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Walking the Straight Edge

Originally Published On Alternet.ORG January 14, 2003.
Written by:  Erica Dirksen

The Straight Edge Anthem: A Cultural Icon

Straight Edge youth can be intimidating in a crowd with their “XXX” tattoos, facial piercings and black attire. Because of this, they are repeatedly misrepresented and misunderstood — particularly by the mainstream media.

“I’m just a person like you/ But I’ve got better things to do
Than sit around and fuck my head/ Hang out with the living dead
Snort white shit up my nose/ pass out at the shows
I don’t even think about speed/ that’s something I just don’t need
I’ve got the straight edge”

— “Straight Edge” by Minor Threat

Straight Edge in the Public Eye

The world first became wary of them during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when they made the terrorist watch list. They also entered the spotlight during MTV’s New Orleans series of “The Real World” — when house member Matt Smith introduced Straight Edge to the mainstream TV audience. But despite these appearances on the world’s stage, those that call themselves Straight Edge are still a mystery to most.

Straight Edge youth can be intimidating in a crowd with their “XXX” tattoos, facial piercings and black attire. Because of this, they are repeatedly misrepresented and misunderstood — particularly by the mainstream media.

Misconceptions and Media Portrayals

Last year, a Canadian newspaper called Straight Edgers a “vigilant do-gooder gang that targets those who sin” while others have called them “suburban terrorists” and “politically correct terrorists.” Their association with gangs is in many ways way off the mark — rather than dealing drugs and doing drive-by shootings, Straight Edgers adhere to a self-regulated lifestyle of no alcohol, no drugs and no promiscuous sex. The symbol “XXX” is believed to represent a resistance to these three common vices. Many also claim to be vegetarians or vegans and some don’t drink caffeine.


So why the bad rep? A highly publicized incident that occurred in 1998, in which two Straight Edge teens were involved in the murder of a Latino youth in Salt Lake City, was a key factor in shaping the public image of the Straight Edge movement. But even those unfamiliar with the incident point to loud, hard core Straight Edge music and the wild thrashing mosh pits at Straight Edge shows as examples of violent behavior. Straight Edge came out of hard core punk music and remains tied to that genre. The music is loud and intense, and the dancing is more like a free-for-all karate-match than a style. And as with other extreme philosophies, those that adhere to being Straight Edge are often seen as being close-minded, rigid, and often hostile toward those who don’t subscribe to their philosophy.

The Origins and Evolution of Straight Edge Music

Many claim the Straight Edge movement was originally inspired by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, a hard core punk band, in the 1980s. MacKaye’s song “Straight Edge” — written in memory of a friend who died of a heroin overdose — encouraged young people to abstain from drugs, alcohol and promiscuous sex. Straight Edge saw its first big surge in punk clubs during the late 80s, but according to Straight Edge blogging websites such as — which claims at least 4,000 members — it may be seeing a resurgence. Theresa Martinez, a sociology professor at Utah State University who has been following the movement for six years, reports that approximately 6,500 teens in the U.S. call themselves Straight Edge. The underground nature of the movement, however, makes it difficult to determine solid statistics on the number of self-proclaimed Straight Edgers today.

Modern Interpretations of Straight Edge

As with all cultural phenomenons, the Straight Edge movement may be evolving as a new generation comes of age. According to the popular site, being Straight Edge today is sometimes a much more political statement than it was two decades ago: “While the original definition of straight-edge only included the rejection of mind altering substances and promiscuous sex, modern interpretations include a vegetarian (or vegan) diet and an increasing involvement and awareness of environmental and political issues.”

minor threat

Personal Choices: Embracing the Straight Edge Lifestyle

With the pressures on young people today to drink, smoke, do drugs and have sex, living a Straight Edge lifestyle is not always easy. And those who choose to be Straight Edge find themselves making decisions based on their personal philosophies rather than peer influences.

Yet in some high schools, Straight Edgers have as much of a presence as say, the jocks or the Goth kids. On one popular blogger site,, current high school students discussed the trend. When one student posing under the name xxxneghativexxx said: “I go to Dana Hills High School in Orange County and I’d say about 80-85% of my school is straight edge, as well as some of the surrounding schools It’s almost ‘normal’ to be Straight Edge,” another blogger called Pacifist Boy responded with the taunt, “You mean … trendy?”

