When Ian MacKaye wrote the song "Straight Edge" in 1981, he had no idea that it would launch an international movement. The frontman for the band Minor Threat saw the blistering 46-second track as a mere rejection of the debaucherous drug-fueled lifestyle led by punk rockers at the time. But its searing lyrics, such as "I'm a person just like you, but I've got better things to do, than sit around and smoke dope, because I know that I can cope," inspired thousands of punks to start clean living.
Punk rock had been around for nearly a decade when "Straight Edge" dropped. The rock genre that emerged from the 70s underground was defined by its departure from the mainstream and often carried political and anti-establishment messages. Along with sped-up Chuck Berry riffs and streetwise poetry, the punk rock rebellion also came with plenty of drug and alcohol use. For MacKaye, being a punk rocker who didn't get high was a revolutionary act.
The term "straight edge" was eventually adopted by a subculture within the hardcore scene whose members pledged to abstain from drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. Over the past four decades, the movement has taken many different forms, from violent militant groups to religious Hare Krishnas, and now a new generation of substance-free teens are keeping it alive by "claiming edge."
"My whole life I've seen alcohol, drug, and tobacco use, but have had no desire to compromise my rational thinking, as well as my own safety or the safety of others," Jacqueline City, a 20-year-old who has identified as straight edge since 2014 told me. "Before I knew about straight edge, I felt very different and alone since I didn't feel the need to try alcohol and drugs, but claiming straight edge vegan has helped my find myself and my core beliefs and values."
City was introduced to the straight edge scene through a YouTube video made by Patty Walters, the frontman for the British pop punk band As It Is. "He goes on to explain that when he was in middle school it was the norm to go out drinking, but he had no desire to," City said of the video, which has been viewed over 300,000 times. "His story really resonated with me since I had a very similar experience growing up."
In the early 1980s, those who identified as straight edge would draw a black "X" on the back of their hands, in the same way a club owner would mark the hands of concertgoers who were too young to drink, to signify their intentions. The "X" has since become a universal symbol for those in the community, and today many edgers will rep the "xxx," or "xvx" for vegans, in their social media bios. Veganism and vegetarianism have been adopted by many who are straight edge as another way to live clean.
While City said that she doesn't know many people who are straight edge, online communities like Straight Edge Worldwide have over 80,000 followers on Facebook and offer access to others in the scene.
Even if every sober teen isn't openly identifying as straight edge, research has found that more teens are opting for a substance-free lifestyle. The number of twelfth-grade students who report being substance-free (no cigarettes, alcohol, or illicit drugs) in the last 30 days, increased from 26 percent in 1976 to 54 percent in 2014, the highest number ever recorded, according to the non-profit organization Child Trends.
A national study called "Monitoring the Future" also found that "teenagers' use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco declined significantly in 2016 at rates that are at their lowest since the 1990s."
While there is no single reason for the decline, scientists are now exploring how the rise in smartphone use might affect teens' desire to do drugs, since they can cause similar effects on the brain. Many experts attribute the decision to live clean to public education and increased efforts by parents and educators to discuss the dangers of substance use and teach healthy alternatives.
The University of Vermont's new Wellness Environment is one of those alternatives. The program, which was introduced in 2016, helps teens adopt a healthy lifestyle as they transition to college by offering a mandatory neuroscience class, meditation, nutrition coaches, and personal trainers, in addition to its substance-free dorm rooms. The success of the initiative has reportedly sparked the interest of other universities like Georgetown and Tulane.
"I wanted to live in Wellness Environment because I was president of my high school's VAASA program (Varsity Athletes Above Substance Abuse) and I wanted to continue being a part of that community," Caroline Duksta, a freshman and member of the sailing team at the University of Vermont explained. "I've always taken my training very seriously and I knew that I needed to be in that community to continue improving."
Stevens is far from the only student at the university who is interested in a substance-free environment. Next year, the program will be expanded from 120 to 650 students to accommodate the demand.
"I do think more students are seeking this type of environment where they can be supported to be healthy while learning how to navigate the stresses, pressures, and challenges of college life," Annie Stevens, the Vice Provost for Student Affairs at UVM told me over email. "UVM has seen a significant decline in self-reported high-risk drinking over the last 5 years."
Stevens attributes the decrease to pointed efforts made by the school such as motivational intervention programs like BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening in College Students) and parent engagement. Similar initiatives that support substance-free teens are growing traction around the country. This year, an annual substance-free retreat for high school students in Ohio reported record attendance.
"I am not surprised at all that people want to be a part of our community," Dutska added about the program. "It is quiet and a really nourishing place to be to be the most successful college student, and lots of people want to be successful. Wellness Environment is the place to be to help that success come to fruition."
MacKaye may never have intended to spark a movement, but as more teens opt for a substance-free lifestyle, it's clear that his message still resonates over 30 years later. Now, instead of being a revolutionary lifestyle, living clean may become the new normal.
Text Erica Euse
Photography via Flickr Creative Commons