Randy Flood, psychotherapist and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan often receives comments about his views on masculinity including accusations of wanting to emasculate men or being anti-male due to his critique of toxic forms of masculinity. Trey Sumner served in the military for 26 years and went on to graduate with a degree in masculinity studies and gender equity. He’s a lead facilitator for the Altogether Boys program through the Men’s Resource Center; a program that helps boys develop emotional intelligence, healthy expression, self-awareness, and relationship-building skills. In this conversation for the Revealing Men podcast, the two talk about the beauty and benefits of masculinity and how positive masculine energy is needed in today’s world. You can listen to their entire conversation on the podcast and read excerpts (edited for length and clarity) below. Additional articles/podcasts with Flood and Sumner are listed at the end of this piece.
The Beauty of Masculinity
Flood: I asked Trey if he wanted to come in and talk about the beauty of masculinity and how we need that energy in the world. I invited Trey because he’s got experience in both worlds of being in a hyper-masculine culture and then saying, “I’m going to go into learning about the other side of things in gender studies classes and stuff.” So, tell a little bit about yourself, Trey, so people know where you’re coming from.
Sumner: Sure. I was in the military for 26 years. Mostly, with the Army National Guard, four deployments. After my fourth deployment, back in 2010, I got out and I decided to go to college and graduated with a degree in Masculinity Studies and Gender Equity from GVSU [Grand Valley State University].
Flood: I asked Trey to talk about this because we’re in a transition time in culture and masculine energy. There’s a lot of negative talk about toxic masculinity and we want to have those tough conversations, but humans tend to go on pendulum swings and we tend to overcorrect. We don’t do very well with balance and so, there’s a lot of fear of masculinity in our culture and we’re losing some of the goodness of it. That’s the delicate conversation that we want to have today. I want you to start out with some of your initial thoughts on that topic, Trey.
Sumner: Sure. When you reached out to me on this my first thought was a saying that I hear in my head all the time, “most reactions are overreactions.” I’m constantly putting myself in check and saying “is my reaction too much?” And if you look at it from a macro-point, societally, the pendulum swing is exactly right. We tend to over-correct. And anytime we make a change in our environment, something is going to happen. Something is going to change. And we tend to fear new change more than familiar change, I think. And so, as we see a shameful label put on masculinity, or what we call masculinity, there tends to be a pushback from it. And we see that in our culture today.
There’s really no such thing as feminine and masculine emotions; there are human emotions and we are all on a spectrum of some degree or another. Instead, we harshly label those things in order to construct something that fits a model that we’re rejecting.
Flood: And so, what we see in culture when we have overcorrection, we’ve got a failure to launch, we have people being afraid to challenge and contradict because you might be pushing people too hard and not understanding the resistance or whatnot. I’m just wondering if you could speak to the value of masculine energy and developing human beings.
Using More than One Gear
Sumner: I was talking at great lengths with the Army National Guard and Airforce National Guard Chaplin for the state of Michigan. [Flood: “Nice.”] He’s a really great guy, very compassionate, one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He grew up in Minnesota on a dairy farm. He knows hard work. He was talking about how, as we shifted from more of an agricultural community to an industrial community, we went from these small groups of three to five hundred people that all interacted to we’re much more individualized and the work status changed.
In an agricultural community, you learn to do things you don’t want to do and that you don’t like to do, and that builds a certain kind of gumption and internal fortitude that isn’t practiced daily anymore. And I think that that affects if you add to that how we’re shaming masculinity, and by masculinity, we mean anybody that’s being hard, aggressive, tough. I think that that lends itself to accentuating that shame, I guess, or really embracing it?
Flood: Just like if you only have one gear in all contexts. There’s times where being tough, being strong, being stoic, being aggressive, ready to engage in competition, is good, is necessary, is part of the human experience. And we want to raise our girls to be able to do the same. But there’s so much fear and so much concern about that causing damage, causing suffering, overpowering others, not being sensitive to the individual that you’re working to develop. That’s what I hear you saying.
Sumner: It’s one thing to embrace your masculine energy, it’s another thing to abuse it. And it can be abused, just like anything. Really, I think it comes down to just becoming more complete human beings altogether, ya know, and that means not abusing any of the tools in our toolbox that we have to build the men we are.
