Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk exposed himself to and propositioned a flight attendant on a private flight in 2016, according to new documents obtained by Insider. The allegation was settled in 2018 after the flight attendant reported the incident to SpaceX and received $250,000 as part of a severance agreement, which also included “restrictive non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses.”
Per Insider’s report, the flight attendant was giving Musk a massage in a private cabin of his corporate jet, when he exposed his erect penis to her, rubbed her leg without her consent, and offered to buy her a horse in exchange for an “erotic massage” and other sexual favors. Musk reportedly offered her the horse because he knew the flight attendant rides horses. And she still turned him down!
Prior to the incident, shortly after being hired by SpaceX, the flight attendant had been encouraged by the company to get training and a license as a masseuse on her own dime; according to a friend, the flight attendant had confided in, the company “implied that she would get to fly more often if she were to do this because she’d be able to give Elon proper massages,” since “Elon likes massages,” the friend told Insider.
When the flight attendant declined Musk’s advances, the friend who spoke to Insider wrote a legal declaration in support of her claims in 2018. The friend also told the outlet that the flight attendant “started to feel as if she was receiving some sort of retaliation where her shifts were cut back, and she was starting to feel really stressed.” It was then that she hired a California employment lawyer and sent a complaint to the company.
According to Insider, the complaint was resolved “quickly,” shortly after “a session with a mediator that Musk personally attended,” and the flight attendant, Musk, and SpaceX signed a severance agreement that gave her $250,000 in exchange for her promise to not sue. The settlement, which, again, includes extensive non-disclosure and disparagement clauses, was notably signed shortly before California—where SpaceX is based—enacted legislation to ban NDAs for sexual harassment cases.
The flight attendant has not come forward, but her friend who wrote the legal declaration told Insider, “If there were a way for [her] to come forward without putting herself at risk, without jeopardizing her life in any way, I believe she would.”
The friend added that she “absolutely felt a responsibility to come forward with it,” especially in light of how high Musk’s star has risen since the alleged incident in question. “He is the richest man in the world. Someone with that level of power causing that kind of harm and then throwing some money at the situation, that’s not accountability,” the friend said. “There are predators all over the world. But when someone is particularly wealthy and powerful, they literally have systems that are like a machine working for them, to set them up to be able to do whatever they want.”
When Insider asked Musk for comment on the allegations, he first asked for more time to respond, and told the outlet there is “a lot more to this story.” He then seemed to suggest that because this is the only now-public allegation against him, and there aren’t multiple, it shouldn’t be believed: “If I were inclined to engage in sexual harassment, this is unlikely to be the first time in my entire 30-year career that it comes to light,” he wrote in an email. He also called the claims “politically motivated.”
And yet, by now we’ve seen some version of this play out dozens of times with regard to wealthy, powerful men being accused of sexual misconduct—whether it’s one woman or 50 who come forward, there’s always some reason none of them are to be believed. On top of that, if Musk could privately settle one sexual misconduct case and keep it buried for six years, who’s to say he wasn’t able to bury and pay off even more?
In any case, while this is, indeed, the first public sexual misconduct allegation against the world’s richest man, Tesla and SpaceX have both been subject to numerous lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and assault. A handful of women, including one who was an intern, working at SpaceX have spoken out about being groped and inappropriately touched by male employees. Several female Tesla factory workers have spoken out about being sexually assaulted and harassed by male co-workers, and facing retaliation for speaking up.
One of the plaintiffs explicitly named Musk, saying his own behaviors have fostered the culture of day-to-day workplace harassment that she and other female factor workers. She cited one of his recent tweets: “Am thinking of starting new university: Texas Institute of Technology & Science,” Musk wrote. The acronym for this university would be TITS, and Musk confirmed this was intentional in a follow-up tweet.
Musk, named TIME’s 2021 Person of the Year—an honor that ages more and more poorly with each passing day—has been in the headlines often for his recent attempts to purchase Twitter, which he’s more recently been trying to back out of as Tesla stock plummets. But Insider’s new report all but confirms what many women’s rights advocates have long been raising alarms about, which is that a Musk-run Twitter probably wouldn’t be great for women.
It’s always the people you expect the most.