Ross Haenfler’s Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, And Social Change is the first book I have seen that explores the “straight edge” subculture. The straight edge subculture has existed for over twenty-five years as a subset of the larger punk rock/hardcore subculture. Its members adopt a simple creed eschewing alcohol, tobacco, drug use, and promiscuous sex while immersing themselves in a musical underground that includes listening to loud and fast music, attending small concerts put on for fun rather than profit, and an emphasis on the DIY (“Do It Yourself”) ethic. To an outsider, it no doubt sounds bizarre–and indeed is on many levels–but Haenfler does an excellent job of explaining the music and the value that the collective identity has for the subculture’s participants while at the same time revealing insights into youth-based subcultures and their potential as agents of social change.
Haenfler confronts all of the common perceptions and misconceptions of the straight edge subculture–that it is overly “preachy,” that it is “moralistic,” that it is exclusionary, and others. Given Haenfler’s personal involvement in the scene and his continuing affinity for it, his ability to objectively analyze the movement is praiseworthy. He does an excellent job of pointing to straight edge’s flaws while at the same time pointing to its numerous successes. Despite all of the flaws–its male dominance, its occasional intolerance, and the propensity among a small number of its participants to engage in violence–straight edge have offered thousands of youth support for living a substance-free lifestyle, something which is certainly not encouraged within the dominant culture.
A particularly important part of the book is devoted to analyzing gender roles within the straight edge scene. Haenfler spends a considerable amount of time examining how women are able to participate within the straight edge subculture. Haenfler’s conclusions–that roles for women are limited–will not be surprising to those involved with straight edge, but the extent to which he backs up his conclusions with conversations with women and men involved in the scene is impressive. He aptly points out that while straight edge–like punk rock more generally–claims that “anyone” can be in a band or become an influential member of the scene fail to take into account the male dominance within the scene and the reality of patriarchy. In addition to his discussion of how women are limited in the scene, Haenfler examines how the straight edge scene constructs masculinity. Haenfler argues that while straight edge is in many ways a male dominated “boys club,” there is a general “progressive” form of masculinity that is favored in the scene, especially with the stated opposition to sex as form of male conquest. Still, this view of masculinity is ultimately limited because it generally fails to challenge patriarchy as few men within the straight edge scene challenge the subculture’s conception of gender.
In reviewing the book, in many ways I identify with Haenfler’s concerns about being an objective researcher, as like Haenfler I was for years involved in the Grand Rapids punk rock/hardcore scene as a straight edge member. That said, there is a possibility that my enjoyment of this book was based more on a sense of nostalgia and an ability to identify with the topic. However, Haenfler does take a very critical look at the movement and ultimately is able to make a number of important insights into how subcultures are able to challenge the dominant culture and even how members of those subcultures challenge the prevailing values of the subculture itself. Haenfler includes an extensive examination of how straight edge functions as both a subculture and even as a “movement,” examining it both on its own and comparing it to other subcultures such as punk rock. Haenfler makes a number of important observations about how straight edge has for many participants become a gateway to additional forms of resistance, explaining how many in the straight edge scene adopted vegetarian or vegan lifestyles, became involved in animal rights and other activism, and in some cases, went on to join more militant components of the environmental and animal rights movement.
Overall, Haenfler’s Straight Edge is a very intriguing book. Its appeal should extend beyond members or former members of the straight edge subculture as its complex analysis of straight edge makes incredibly important observations about the functioning of youth-based subcultures as a whole. While the book will not provide any immediate value to those involved in radical political or organizing work, it does contribute some insight into how and why the punk rock related subcultures have for years fostered a considerable level of youth participation in activism.
Ross Haenfler, Straight Edge: Clean-Living Youth, Hardcore Punk, And Social Change, (Rutgers University Press, 2006).