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First Encounters: ‘Revenge of the Nerds’

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I wanted to keep watching this scene for as long as I could.

First Encounters is a series in which writers explore the media that inspired their first brush with their sexuality. Whether it was a book, a cartoon character, a film, or a painting, we all have one cultural artifact from our adolescence which informs how we think about our bodies and desires for the rest of our lives. Have a First Encounter you’d like to share? Send your story to submissions@nerve.com.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to watch the movie. Maybe it was mine, maybe it was the babysitter’s, maybe one of my parents had suggested the activity. Maybe it was one of the videos included in the VHS collection my brother had left with us — stacked next to the seven volumes of home recorded episodes of Soap — or maybe one of us had rented it, had walked the handful of blocks to the strip mall with the West Coast Video. Either way, there we were: me and my babysitter (the Russian one, I think), in for the afternoon, watching Revenge of the Nerds.

I’m not sure how old I was: young enough to still require adult supervision, but old enough to understand what sex was; maybe eleven or twelve or possibly ten. What I do know, though, is this. At some point in the screening my babysitter left the room, and then I was there, alone in my living room, when the scene happened.

A bit of context for those unfamiliar with the film: as the title implies, this 1984 college flick is a tale of geeks making good, a tale of misfits and nerds who band together to seek revenge on the popular kids through  sophomoric stunts. In the case of the jock fraternity, this means pouring liniment on their jock straps and humiliating them in competition. In the case of the cheerleader sorority, on the other hand — well, that’s where it got interesting for me.

The scene begins with the titular nerds staging a panty raid on the cheerleader sorority house. Standard frat movie stuff, really. But things quickly take a more adult turn: in the midst of the panty raid, one of the nerds pulls back a shower curtain to reveal a fully naked sorority sister, her entire body revealed to the camera. Meanwhile, two of the nerds install spy cams in the roof of the house; when the panty raid is over, they return home, now able to spy on the sorority sisters’ most private moments from the comfort of their own home.

Watching that scene awakened something in me. It wasn’t exactly the nudity itself — there was that, of course, but I’d seen nudity before without getting quite this thrill — so much as it was the way the nudity was mediated. The manipulation, thrill of the forbidden. Even more than the bodies of naked women on screen, I loved watching that nudity channeled through the eyes of men who weren’t supposed to be seeing it. I loved the rawness of the experience: the crude language the frat brothers used to describe the women they were watching, the sheer and extreme experience of objectification. The language of their conquest was so much more powerful, so much more immediate than any sexual experience that pop culture offered me as a budding young woman. And so I found myself that afternoon, alone on my living room couch, somewhere between the objectified sorority girls and voyeuristic nerds, knowing only that I wanted to keep watching this scene for as long as I could.