Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, and Social Change

Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, and Social Change

Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, and Social Change

Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, and Social Change


Straight edge is a clean-living youth movement that emerged from the punk rock subculture in the early 1980s. Its basic tenets promote a drug-free, tobacco-free, and sexually responsible lifestyle-tenets that, on the surface, seem counter to those typical of teenage rebellion. For many straight-edge kids, however, being clean and sober was (and still is) the ultimate expression of resistance-resistance to the consumerist and self-indulgent ethos that defines mainstream U. S. culture.

In this first in-depth sociological analysis of the movement, Ross Haenfler follows the lives of dozens of straight-edge youths, showing how for these young men and women, and thousands of others worldwide, the adoption of the straight-edge doctrine as a way to better themselves evolved into a broader mission to improve the world in which they live. Straight edge used to signify a rejection of mind-altering substances and promiscuous sex, yet modern interpretations include a vegetarian (or vegan) diet and an increasing involvement in environmental and political issues.

The narrative moves seamlessly between the author's personal experiences and theoretical concerns, including how members of subcultures define "resistance," the role of collective identity in social movements, how young men experience multiple masculinities in their quest to redefine manhood, and how young women establish their roles in subcultures. This book provides fresh perspectives on the meaning of resistance and identity in any subculture.


In early 1989 I attended my first punk rock show with my best friend, Nate, and experienced a night that changed my life forever. the venue was an old cinderblock building at the county fairgrounds, and the bands included the Skrods, from Minnesota; PhantasmOrgasm, from Denver; and locals Painful X-tremities and Limbic Salad. the music was loud and harsh, the dancing was rough, but the entire evening was infused with a positive, supportive attitude. Nate and I “moshed” around the dance floor with the rest of the misfits, relishing every minute. When we fell, the other punks scooped us up, patted us on the back, and happily continued their flailing, stomping rotation around the mosh pit. These kids wore their hair in multicolored, crazy patterns, passed out flyers about vegetarianism and women's rights, and made shopping at the Salvation Army a virtue. For the first time in my life, I felt like I truly belonged.

Scattered among the punks in the crowd were a number of youths with large X's applied to their hands with black magic marker. I had also recently noticed that a friend of mine wore X's every day to the Spanish class we shared. Eventually, I came to understand the meaning: these kids were straight edge. They abstained from alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and even what they called “promiscuous” sex—hardly your typical punk rockers. They seemed fun, interesting, creative, engaged in the world, and they actually made it cool not to use drugs and alcohol. I was fifteen years old, and I had found a home.

The story of this research begins earlier, however, with a series of experiences that led to my involvement with the straight edge movement. in 1986 I was in the eighth grade at Dakota Junior High, a school in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota, where I grew up. Dakota served a diverse student body, including wealthy doctors' kids, children of the working poor, and Native American youth. Dakota housed a variety of cliques: metalheads with their torn jean jackets, long hair, and Iron Maiden t-shirts; athletes, wearing expensive shoes and dressing like Don Johnson on Miami Vice; 'preps,' with their Guess Jeans (rolled up over the ankles), big jewelry, and gelled hair; and of course the regular assortment of nerds, band geeks, vo-tech kids, and skaters. I was caught between them all, accepted in most groups but feeling at home in none of them. I had tried being a prep, but affording the expensive clothes so necessary to fit in with . . .

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