Underwear. It can say "I'm sexy." It can say "I'm confident." But can it say "I'm waiting for marriage?"
That's what Yvette Thomas is banking on. Her growing line of clothing, WaitWear, plasters slogans like "Virginity Lane: Exit When Married" and "Notice: No Trespassing On This Property. My Father Is Watching" on underwear and T-shirts, and is meant to inspire young people to abstain from sex until they tie the knot.
"[Abstinence] makes so much of a difference in an individual's life and the choices that they make, and especially at a young age," said Thomas, 39.
WaitWear is currently rolling into more and more retail stores, and Thomas is determined that the company will do a little more than $2 million in sales this year — up from a mere $4,000 in 2004.
But can panties and T-shirts really help a person wait for marriage? And isn't the whole point of wearing underwear with slogans on it to have it be seen?
Ashley Littlefield, 20, a junior at the University of Notre Dame (search) in Indiana — where sex is prohibited by the student code of conduct — sees some hypocrisy in anti-sex skivvies.
"The underwear line is the most illogical part of the whole [WaitWear Web] site. Shouldn't it read: 'If You Can Read This, I'm Probably Not Waiting Until Marriage?'" she said.
But Thomas, who launched WaitWear in the fall of 2002, looks at the undies as more of a memo to self — and she does think they can be effective in delaying sexual activity.
"It's not used to be a barrier; WaitWear is something that is used as a reminder," Thomas said. "[Young people] need to have a bold message that says: 'Yes, this is what I've committed to and this is going to help me remember.'"
Thomas, a practicing evangelical Christian and never-married mother of three, vowed in 1999 to remain abstinent until marriage. However, sticking to her commitment has not always been easy, and much of the inspiration for WaitWear came from her personal struggle with keeping her vow.
"One day I woke up and realized: What type of example am I giving to my son? And I have to be an example," Thomas said. "I can't tell my son to abstain from sex if [I'm] not doing it [myself]."
Thomas is not alone in her effort to bring abstinence into the pop culture conversation. Reality TV queen and singing star Jessica Simpson (search) was very public about her decision to remain a virgin until marriage, and more recently, youth-oriented television shows like "Gilmore Girls" and "Summerland" have featured characters who want to wait.
Moreover, chastity movements like True Love Waits (search), which urge to students sign pledge cards promising to abstain, have grown increasingly visible on American high school and college campuses over the last decade.
True Love Waits co-founder Jimmy Hester, 57, agrees with Thomas that wearing your heart on your sleeve — literally — can be a good way to support teens taking a vow of abstinence.
"One of the key parts of [successful abstinence education] is follow-up, support and encouragement," he said. "One of the ways that we've discovered in the past 11 years is to carry the message through a key part of the teens' culture: the music, the movies, the Internet and, of course, clothing."
But Lauren F. Winner, whose upcoming book "Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity" (search) takes a candid look at remaining abstinent in modern times, is of two minds about the line.
"On the one hand, I think recognizing that our clothes tell stories about us and thinking intentionally about what stories we want to tell is wise and generally right on," said Winner, a 28-year-old evangelical Christian. "On the other hand, I think the relationship between advertising, consumerism and exploitative sexuality is insidious. I wonder if the WaitWear line cedes too much to a culture that wants to turn our very clothes and bodies into billboards and ads."
Winner also thinks we have to be more straightforward with kids about how hard it is to refrain from sex.
"I think we have to engage today's teens where they are and stop cloaking our chastity talk in euphemism. Teens today are edgy and cagey and are wise to spin," she said. "We have to be willing to speak honestly about the real challenges they may be facing in their attempts to live chastely."
Indeed, Littlefield, barely out of her teens herself, finds the WaitWear slogans "insulting."
"Apparently, teenagers can't be sold on any idea unless it comes with clever catchphrases on reasonably priced T-shirts," she said. "Since when is it acceptable to advertise your sexual status on your shirt? This is as distasteful as a girl showing up to school in an 'Open for Business' shirt."
But despite her critics, Thomas is working on a new line of WaitWear that extends beyond T-shirts and underwear. She won't reveal the details, but one thing is certain:
"It will be a positive message you can surround yourself with," she said.