The Shadow Side of Unbridled Support
Flood: We get criticism often on our website, and articles, and podcasts [that] we’re emasculating men and we’re teaching people to be weak; making boys soft. A song by the Jayhawks says, “There’s a little bit of truth in every lie.” And so, I listen to that voice because I hear the concern, but there’s also lots of problems out there with white nationalism and we’re gonna continue that tradition.
I’m wondering if they were to read something like this, would they point out this is the problem:
In every moment, you and everyone else is always doing the best they possibly can.
If anyone could do better, they would. When anyone can do better, they will.
Very nurturing, very accepting, very much of a holding environment, and kinda “you will emerge when you’re ready.”
Sumner: Accepts you where you’re at.
Flood: Yup. Which is great energy, right? But as I look at masculine energy, again females can do this too, there’s an energy, like an aggressive energy of contradiction, of challenge. I look at my experiences growing up. I needed certain people to come into my life and push me. I needed someone to see the potential in me that I wasn’t able to see myself. And there’s ways of doing that where you can be a jerk about it. But if you interpret that [the meditation] literally, you would never challenge anyone. And I think that’s what people get nervous about. That in this way of overcorrecting we’ll lose the beauty and the benefits of masculinity.
Sumner: And I think that’s very valid. I think that there’s a lot of value in challenging and pushing. It’s complicated.
Flood: It’s because you’ve got to do it where there’s an art form to it, right?
Sumner: It’s really hard to use a micro-example on something that’s so macro embedded. I guess I can only speak to my experience.
Flood: Do you have a personal time where you can say “I needed to have my balls busted”—I needed to use this classic male term— “I needed to have someone come and say, ‘Trey, buck it up’.”
Sumner: Sure, absolutely. The military is a very easy example because the model of the military of we’re going to break you down, we’re going to push you, everybody’s going to get pushed farther than you think you can go. And you’re going to get pushed until you are done and you can’t be pushed any farther. That is a very effective model to produce what the military wants to en mass. I don’t think it’s a very effective model for individuals. But I have to acknowledge that it produces success in many ways.
It also, in turn, creates a lot of problems. But just from a personal viewpoint, I know that 25 years after I joined, I suspect, I wouldn’t have had the internal fortitude to run a marathon in the desert with a busted knee. I did it because I wanted to follow through with what I had done with my soldiers. I don’t think I would’ve done that otherwise. There’s certainly some benefits I have as far as my own internal drive goes. But I could also follow up with the problems that come with it.
Flood: Right, so there’s that balance. And it doesn’t have to necessarily be physical challenges. I remember when I was in college and I was in a history class and we had to write these papers. I got a low B and it was all because of my grammar and I didn’t have a thesis in this paragraph. And I’m like, “what the hell?” This is a history class, not an English class!
So I went in to talk to the professor and I was gonna give him the business. And I asked, “why are you giving me such a low grade?” You comment that I really cover the history well, but you’re critiquing me on my English. He goes, you need to learn how to communicate. Whatever content, whatever subject, you need to communicate it. He said this is more than just learning history, and he challenged me and I needed that. He could’ve coddled me, but he challenged me, and I was upset with him but I needed to hear that.
Sumner: My brother has a restaurant, my son works for him there, and lives with him in the apartment upstairs with my nephew who is the same age. Last week, my brother called me and he had to have a challenging sit down with my son. My brother is very on point, ya know, he’s very good at what he does and he wants it done this way, but he’s also sensitive to everybody’s needs. He actually called me and said, “hey, how does Tyler handle harsh confrontation?” Because I need to confront him on this. I just want to approach it in the best way.
And I thought that was fantastic. He was gonna push him: “You don’t get off light, ya know, you have to work hard. But let’s find the right place for you and the best way to make this work.” And I think that was a great analogy for exactly what we’re talking about here. Finding that drive, that push, that aggression to challenge somebody to be better, not be easy on them. But not being easy on somebody doesn’t mean you have to be cruel. You can challenge somebody and still be kind and an educator and a teacher.
From Boyhood to Guyland—Failure to Launch into Healthy Manhood
Flood: I think of the phenomenon of failure to launch. Young boys, young men, are seeing four times the failure to launch than females, which I find just alarming and fascinating. What’s going on with our young men and why are they the ones stuck in their mom and dad’s basement, playing video games, or whatever they’re doing? Not able to launch. Are we missing that contradiction? Are we missing the challenge? Do they not have a place to go?
