Straight Edge: Beyond the Stereotype
By Jessica Harbert
Society's view of the typical college student stereotype is a 20-something who goes to class, spends hours reading boring textbooks and celebrates each weekend by getting drunk at a bar or house party.
On average, one out of four people in the 18-to 34-year-old population in Washington state binge drinks, according to the Center for Disease Control. Binge drinking is defined as a drinking pattern that increases a person's blood-alcohol concentration rapidly, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Western Washington University student Cassie Kirkeby, 20, has never tasted alcohol. She has no desire to. She has also never smoked a cigarette or experimented with any type of drug. Kirkeby proclaimed herself "straight edge" as soon as she learned what the term meant.
Kirkeby's straight brown hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail, with her wispy bangs brushed across her forehead. Her animated facial expressions fit with the passion her words convey about being straight edge.
"You can't sit in a room and say 'two out of these eight people are straight edge,'" Kirkeby says.
Her boyfriend, Mikhael Phelps, 22, once had a drink. But he's never been drunk. He has been straight edge since he was 14. Phelps' hat covers moppy waves of brown hair. He is wearing all black, including a black Owen Hart hoodie, a hardcore band from Tacoma, and on his baseball hat is a button reading "Hardcore Pride."
What is straight edge?
Straight edge refers to a youth movement in which individuals choose not to drink alcohol, do drugs or partake in promiscuous sexual activity. Being straight edge is a self-proclaimed title.
Ross Haenfler is a sociology professor at the University of Mississippi. He has been straight edge for 18 years, after deciding the party lifestyle was not for him, and wrote a book about the counterculture titled "Straight Edge: Hardcore punk, clean-living youth and social change."
The straight-edge lifestyle is rooted in the idea of being an individual in control of one's life. A central theme of the straight-edge culture is going against mainstream society, primarily in not drinking alcohol, smoking or using drugs, but the concept carries into other aspects of people's lives.
Mind-altering substances like alcohol push people to lose control and feel unaccountable for their actions because they can blame them on substances and not their personal choices.
"Originally [straight edge] emerged in a countercultural movement in a counterculture," Haenfler says. "It was a resistant to the mainstream. It was also against their fellow youth. Most straight-edge kids will say it is their personal choice or preference. But then you have a lot of kids who say this is one way of taking a small stand against a culture that says the only way to have fun, meet people and relax is to drink. Straight-edge kids do all those things just without drugs and alcohol. For straight-edge kids it is just a bigger part of their identity, and they see their personal choice as a statement against the larger culture."
Western student Leif Anders, 22, is straight edge and feels similarly about the movement.
"When I was younger it seemed that drugs and alcohol were such a mainstream way to rebel," Anders says. "Straight edge is an opposite way to rebel and it seemed more constructive."
Kirkeby says since she has never drank alcohol or smoked, her devotion to the lifestyle plays a bigger role for her personally than her initial motivation to be straight edge. In the beginning it was a choice, Kirkeby says, but then she became more aware of things going on around her, like parents neglecting their child because they were alcoholics and her friend overdosing on Robitussen. The negative aspects of these lifestyles reinforced her choice and kept her curiosity and desire to experiment under control, Kirkeby says.
"I don't feel like I'm missing out on something," Kirkeby says. "Hanging out with my friends is what I like to do. It's the same concept as everyone else just without the alcohol."
Kirkeby says in high school she was doing the same things as other people her age, like going to parties and sneaking out of her house, but just without being drunk.
Living the straight-edge lifestyle also allows people to find other ways to have fun besides experimenting with alcohol and drugs.
"Being straight edge promotes you to be more creative with what you do with your time," Phelps says.
Back in Spokane where Phelps is from, he says he was involved in the music community and worked with the Food Not Bombs organization, feeding food to homeless people. Phelps says him and his friends would also organize fun activities, like weekly rugby games and urban capture the flag for things to do without drinking.
In addition to participating in such activities, Phelps and Kirkeby say they like to get to know the people around them, make art and go on spontaneous adventures to new places. Aside from affecting social activities and hobbies, being straight edge affects people emotionally, Phelps says.
"It has a big impact on you emotionally," Phelps says. "You have to feel and deal with everything."
Kirkeby interjects, "Or internalize it and blow up occasionally."
"But alcoholics," Phelps starts saying, to compare an alternative lifestyle to straight edge.
"Live in their fake world," Kirkeby completes his thought.
"Or drown it out until the issue is dead," Phelps continues. "If I get depressed, then I'm depressed and I have to deal with it."
