In the decades after martial law was lifted, Taiwan has been relatively progressive on gender issues in comparison to its neighboring countries. Particularly after the passage of the same-sex marriage act last May, Taiwan is now seen as a lodestar for free sexual and gender expression.

Yet debate continues to rage within Taiwan on what kinds of speech and expression should be tolerated. The lack of consensus on language was illustrated in a recent controversy involving Taiwanese standup comic, Brian Tseng (曾博恩).

Tseng, 29, hosts a popular political satire talk show called The Night Night Show since October 2018. The rise of stand-up comedy in Taiwan is in no small part thanks to him.

Raised in the United States and educated in Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and France, Tseng performs acts in Mandarin and English. His style bears the influence of American late-night comedy shows. In the pilot episode of The Night Night Show, Tseng said that his motivation for the show is to raise social and political awareness among his peers in Taiwan. He has since discussed topics such as Taiwan's death penalty, diplomatic relations, bioethics, and transitional justice.

On the March 29 episode, Tseng broached the topic of marital rape with a joke about being forced to have sex with his wife when he is exhausted after work. He struck an earnest note on marital rape, while making a broader point that male victims of rape have been ignored in Taiwanese society for too long.

Tseng said that he only tells jokes about women raping men because he "actually wanted to encourage this kind of act." He said that he hoped that after this show, every woman in the audience would be turned on. Tseng then pointed to a middle-aged lady in the audience and asked her to promise him that she would think hard afterward about how to rape her husband, who was sitting beside her with their daughter.

To conclude the set, Tseng shifted back into a sincere key to disclose that he was a victim of multiple sexual assaults in junior high school.

"I was in a male-only class. My classmates held me up and jerked me off every day. They would not let me go until I ejaculated," he said, relating that this was the reason he started to weight train.

Tseng received withering and widespread criticism online after the show, and his attempt to stanch the onslaught only made things worse. In a Facebook post, Tseng wrote that he could joke about sexual assault issues because he had overcome the trauma himself. "The past can be left behind," he wrote.

Dr. Chuang Chun-mei (張君玫), a sociologist at Soochow University specializing in gender studies, condemned Tseng on her Facebook. "No matter what you have been through, it is your own business that you can let it go. You are not entitled to joke about others. You should not encourage sexual assault," wrote Dr. Chuang. She concluded that Tseng only revealed that "he has no empathy for sexual assault victims other than himself."

Tseng has been defended in other corners. Chiu Wei-chieh (邱威傑), also known as Froggy Chiu (呱吉), a Taipei City Council member and YouTuber, supported Tseng by sharing his own experience of sexual assault. "I think that no one can truly understand these complicated feelings. That is why I always talk about this story in a casual way, even as if it were a joke,” he wrote.

Sexual and gender equality issues are still being widely discussed in Taiwan. How public figures, including politicians and celebrities, comment on these issues is taken seriously. This explains the surge of criticism towards Tseng and his show.

This is not, in fact, the first time Tseng has set off a controversy. Last August, he used the self-immolation of democracy advocate Cheng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) as material on his show. “If everything we burn in life is replicated in death, wouldn’t there be two Chengs in the afterlife?” Tseng joked at an open mic event.

He apologized for his comments upon facing criticism by netizens and the Nylon Cheng Foundation. In the aftermath of the controversy, the foundation extended invitations for the public to visit the Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum to learn more about Cheng and his fight for freedom of speech.

Tseng’s unfiltered comedy is perhaps a testament to Taiwan’s freedom of speech, yet the local audience may not be fully receptive to his boldness. He has nevertheless achieved his initial goal to call attention to sensitive social issues, all the while becoming the most commercially successful stand-up comedian in Taiwan.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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