The Straight Edge Subculture: Examining the Youths' Drug-Free Way

By Irwin, Darrell D. | Journal of Drug Issues, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Straight Edge Subculture: Examining the Youths' Drug-Free Way


Irwin, Darrell D., Journal of Drug Issues


Ethnographic research on a unique subculture known for its drug-free identity is presented. Straight Edge subculture differs from the other youth movements by supporting a drug-free lifestyle. This research suggests that Straight Edge may be viewed as a fascinating movement away from the drug scene. This article draws on interviews and ethnographic research on Straight Edge youths and discusses aspects of their alternative identity. Discussion focuses on the social norms of this drug-free subculture. An important question is whether Straight Edge will develop into a larger movement in the future or remain a small-scale scene.

INTRODUCTION

Government and school officials have relied on abstinence-based drug prevention programs in spite of this policy's inability to combat drug use among American youth (Hanson 1996). The utility of these drug prevention efforts, such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), has been questioned in a number of research studies (Becker and Agopian 1992; Ringwalt et al. 1991; Ennet et al. 1994). Continuing government investments in abstinence-based drug education seems likely to produce similar disappointing results (Hanson 1996). One alternative approach, known as "Straight Edge," is challenging youth drug use with its dedication to drug-free values. This paper examines the socio-cultural attributes of a "Straight Edge" subculture.

Straight Edge adolescents differ from their peers in the youth drug culture by enthusiastically supporting a drug-free lifestyle. Rather than simply adopting the government's no-use message about drugs, however, Straight Edge youths have transformed the goal of drug-free abstinence by adding other attributes, such as alternative music, diet, and ideology, which have been derived from the oppositional youth culture. These youths challenge the drug use and irresponsible sexuality of their generation by establishing a cultural identity for themselves through "hardcore," or high energy, punk music.

This paper describes the findings of ethnographic research conducted among adolescents in Long Island, New York. The author was particularly interested in the growing receptivity among these youth to the alternative Straight Edge drugfree message. This paper gives special attention to the Straight Edge subculture and its appeal, calling for distinct changes in youth behavior and socialization among its members. Youths who "keep their edge" (remain drug-free) by reinforcing their abstinent "master status" through rituals promoted in punk "hardcore" music and other collective activities will be described. Primary data sources included interviews, surveys and observations.

A HISTORY OF STRAIGHT EDGE

The Straight Edge scene is now nearly twenty years old, predating most of the youth who have adopted that identity. When the popularity of punk music was at its peak in the late 1970s, schisms began to appear among the musical groups involved. Apparently Straight Edge began 18 years ago when "positive youth" attending the concerts of the band, Minor Threat, legitimized drug-free practices among a sector of American youth. Ian MacKaye, lead singer of the band Minor Threat, is identified as the "founder" of Straight Edge. MacKaye discussed this era in an interview with the rock magazine, Alternative Press, stating,

You have to remember that in the late 70s, there was no such thing as a group of people who didn't drink or do drugs. Everyone got stoned Straight Edge' was only one of our songs. It was cool that people were into it, but we got much more of a reaction from the people that were against it (Arenas 1996).

During the late 1970s punks who were heavily involved with alcohol and drugs were commonplace. By 1982, the emergent Straight Edge groups and their fans forbade such activity and ostracized the "drunk punks." Currently, the Straight Edge subculture attracts primarily suburban youths, who resolutely abstain from alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, and who attend "hardcore" concerts, wear baggy clothes and display tattoos in enthusiastic support of a drug-free cause.

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