"Alcohol is an easy way out," Kirkeby says. "You can use it as an excuse."
Kirkeby and Phelps talk about how having other straight-edge friends is helpful when being content in the lifestyle.
"It's much easier to be straight edge when you have someone to do it with," Phelps says.
"Having other people is essential to having your own social life," Kirkeby says. "But [other straight-edge people] are few and far between."
This is not to say Phelps and Kirkeby don't have friends who are not straight edge, because they do. But it is a struggle when friends pick drinking over relationships, or wait to spend time with someone when they're not drinking, Kirkeby says.
A Little Background
Straight edge identifies with music, usually hardcore punk bands. The hardcore band Minor Threat, whose members are straight edge, coined the term straight edge with its 1981 song "Straight Edge."
"(Minor Threat) made a culture for it," Phelps said. "It is what got me into it."
Haenfler talks about Minor Threat's role in the straight-edge movement, explaining the band's importance to the movement.
"It was their songs that popularized it and began what we think of as the straight-edge scene and movement," Haenfler says. "It's not necessarily what they intended to happen, but even kids today who weren't even born when Minor Threat was playing learned that Minor Threat is where things started. The truth of the matter isn't necessarily as important as what people really believe. People tend to look at Minor Threat as the band that really popularized it."
The 'X' is a straight-edge symbol that originated in the 1980s when music-venue owners would mark the back of the hands of underage concertgoers with a big X, signifying to the bartenders to not serve them alcohol. Kids later began marking their own hands with Xs, displaying their involvement with the straight-edge movement for all to see.
But not everyone who identifies as straight edge listens to straight-edge hardcore music. Anders says he was never involved in the straight-edge hardcore music scene.
"Maybe it was those D.A.R.E. speeches that got to me," Anders says.
Ultimately, the straight-edge lifestyle strongly associates with having a strong identity and being in control of one's life. People emulate these values by not drinking or smoking, doing drugs or having promiscuous sex. The sex aspect of straight edge is not as solid as the substances in the lifestyle, but the majority of the straight-edge community would identify with not taking part in promiscuous sex, Phelps says.
"If you're going to take yourself away from addictive stuff like alcohol and drugs, common sense would tell you that promiscuous sex falls in with those," Kirkeby says.
Phelps adds, "Don't go sleeping around with people, no one night stands, no fuck buddies or friends with benefits."
"If you're not ready to commit emotionally, don't commit physically," Kirkeby says.
Subcultures within the movement
Many subcultures within the concept of a straight-edge lifestyle exist, ranging from vegan straight edge, who does not consume animal products along with abstaining from alcohol and drugs, to militant straight edge, one who are often violent and push their views onto others. Kirkeby, Phelps and Anders are vegan.
"If you can abstain from drinking, then you can abstain from other socially acceptable things, like eating meat," Kirkeby says. "If you can fight the majority on one thing, you can with another."
Kirkeby grew up in a household where drinking was common. Her dad has a bar in her parents' basement and her father has called Kirkeby abnormal because she doesn't drink, despite teaching Kirkeby drinking was not OK as she grew up.
Phelps, 22, had a different experience after beginning to consider himself straight edge.
"My dad is proud," Phelps says. "My grandpa was an alcoholic."
Hardcore music continues to keep the straight-edge scene solid.
"Music is pretty much everything in straight edge," Kirkeby says. "I haven't heard of many people who don't go to shows who are straight edge."
Phelps and Kirkeby are both from Spokane and since moving to Bellingham have had to deal with the challenges of being straight edge in a college town.
Phelps says he had trouble making the transition from Spokane to Bellingham because the music scene is so different. In Spokane, he had a core group of friends and local bands that kept the scene alive. Nothing like that exists in Bellingham, Phelps says.
"It is a college town," Phelps says. "I knew there would be lots of drinking everywhere, but I was hoping."
Kirkeby says when she moved to Bellingham, living in Buchanan Towers on campus was especially difficult, partially due to living with a roommate who would bring drunk friends home to their room. Kirkeby has lived in Bellingham for three years and Phelps for two.
"It is always challenging when people choose drinking over relationships," Kirkeby says. "It was probably the worst year of my life."
Sometimes people who are straight edge are religious, but the two do not specifically relate. Kirkeby says she is not necessarily religious, but her choice to be straight edge relates to her ability to think rationally and is not linked to religion.
The term straight edge is interpreted differently among individuals, but the overarching theme includes clean, healthy living, being a voice for a progressive movement and committing to personal values.
Kirkeby and Phelps are committed to being straight edge and both agree their lifestyle will not change.