Arment: The straight and narrow of straight edge


Photo: Jason Arment/Iowa State Daily

Paul Nycz, a tattooer at Iron Heart in Des Moines, has been straight edge for over ten years.

Jason Arment

Sometimes I hear crazy things on campus. I’m pretty jaded to people saying outrageous things, especially young college goers trying to grab attention.

Every once in a while, though, I hear something that really stands out from the “guns kill people,” that will be heard from new liberals on every college campus for the foreseeable future, or “design majors have it easy, they don’t have to study for tests,” that can be heard from people who obviously don’t know any designers.

One I heard recently that really struck me was, “Straight edge people are crazy and will shoot you for drinking.”

Obviously, it was time to talk to some people who knew a thing or two about straight edge. Those people were Paul Nycz, a tattooer at Iron Heart in Des Moines who has been straight edge for over ten years, and his wife Sarah Nycz, who has been straight edge for a little over twelve years.

I asked Paul to bring me up to speed with a brief history of straight edge.

“Straight edge started in the early 80s with a band by the name of Minor Threat. They were a punk rock hardcore band that was sick of the societal norms of the punk rock scene of the time, of being wasted constantly, whether it be drugs or alcohol, or just living a lifestyle like that. They decided they didn’t want to do that kind of thing and they ended up voicing their opinion in a song and titling it ‘Straight Edge.’The lyrics you can look up online,” Paul went on, “Basically they started it accidentally with one of their songs and a bunch of other people around the country that felt the same way started labeling themselves as straight edge.”

There it is; how a counter culture was born. People didn’t like how the norm in their peer group consisted of getting inebriated, so they went the opposite direction.

But what exactly are the rules of straight edge? Are there even rules, and how does it all work? I asked these questions to Paul and Sarah over dinner, and listened intently as wasabi singed my nostrils.

“Straight edge has no organization other than the fact that it’s no drugs, no alcohol, and in my opinion the majority consider it to be no promiscuous sex, but there are certain people that claim that the promiscuity has nothing to do with straight edge and it’s only drugs and alcohol,” was Pauls reply to my questions about the rules of straight edge.

I prodded Paul a little bit about the idea that if straight edge doesn’t reject the societal norm of promiscuity, then it is a dietary choice. Maybe it is like being a vegetarian, except instead of not consuming animals and their byproducts you abstain from chemicals.

“It is not at all a dietary choice, veganism and vegetarianism are all completely separate from straight edge,” Paul replied, “It’s a lot more than that, it’s a mentality.”

It would be hard for anyone to maintain, in any seriousness, that straight edge is simply a dietary choice and not a rejection of societal norms, but it’s important to ask the hard questions of people while you have them on the hook.

Sarah’s feelings on promiscuity in straight edge were clear, “A lot of people claim straight edge but they are very promiscuous, and that really bothers me just because it’s just like drinking, maybe? Maybe not that severe, but that’s part of straight edge.”

Paul’s thoughts on promiscuity’s place in straight edge are ambivalent. He doesn’t necessarily agree with people who are straight edge being promiscuous, but he realizes due to straight edge’s lack of organization it might not be the same for everyone.

“It depends on where you came up. If you came up in this scene, it might be no drugs, no alcohol, no promiscuity, but if you came up in a different scene, somewhere else across the country, it might just be no drugs no alcohol.”

Paul isn’t naive about why some straight edge people might consider sleeping around to be acceptable.

“I know a lot of guys that probably would have said it was no drugs, no alcohol, no promiscuity and then they started sleeping around. Then it became no drugs, no alcohol.”

No drugs, no booze, no promiscuity: Straight edge doesn’t sound like a rose garden, unless you’re a monk. I asked how long the commitment of abstaining from these things lasts.

Paul replied with, “Straight edge is a ‘true till death’ commitment, that is the entire point of straight edge.”

A lot of the people reading this just had their minds blown, and can’t imagine ever living a strict lifestyle. The rules are stringent, and I was interested to know what he thought about people that couldn’t toe the line long term. Paul articulated his thoughts to me about people that decide to claim edge, and then can’t stand the the hard test that time offers.

“As far as the breaking edge thing goes, that is something that has definitely laxed over the years, at least around here. Maybe there are still scenes across the country where you if did break edge your friends would actually hold you accountable or kick your ass. A lot of places, I see kids just sweeping it under the rug like it was no big deal anyway.”

Paul went on to say that, “In the 90’s things seemed to be a little more serious with it, where if you ‘broke edge’ you could get shunned, your friends might be angry at you or you might even get your ass kicked.”

“I think if you break edge, and if you want to go back to that style of life, go back to that style of life. That’s a great idea, but maybe just not claim it. Maybe you aren’t doing it full justice by trying to take on the name that you kind of lost the rights to.”

I wondered if Paul and Sarah were ever deterred from being friends with people who are not straight edge.

“We don’t just congregate with straight edge people, we have a lot of friends that are not straight edge as well, 95% of our friends are not straight edge,” Sarah informed me.

So what’s the deal with stories people have heard — through whatever grapevine — of straight edge people beating up others for being drunk?

Paul was ready with an answer that makes a lot of sense.

“You have a certain amount of the population where you get a fear-based, aggressive reaction. Where you tell them that you don’t drink and they’re like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ They don’t understand where you’re coming from, then they just consider it a threat, almost. They get all defensive and weird, and aggressive.”

“They’ll start talking trash to you, and start pushing you. They will start fights with you because you don’t drink. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Paul went on to express frustration that, “all the sudden it’s a straight edge thing, where ‘a straight edge kid beat up a guy for drinking,’ and that’s not at all how it started.”

If you are someone who lives in a college town, you can probably relate to drunk people getting aggressive for no reason.

I don’t expect this to completely illuminate what straight edge is to people who are unfamiliar. I just want to give people some exposure to what straight edge is other than the sensationalism can be found elsewhere.

I’m sure some people will still be very intimidated by others different than themselves, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just don’t let the initial fear of the unknown shut off any thought process that accepts others.

If you run into someone who is out and about enjoying their weekend, but minus the drinking, and upon inquiry as to why, they tell you that they are straight edge, you can sound like a well learned person by saying, “Oh, yea, I’ve heard of that.”

Most importantly, you’ll be able to say it with understanding.