Sumner: I think we’ve lost mentorship from our men to our boys. We don’t have a community anymore. We are all isolated in our own groups. I mean I live within 500 feet of 1,000 people and I don’t know maybe three of their names? We’ve lost that.
It was Kimmel who wrote Guyland, talking about how we don’t have a transition from boyhood to manhood anymore. We have boyhood to Guyland. You just live in this world of video games and whatever is cool that week. Instead of being challenged, taking on responsibilities, whether that be work or family or whatever it is.
Flood: The masculine script was really good for boys in terms of you’ll graduate, you’ll get a job, you leave the house, you do this, you go to the military, you go to college, …
Sumner: Yeah, you either went to college, got a job at the factory, or joined the…
Flood: This is what you have to do, and there was this encouragement or force or requirement, where now it’s maybe too much energy or you’ll find your way. Lack of mentorship.
There’s something going on that’s creating this. And I think that that’s what intrigued me about talking about what we need still. We still need that energy of push and encouragement and pressure, and pulling people along that’s still an important part of growing up men. Rather than just looking at getting in touch with your emotions, getting in touch with your feelings, and having empathy for others. All that’s important, too. But in our process of teaching that [Sumner: “Right. That can’t be everything.”] we’re losing something. We’re losing something.
Role Models for Balanced Parenting Found in The Animal Kingdom
Flood: I think of eagles with eaglets. Did you ever hear how they teach them how to fly?
Sumner: Yeah, they shove them out of the nest.
Flood: And then, did you hear what they do after that so they don’t come back to the nest? [Sumner: “I didn’t.”] Eagles build nests out of big sticks and stuff. They go in and they take the sticks and they move them up so it’s inhospitable. [Sumner: “They create a fence?”] They create a fence and make it pokey.
Flood: In other words, you have to find your way. And that’s kind of a masculine energy. It’s like, we’re not making this place hospitable, nurturing, caring. That’s a crude example for human beings, but it’s just that energy.
Sumner: I think it’s a great example. But I think the key to that is, up until that point where they are pushed out, those eagles are teaching those children the actual skills to survive. Whereas what I see a lot of in parenting today, or in the relationship between men and boys, is not let me teach you, it’s how do I make sure that you’re demonstrating the proper respect for me that everybody will see so they know that I have control over you.
And I think that there’s not enough of that true mentorship. And when I say mentorship, I don’t mean just hanging out and shooting hoops. I mean actually mentoring, actually teaching. That means teaching the whole gambit. It’s not just, I’m gonna teach you how to box. It’s I’m gonna teach you all of these skill sets that include developing your emotional intelligence. You need to have a strong mind, and a strong body [Flood: “Right.”] to be a complete human being. I think that’s what we need to do as men with our boys. I think the burden really falls on men. Especially this generation of men who were failed. Who didn’t have that mentorship. It’s our responsibility to acknowledge that and turn it around.
Working Toward Egalitarianism Shouldn’t Mean Abandoning Deference and Social Grace
Flood: When I was thinking about this subject, I was thinking about different aspects of it and what is traditional masculine energy. And it’s like we men tend to function more in hierarchy and ranking competition. And female energy is more this egalitarian kind of communal connection, partnership, equality. And part of human evolution is bringing what we’ve learned and not getting rid of it, but transcending it as we move forward.
I think one of the ways we’ve lost masculine energy is we’re not teaching kids to respect elders. It’s like any kind of ranking cause it’s like “children should be seen and not heard.” It’s like there was this abuse of ranking and adults were taking up all the space. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation where little kids are running around and they will just plow into you and keep on going. There’s no “excuse me.” Around the neighborhood, the young kids don’t say “hi, Mr. Flood”, “hi, Mr. Sumner.” There’s just like I’m too busy. There’s something missing there. There’s something missing there.
Sumner: Yeah, every shift we lose something.
Flood: Just to be able to honor elders, honor this ranking that you’ve been on the earth longer than me, so how do I behave? Not that you have all this power over me and I’m supposed to be subservient to you, but a different way of looking at this ranking of respecting our elders and being able to respect space.
Sumner: I feel like that would be more prevalent if we had more engagement and mentorship and a sense of community with our whole community. We don’t have that. We separate. I mean if you go back 100 years, they would have the dance at the town square. I remember somebody was complaining on Facebook the other day about why did we have to learn square dancing in gym? Well, that’s a leftover thing from a day when we gathered in communities and it qualified as exercise and it was something that we all had to do, and it actually has benefits for social interaction, for social graces.
