Some Men Are Saying They Have "Man Periods" — but Is That Actually a Thing?
People who menstruate generally don't want to. It's an annoying process, full of cramps and blood and confusion about which products to use, and most women would probably do away with them altogether given the opportunity.
Yet there seems to be a small subset of men who want to get in on the period action by claiming they experience PMS-like symptoms themselves. According to a 2015 survey from Vouchercloud, which touts itself as "the UK's top discount brand," about a quarter of men in the UK claim to experience Irritable Man Syndrome, or "man periods," once a month, including "tiredness, cramps, increased sensitivity" and other hallmarks of premenstrual syndrome.
The concept of IMS has even gained enough traction to be parodied on the British sitcom The IT Crowd, prompting the question: Are these real hormonal changes that force us to reconsider our existing preconceptions about gender? Or is it just another way for cis men to co-opt something experienced by women?
Do man periods actually exist?: Irritable Man Syndrome made headlines late last year, when the Vouchercloud survey went viral. In December 2015, a male student from Australia's Adelaide University also went viral after he allegedly tried to get out of taking a test by complaining that he was experiencing "period pain."
While the tale of the hypochondriac college student was a source of internet derision, to a degree IMS has its roots in legitimate medical research. The concept was first studied by Gerald A. Lincoln, who in 2002 published a paper describing the "behavioral state of nervousness, irritability, lethargy and depression that occurs in adult male mammals following withdrawal of testosterone."
Unfortunately, Lincoln's paper focused on rams and "male seasonally breeding mammals associated with the end of the mating season," making its findings mostly inapplicable to human males. But the concept of IMS really took off when psychotherapist and author Jed Diamond published The Irritable Male Syndrome in 2004, which similarly hypothesizes that low testosterone levels in human males also leads to irritability. In his book, Diamond identifies IMS as a state of "hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration and anger" that occurs in men and is associated with biochemical changes, such as fluctuations in testosterone and other hormones.
"Although many hormones including testosterone, [the stress hormone] cortisol and others play a role in the emotions that people express, testosterone is the primary hormone that impacts male irritability and anger," Diamond told Mic.
Diamond also developed a survey about IMS, which he told Mic more than 60,000 men have now participated in. The survey demonstrates that cycles of irritability and anger are experienced by men of all ages and demographics.
"I think we're really beginning to get a better understanding of these issues, and how we can better help men and their partners to treat these issues and have better relationships and healthier lives," he told Mic.
The men who say they have PMS: Diamond's research, while not peer-reviewed, isn't totally far off: It's true that hormones do fluctuate, although it appears those fluctuations are less pronounced in men than in women. According to a European male aging study published in the British Medical Journal, 0.1% of men aged 40-49 years, 0.6% of men aged 50-59, 3.2% of men aged 60-69 and 5.1% of men aged 70-79 qualified as having low testosterone.
But aside from Diamond's research, most of the evidence supporting the existence of man periods is strictly anecdotal.
One man, Adam*, told Mic that when he was in college, he and his girlfriend noticed that "around once a month I'd be down for a bit, grumpy and a bit antisocial ... the gist was that my own moods appeared to cycle up and down." He admits it could have just been that he was a grumpy college kid, though he says he still experiences such fluctuations in mood.
Other men have echoed Adam's experiences. "Every month for two to three days, I get apathetic and depressed. I have always suspected this as the reason," said one Reddit user. "I know this exists. I've experienced it. Your thoughts are just so clouded when that happens," another insisted on the same thread.
Some men who experience the phenomenon appear to be comfortable referring to it as a "man period." Others prefer a more politically correct term. "I would not use that phrase, as I don't want to diminish women in any way by making light of their health," Adam said.
There's also no shortage of men who use the concept of "man periods" as a way to dismiss or overtly attack women by complaining that women simply don't take their plight seriously. "TL;DR: Men don't bleed = Women don't care," writes one Reddit user. Another thread on the r/MensRights subreddit suggests that while men experience similar symptoms to PMS, women get more attention for it because they're more vocal about their symptoms. "Instead of complaining about it like a woman would we bit [sic] the bullet and deal," one user wrote.
"TL;DR: Men don't bleed = Women don't care."
The PMS myth: Part of the confusion over whether IMS is a legitimate disorder stems from the myths and misconceptions surrounding premenstrual syndrome. Although gender-based stereotypes about PMS suggest that women become irrational and moody before their periods, a 2012 study from the University of Toronto shows no clear link between a woman's moods and her menstrual cycle.
"Before women even get their first period, they have heard about PMS. The notion is so ingrained in our culture that some of these studies are actually biased because women know the study is about PMS," Dr. Gillian Einstein, director of the University of Toronto's collaborative program in women's health, said in a press release for the study.
Whether or not PMS exists the way we've been told it does, it's often used against women as a way to delegitimize their feelings and achievements. People still believe women shouldn't hold positions of power because they may make irrational decisions while menstruating, and even female Welsh singer Dame Shirley Bassey has stated that periods make women incapable of being pilots. Even in 2016, the concept of PMS is still a convenient way for people to dismiss a woman's emotions as a byproduct of her menstrual cycle rather than legitimate feelings that need to be addressed and understood.
According to Diamond, the idea of IMS being a "man period" is misleading. "It isn't about 'men having periods,' but men being human and having hormonal changes that impact our emotions and our lives," he told Mic. He believes the desire to attribute men's periodic moodiness to hormones stems from our discomfort with men expressing their emotions.
"There are hormonal changes that impact men and women," Diamond said. "But if we just stop there and say, 'Oh, we understand it now, you're just on your period or your cycle,' that's too simplistic."
For some men, IMS can be a scapegoat, a way for them to feel like they're on par with women; for others, it can be a source of relief, providing a convenient medical explanation for the depression and irritability they occasionally experience, or a valve for the emotions they might feel uncomfortable expressing otherwise. But given the lack of research devoted to the "man period" phenomenon, instead of chalking up their mood swings to IMS, men might be better served questioning the patriarchal environment that discourages them from being emotional in the first place.
*First names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.