn’t go topless before, they may now, with but one stipulation…that they’re 11 or older.

      “There is no indication that this was about specifically a 11 y/o girl advocating for that freedom.”

      Not sure where that’s coming from, because that’s something I neither expressed nor implied.

      Something I do wonder; what affect will this have on Fort Collins’ “perv factor” going forward.

  2. Well, I went to high school in Newport Beach and during the summer, absolutely nobody gave a damn a bunch of teenage boys wandering around on the beach topless. I think in some way, the Europeans are far ahead of us in their widespread acceptance of topless beaches. Utah, as a state is still pretty much in the dark ages and to criminalize full or partial nudity in one’s home is to infringe on the right of privacy.

  3. I got a chuckle out of this because I had an experience many years ago involving someone flashing me an I to this day joke that I’mmmm blinnnd.

    My mother in law, a large women, had just been discharged from Washington Medical Center folliwing open heart surgery. While under the influence of pain meds she suddenly and without warning turned to me and said look at my scar. I don’t know what was worse, the image that blistered my retinas from seeing the bare chest replete with over a dozen metal staples or the bare breasts that gravity had destroyed.

  4. I read Turley’s version of this story yesterday. I think you guys are in agreement with outcome, but man these were almost two different stories to me. I thought the children just happened to walk in on them, not that she was being belligerent about it.

  5. Many people seem to think that if anyone bares any more skin than the average then it can only be for the reason of exhibitionism, and that there can be no other reason at all.
    I went for a 16km run yesterday and after 8km I was so hot that I took off my shirt. The sweat evaporating off the skin works to cool a body down far more efficiently without a shirt interfering with the process. Also, when I am out in the garden working sometimes I will not wear a shirt, as it can be a whole lot more comfortable without a shirt than with. Therefore as I sometimes find it better to be without a shirt I think that it would be wrong of me to be against anyone else being without a shirt and that includes females.

  6. So, what do we do with transexuals. Does a male transitioning to female have a legal right to go topless by virtue of a Y chromosome even if medically induced female breasts are present; or female transitioning to male after a double mastectomy?

    What is the rationale for yeah or nay? Do men with the equivalent of gynomastia need to cover up? Is it perkiness, size or their general sexual attractiveness what makes a cover necessary?

    Perhaps the best reason to cover is that in today’s world simply because you can do something does not mean you should. Even women who wish to show off their attributes because it works for them, and they have what many find visually appealing should realize that the many who find them visually appealing include a large number of people they themselves prefer not to attract. Whether they are indifferent or not is irrelevant to the issue. Women rightfully demand that they be treated not as sexual objects so it is incumbent on society to establish a number of parameters that attempt to accomodate males and females in a manner that maxmizes freedom without creating opportunities for intergender misunderstandings regarding who one wishes to attract.

  7. The thing about Jack’s “just kidding” photo is her chest topless would be indistinguishable from a man’s chest of the same size and build. I’m not sure the public needs to be subjected to either them.

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