Flood: You can get your 10,000 steps in!
Sumner: There’s a lot to it that we don’t have that anymore and one of the falloffs is we don’t respect. There is no respect for anybody that is outside of whatever we are. We have an arrogant disconnect with anything that isn’t in your specific little tribe.
The Role Masculine Energy Can Play in Personal Growth Work
Flood: I love it when masculine energy is used to do the work of personal growth. Where there’s a challenge like, “dude, why aren’t you talking in group?” “What? Are you scared of what you’re going to say about yourself?” I mean, it’s kind of a male posturing and kind of a masculine dissing the guy, but in a positive, constructive way, challenging them to put their mask down or pull back the curtain and talk about themselves. It’s a contradiction and it’s a challenge. I love when that masculine energy comes into our groups.
Sumner: Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. That push and pull, where you’re kind of jabbing a little bit but you’re doing it in good nature. And it’s in a place where everybody has familiarity with each other, so it’s not taken aggressively. I love that and I do that with my friends and we would do that back and forth to each other without any problem, and I agree that’s great. The problem is when that same thing is abused.
Flood: Right. It’s the dose and how much of the energy it is. Is it timely? What context are we dealing with? Is this a context that requires more feminine energy? More softness? More nurturing? More care? Or is this a context that requires more of what we traditionally call masculine energy? More aggression? More contradiction? More challenge? More solidity?
Sumner: I think that kind of discernment comes from interaction between generational characters.
Flood: Right. It’s like, I want a soft pillow but I want a hard basketball court. Context matters. Being able to raise human beings where we’ve had this patriarchal society, where hardness and masculine energy has been prized, so we’re overcorrecting, moving into this other energy. We’ve gotta bring both in.
The Unfortunate Narrowing of Masculine Power into Basic Physicality
Sumner: If you look at Batman— if you look at the original live— I know that Adam West wasn’t the original Batman if anybody is a comic book aficionado, but it’s the one that everybody thinks of when you think of the first Batman. The Adam West Batman was a pretty average dude. He was a philanthropist. He was all about mentoring young Robin. He was all about being kind to the community and just doing what was better.
And then fast-forward 30 years to Michael Keaton Batman and he’s an isolationist. And we’ve lost mentorship altogether. He’s kinda quirky and weird, and a little bit tougher. That mask that he is wearing, that suit, makes him look tougher. Fast-forward to the Christian Bale Batman and he’s basically a criminal who’s just out for personal revenge and doesn’t care about anybody. Just look at how this iconic hero of masculinity in American culture shifted over 80 years as far as what was important.
Flood: I think that as culture gets more diverse and more multicultural and more egalitarian, there is a tendency too for the Batman to become more hyper-masculine as a backlash to all of that. I think it’s interesting as we continue to raise boys that we are trying to raise boys that are sensitive, emotionally intelligent, caring, empathic. We just want to make sure that we are very clear that we want to prize masculinity and all the beauty that it brings into the world, into humanity.
Sumner: Yeah. It’s complicated [Both: Laugh.] I guess I really do believe that the burden falls on the older generation of men to really engage with our younger men. And be active, actively engage, because we just don’t do that, we step back, and we’re like “follow these role models.”
Flood: And that’s what the Altogether Boys program is founded on. People like you going into classrooms, to seventh-graders, and helping them revision or vision masculinity in a more wholehearted way, a more balanced way, and seeing the positives of masculinity and the dangers of it. And being more integrated, and that’s good work. They need that.
How Definitions of Masculinity Affect Mental Health
Sumner: You asked me about PTSD in the military.
Flood: Yeah. It’s happening more. And I said something controversial to you: Do we not have the script that gives men the ability to “suck it up” if you will? And, yet, there’s higher levels of PTSD.
Sumner: You said that because we are teaching our kids that war is traumatic, [Flood: “Which it is.”] they are walking into it with the expectation of being traumatized. [Flood: “Yup. That’s what I was trying to say.”] I’m just going to speak plainly. Are there people that are faking it? Are there people that are saying that they have PTSD when they really don’t? It’s something else. You can’t speak to that. I don’t think that that’s a thing. I know people say that now, but I don’t really believe that. Nobody wants that.
Flood: That’s not a prolific problem. Let’s just say.
