"If She Smokes, It's Over" – Interviews with Straight Edgers

We spoke to five guys about their decision to abstain from alcohol, drugs and casual sex.
29 January 2016, 2:39pm
Photo: Tony Webster | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

Even if cultural pessimists think we're all smartphone zombies, shuffling from one Tinder date to the next, there are still members of Generation Y who are consciously denying what they regard as the excesses of modern life. The straight edge subculture began as a reaction to the self-destructive behaviour associated with punk in the early 1980s. Early straight edgers wanted to use the liberating, emancipatory potential of punk and hardcore to fight for a better world with clarity of mind. Many also rejected promiscuity because they saw treating others as sex objects as inhumane and misanthropic. The movement chose an X on the back of the hand as its trademark, taken from the X that minors would be given when entering American clubs to prevent them from being served alcohol.

Today, the intersecting lines still adorn album covers of certain hardcore bands and human bodies in the form of tattoos. Often they also serve as usernames social networks. What started as an avowal to a positive mental attitude and a clean, self-determined life, these days seems to align itself against the social pressure to be intoxicated and the superficial ego boost of promiscuity. We spoke to five straight edgers about their lifestyle choice.

All photos courtesy of the interviewees

Thomas (24) has been straight edge for four years

Thomas decided to go completely straight edge when he was 21 – eating vegan and rejecting casual sex. "Casual sex doesn't appeal to me any more. It feels as if I'm treating the other person as a sex object instead of someone who deserves to be loved. It's an inhumane practice and I want no part in it." The subject of sex was once so sacred that he wanted to wait until marriage, so he could be sure to share it with someone "special". "But when I was 22, I felt an enormous peer pressure," he explains. "You feel that you're not normal if you try to get by without sex and I thought that if she was the right one, it wouldn't be breaking with straight edge." But he still has nothing to do with dating apps.

"It's harder with substances," Thomas admits. When his girlfriend cheated on him at 15, alcohol seemed to help him escape and socialise. But his new friends didn't make Thomas happy. "I noticed that they were really just acquaintances to have fun with, but there was nothing deeper. It's important to me to not hide who I am and to be myself. I can be just as funny without alcohol and if I'm not feeling funny, I don't force it." He also hates the loss of control that comes with being intoxicated. "I find it embarrassing when people consume alcohol and drugs to open up and mask their insecurities. "

"I used to worry about rejection – alcohol in particular seems to be regarded as such an important social tool. Since I've been straight edge, I've automatically had less to do with people that just party and don't take care of themselves. I can't stand people who have excessive sex and do drugs as a hobby." He would rather be alone in the weekend. "Now I have friends I can actually talk to. So many people never realise their potential because all they are fucked up all the time."

Neo (22), has been straight edge for five years

"I used to drink a fair amount on the weekends and I also smoked cigarettes as well as weed," Neo explains. "Then at some point a friend of mine got close to having a breakdown because of drugs. I looked at my own consumption and decided I didn't want anything similar to happen to me so I drew the line there." Neo was completely inspired by the movement's music. "Back then, I was listening to a lot of hardcore and straight edge hardcore and identify with it." For him, straight edge also has a political component that shouldn't be underestimated. He combines a "positive mental attitude" with a strong anti-fascist stance.

His decision to abstain from substances didn't really affect his relationships: "My friends are actually happy to always have a designated driver, who is always up for going to the gigs." But he does worry about them. "I'm obviously critical of many of them falling victim to functioning alcoholism without realising it. You should always be aware of your substance use and what you do when you're high or drunk no matter what it's about." He takes romantic relationships just as seriously – he cannot imagine having sex with someone he doesn't love.

Julian (24), has been straight edge for seven years

Julian says his decision to go straight edge was complicated. He never drank a lot, "maybe because I was never into doing the same thing as everyone else. I saw what alcohol did to others and when I was 15 or 16, I decided I didn't ever want to act apishly and loose control. I went through a trial period of not drinking and that worked out really well. But then, I went to a festival for the first time and we ran out of water and only had beer to drink."

He got into hardcore through a friend. "That's when I understood what it meant to be straight edge and I wanted to be that." None of his close friends are straight edgers but he doesn't see it as a problem: "People should do what they want. As long as they're responsible and don't harm anyone else, I really don't care what they do. But I've had to learn to deal with it. For a while I was really militant and hated anyone who consumed anything. But that mindset didn't get me or anyone else anywhere – you have to find the right path on your own. For him, being straight edge is definitive. "You live your life knowing that you're going to follow through with refusing substances until you surrender."

When it comes to choosing a partner, there can be no compromises: "If she smokes, then it's over before we've even met. I won't do that anymore."

Anthony (23), has been straight edge for three years

"Being straight edge was and is a direct critique of alcoholism, which to me seems to be pervasive because of social pressure. Straight edge and hardcore offered me a way out of that," says Anthony. To him, rejecting substances is directly connected to liberation than other forms of abstinence. "It's got nothing to do with asceticism or religion, it's just a conscious rejection of harmful social practices." He realised just how normal substances were for many when he told his old friend group about his decision to stop drinking. "I felt pressure from everyone, they were all being judgmental." He can still party but with a clear mind. "Over time, I lost contact with my old friends. A lot of my new friends are also straight edgers."

But Anthony is more open when it comes to sex: "I don't think there's anything wrong with safe, consensual, casual sex outside of a monogamous relationship – even if I hate the term 'casual sex'. The demonisation of sex outside of a relationship that dominates the scene really bothers me."

Marcel (25), has been straight edge for three years

Marcel is another long-time non-drinker. "I never really liked being drunk and started drinking less, step by step until I eventually let go of it entirely," he says. He stopped smoking weed at the same time, "even though I always liked that better than being drunk." But he realised that weed was slowing his thought process and that was something he wanted to avoid at any cost. Marcel is convinced that this didn't change his personality. "For me abstaining feels normal – in the same way some people don't like Brussels sprouts and so they don't eat them." That didn't create any conflict in his friend group either: "My close friends don't drink too much either, so me not drinking at all wasn't a big deal. A lot of people think I only started hating people that take drugs because of my abstinence. But the truth is that even when I still drank, I found those guys annoying,"

He has no interest in telling people how they should live their lives however: "I don't think drugs are cool but people should make their own decisions about what they put in their bodies. I was allowed to make my own decisions. If you want to take drugs, then do that. But stop celebrating it. Marcel thinks dating apps are more fascinating than reprehensible. "To me, straight edge means staying away from things that influence my reasoning. Sex doesn't have to drive my thoughts. If two people are into each other and and having sex is not just about vamping up their broken egos, then I don't see a problem. It's not an edge break. If everyone started fucking in a respectful way, the world would be a much better place."