Spectacularly Sober

The straight edge lifestyle

Photo by Katerina Tefft
I’ll be 22 years old in November, and I don’t drink.

No, I’m not allergic, religious, a recovering alcoholic, or traumatized by some event from my childhood.

I’ve actually never had a drink in my life, or smoked a cigarette, or anything – and that’s because I’m straight edge. I claimed edge when I was 14 and to this day it’s still the best decision I’ve ever made. That girl in the photo? That’s me.

If you’ve heard of straight edge, it’s probably because you’re a fan of Minor Threat, AFI, Rise Against, or Bif Naked, or you’ve watched CM Punk on the WWE. Maybe you’ve also heard people say “straight edge” in reference to someone who simply doesn’t drink or rarely drinks – those people are mistaken.

The straight edge movement originated in 1981 with a 46-sec­ond song by legendary American hardcore band Minor Threat called “Straight Edge.” The lyrics—“I’m a person just like you/But I’ve got better things to do/Than sit around and fuck my head/Hang out with the living dead”—inspired a gen­eration of misfit punk kids to reject the conformism and hedonism of drug culture, and create their own subculture based on self-control and conscientiousness. The X that became the symbol of straight edge originated from shows where under­age kids had the back of their hands marked with an X so they wouldn’t be served alcohol.

The mid-80s youth crew era, influ­enced by bands like Gorilla Biscuits, Judge, and Bold, established the themes of community and social awareness within straight edge that would become the basis of the grow­ing counterculture movement.

Veganism became an important theme within straight edge, thanks largely to notable youth crew band Youth of Today and their 1988 song “No More,” which brought vegetar­ianism to the hardcore scene and advocated a “more conscious, caring society.” In the 90s, straight edge bands like Earth Crisis, Morning Again, and Hamilton, Ontario’s Chokehold continued the trend of incorporating animal liberation and social justice issues into their music.

Today, the straight edge move­ment has grown into a worldwide phenomenon, uniting people from all walks of life who share one thing in common: a lifetime commitment to living drug-free.

There are a few persistent miscon­ceptions about straight edge. Firstly, straight edge is not a gang, even though it’s classified as such by police in Utah and Nevada. It’s a lifestyle, a subgenre of music, and a commu­nity, but definitely not a criminal organization. A handful of violent instances in those states involving straight edge individuals sparked a sensationalist and reactionary fallout that has given the peaceful majority of straight edge folks a bad name. Not all edge kids are hardcore tough guys either – the movement is diverse and includes people of all genders and backgrounds.

Secondly, straight edge does not inherently condemn pre-marital or “promiscuous” sex. This misconcep­tion, which unfortunately has caught on even among many straight edge people themselves, comes from a lyric from another Minor Threat song, “Out of Step”: “I don’t smoke/I don’t drink/I don’t fuck/At least I can fucking think.”

However, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat has stated that this lyric has been misinterpreted, saying, “What I was clearly discussing was abusive, quest-oriented, manipulative sex [ . . . ] I saw, as a teenager, that people’s energies were so squarely caught up in getting laid that a lot of pain and hurt came out of it [ . . . ] I am pro-sex, I certainly have no problem with sex between people who want to have sex.” Straight edge, there­fore, isn’t about sexual abstinence; it’s about safe, consensual sex, and working to end power imbalances and other abusive behaviour in sex­ual relationships.

For me, the decision to abstain from alcohol and other drugs was a no-brainer; they never appealed to me in the slightest. When I dis­covered straight edge as a teenager, it just clicked. Even though I didn’t know anybody else in Winnipeg who was straight edge, I felt a sense that I was a part of something bigger, that there was a whole community of people out there just like me, and I wasn’t alone. It sounds like a cli­ché, but when you’re a weird outsider kid bombarded constantly with the societal pressure to drink and party, that sense of belonging is a power­ful thing.

I still feel like a weird outsider kid most of the time, but I’m so confi­dent that this decision is the right one for me that nothing anybody says or does can faze me. People’s complete astonishment that I’ve never consumed alcohol just makes me laugh because to me it’s the most normal, mundane thing in the world – something I rarely even think about.

When people ask me, dead serious, “So what do you do for fun?” I just answer, “Probably a lot of the same things you do,” because that’s true. The fact that a lot of people I meet genuinely can’t imagine having a good time with­out being under the influence is pretty scary and says a lot about how ingrained drug con­sumption is in our culture.

While the basic principle of straight edge is living clean, the decision to claim edge can be made for a variety of reasons and have a vari­ety of significances for differ­ent individuals. As I’ve grown, my own interpretation of what it means to be straight edge has also grown and evolved. I no longer believe that simply being straight edge is enough; straight edge is simply not doing some­thing, but it’s what you choose to actively do with your clear mind, healthy body, and all that time you’re not wasting getting wasted that really counts. My sobriety is not something that I view as an end unto itself, but as a means to achieving my fullest and most effective participation in activism and social change.

This isn’t a new idea: there is a long anarchist tradition of abstain­ing from alcohol and other drugs, from the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour) at the turn of the 20th century to present-day autonomous Zapatista rebel vil­lages in Mexico that have collec­tively implemented drug and alcohol bans. These movements have viewed alcohol as a destructive force within communities, and a tool for keeping the people pacified and incapaci­tated. There’s an Earth Crisis lyric that inspires me and that I always come back to: “There’s far too much to experience and accomplish to waste a precious second drunk or hazed/An effective revolutionary through the clarity of mind that I’ve attained.”

Straight edge has shaped the per­son I am today. It’s made me more productive, focused, conscientious, and community-minded. It has led me to veganism, left politics, under­ground music, and one of my clos­est friends. It gave me positive role models who guided me through my delicate formative years. It taught me to actively resist and reject self-centeredness and consumerism, and always be aware of the broader impact of my actions.

I’ve never felt that I’m missing out on anything. I have a life rich with love and personal development, and that’s all I need to be perfectly happy. I have found friends—drinkers, drug users, edge kids, and teetotalers alike—who respect me for who I am, as I do them. If there were a time when I felt compelled to com­promise my beliefs in order to fit in, those days are long past.

I wouldn’t choose to live any other way.