Kelly Brother, a 22 year old student in Connecticut who runs the Straight Edge website xsisterhoodx, became Straight Edge when she was 15. “I thought it was a pretty positive thing,” she says. Since becoming Straight Edge, Brother says, “I have a better understanding of who I am. I go into social situations and rely on myself. I don’t need this [drugs, alcohol, etc.] to get along, but I don’t impose how I feel on anybody else. Straight Edge is a personal philosophy, not just music or a sub-culture.”

Gender and Demographic Dynamics in the Straight Edge Scene

Brother is one of few women who have adopted the lifestyle. According to a survey taken by a sociology student, the predominant majority of Straight Edgers are white, middle-class, heterosexual males. And though minorites are present in small numbers in the scene, the most prevalent minority is women. At most hard core shows, Brother says, there is usually about a 10-1 ratio of men to women. Sometimes she is the only female.

Regardless of gender or race, however, the reasons to choose a Straight Edge lifestyle vary immensely. Many young people see it as a cool way to avoid alcohol and drugs, while others decide to become Straight Edge after experiencing heavy drug and alcohol use.

While it is not a gang, a religion or a cult, those who consider themselves Straight Edge definitely feel as if they belong to a group — the support Straight Edgers get from one another helps them stay clean and keep their Edge.

The Concept of ‘Keeping and Losing the Edge’

Adam Encinas, a 21 year old from Alamo, California, was Straight Edge for three years in high school. When some of his class peers were being pressured into overindulgence of drugs, alcohol and sex, Adam chose going to Straight Edge shows, playing in a band and abstaining. “I am glad I didn’t drink or smoke or do any of that stuff when I was younger because a lot of the people I knew who started young ended up becoming complete idiots,” he says. “I found [alcohol] a little later when maybe I was a little more responsible.”

Although he is no longer Straight Edge, Adam continues to attend hard core shows because he has always felt that his roots were in the hard core music scene. “I like the ‘do it yourself’ attitude of punk music [not caring what other people think and creating your own set of rules], and that carried over to Straight Edge,” he says.

Although large numbers of people become Straight Edge in their teens or early twenties, after a few years, most “lose their edge,” the term used when someone decides to no longer live by the Straight Edge lifestyle. “It’s like being at the ocean — you watch the current rush all the water in, then pull it all back out and just a few little pockets of water stay,” explains Ryan Encinas, Adam’s 29-year-old brother who has been Straight Edge for seven years.

Straight Edge: A Personal Journey and Group Identity

Making a pledge to be Straight Edge is something people do for themselves, there is no one policing the conduct of others. It is up to the individual to choose their conduct and be honest with their choices. “When you make a pledge to be Straight Edge, the choice is for life and if you choose to abandon that choice for something different, it’s kind of hard to go back because you’ve already broken it to yourself,” Ryan says. “You can live that lifestyle, but it’s not going to hold much value in people’s eyes.”

“At that point it is a lifestyle choice and no longer a choice to be part of the group,” Adam says.

“It is such a personal thing,” says Ryan, who drank alcohol a few times but hasn’t smoked or done drugs and became Straight Edge because “it seemed like an obvious choice.” He says he listened to hard core music, attended shows, was in a band and liked what Straight Edge stood for.

Ryan says he began to value his Straight Edge lifestyle more as his friends began losing their edge. “In the beginning, you had this clique, this group of other Straight Edge kids with you. Because of that you felt that you were part of a movement, your ego got the best of you. And then you watch all those kids break their edges, go away and you’re left by yourself.”

The Enduring Impact of Straight Edge

“Out of a hundred people that join, two will stick it out to the end,” he continues. “I think no matter what, if Straight Edge works for you, more power to you.”

Erica Dirksen recently graduated from CSUHayward with a degree in Mass Communications. She is originally from Alaska but spent most of her years in Washington State, where she currently resides. She hopes to get her masters degree and make a career in journalism.

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