No drugs, no drinking, no promiscuous sex. Within the movement known as "straight edge," these three tenets are the widely accepted guidelines for decent living.
But what is straight edge all about?
It has established itself as a veritable high school subculture, yet it frequently is misunderstood. It isn't a gang. It isn't a club. It isn't even organized.
"There's nothing formal about it at all," says Jacob Pelton, a 17-year-old senior at Summerville High School. He has been straight edge for nearly two years, and his peers consider him a sort of guru on the topic.
But where to begin explaining a movement with no official membership, no governing body and no rule book? Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning.
Launched by song lyrics
The year was 1981, and punk rock was still in its formative stage. Washington, D.C.-based punk band Minor Threat released a song titled "Straight Edge," with lyrics such as, "I'm a person just like you/But I've got better things to do/Than sit around and smoke dope/'Cause I know I can cope."
The lyrics were simplistic, as was typical during the time period, but the song quickly caught on as an anthem for American punks who were disenchanted with the prevalent drug culture.
So the drug-free crowd had a name, a song and even a symbol: black Xs drawn on the backs of the hands, adopted from the practice of marking underage concertgoers so they couldn't purchase alcoholic beverages.
Today, straight edge continues to find its greatest popularity in the punk and hard-core music scenes, with bands such as Eighteen Visions, the Hostage Heart and Casey Jones providing the soundtrack for many straight edgers. Keeping with the do-it-yourself nature of the music, there is still no formal organization involved.
Ask a group of teenagers why they became straight edge in the first place, and you'll find their explanations are similar.
"I basically followed those three principles anyway," says Summerville High senior Ben Crickenberger, 17, referring to the trinity of guidelines for the movement.
After seeing others around him going to parties and getting drunk, Ben says he started "thinking that I don't have to be unconscious of my surroundings to have fun."
He notes that straight edgers tend to be avid Dance Dance Revolution players. Other than that, "We do the same things most kids do, except without all the alcohol and everything involved."
Many are involved in so-called "scenes": the hard-core scene, the emo scene, the punk scene, etc. Although there has been a recent backlash against the superficiality of scene affiliation, it is still a way to have some largely nonserious fun.
"I go to a lot of hard-core shows in general," says Jacob, a member of the mosh pit crowd. "I've been known to throw a spin kick or two."
His reasoning for going straight edge is similar to Ben's.
He saw people getting sucked into drugs and alcohol. He had seen it ruin their lives. "I didn't want to be like them," he explains.
Straight edge has succeeded where some anti-drug programs have failed: It has created an authentic negative response to the glorification of drug use.
Ben theorizes that the majority of students in his high school are violating one of the three, if not all, of straight edge's guiding principles. While this may be an exaggeration, many straight edgers assume a sort of "me-against-the-world" mentality because of their unpopular views.
Living with conviction
Ryan Drury, a 17-year-old senior at Fort Dorchester High School, likens straight edge to his own Christian faith.
"They're both strong beliefs. They're something you stand by," he says. "They're really strong things that you don't back down from."
Drawing a further parallel, he adds, "Some people remember the day they made the decision. It's like when people get saved."
Ryan comes from a Catholic family, but he prefers not to pigeonhole himself into a specific denomination. For other straight edgers, the mere mention of straight edge and religion in the same sentence brings strongly held opinions to the surface.
"Straight edge is depending on yourself and no one else. Religion should be relying on yourself and not relying on other people to tell you how to do things," says Ben, an atheist.
Similar to the anti-establishment nature of the music from which it is derived, the straight-edge movement often is anti-religious.
The contrast between straight edge and organized religion stirs up some intriguing discussions. For instance, if someone is an atheist, what is it that drives him to adhere so fiercely to his straight-edge convictions?
"I'm very moralistic, and I don't believe in anything," says Ben. "I see that this is the only life I have to live, and there's no afterlife, so I have to live it the best I can."
Jacob adds that the basic aim of straight edge is to "keep your body clean and not let any stuff control you."
The straight-edge philosophy echoes the humanist ideals of writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, encouraging decency and clean living for the sheer sake of advancing the human condition. As Vonnegut writes in his novel, "Breakfast of Champions": "We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane."
But the definition of humane remains a relative concept for straight edgers. Some claim that vegetarianism should be added as a fourth criteria of the unofficial credo, and some refrain from drinking caffeinated beverages, says Ben.
He adds that the issue of sexual purity is often a bone of contention within straight-edge circles. While most would say that premarital sex is OK as long as it is consensual and meaningful, there are those who promote complete abstinence.
One of the ways in which straight edge differs from Christianity is the lack of moral absolutes. Christians have the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ to follow, but straight edgers have only personal worldviews to guide their actions.
"I make up my own morals," says Jacob.
Oddly enough, in a subculture that values ambiguity, the concept of forgiveness can be lacking. When a person "breaks edge" by committing one of the analogous cardinal sins, he or she essentially is excommunicated. While there are some instances of people "claiming edge" a second time, they are rare, says Jacob.
"Once it's gone, it's gone," says Ryan. "I don't know if there's grace in it, but there's no shame in it."
In some cases, though, the exact opposite of grace is practiced.
As is often the case with misunderstood social movements, a small portion of straight edgers have made a bad name for the rest. Mostly near large cities, people known as "hard-liners" act as enforcement agents, using physical violence to intimidate edge breakers. These modern-day crusaders have established themselves as a bona-fide street gang.
A 1999 episode of ABC's "20/20" described hard-liners in Salt Lake City using brass knuckles, knives and baseball bats to beat down a group of fraternity brothers and kill a 15-year-old boy.
Even so, many straight edgers oppose such scare tactics, including Jacob, who is glad not to be associated with any hard-liners. "I'm not about enforcing it through violence," he explains. "If someone wants to do drugs, it's their thing. I don't really care. It's not my body."
Ben knows people who are not straight edge who do drugs, and he says, "I would rather them not, but there's not really anything I can do to convince them."
For the most part, straight edgers are nonjudgmental. They follow a personal belief system but refrain from proselytizing. Unlike the Christian faith, there is no calling for them to act as missionaries.
"It's just nice to have a crew of people I can have support from," says Jacob.
In essence, straight edge is not about outreach or self-righteousness; it's about unity.
And so the straight-edge movement, which this year celebrates its unofficial 25th birthday, lives on through another generation. From its awkward punk beginnings to its modern cultural entrenchment, it has maintained its core values, youthful intensity and fiercely independent attitude.
As Minor Threat front man Ian MacKaye sings in the song that started the movement, "Always gonna keep in touch/Never want to use a crutch/I've got the straight edge."
Paul Bowers is a junior at Summerville High School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.