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European women routinely go topless at the beach and elsewhere, just like guys.

In skittish America, only guys go bare-chested in public. Women doing the same risk being hauled into a police station on public lewdness charges.

nudity crime christianity breasts america
Nineteenth-century oil painting depicting an angel expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden at God’s command. (Alexandre Cabanel, Flikr, Public Domain)

An interesting court case in Utah has spotlighted this quirk of U.S. public culture: We’re prudish, and not about human bodies in general, necessarily, but women’s bodies in particular.

This probably shouldn’t be surprising, considering the still-devout Christianity densely interweaved throughout American culture — a faith that from its first centuries of existence coalesced around the idea that women’s seductive bodies were the original cause of sin. That would be Eve tempting Adam with what is now and forevermore known euphemistically as “the forbidden fruit” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

Note that this particular event in scripture is often referred to as Adam’s “fall,” which implies he was a somewhat unwitting bystander waylaid by temptations God himself apparently chose not to equip him to repel. So, of course, it was lustful Eve the vixen’s fault.

Also note that classical paintings of the legendary transgressors in the proverbial Garden show them naked (but with their private parts inevitably and modestly covered by a “fig leaf” or some such foliage). All this implied that nakedness and, by extension, sexuality, were bad.

I found an interesting explanation of this phenomenon in an analysis of Genesis 3:7-8 on a website named Bible Tools:

“Adam and Eve knew that they were naked. A change in their thinking—in their perspective, in the way they looked at things—occurred. As long as they were united to God (before they sinned), as long as they were at one with Him, they looked at God, at things, and at the processes of life in a way that was not offensive to Him. Yet, as soon as they sinned, their minds changed. Their formerly innocent and pure perspective changed; they began to see evil in things. They felt shame in their nakedness. In addition, “Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (verse 8). This encapsulates the effect of sin. It separates from God. Adam and Eve wanted to hide themselves from Him. Their perspective on life had changed.”

Thus have nudity and sin (and sex) long been falsely conjoined and deeply thus embedded in the Christian mind.

Which brings me to the Utah court case in which a woman named Tilli Buchanan was formally charged with public lewdness — and a judge concurred — for going topless with her husband in front of her stepchildren in their own garage while hanging drywall. The husband, of course, was not charged, apparently because, well, Adam didn’t seduce Eve in the Garden.

“It was in the privacy of my own home,” Buchanan argued reasonably after a court hearing in late 2019. “My husband was right next to me in the same exact manner that I was, and he’s not being prosecuted.”

However, a neighbor woman who happened by the open garage after the disrobing was biblically appalled at the sight and ratted out the alleged reprobates to authorities.

Buchanan and her husband challenged the constitutionality of the nudity laws in court.

It turns out that the law in conservative Utah “prohibits lewd behavior by both women and men in front of children, and also requires prosecutors to show that the defendant exposed themselves and knew their actions would either cause ‘affront or alarm’ to … children or ‘with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desires’ of either party,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported on Jan. 22 after a judge ruled in the case.

Utah Third District Judge Kara Pettit denied Tilli Buchanan’s motion to declare the state’s lewdness statute unconstitutional, thus declining to dismiss the lewdness charges against her.

“It is the prerogative of the Legislature to establish laws incorporating contemporary community standards regarding lewdness,” Judge wrote in her decision, the New York Times reported. “It is not for the court to decide whether the Legislature’s enumeration of lewd conduct is wise or sound policy.”

Well, if not the court, then who — the pols who made the silly law in the first place?

It’s not an inconsequential decision for the defendant. Although the three charges Buchanan faces are misdemeanors, if she is convicted, she could conceivably be sentenced to jail time and 10 years sex offender registry. It is not clear she will appeal.

In the meantime, we might consider why this case is going forward in the first place. Why should a woman’s breasts, though arguably larger on average than a man’s, be considered inherently sexualized under law when a man’s aren’t? Anyone who’s ever seen a National Geographic anthropological film of human groups, or even watched the TV miniseries Roots, knows that not everyone in the world thinks this way.

In fact, there is nothing innately “sinful” about the human body or any part thereof, even the male sex organ, whose name we shan’t say on the evening news or display on network television for fear of … something. We Americans have just, without a meeting, apparently decided that, somehow, women’s breasts are the fount of all evil and must be kept under tight wraps in public, and, in Buchanan’s case, at home as well.

The first time I saw topless European women, on a public hotel beach in Aya Napa, Cyprus, in 1983, I must admit, I was titillated. But it was only because, as an American, I had unwittingly absorbed my country’s irrational sex biases and religious assumptions. It was a new paradigm for Yankee me.

But, after about two seconds of watching young European women cavorting topless in the surf, without shame or timidity or apparent seductiveness — as I was — it suddenly seemed perfectly reasonable.

Image/Public Domain

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Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...

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