Sumner: But it is. Certainly, there are more cases of it and so what is the difference? Is it that there’s more of it? Or there’s more people talking about it? What I really believe, is that the narrative, again, coming from an agricultural type of community, where you just learn, sometimes you suck it up and you drive on and you just do it. And that was considered normal. And that came with a lot of problems. And now we have a generation of kids who, that isn’t a thing that we do, we don’t, that’s just not… [Flood: “We don’t push.”] that push isn’t there.
Flood: It’s abusive.
Sumner: I think that a lot of the PTSD in the military is a problem of compounded trauma. There’s childhood traumas that were never addressed. [Flood: “Sure, that manifest.”] The reality is that everybody is suffering from PTSD at some point. We all have trauma that’s not processed. The military just gives you a really focused place to experience it. And I don’t think that it’s a bad thing that we’re addressing, [Flood: “No, it’s a good thing.”] it’s a good thing that we’re addressing it. I wish I had all of the answers. If I did, I’d be working in the Pentagon. We need to find a way that we can frontload those problems instead of waiting until they’re problems and then coming into it.
Flood: I do think raising boys and girls and teaching resiliency and teaching them to push their limits, and when they say I can’t do this, or this is too much. There’s something about that masculine energy that pushes back and says, yes you can. You’re gonna stick with it. We’re gonna figure out how you can endure this. And that if we raise people in a culture where someone says, I don’t want to do it, I’m not gonna do it, I can’t do it, it’s too much, we say, that’s okay. But there’s dangers in that and we gotta find balance.
Sumner: Sure, and a place to talk about your fears, to talk about that. And actually, the military has that. It’s called cadence. When we march around. When we sing those songs that are largely inappropriate and not healthy. It’s doing exactly that. And I’m not saying that that was the solution, but it was a solution that served a purpose. It created a lot of other bad things, but that was a space where you actually had that.
You also had that for war. Ya know, the world is a smaller place now. Every time I’ve gone on a tour, I was on a plane and I was there in 12 hours. It used to be you got on a slow boat that took months to get there and you had that preparatory time. You also had that coming back time. You had that process there to handle some deep traumas. I know it wasn’t done perfectly, but that was a thing.
Flood: Yeah, maybe there are not enough spaces to talk about it.
Sumner: I can tell you from firsthand [experience], the military is not very good with privacy. My last tour, and everyone would make fun of it, we all got our little ACE card. I can’t even remember what ACE stood for. But it was about being kind if you needed it. There was also an area that was designated where you could go if you needed a safety, I think it was a safety day, whatever.
The suspicion was that a lot of soldiers just used it to get a day off. And so, then there was push back. Anybody that went to use it was ridiculed, and it was right next to my flight operations, it was wide open. So, it was a shameful thing to go and use that space, especially in the combat arms community. That was a lot of really good leadership and really good people in combat arms that do this work, but there’s also a culture of, I mean, when I was combat arms, I didn’t go to sick call ever. No matter how bad I was hurting, because I didn’t want to be perceived as weak. And now my knees are shot.
Flood: That’s the toxic side of getting pushed too much and not attending to our bodies.
Finding Balance and Context in Masculine Energy
We’re here to conclude that we’re proponents of balance and wisdom. Of knowing what energy is needed in a particular context.
Sumner: Yeah, I love masculine energy. I love being a man.
Flood: It felt good to me as we spent so much time talking about how we need to get young men in touch with their other side. This is a chance for us to remember that we’re not negating masculinity, we just want it calibrating. We just want it contextualized. We want it at the right dose, at the right time. And there’s a lot of beauty when it’s done well.
Learn More About the Benefits and Beauty of Masculine Energy
The Men’s Resource Center focuses on men’s mental health; helping adults and young men better understand their humanity and live life more fully. We know what it looks like for men to abuse their masculine energy and what it looks like when they healthfully embrace it. We provide the tools to help men determine proper context and balance. Our online counseling services and men’s support groups offer ways for men to find support and seek advice from the comfort and security of their own space. And, just as with our in-person therapy and counseling services, they are tailored to meet your individual needs. If you’re looking for more information about these and other services, contact us online or call us at (616) 456-1178.
If you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast, contact us online.
To hear more from Trey Sumner and Randy Flood on balancing masculine and feminine energies, listen to these earlier podcasts:
- Preparing Boys to be Men in the New Millennium
- Bullying: Understanding and Mitigating Its Effects
- Becoming a Pro-feminist Male in the Military
For more about the Men’s Resource Center’s programs for young men seeking direction: