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Straightedge Youth
Complexity and Contradictions of a Subculture

Robert T. Wood

Cloth $19.95s    |    0-8156-3127-8    |    2006

A comprehensive examination of the history and social dynamics of straightedge youth through the rich diversity of this punk influenced subculture.

"A work of major importance in terms of both cultural/subcultural studies and analyzing the complexities of the punk movement. Wood does an admirable job of bringing to light a sub-movement that is very often misunderstood. . . . Both a worthy introduction for those unaware of the complexities of the straightedge movement, and also a work of serious scholarship which will be useful to researchers engaged in the fields of punk studies, popular culture analysis, or anthropology."
Brian Cogan, author of the Encyclopedia of Punk Music and Culture

Mr. Wood begins his book by quoting two Straight Edgers, one of whom lays out the gospel according to Straight Edge: No drinking, smoking, drugs, or promiscuous sex. The other quote is from a Straight Edger who argues that Straight Edge isn’t about a bunch of rules (though exactly what it is about is left unsaid).
Before he began his research, Mr. Wood was unaware of the tension within Straight Edge. He had known Straight Edgers, hung out with them at shows, but he says he still had a lot to learn. "When I started out, my understanding was that it was a lifestyle," he says. "The biggest surprise for me was how much people disagree about what Straight Edge actually means."
Thomas Bartlett, The Chronicle of Higher Education
please scroll down for entire review

Emerging out of the American punk rock scene of the early 1980s, straightedge youth have held their ground and made important inroads on the broader terrain of American youth culture for the last twenty-five years. Known primarily for their militant opposition to drinking, drug use, and casual sex, as well as for their commitment to vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, straightedge youth have received little scholarly attention, and then primarily through studies focused on the larger subcultural framework of punk rock. Robert T. Wood presents the first theoretical and in-depth treatment of the straightedge culture.

Drawing on interviews with founding members and current straightedge youth, content analysis of the music lyrics, and straightedge "zines," Wood places the movement within the context of contemporary subcultural theory and the framework of cultural studies.

Identifying straightedge as a movement whose cultural boundaries have transformed over time, Wood explores the ways in which the group members’ diverse and often contradictory self-understanding has contributed to the movement’s evolution. Wood details the complexities of the subculture from its origins in Washington, D.C., through the emergence of schismatic straightedge factions and the adoption of animal rights and vegetarian agendas. This book offers an excellent introduction for those interested in the sociology of punk rock and its subcultures and will be an invaluable resource for sociologists and straightedge adherents.

Robert T. Wood is associate professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta. He has written numerous articles on subcultural studies.

5 x 8, 192 pages, bibliography, index


Studying Rock’s Clean, Mean Movement

2 sociologists dive headlong into the mosh pit of the Straight Edge phenomenon


The song is short — 45 seconds — but far from sweet. The guitar is sneering and caustic; the drums like repeated blows to the head. The singer alternately shouts and mumbles, making it difficult to decipher more than a couple of words.

A crutch? The living dead? What did he say?

Recorded in 1981 by Minor Threat, a Washington, D.C., punk band, the song gave a name ("Straight Edge") and a mission statement to a subculture that, more than two decades later, remains very much alive. The message of the song and the movement is vehemently anti-drug and anti-alcohol, a reaction to the excesses of early punk rock, a rebellion against rebellion. Minor Threat managed to sound like the Sex Pistols and Nancy Reagan at the same time — a remarkable, if very strange, achievement.

Most people seemed unsure what to make of Straight Edge the movement, including Minor Threat’s singer-songwriter Ian MacKaye, who would go on to found Fugazi, another acclaimed D.C. band. In interviews, Mr. MacKaye politely distances himself from the subcultural uprising he accidentally sparked. But no worries: Numerous other bands eagerly grabbed the microphone, each competing to see who could hate drugs and alcohol more. Over the years, Straight Edge has been embraced, co-opted, and occasionally perverted by evangelical Christians, Mormons, Satanists, skinheads, followers of Hare Krishna, militant vegans, and more. It has been lauded for keeping teenagers clean and sober, blamed for fights and murders (even though its philosophy opposes violence), discussed and dissected, endlessly redefined, and generally misunderstood.

Two new books attempt to make sense of this perplexing underground phenomenon, and each claims to be the first major scholarly examination of Straight Edge. The authors, both sociologists, spent years studying the movement and are presumably, though not admittedly, somewhat chagrined at the competition. But the books chart different courses, one focusing on topics like symbolism and religious connections, the other taking a more personal, memoirlike approach, all in an effort to discover not only why the movement has endured, but what it means to call yourself Straight Edge in the first place.

Inside a Subculture

Ross Haenfler doesn’t just study Straight Edge. He is Straight Edge. Like a lot of teenagers, he went through a period of sneaking alcohol from liquor cabinets, getting wasted, and doing stupid things. "By ninth grade, obtaining and drinking alcohol became one of our biggest priorities," he writes in Straight Edge: Hardcore Punk, Clean-Living Youth, and Social Change (Rutgers University Press).

But at some point during high school he grew tired of all that. There was no single epiphany, rather a gradual disillusionment. He had started regularly attending punk-rock shows and noticed kids with X’s on their hands. The X is the Straight Edge symbol; Straight Edgers usually draw one in black marker on the back of each hand. The more-committed get their X’s tattooed. Indeed, many of them boil down the name of the movement to a simple abbreviation: "sXe."

Mr. Haenfler found himself drawn to the Straight Edge scene and quickly became a part of it. He remained drug free throughout college, a noteworthy accomplishment in itself. (He even wore a shirt emblazoned with the word "sober" around campus.) In graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he decided the Straight Edge movement would be the perfect research topic. After all, he already knew plenty about it. "My personal involvement and knowledge of sXe enabled me to gain entrée into the local scene very quickly," he writes.

But his familiarity with the scene raised a few eyebrows among colleagues. Is it possible, they wondered, to study a subculture when you are a member of that subculture? Don’t you have a stake in the outcome? Wouldn’t he be tempted to overlook the downsides of Straight Edge?

Mr. Haenfler, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi, acknowledges the danger in, as he puts it, "seeing what you think you already know." In order to combat that tendency, he brought fellow sociologists to concerts to gauge their reactions. Brett Johnson, now an assistant professor of sociology at Luther College, is one of those who tagged along to a concert. Mr. Johnson, a longtime fan of The Smiths — a decidedly less masculine type of music — was struck by the fist-pumping machoness of it all. "It was not my kind of scene," he says.

Mr. Johnson says he wasn’t one of those who is bothered by Mr. Haenfler, a Straight Edger, studying the Straight Edge movement. "In my experience, almost all of my colleagues in graduate school were studying something they were already into," he says.

Mr. Haenfler’s book does delve at length into the less-flattering aspects of the movement.

Unlike Mr. Haenfler, Robert T. Wood was never a Straight Edger. Mr. Wood is, however, a longtime fan of Straight Edge music and an admirer of its adherents’ self-discipline. Like Mr. Haenfler, he began the research for his book, Straightedge Youth: Complexity and Contradictions of a Subculture, (Syracuse University Press) while in graduate school, back when the Straight Edge movement was almost completely overlooked by researchers. It was fresh ground.

A Religious Experience

The tenets of Straight Edge are often in dispute. Some, for instance, believe that casual sex is a violation of Straight Edge philosophy; reserving sex for meaningful relationships (though not necessarily for marriage) is usually encouraged. But not all Straight Edgers live up to this ideal or even agree that it is part of Straight Edge.

On Internet discussion boards, Straight Edgers argue about whether caffeine is forbidden. Mr. Wood, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, interviewed a Straight Edger who gave up caffeine because he thought it fell into the same category as other drugs.

Is caffeine against the rules? Are there rules?

Mr. Wood begins his book by quoting two Straight Edgers, one of whom lays out the gospel according to Straight Edge: No drinking, smoking, drugs, or promiscuous sex. The other quote is from a Straight Edger who argues that Straight Edge isn’t about a bunch of rules (though exactly what it is about is left unsaid).

Before he began his research, Mr. Wood was unaware of the tension within Straight Edge. He had known Straight Edgers, hung out with them at shows, but he says he still had a lot to learn. "When I started out, my understanding was that it was a lifestyle," he says. "The biggest surprise for me was how much people disagree about what Straight Edge actually means."

In Mr. Haenfler’s book, one Straight Edger compares going to a concert to a religious experience. "Straight Edge performs a similar role to religion for many people," Mr. Haenfler says. "It’s an identity, and they can get a lot of meaning out of it. They look to it, in a way, as guidance in their lives."

Mr. Haenfler notes that most Straight Edgers eschew organized religion. But there are plenty of exceptions. One offshoot, for example, embraces Hare Krishna. At first blush, punk rock and saffron robes seem to have little to do with each other, but in fact both Straight Edge and Krishna consciousness promote abstention from drugs and a general suspicion of fleshly temptations.

A Violent Scene?

Straight Edge is best-known, if it’s known at all, for a few acts of violence committed by Straight Edgers. Just this year, in Utah, several beatings, shootings, and a murder have been linked to Straight Edge. A handful of militant vegan Straight Edgers have been associated with the Animal Liberation Front, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization. Peter Young, a Straight Edger and animal-rights activist, is serving prison time for sneaking onto mink farms and freeing animals from their cages. In a recent interview, he credited Straight Edge with giving him the courage to carry out his clandestine mission to save the mink.

But this side of Straight Edge, both authors contend, is overplayed by the news media. Mr. Wood writes that there is often a "one-dimensional picture" of the movement, focusing on a few high-profile exceptions rather than the peaceful, law-abiding majority.

Mr. Haenfler attended hundreds of Straight Edge shows and says he encountered only one instance of what he considered actual violence. A scuffle broke out between several Straight Edgers during a concert, and the professor stepped in to break it up. He worried at the time that intervening would compromise his research. He also worried about getting beaten up.

But that was a rare occurrence. It’s no different, Mr. Haenfler contends, than what goes on at sporting events or wherever else crowds of mostly young men gather to let off steam. Sometimes egos are stepped on and punches are thrown. The image of Straight Edgers as inherently violent is fiction — and he, too, blames the news media.

"Kids who don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs are interesting," he says. "But kids who don’t do that and beat up people, too — that’s really interesting."

Part of the image may come from moshing, the aggressive form of dancing that goes on at Straight Edge concerts (although moshing is not exclusive to Straight Edge). But moshing, in which participants more or less push and jump and climb on each other, is not about anger. Rather, it is a "fun and communal" activity, according to Mr. Haenfler, a way to bond as a group. Straight Edgers do regularly get hurt while moshing, but the bloody noses and busted lips are, he says, like badges of honor.

The Darker Side

Mr. Haenfler defends Straight Edge against what he sees as misperceptions, but he is not an apologist for the movement. Some of what he found while doing his research disturbed him. "It’s one of the tough things about studying something you care about in-depth for this long," he says. "You notice all the unseemly gossip and the darker side of what you’re studying. It kind of breaks down your ideals a little bit."

Part of the darker side is how Straight Edge treats women. In theory, Straight Edge is antisexist. In practice, Mr. Haenfler says, it is "still fairly exclusive and male dominated."

Women who attend Straight Edge shows are sometimes dismissed as "coat racks," meaning they are there to hold their boyfriends’ coats while the men mosh. Look at photographs from Straight Edge shows, and you will see men with their mouths open, mid-yell, fists in the air. You will very likely search in vain for a woman’s face peeking out from the throng.

In perhaps the most compelling chapter of his book, Mr. Haenfler talks to women who have managed to break into this "exclusive and male-dominated" scene. One college woman wrote that because of Straight Edge she wasn’t "hooking up with 10 guys in week." The movement made her feel "really, really on top of my life."

Even so, Mr. Haenfler says, Straight Edge is rarely a "welcoming place for women." Mr. Wood quotes a woman who said she felt "invisible" at shows and another who felt that she "didn’t count" in the movement because of her gender. Likewise, homophobia has been a problem in Straight Edge at times, even though there is a pro-gay faction dubbed Queer Edge.

True ’til Death

Straight Edge lyrics read like mini-essays. One example from Mr. Haenfler’s book: "Drinking doesn’t make you a man/Not me, I know what’s smart/In touch, I’ll always be alert." Straight Edge bands go by wholesome-sounding names like "Good Clean Fun," "Integrity," and "One Life Crew."

It can all be a touch earnest and didactic. Perhaps as a result, many teenagers who embrace the scene in high school later drift away. They find that Straight Edge is not "true ’til death" as members frequently proclaim, but useful and disposable. Those who leave the scene — either by renouncing it or giving in to temptation — are branded "sellouts." Some believe that once you leave, you can never be Straight Edge again, that there is no redemption.

Mr. Haenfler, who was not long out of college when he began his research, is now 32. And he still considers himself Straight Edge. "I’ve sort of come full circle," he says. "I’ve been gung-ho, then more critical, and as I’ve gotten older made it a bit more my own."

And the music, which is what pulled him in to begin with, hasn’t lost its appeal: "I can still put on a Straight Edge record, turn it up, and it makes me feel good."


As the scholarly interest in the Straight Edge phenomenon — and its no drinking, no drugs ethos — demonstrates, there are many nuances and complexities below its noisy and bumptious surface. But one question dogs even the most casual outside observer of Straight Edge: Why do Straight Edgers draw an "X" on their hands?

As it turns out, the gesture has its roots in a practical step taken by rock ’n’ roll clubs — and its clever subversion by the fledgling Straight Edgers.

The explosion of punk in the late 1970s — and its popularity with a largely youthful fan base — coincided with a national drive to raise the drinking age in all states in the United States to 21 years of age. Many rock clubs that served alcohol and booked punk acts sought a way to keep the youthful (and underage) audience through a compromise: minors were allowed into the club but could not purchase alcohol. To make this distinction clearer, many clubs drew an "X" in black marker on the hands of those who were not legally permitted to drink.

When Straight Edge emerged in 1980, the "X" on the hand was deemed to be a badge of honor of sorts. Indeed, many Straight Edgers who were legally allowed to drink drew an "X" on their hands anyway as a symbol of their solidarity with minors and their own Straight Edge stance.

—Richard Byrne
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Section: Research & Publishing
From the issue dated September 29, 2006
Volume 53, Issue 6, Page A14

Straightedge Youth

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